By Michael Lipin, Ramin Haghjoo
WASHINGTON – A group of Iranian Baha’is summoned to begin prison terms for practicing their faith were denied an appeal to delay their incarceration at a jail where they would risk coronavirus exposure, according to a knowledgeable source.
An Iran-based source familiar with the situation of the eight Baha’is told VOA Persian that the group received letters on September 28 summoning them to report to the prison in the eastern city of Birjand by October 10. The source said an appellate court in South Khorasan province, of which Birjand is the capital, sentenced the six women and two men to prison terms of 15 months to 2 years on September 8.
The source named the eight Baha’is as Farzaneh Dimi, Nasrin Ghadiri, Ataollah Malaki, Ataollah’s daughter Roya Malaki, Saeed Malaki, Arezoo Mohammadi, Banafsheh Mokhtari and Atieh Salehi.
The lower court sentence of a ninth Baha’i prosecuted with the group, Rahmatollah Dimi, was vacated by the appellate court due to old age and Dimi was acquitted, the source said. Earlier, the group was convicted of disrupting national security and spreading anti-government propaganda in relation to the practice of their faith, the source added.
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 faith, 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.
VOA’s source said several of the Baha’is who received the prison summons and two lawyers representing the group had appealed to Iranian authorities to either delay the summons or to allow those who had been summoned to serve their sentences at home with electronic monitoring of their movements. The appeals were made to spare the eight Baha’is the risk of contracting the coronavirus at the Birjand prison.
As of Tuesday, the source said the appeals were rejected, meaning the eight Baha’is must voluntarily report to prison by October 10 or face arrest unless authorities relent. There was no mention of the Baha’i cases in Iranian state media.
Conditions exacerbated by COVID-19
Iran has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. In a statement released Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the Iranian prison system’s chronic overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions have worsened during the pandemic.
Shortages of water, hygiene products and disinfectant, insufficient protective equipment and testing kits as well as a lack of isolation spaces and inadequate medical care have led to the spread of the virus among detainees, reportedly resulting in a number of deaths, Bachelet wrote.
“I call for (Iran’s) unconditional release of human rights defenders, lawyers, political prisoners, peaceful protesters and all other individuals deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or otherwise exercising their rights,” Bachelet said. “It is particularly important to rectify such injustices at a time when COVID-19 is coursing through Iran’s prisons.”
In a Monday tweet, the Baha’i International Community’s Geneva-based representative to the U.N., Diane Alai, said the eight Baha’is must not be imprisoned.
“Firstly, because they are innocent and secondly because of the appalling COVID-19 situation in Iran,” she wrote.
— Diane Alai (@DianeAlai) October 5, 2020
Raids on Baha’i holiday
The nine defendants were part of a wider group of 18 Baha’is whose homes in Birjand were raided and whose belongings were confiscated by Iranian security agents in October 2017. The raids coincided with a religious holiday observed by Baha’is around the world.
VOA’s source said the other nine Baha’is whose homes were raided were detained for a month, released on bail, and later sentenced to prison terms of several years. The five men and four women, Sheida Abedi, Bijan Ahmadi, Firouz Ahmadi, Khalil Malaki, Sohrab Malaki, Saghar Mohammadi, Simin Mohammadi, Maryam Mokhtari and Bahman Salehi, are serving their sentences at Birjand prison, the source added.
In a May briefing with reporters, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said he was “particularly” concerned by Iran’s treatment of its Baha’i prisoners.