By Michael Lipin, Ramin Haghjoo
WASHINGTON – Iran has sentenced eight of its Baha’i citizens to prison terms and other punishments according to an informed source, in the latest example of the Islamist-ruled nation’s longstanding and internationally criticized policy of severely restricting the rights of its Baha’i religious minority.
In a December 24 interview with VOA Persian from Iran, the source, who is familiar with the situation of the six men and two women, said their lawyers were informed a day earlier of the sentences handed down by a Revolutionary Court in the southern port of Bandar Abbas.
The source said the judge handed two-year prison terms to six of the Baha’is: Omid Afaghi, Mehrallah Afshar, Nasim Ghanavatian, Mahnaz Jannesar, Arash Rasekhi and Maral Rasti. He gave one-year terms to the other two Baha’is: Farhad Ameri and Adib Haghpajooh, the source added.
All eight Iranian Baha’is remain free on bail, pending appeals that their lawyers intend to pursue in the coming weeks, the source said.
Authorities initially detained the Baha’is in April 2017, arresting seven of them in Bandar Abbas and on nearby Qeshm island and the other, Adib Haghpajooh, in the south-central city of Shiraz. They were released on bail later.
VOA’s source said, prior to the sentences being issued last week, the defense lawyers discovered that authorities had changed the offense for which the eight Baha’is had been charged, escalating it from the initial charge of spreading anti-government propaganda to the more serious charge of “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”
“During the trial, the lawyers objected to the escalation of the charge against their clients as unfair, but the judge ignored them,” the source said.
Each of the eight Baha’is also was handed three additional punishments, according to the source. Those included a two-year ban on membership in political and social organizations, a ban on attending Baha’i banquets and other gatherings, and a requirement to learn about Islam by attending five counseling sessions at the Sajjadieh Cultural Institute of Islamic Thought in Bandar Abbas, the source said.
VOA could not independently verify the court rulings against the Iranian Baha’is because it is barred from reporting inside Iran. There has been no mention of them in Iranian state media.
Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics excluded the Baha’i faith from minority religions that they recognized in the constitution they adopted after seizing power in a 1979 revolution. Since then, they have deemed Iran’s estimated 300,000 Baha’i citizens to be heretics with no religion.
Iranian authorities routinely arrest minority Baha’is for engaging in faith-related activities, accusing them of national security offenses without disclosing evidence. Most are charged with “propagation” of the Baha’i faith, which authorities consider to be a form of anti-government propaganda.
U.S. State Department Deputy spokesperson Cale Brown criticized Iran’s treatment of Baha’is last month, highlighting its raids on the homes of about 50 Baha’i families on November 22.
“The Iranian regime has imprisoned dozens of Baha’is because of their faith and seeks to destroy their institutions and schools,” Brown wrote on Twitter. “Baha’i prisoners must be released, and their fundamental right of freedom of religion must be respected.”
U.S. lawmakers added their voice to the criticism earlier this month, passing a House resolution condemning Iran for what they called “state-sponsored persecution of its Baha’i minority and its continued violation of human rights agreements.”
Iran received a further rebuke on December 16 when the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing “serious concern about ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on … recognized and unrecognized religious minorities including … members of the Baha’i faith.”
The resolution, approved by U.N. member states by a vote of 82-30, with 64 abstentions, also called upon Iran to stop the “denial of and restrictions on access to education” for members of recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, “including for members of the Baha’i faith.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh responded to the U.N. vote by expressing “abhorrence of the deep-rooted hypocrisy” of the resolution’s 45 co-sponsors, which include the U.S., Israel, Canada, Australia and other U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific. He also called on the resolution’s co-sponsors to “stop their interventionist and immoral behavior” toward Iran and unspecified other nations.
The Baha’i International Community welcomed the U.N. resolution as part of what it called a “global wave of fresh support” for Iran’s Baha’i community from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany and European lawmakers.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service
Click here for the original Persian version of the story.