He was born in the 1980s, in prison, because his mother was a Baha’i. He was denied a university education because he believed in a religion the rulers of Iran consider “forbidden”. He was sent to prison for the first time when he was 23, and he was 32 years old when he married while on a five-day leave of absence.
This is the story of Ardeshir Fanaian, a young Baha’i in Iran who was not even allowed to attend his father’s funeral, but still hopes for a future in which nobody is harassed because of their faith.
On August 18, after a five-day leave of absence, Ardeshir Fanaian returned to Semnan Prison to serve the remaining 4.5 years of his sentence.
His earlier requests for furlough had all been denied. But finally, because of the coronavirus pandemic, Fanaian was granted this brief taste of freedom from August 13 to 18. During these five days, a pivotal event in his life took place: on August 16, he married his beloved, Golrokh Firouzian.
When the five days were up, the young Baha’i couple asked for just a few more days together. But Semnan’s Intelligence Bureau rejected their request and the groom returned to prison.
Born in Prison, Arrested at 23
Fanaian was born on December 9, 1988 in Semnan Prison. His parents were arrested in 1983 on the charge of being members of the Baha’i Community Council of Mehdi Shahr (formerly Sangsar), a city in Semnan province. They, and other arrested Baha’is, were held in Semnan Prison for six months and were then transferred to Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Mohammad Ali Fanaian, Ardeshir Fanaian’s father, was first sentenced to death but, after three years, he was released from Evin Prison without a specific court ruling. His mother, Rezvanieh Jazbani, was sentenced to death twice but the last court of appeals reduced her sentence to 10 years in prison. After four years, Rezvanieh was transferred back to Semnan Prison.
In early 1989, the government of the Islamic Republic ordered the release of a number of imprisoned Baha’is. After five years in prison, Rezvanieh Jazbani and her three-month-old baby son were free.
Fanaian went through his primary and secondary education in Semnan but, after receiving his high school diploma, he was unable to go to college. Baha’is in Iran have been barred from entering higher education for four decades. This prohibition was passed into law on February 25, 1991, by the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution. If Baha’is are caught being admitted into universities, they are expelled.
Instead, Fanaian continued his higher education in civil engineering at the underground virtual Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) until he was arrested, for the first time, in 2012.
Betrothed Couple Arrested on the Same Day
On the morning of February 15, 2012, agents from Semnan’s Intelligence Bureau raided Fanaian’s family home, arrested him, ransacked the house and confiscated his computer and all the religious books and pictures that they could find.
On the same day, Golrokh Firouzian, Fanaian’s future bride, and her sister Shidrokh were arrested at their home as well. The two sisters were physically injured during their brutal interrogations by Mohammad Reza Hashemian, an agent of the Intelligence Bureau. Their father Hazhir Firouzian lodged a complaint but, as a result, he himself was sentenced to 40 days for “libeling a government agent” and served his sentence in 2013.
Ardeshir Fanaian was released on bail on April 20, 2012. In August of the following year, Semnan’s Revolutionary Court tried these three young Baha’is on the charge of “proselytizing Baha’ism”. The court sentenced Ardeshir to one year in prison and Golrokh and Shidrokh Firouzian to nine months each.
Three months later, on December 28, 2013, the court of appeal reduced Fanaian’s sentence to eight months and those of the two sisters to six months each. Two weeks later, on January 12, 2014, prison agents abruptly arrested Fanaian without a summons at a bank and took him to Semnan Prison to begin serving his sentence.
Six months later, in June 2014, taking into account the two months that he had already been held under arrest, Fanaian was released from prison.
Arrested a Days After Release
Just a few days after his release, Ardeshir was arrested once again by the order of Judge Zamani. As part of his release, he was forced sign a pledge that he would enter compulsory military service. But Semnan Military Draft officials then told his family that the law for arresting absent draftees had been revoked several years earlier, and Fanaian and a number other Baha’is in Semnan had been arrested on the orders of “another authority”: meaning the Intelligence Ministry.
In early 2015, Fanaian began his military service. But a few months later, the government included a clause in its budget for the year which levied a fine on draftees who have been absent for more than eight years. These people could pay the fine and in exchange, be exempted from the military service. Fanaian paid up and came back to Semnan.
From Harassment to Arrest – Again
On exiting the military, Fanaian took a few different jobs to make a living. But his main source of income was translation from English. In the years that followed, he was repeatedly threatened on the phone by security agents or by unknown callers. He also received text messages on the same theme, with one reading: We are closer to you than the vein in your neck. Be careful what you do!”
On one occasion a threatening note was thrown through the air vent into his room and, on another occasion, all of his paperwork was stolen from inside his car.
Eventually the threats became a reality. At 7am on April 30, 2019, agents of Semnan’s Intelligence Bureau, posing as workers from the water company, rang the doorbell of the Fanaian family home. When Ardeshir’s brother opened the door, masked agents rushed inside and made straight for Ardeshir’s room to arrest him while he was still asleep. They were at the house for an hour, confiscating Fanaian’s personal items, books, pictures, and anything with any connection to the Baha’i faith, before taking Fanaian away.
On the same day in Semnan, two other young Baha’is by the name of Behnam Eskandarian and Yalda Firouzian were also arrested. Ardeshir Fanaian’s arrest took place at a time when the family were still in a state of shock over the loss of his mother, Rezvanieh, who had been killed a few months earlier in a traffic collision.
Pushing for the Forced Exile of the Baha’is
An Iranian Baha’i told IranWire that the principal motive behind the Intelligence Bureau’s abuse of Ardeshir Fanaian is to force him to leave Semnan. The verdict of the lower court, which sentenced him to two years in exile, appears to confirm this.
“For more than 10 years Semnan has been one of the main centers of harassment against the Baha’is,” the source said. “Most of the Baha’is in this city have experienced imprisonment. For the past few years nobody has been conducting any business with us because of the threats of the Intelligence Bureau. Baha’is are eihter unemployed or do temping jobs, or work hidden from public view. Many of the men of the families have to go to neighboring provinces to work. In the past few years, pressures here have forced many Baha’i families, especially the young ones, to migrate to other cities to make a living.”
Despite all of these difficulties, Ardeshir Fanaian was among the young Baha’is who had tried to stay on in Semnan. According to a relative, he tried his best to be helpful and spent a good amount of time teaching mathematics and other subjects to local children and adolescents. Although many of their relatives live in Norway and the US, and always encouraged him to emigrate from Iran, he reportedly always answered that he loved his country and preferred to remain in Iran and serve its people.
Losing a Father While Behind Bars
After his last arrest, Fanaian spent 75 days in solitary confinement and was then transferred to Semnan Prison. For several months he was denied the right to receive visits from his family or even speak to them on the phone. The only time that he was allowed to meet them was after his father was taken to hospital.
In early June, Fanaian’s father had been hospitalized due to kidney disease. “After the death of his mother, Ardeshir took care of his father,” says an acquaintance. “But after he was sent to prison, his father’s health had deteriorated. His family called the prison and asked them to allow Ardeshir to visit his father. Intelligence agents took him [to the hospital] twice, under guard.”
But on the second visit, Fanaian’s father passed away minutes before their arrival. The Intelligence Bureau did not allow him to attend the funeral.
Long-Term Prison Sentences for Young Baha’is
After Fanaian’s last arrest, agents of the Intelligence Ministry arrested one of his neighbours and her 15-year-old son, and pressured them into signing a statement against him. Their names are listed in the indictment signed by Reza Zamani, Semnan’s assistant prosecutor.
According to this indictment, a copy of which has been seen by IranWire, the three arrested Baha’is were charged with the following crimes: “Membership in an association, known as the deviate Baha’i sect, that acts against the national security of the Islamic Republic (Article 499, Book 5 of the Islamic Penal Code), participation in creating and the management of an illegal group inside the country with the aim of harming national security (Article 498, Book 5 of the Islamic Penal Code) and participation in activities against the sacred system of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Article 500, Book 5 of the Islamic Penal Code.”
Evidence cited to support these charges included their setting up “consulting groups” among the members through two WhatsApp groups, nicknamed “Pears” and “Amazon Jungle Travelers”. The indictment also said they had been organizing and holding memorial services for the Baha’is executed in the 1980s, and had obtained “a printer set up to reproduce pamphlets.”
Based on this shoddy indictment, Branch 1 of Semnan Revolutionary Court, presided over by Judge Mohammad Ali Rostami, sentenced Ardeshir Fanaian, the prime defendant in the case, to 10 years in prison. And because of his previous record, the judge also sentenced him to one year of exile, to be spent in the arid city of Khash in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
In late 2019, a month after the trial at the lower court, Branch 2 of Semnan Revolutionary Court of Appeal, presided by Judge Mohammad Ghasem Einolkamali, took up the case of these three young Baha’is. Here Fanaian’s sentence was reduced to six years.
Ardeshir Fanaian and his co-defendant Behnam Eskandarian have been in prison for more than 15 months. Their families say that the morale of these two young men is high and they still hope for a future in which nobody is punished for their beliefs, and no young groom has to spend his honeymoon inside a prison cell.