By Michael Lipin, Ramin Haghjoo
WASHINGTON – An Iranian lawyer says a Baha’i woman he represents has become the latest member of the religious minority to begin serving a prison sentence for practicing her faith, deemed heretical by the nation’s Islamist rulers.
In a Tuesday phone interview from the Netherlands with VOA Persian, lawyer Mazdak Etemadzadeh, who has represented multiple Iranian Baha’is in the past decade, said his client Liza Tebyanian was arrested August 15 and sent to the Shahid Kachooei Prison, also known as Fardis Prison, in the northern city of Karaj.
Etemadzadeh said Tebyanian was imprisoned on the order of Iran’s Supreme Court, which overturned an appellate court’s January 2019 ruling that had acquitted the Baha’i woman of spreading anti-government propaganda. A lower Revolutionary Court had convicted Tebyanian of the charge in August 2018 and sentenced her to a seven-month prison term.
Tebyanian initially had been arrested in March 2017 and released on bail the following month pending trial. What prompted her initial detention has remained unclear.
Etemadzadeh said he did not know why Iran’s top court overturned Tebyanian’s acquittal. “It seems that Iran’s Islamist rulers cannot accept that one of their courts refuses to criminalize the practice of the Baha’i faith,” he said.
The lawyer said Tebyanian had been denied legal representation until after her August 2018 conviction, at which point he said he was permitted to help her with the appeal process. He said that when he first gained access to her case file, he found no evidence that his client had engaged in any “propagation” of the Baha’i faith.
Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics consider the nation’s estimated 300,000 Baha’is to be heretics with no religion and routinely arrest them for practicing their beliefs, charging them with national security offenses without disclosing evidence. Most are charged with “propagation” of the Baha’i faith, which Iranian authorities consider to be a form of anti-government propaganda.
Etemadzadeh denounced the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tebyanian’s case as “unjust and illegal.” He said Iran’s judiciary chief has the power to cancel the Supreme Court ruling and order it to begin a retrial. Under Article 477 of Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure, the judiciary chief can take such an action if he deems a Supreme Court decision to be “evidently in contravention of Sharia (Islamic law).”
There was no mention in Iranian state media of the Supreme Court ordering Tebyanian to begin her prison term and no comment from the Iranian judiciary.
Iranian rights activists have said the Alborz province appellate court judge who acquitted Tebyanian in January 2019 had ruled that propagating the Baha’i faith was not an act of anti-government propaganda. At the time, Etemadzadeh told the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that while such rulings were gratifying, they did not mean the Iranian judiciary was changing its general policy toward Iranian Baha’is or decriminalizing their activities.
The Baha’i International Community, a global organization representing the faith, said in April it was “extremely concerned” about Iran’s ongoing detention of 50 to 100 Bahai’s whom it said were vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus in overcrowded and unsanitary Iranian prisons.