By Bijan Masumian
The news coming out of Iran indicates that at some time in the future, the Islamic Republic government intends to put the seven leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community on trial. The group, which includes two women, has been in “temporary” custody for over ten months. The official charges are:
- Espionage for the state of Israel: a sentence that could carry the death penalty
- Activities against the Islamic regime
- Insulting government authorities
More than likely, the trial will be conducted behind closed doors, so neutral observers will not be able to watch the Iranian judicial system make a mockery of justice. Ironically, the cost of taking the Baha’i leaders through a show trial would be quite high for the government. Global coverage of news having to do with the persecution of Baha’is has been on a steady rise in the past few years. In the process, increasing numbers of Iranian groups and media outlets have risen to the defense of Iran’s largest religious minority. The highly publicized open letter of apology recently issued by a group of Iranian professionals that included political activists, poets, musicians, actors, and others was a clear indication of the increasing cost the regime will have to incur if it continues to disregard public opinion and carry on repressive measures against its largest religious minority. Even inside Iran, certain members of the clerical establishment as well as Iranian students and university professors have demanded justice for the Bahá’ís in public seminars.
While the likely scenario of a closed-door trial for the Baha’i leaders has its cost, the alternative would come at a much higher cost: allowing the internationally known and respected Noble Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, to publicly grill the Islamic Revolutionary Court and an Islamic judge who has little to no experience in contemporary legal proceedings, who would thus prove no match for Ebadi’s expert defense.
While all three charges are trumped up, the most serious is the first: that of espionage. According to the Islamic penal code, spying for a foreign country is considered treason and could carry the death penalty. In fact, only a few months ago an Iranian Jewish merchant was executed in Iran on the same charge.
Since 1979, numerous Iranian Baha’is, young and old, men and women have been accused of espionage for Israel. Yet, in none of the cases has the government produced a shred of evidence. They have never bothered to explain to an inquiring world what kind of “spy” was an eighty-five-year-old man like ‘Abdu’l-Vahab Kazemi of Yazd who had never set foot outside his village. Or what kinds of espionage activities the 17-year old Mona Mahmudnizhad and nine other Baha’i women from Shiraz had committed for which they were eventually hanged, despite international appeals to save their lives. Mona’s real “crime” was teaching ethics to Baha’i children in Sunday school. The same preposterous charge of espionage for Israel was also leveled against Baha’i farmers of the villages of Afus, Chigan, Qal’ih Malik (near Isfahan), and from the village of Nuk in Birjand. The outlandish nature of these accusations is simply remarkable.
Nonetheless, times have changed. In the 1980s, when these crimes were committed against a defenseless community, there was no internet and no social networking sites. Thus, the infrastructure for grassroots movements was not nearly as robust as it is today. Therefore, while the Islamic Republic could come out of those unjustified killings relatively unscathed, it is now becoming virtually impossible for them to continue that practice. Every time a Baha’i or any other Iranian is arrested on unfounded charges, the news is global within hours. Thousands of concerned citizens from all walks of life and different corners of the earth stand up and demand justice in a wide variety of forums and blogs. Thus, the cost of administering injustice is becoming prohibitive. Regarding the Baha’i “dilemma”: while the official policy of the Islamic Republic has been to “fight their cultural influence” both inside and outside Iran, in reality this is proving to be a losing battle. The clerical establishment began its anti-Babi, anti-Baha’i activities over 160 years ago. If the most brutal and inhumane killings of thousands of members of a relatively small population of Babis and Baha’is across Persia in the 1800s and early 1900s could not “solve” this “dilemma”, then where does the optimism to wipe out a now global community of 5-6 million people come from?
Yet, there is hope that the imminent trial of Baha’i leaders may prove to be the tipping point for this losing battle. The Islamic government of Iran may finally realize that public awareness of the situation of Baha’is both inside and outside Iran is reaching the boiling point. Therefore, they should either release these individuals or produce reliable evidence against them. While producing fabricated evidence against others may be a relatively easy undertaking inside Iran, the litmus test for the government would be to allow any potential evidence against Baha’i leaders be examined by an impartial court of law — something the Islamic government is highly unlikely to accept.