On January 4, 1982, in the turbulent years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, seven members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is in Iran were executed in Tehran. Who were they? How were they arrested and why were they executed? And how did their families learn about about the executions?
Sixteen days later, on January 20, 1982, Ayatollah Mohammadi Gilani, who at the time was lead religious judge and head of the Central Islamic Revolutionary Courts, and Assadollah Lajevardi, Tehran’s Revolutionary Prosecutor, in a press conference regarding the execution of 15 Baha’i citizens, members National Assembly Tehran’s Local Assembly, said: “These people, who have been executed, had been proven to be spying for Israel and its allies, in the Islamic Republic’s sharia courts, and have been punished for their actions according to the Holy Quran.”
No evidence was offered to substantiate the accusation that these Baha’i citizens were spies. Nor did any of the Baha’is convert to Islam – because if they had then the court would have acquitted them of the charges and commuted the death sentence.
How and When Were Members of the Tehran Local Assembly Arrested?
On November 1, 1981, agents of the Tehran Anti-Narcotics Committee raided a person’s apartment in a building in the Vanak area of Tehran, following a complaint from a neighbor accusing him of addiction. The caretaker of the building was an elderly Baha’i woman named Mrs. Jamshidi, who lived downstairs with her husband and son.
The owner of the building was abroad to visit his children at the time and left the affairs of the building to his sister and sister-in-law, Shidrokh Amirkia and building manager Manouchehr Bagha.
Mrs. Jamshidi informed Bagha by telephone that agents had come to the building to arrest one of the tenants. Bagha told her not to worry; the agents had no interest in her, and they would leave after they had finished their work.
This short conversation prompted the agents – who were secretly controlling the building’s telephones – to ask Mrs. Jamshidi to take them to Bagha’s house.
Mrs. Jamshidi and several agents went to Manouchehr Bagha’s house, which was nearby. When they rang the buzzer, Mrs. Jamshidi introduced herself on the intercom, which is why, when Manouchehr Bagha then saw Mrs. Jamshidi accompanied by armed agents, he was shocked and closed the door. But the agents fired several shots and raided the house.
On that day, Shidrokh Amirkia, Mr. Bagha’s wife, was hosting members of the Baha’i Spiritual Assembly of Tehran at her home.
The agents entered the house without a warrant. Everyone was forced to lie down on the floor as the agents inspected the premises. After a few hours, one of the agents – their name is unknown – arrested the Baha’is.
Six members of the Tehran Spiritual Assembly, namely Eskander Azizi, Ataollah Yavari, Khosrow Mohandesi, Kourosh Talaei, Fathollah Ferdowsi and Shiva Assadollah Zadeh (Mahmoudi) and their host, Shidrokh Amirkia, and her husband, Manouchehr Bagha, as well as the Jamshidi family (Ardeshir Jamshidi, Jamshid Jamshidi and Mrs. Jamshidi, the aforementioned caretake, were all taken into custody.
How Are the Baha’i Assemblies Organized?
In any town or village, where the number of Baha’is reaches a certain quorum, the Baha’is of that area elect nine people from among themselves to manage their community and activities such as marriage, counselling, funerals, and representing the community to local officials. The councils are called “local spiritual assemblies.” Several thousand local assemblies in cities and villages around the world, including in Islamic countries, have been formed by Baha’is; the only country where members of these local assemblies, and the national assembly, have been arrested for membership and even executed, is Iran.
What Happened to the Detained Members of the Tehran Spiritual Assembly?
The agents took the detainees to the police station in front of their house. Shortly afterwards, all 11 were taken to the detention center of the Drug Court on Pol-e Rumi Street. An hour later, Fathollah Ferdowsi’s son, Faran Ferdowsi, was arrested along with one of his Muslim friends who had gone to the police station to look for his father; they were added to the detainees.
Faran Ferdowsi remembered his own experience of being arrested: “They kept ten men detained in a six-meter cell – it was not possible to sleep because of the size. Each was given two thin military blankets, and because the windows above the room were unglazed, it was very cold at night. In the morning of the second day, a man named Tolouei came into the room with some guards and started insulting the Baha’is. He then ordered that everyone be taken for questioning.”
Ferdowsi continued: “One by one, we were blindfolded and stood in a line and each person placed their hand on the shoulder of the person in front. The person at the front was given a stick so that the guard who led us to the interrogation would not become impure by touching him. They led us in such a way that if we bumped into a tree, or fell into a hole and to the ground, they would start laughing and insult us. There were a series of stairs leading to the interrogation room. When the group reached the stairs, a number of guards stood on both sides of the stairs; as each of us passed through, we were struck and kicked in the head, as the guards insulted our beliefs.”
Tolouei was the pseudonym of a person named Alireza (Amir) Ghasemzadeh Hosseini who was in charge of arresting, torturing and executing Baha’is in Tehran in the early 1980s.
Commander Tolouei, who was the head of heavy transport in Arvandrud, during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, was killed by shrapnel on June 4, 1986.
Faran Ferdowsi continued: “Tolouei said that the Baha’is care about the cleanliness of their clothes, so he and a few other guards rubbed dirt and mud on our clothes. Then he brought a pair of scissors and said that he wanted to cut the hair of the Baha’is to look like a samurai; a few hours later, a guard came and cut everyone’s hair with an electric razor. He pushed the trimmer hard against our scalps to make us bleed.”
How Were the Baha’is Interrogated?
A guard sat behind a desk and each Baha’i, in turn, sat in a chair before the desk. A guard also stood above each Baha’i, and after each question, punched the defendant’s head to answer. Several people were present in the room chanting “Death to Baha’is” after each question. The interrogation questions, other than the basics, were about financial issues. How much money do you have in your account? Do you have a house? What is the model of your car? Who do you have power of attorney from? Where is the Spiritual Assembly’s money? And so on.
Faran Ferdowsi explained: “After two days, we were transferred to a public ward, a 70-meter room with 200 prisoners who were being held for drug addiction. There was so little space that we all stood, at first, because the addicts could not stand. The floor of the room was filthy and we all got sore throats. There was much noise, obscenities and constant fights between the addicts, which did not allow anyone to sleep or rest for a moment.”
How Were the Baha’is Treated During their Detention?
Six Baha’i citizens, members of Tehran Spiritual Assembly, were then executed even before their trial. Mr. Ferdowsi said: “One day Tolouei went to their cell and, without any explanation, punched Eskandar Azizi in the face and said ‘I have now received the death sentences for all of you from Mr. Gilani. You will be transferred to Evin Prison in a few days and you will be executed.’ On another day, the cell door opened and Mousavi Tabrizi, the revolutionary attorney-general, entered with Tolouei and several armed men. He asked why these prisoners were being held: as soon as he was told they were Baha’is the group left the cell without another word. Tolouei returned fifteen minutes later and told the Baha’is to write their final wills, because Mr. Mousavi, the attorney general, had issued the death sentences. ‘Gather your belongings as well, because you have to be transferred to Evin for execution,’ he said.”
Mr. Ferdowsi continued: “On another day, Tolouei came to the Jamshidi family with a whip, and told the guards to strike Mr. Jamshidi and his son with 60 lashes each, and 50 lashes to Mrs. Jamshidi, before they could be released. Mrs. Jamshidi’s guard said she was ill and could not stand the lashes. Tolouei told said that Ms. Jamshidi should therefore receive 30 lashes and for the remainder to be split between her husband and son. The guards then brought a wooden bed and started flogging the three of them on the porch of the courthouse.”
The Jamshidi family was among the Baha’is of Yazd who were expelled from their homes after the Revolution. Because they were old and impoverished, Shidrokh Amirkia, Mr. Bagha’s wife, had employed them as caretakers at his sister’s building.
After 10 days, Faran Ferdowsi was released while six members of the Tehran Spiritual Assembly, as well as the other Baha’is detained along with them, were transferred from Pol-e Rumi Detention Center to Evin Prison. Members of the assembly and Shidrokh Amirkia were imprisoned in Evin Prison for 52 days. The group was held in solitary confinement for some time and then transferred to Ward 6. During this time, they were denied any telephone contact or visits from their families.
Prison officials did not accept any warm clothing or blankets from the families during the winter. The only news that the families received during the detention of their loved ones was a phone message informing the families of their executions. The executions took place on January 4, 1982. The fellow-inmates of the Baha’is later gave details to the bereaved families, explaining that they were tortured, physically and mentally, and pressured to abandon their religion and to convert to Islam.
Farzaneh Azizi, the daughter of Eskander Azizi, said that a young friend of her father saw him in prison. After his own release, this person said to his mother: “The first time I saw Eskandar in prison, I was very shocked. He was wearing a torn coat and was returning from interrogation … he was trying hard to take off his coat. I helped him to take it off. I saw then that his shirt was sticking to the open wounds left by the lashes to his body.”
He added: “This person had told my mother that, despite the torture and disrespect inflicted on the Baha’is, they still had a positive attitude and that was why they were respected by the other prisoners. When the Baha’is were leaving the prison all the other prisoners stood as a mark of a respect to them.”
Farzaneh Azizi went on to say that they heard from the released prisoners, who said that officers took the Baha’i detainees in thin clothes to the roof of the prison, during winter, poured ice water on their heads and bodies, and kept them in cold, icy weather for several hours to push them to abandon their beliefs. Shidrokh Amirkia caught pneumonia and began feeling severe pain in her bones.
A fellow inmate of the Baha’is, Enayatkhoda Sefidoush, wrote in his memoirs Prejudice and Discrimination, that: “Mr. Azizi, Mr. Ferdowsi, Mr. Yavari and Ms. Assadollahzadeh were interrogated for approximately seven or eight sessions, Dr. Mohandesi for 10 sessions and Mr. Talaei for 13 sessions, with their eyes blindfolded in the prosecutor’s office building. Interrogations were conducted orally at first and later in writing. Each person required to raise his blindfold, write the answers to the questions, and to refrain from turning his head to see the interrogators. In addition to the main interrogators, several people were present behind the defendants, as informants who checked the questions and confirmed or denied the answers by nodding their head. The shadows of their moving heads were visible on the opposite wall.”
Sefidoush wrote: “Under the pretext of avoiding the impurity of the Baha’is, the prisoners were removed from their cells and transferred to spaces under the stairs. This staircase was an area 2.25 meters long, 2 meters wide, and [about] a meter high, which did not have any light or heat. Nine Baha’i prisoners were sent under the stairs. In this area, with its size, one could not sit, let alone sleep … This narrow and dark area was bedroom, dining room and kitchen for Baha’is, for 50 days.”
Ward 6 at Evin Prison was already over capacity so a number of prisoners were transferred to Ghasr Prison. Fathollah Ferdowsi, Ataollah Yavari and Khosrow Mohandesi were also transferred, but Mr. Mohandesi was still being interrogated, so he was returned to Evin after a few days.
How Were Members of the Assemblies Tried and Executed?
Eight members of Iran’s National Spiritual Assembly were arrested on December 13. Enayatkhoda Sefidoush, the fellow inmate of the Bahai’s, said in his memoir: “The detainees in Tehran [of the Local Spiritual Assembly] were unaware of this arrest due to their lack of contact with outside the prison, until on December 26, when Eskandar Azizi, Khosrow Mohandesi and Kourosh Talaei were released from Ward 6 and Shiva Assadollahzadeh and Shidrokh Amirkia were taken from the women’s ward blindfolded to the Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office. In the corridor of the prosecutor’s office, although everyone was blindfolded, the members of the Tehran Assembly, hearing the voices of the members of the National Assembly, saw them; they all began to greet each other. On that day, both parties were to be tried in a single session and sentenced to death. But the absence of Messrs. Fathollahzadeh, Ferdowsi and Yavari prevented members of the Tehran Assembly from being tried that day, and they were returned to prison. Members of the National Assembly were tried later that day, in the middle of the night, and in a closed court, without lawyers and without the right to appeal.”
The Islamic Republic imagined that the simultaneous trial and execution of the two assemblies would tear apart the Baha’i community in Iran. The government also wanted to illustrate its claims against the Baha’is to the world – that the Baha’is were spies – by broadcasting the court hearing. The public broadcast, however, never happened. The video showed the Baha’is convincingly denying the accusations rather than confirming them or being outwitted by the prosectors. The film was therefore never broadcast but, 34 years later, it was secretly taken out of Iran and shown online.
Enayatkhoda Sefidoush’s memoir also said: “The trial of the members of the Tehran Assembly was such that, on December 30, Mr. Ferdowsi and Mr. Yavari were returned to Evin from Ghasr Prison. On the afternoon of January 2, seven Baha’i prisoners were taken to the prosecutor’s office for trial. The Sharia judge was Hojjatoleslam Fahim Kermani, and the charges against them were exactly the charges of the National Assembly members, such as spying for Israel. They did not accept any of the charges and the court did not provide any evidence. The trial was held in private and the defendants were denied the right to a lawyer. After several hours of trial, all seven were sentenced to death and the confiscation of their properties. The verdict was published while the media repeatedly announced that the initial death sentences and confiscation of property should be reviewed and approved by the Supreme Revolutionary Court before execution. Each of the defendants was summoned separately by the representative of the court and the verdicts were communicated to them. ‘If you abandon the Baha’i faith, you will be set free,’ they were each told. The proposal was met with a negative response from all seven. An hour later, the court representative collectively offered the defendants a reduction in punishment if they condemned the actions of the Baha’i National Assembly; again, all seven gave a negative response.”
Mahin Bozorgi, a dubbing actor who spent three years in prison for non-political reasons in the 1980s, said in the book Golden Eagle, by Hassan Alaei, about the day of Shidrokh (Amirkia) Bagha’s execution: “We were in the same cell in Evin Prison. Mrs. Bagha was an incarnate soul, a celestial angel. I was heartbroken for her to be executed, so I kept urging her to say the words, ‘I am not a Baha’i’ and to therefore be released and to live for many years. But she refused. Ms. Bagha told me that perseverance is the reason for faith. One Wednesday, at six o’clock in the afternoon, we were having dinner with Mrs. Bagha, when the prison speaker announced the nightmare of death: ‘Mrs. Bagha should come to the prison office with an Islamic hijab and all her belongings.’ Mrs. Bagha put her spoon in the food container, stood up bravely, and said ‘Today is Wednesday, and now is the time for me to be executed and to go on my beloved pilgrimage.’ She kissed all of us one by one, and said goodbye to us. She said, ‘I entrust you to God. You have loved me very much. Thank you all.’ The sight of the last farewell of this brave and faithful woman was so painful that tears welled up in my eyes. I suggested to her again to say the words and to be free: ‘You can be a Baha’i in your heart, but abandon it to save your life.’ She said ‘No’ three times. She picked up her belongings and walked towards the prison office … alas, we knew we’d never see her again. Shidrokh was executed the same day the prison speaker called.”
The seven Baha’is of the Tehran Assemvly were separated from other prisoners at noon, on January 3, 1982, and were executed at midnight on January 3 or at dawn on January 4. The seven were buried in plain clothes, without any religious ceremonies, in Khavaran Cemetery.
Eskandar Azizi was 61 years old, Fathollah Ferdowsi was 63 years old, Khosrow Mohandesi was 52 years old, Shidrokh Amirkia 4was 6 years old, Shiva Assadollahzadeh was 36 years old, Ataollah Yavari was 35 years old and Kourosh Talaei was 33 years old.
Shiva, the sister of Shidrokh Amirkia, said: “The men were shot at Evin Execution Square and the two women were shot in the basement of Evin Prison. All seven had wills, but the prosecutor’s office demanded a large sum of money to deliver them [to the families], but because the amount was not paid, the wills did not reach the families.”
How did the families find out about the executions?
Farzaneh Azizi described how the families were informed of the execution of their loved ones: “On Wednesday, January 6, 1982, my mother received a phone call from an unknown person, who said that that Eskandar Azizi had been executed. Farzin Azizi [Eskandar’s wife] went to Behesht Zahra cemetery and several other places but no one had any information. Farzin finally went to a location at the former Luna Park that had a list of Evin prisoners. When he gave the names of the members of the Tehran Assembly to the person in charge of the statistics of the dead [executed] in Evin Prison, a clerk opens a large book and, after looking, said he had no information. But at the same time, the person was called; he left the room, and during that moment Farzin looked at the clerk’s book, and saw the names of his father and the other members of the Tehran Spiritual Assembly who had been executed.”