After languishing in jail for six months, three Baha’i residents of Semnan have been sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison and six years of exile from their homes.
On the morning of Tuesday, April 30, 2019, agents of Semnan’s Intelligence Bureau arrested the three Baha’is – Ardeshir Fanaian, aged 30, Behnam Eskandarian, aged 25, and Yalda Firuzian, aged 20 – at their homes and took them to the bureau’s detention center in Semnan. After 20 days there, Yalda Firuzian was moved to Semnan Prison and has spent the past six months in solitary confinement. Ardeshir Fanaian and Behnam Eskandarian were transferred to Semnan Prison after two months and for the past four months they have been kept separately from one other.
A relative of the detainees told IranWire that, although the initial interrogation periods for each of them had finished, officials have ignored repeated requests from the detainees and their families for their release on bail. Prison officials have apparently accepted documents that include the requests from Fanaian and Eskandarian but have not sent these to the prosecutor. And the request for bail from Firuzian was outright denied denied; furthermore, she had been told that at this juncture, she could not be released on bail.
After 148 days in detention, the three were taken from prison on September 26 to Semnan’s Revolutionary Court to stand trial. They were accused of membership to an “illegal group acting against national security,” meaning the Baha’i community, “complicity in organizing and operating this illegal group” and “activities against the Islamic Republic regime.” The trial was presided over by Mohammad Ali Rostami, the judge of Branch 1 of Semnan’s Revolutionary Court. The second session of the trial was held three weeks later, on October 17, in the presence of the defendants and their lawyers.
On October 24, the lower revolutionary court issued its verdict.
Ardeshir Fanaian was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of complicity in organizing and operating an illegal group with the intent of acting against national security. He was also sentenced to one year of exile in the city of Khash in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, and was banned from returning to Semnan for yet another year. The reason given for this additional sentence was his previous “criminal record.”
Fanaian was first arrested in February 2012 and was released 50 days later on bail. A revolutionary court later sentenced him to nine months in prison for spreading “propaganda against the regime by proselytizing Baha’ism,” a sentence he served starting in December 2013. Ardeshir was sent to mandatory national military service after serving his prison sentence.
The other two defendants, Behnam Eskandarian and Yalda Firuzian, were both sentenced to five years in prison and a two-year ban on living in Semnan for membership of an illegal group with the intention of acting against national security.
All three defendants were also sentenced to one year in prison for “acting against the regime in support of anti-Islamic Republic groups.” According to Article 134 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, in some cases prison sentences can be served concurrently, meaning that when the longest sentence is served the convict does not have to serve shorter sentences: “… where the offenses committed are not more than three, the court shall impose the maximum punishment provided for each offense … In any of the above-mentioned cases, only the most severe punishment shall be executed and if the most severe punishment is reduced, or replaced, or becomes non-executable for any legal reason, the next most severe punishment shall be executed …”.
Jailed for Being Baha’is
“These three were arrested and sentenced to heavy terms just because they are Baha’is,” a Baha’i citizen from Semnan tells IranWire. “By ‘illegal group’, the authorities mean Iran’s Baha’i community. At the trial they only talked about their membership of the Baha’i community and related activities, and no other group was mentioned. And, in the verdict, there was no mention of activities against the regime. The verdict only refers to books and [other materials] that introduces the Baha’i faith in a condensed form. According to the court, the defendants used these items to proselytize ‘Baha’ism,’ which is considered a ‘deviant’ and illegal sect in Iran.”
This person says that, according to the defense, none of evidence introduced in support of these heavy sentences had any connection to the charges brought against the defendants. For instance, they accused Fanaian of “complicity in organizing and operating the illegal group;” and later, they claimed that Fanaian was able to buy his way out of military service despite not having an income and his family’s lack of financial means, allegedly proving “the financial support of the this sect … to directly or indirectly act against national security.” The court documents also they referred to armbands with Baha’i insignia used in proselytizing – but in reality the authorities had confiscated no such items from the defendants’ homes and it is unclear how they were added to documents from the prosecution.
Prison officials have also repeatedly refused short leaves of absence to these three prisoners, aggravating their conditions. Ardeshir Fanaian, for psychological reasons, and Behnam Eskandarian, for physical reasons, are not well. When Fanaian was arrested, he had just lost his mother to a car accident and his family was in mourning. A month after his arrest, he lost his father to a kidney disease; in the early months of his detention, he was not allowed any contact with the outside world and nobody could visit him in prison.
On his sixth day of being interrogated, Behnam Eskandarian was suddenly and without any known reason transferred to the prison’s quarantine ward and, while there, was heavily beaten by an unknown assailant. After a few hours, he was returned to the Intelligence Bureau; after six months, he still carries the visible marks of the beating on his body.
Yalda Firuzian has been in solitary confinement for more than six months. Prison officials do not allow other inmates any contact with her because she is a Baha’i. Some time ago, Firuzian was under such psychological distress that she unconsciously picked and tore the skin off her own hands. Her family had to she was so stressed out that she unconsciously plucked and scratched skin off her own hands. Her family had to bring her protective gloves. For the past month and a half, she has been suffering from rapid heart palpitations and, according to the prison doctor, Firuzian needs to see a heart specialistl but prison officials have refused to grant her a medical leave of absence.
“Legally, the Baha’is are not a religious minority, but they are treated according to their citizenship rights and their rights are protected by the state and by the government,” Mohammad Javad Larijani, Secretary of the Iranian judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights, told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on November 8. This was just a short time after the verdicts against these three young Baha’i were announced. “It is not true,” Larijani added, “that the Baha’is are under pressure.”