Eight Baha’is have been summoned to Birjand Prison in South Khorasan to serve jail sentences amid a worsening coronavirus crisis across the country.
The Bahai’s, who were summoned on Monday, September 28, have been given 10 days to report to Branch 2 of the Birjand Revolutionary Court.
Farzaneh Deimi, Nasrin Ghadiri, Banafsheh Mokhtari, Arezou Mohammadi, Atieh Salehi, Roya Malaki, Ataollah Malaki, and Saeed Malaki all face charges of being members of illegal organizations and disrupting national security, and have been sentenced from between 15 and 24 months in prison.
The sentences were handed down less than three weeks after the verdict was announced by the court of appeal, and while their case is pending before the Supreme Court.
The office responsible for issuing the sentences served notice on the same day that Gholamreza Sharifzadeh, the secretary of the university headquarters of the Coronavirus Taskforce in South Khorasan, announced that Birjand had a record number of coronavirus infections, one of the highest numbers in the province.
The mortality rate for people with Covid-19 per 100,000 of the province’s population is currently 5.1 percent, with the national average at 5.7 percent, giving an indication of how serious the situation is in South Khorasan.
In his public statement, Sharifzadeh pointed to the statistics outlining the rise in the coronavirus outbreak in recent days and said: “We urge citizens to reduce the number of cases by following health protocols.”
Given the rise in the spread of coronavirus in South Khorasan, it is unclear on what basis the eight Baha’i citizens were summoned. Some of those arrested are elderly and have high-risk health conditions, including high blood pressure and heart problems. So their imprisonment at this time has prompted fears for them and their families, and could have irreparable consequences for them.
Prior to this, in early summer 2020, nine Baha’i prisoners (four women and five men) who had been jailed in 2017 were temporarily released due to a coronavirus outbreak in Birjand Prison. Other prisoners were also granted temporary release in other parts of the country. The release came as all four Baha’i women prisoners in Birjand prison became infected with the virus.
Historic Arrests of Baha’is in Birjand
Several Baha’is have been imprisoned in Birjand prison in recent years, and one mass arrest in 2017 stands out. On the morning of Saturday, October 21, 2017, at around 7:00 am, South Khorasan intelligence agents arrived at the homes of 18 Baha’is in Birjand with a court order. After an hour of searching, agents confiscated religious books and pictures, as well as computers, laptops, and the mobile phones of all 18 people.
As they left the properties, agents arrested nine of the 18 Baha’is and took them to the Birjand Intelligence Office.
The arrests and raids took place on the same day as an important Baha’i memorial holiday was taking place around the world. The Baha’is of Birjand were arrested and not allowed to hold or participate in any religious activities. Authorities said they had suspected the Baha’is were planning to attend meetings of a banned organization.
The nine citizens were sentenced to between two and four years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “membership to illegal Baha’i organizations.” The group was still serving their sentences in Birjand Prison in July 2020 when they were temporarily released because of the outbreak, and after four of them became infected with coronavirus.
The nine other Baha’i in Birjand who had their houses searched but were not detained were summoned to Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court of Birjand, presided over by Judge Hojjat Nabavi, in May 2017, and tried on the same charges as the first nine. The nine separate sentences totaled 51 years and eight months in prison.
The appeals court acquitted one of the nine due to his advanced age. After the appeal, the remaining eight defendants were given sentences between 15 and 24 months in prison on charges of “membership to illegal Baha’i organizations.”
For several years, the courts have arrested and imprisoned followers of the Baha’i faith on charges of participating in religious meetings, though authorities refer to them as meetings for banned organizations. At the same time, Iranian officials regularly state that the Islamic Republic does not jail Baha’is for their religious beliefs. But the reality, in Birjand and elsewhere, is very different.
The Recent Arrests
Ataollah Malaki is 63 years old and works in agriculture. On the day of the arrests, Malaki and his wife were not in Birjand. His daughter, Roya Malaki, is another defendant in the case. Malaki was sentenced to 24 months in prison.
Saeed Malaki is 35 years old. His wife, Maryam Mokhtari, was sentenced to two years in prison in the 2017 case, and was temporarily released in July because of coronavirus. The couple has an eight-year-old child who will be greatly affected if the parents are sent to prison. Saeed Malaki was sentenced to 24 months in prison.
Roya Malaki is 37 years old and is the daughter of Ataollah Malaki. Malaki helps look after her mother, so if she is sent to prison, her mother’s health will be at risk. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Arezou Mohammadi is 35 years old and is the guardian of two teenage girls. Her sisters Saghar and Simin have also previously been convicted and are on temporary release. The three sisters have elderly parents who will face a lot of pressure if their three children are imprisoned. Mohammadi has been sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Atieh Salehi is 59 years old and has underlying health conditions. Her brother Bahman Salehi was a defendant in the previous case and has also been on temporary release. They are carers for their parents, who are elderly; their mother has cancer. Atieh Saleh was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Farzaneh Deimi is 51 years old and has underlying health conditions. Her husband Khalil Malaki was also sentenced in the 2017 case and has been out on release. The couple has three children, and their youngest son requires special care, so if both are sent to prison, it will be a major challenge and hardship for the family. Even if someone else in the family can look after the children, neither the mother or the father will be able to earn a living to support the family. Farzaneh was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Banafsheh Mokhtari is 46 years old, married and has two children. She suffers from lumbar disc disease, inflammation of the cervical nerves, and other musculoskeletal problems. Due to the pain caused by these conditions, she has problems and limitations in carrying out her daily activities, including sitting and walking. The appeals court sentenced her to 15 months in prison, even after examining her medical records.
Nasrin Ghadiri is 60 years old, married and has three children and two grandchildren. She lives in Mashhad. In 2017, she temporarily settled in Birjand to take care of her elderly parents. Nasrin Ghadiri was not in Birjand on the day the Baha’i citizens were arrested, but she was sentenced to 15 months in prison in her absence.