“I am thinking of Pouya Tebyanian, of a person who since the winter of 2013 has been in prison for Baha’i proselytization,” tweeted student activist Zia Nabavi, who was at one time Tebyanian’s cellmate. “My constant companion in Semnan Prison during our walks. How noble and how forgiving was this young man. How charitable he was and how hard he worked to improve the conditions of the prisoners! I miss his fairness when we talked about people and situations…”
Pouya Tebyanian is one of the hundreds of unknown prisoners of conscience in Iran.
On the morning of December 15, 2008, agents of the Intelligence Ministry in Semnan raided the homes of 21 Baha’is in a coordinated operation and confiscated their books, religious images, computers and mobile phones. On that day, only Sahba Rezvani, a Baha’i woman, was arrested. She was released after serving three years at Evin Prison.
The other 20 Baha’is whose homes were searched were later summoned to the Revolutionary Court, tried, and received various sentences. Tebyanian was the only one among them who was arrested before his trial.
Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Tebyanian on March 8, 2009 at his workplace. After two months of solitary confinement and interrogations at the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center, he was transferred to Semnan’s central prison. The Revolutionary Court of Semnan tried Tebyanian on charges of proselytizing and of membership to a Baha’i organization, and he was sentenced to two years and six months in prison. The Appeals Court reduced his sentence to two years.
His defense attorney at the trial was human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, who was also the spokesman for the Defenders of Human Rights Center. Suspecting that he would be arrested, Tebyanian had talked to Soltani before his arrest, and Soltani had agreed to represent him if he were to be detained. After his arrest, Tebyanian mother informed Soltani, who repeatedly traveled to Semnan to attend to the case without receiving any compensation or fee.
At the time of his arrest, Tebyanian was 23 years old and, like many other young Baha’is in Iran, was banned from higher education. But he loved his country and preferred to stay in Iran and not emigrate. When he was exempted from compulsory military service due to his very low weight, he began studying chemistry at the underground Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) and, at the same time, he worked as an accountant at an optician’s shop.
Preparing for Anti-Baha’i Operations
In 2008, many anti-Baha’i gatherings and seminars were held in Semnan to prepare the ground for the harassment of the Baha’is and the raiding of their homes. This harassment continues today, though in the last two years it has been less intense. But during that period, the pressures were so great that in the summer of 2012 the Baha’i International Community issued a statement entitled “Semnan Baha’is: A Community Under Fire,” and appealed to the world community to persuade the Islamic Republic to stop its harassment of Baha’i citizens in Semnan.
Between 2008 and 2016, Baha’is in Semnan were harassed and threatened extensively by the government’s official and unofficial agents and by rogue vigilantes. Dozens of Baha’is were arrested and imprisoned, including three Baha’i mothers with infant babies. A number of Baha’is were exiled to distant locations. Many Baha’i businesses were shut down and the people of Semnan were told not to have any business dealings with the Baha’is. Baha’is were practically forbidden to conduct business in Semnan and many of them were forced to migrate in order to make a living.
In May 2012, intelligence agents raided and closed two factories in Semnan under full or partial Baha’i ownership. One factory manufactured vertical blinds and employed 51 staff — 36 of them were not Baha’is. The other, a lens-grinding factory, had two Baha’i and six non-Baha’i employees.
When Susan Tebyanian, a Baha’i woman from Semnan, revealed the economic pressures on Baha’is in the city in an interview with foreign media, she was sentenced to a year in prison on the charge of “propaganda against the regime.”
A Long List of Harassments
The list of harassments and injustices that the Baha’is in Semnan have suffered over the last decade is long. Their graveyards were destroyed; Intelligence Ministry agents arrested young Baha’i men who had reached the age for compulsory military service and handed them over to the police; windows of Baha’i homes and the windshields of cars were broken; stones and incendiary objects were thrown into Baha’i homes and places of business at night; obscenities were painted on the walls and the doors of Baha’i homes and businesses; clergymen went to schools and insulted the Baha’i faith in the presence of Baha’i children.
On May 9, 2010, Tebyanian was released on parole after 14 months in prison. The remaining 10 months of his sentence was changed to two years of a suspended prison sentence, but he was arrested for a second time on March 12, 2011, when agents of the Intelligence Ministry again raided the homes of the Baha’is in Semnan. Others arrested at their homes during this raid included: Zohreh Nikaeen, Taraneh Torabi, Elham Rouzbehi, Nader Kasanei and Zhinoos Nourani. On April 3, 2011, Tebyanian was released on a bail of 100 million tomans, close to US$25,000. On June 11, however, he was arrested for a third time.
The reason given for his third arrest was that his suspended sentence had been reinstated, but after 11 days it was said that a mistake had been made and he was released.
Boilerplate Charges against the Baha’is
Nevertheless, on June 17, 2012, Tebyanian was put on trial for a second time. Judge Mohammad Ghasem Einolkamali, an alleged violator of human rights, sentenced him to one year in prison for “propaganda against the regime,” and to five and a half years in prison for “crimes against national security.”
The sentences were based on two articles of the Islamic Penal Code: Article 500, which states, “Anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations, shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment,” and Article 498, which orders, “Anyone, with any ideology, who establishes or directs a group, society, or branch, inside or outside the country, with any name or title, that constitutes more than two individuals and aims to perturb the security of the country, if not considered as mohareb [“warrior against God”], shall be sentenced to two to 10 years’ imprisonment.”
On December 22, 2012, Tebyanian presented himself at Semnan’s central prison to start serving his two years and six month prison sentence.
At Semnan prison, like most other prisons in Iran, Baha’i inmates were kept in separate cells away from other prisoners. When Tebyanian was incarcerated there were many Baha’is in Semnan prison, but gradually their numbers dwindled as they were released after serving their sentences in full. The last Baha’i prisoner besides Tebyanian was Afshin Ighani, who was released in January 2016, after serving his full sentence of four years and three months. Now Tebyanian is the only remaining Baha’i at Semnan Prison.
But after more than 2,000 days, Tebyanian is no longer just another prisoner of conscience. He has become a person of trust among the inmates and spends his days listening to the problems of the prisoners and, if possible, helps them to solve their problems. He has become known as the “ward’s lawyer” and handles other prisoners’ correspondence, be it personal or related to their cases and conditions. His only entertainment consists of planting flowers and the weekly meetings with his family from behind a glass partition.