A year after the seven Baha’i leaders [Yaran, or “Friends”] in Iran were arrested and imprisoned, the government has yet to make any formal charges against them. Their families report being told, however, that they may be charged with ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’, which means ‘one who engages in spreading corruption on earth’, and carries the death penalty. This new unofficial charge differs from those that were intimated by Tehran’s Deputy Prosecutor on 10 February 2009: espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.1 The charge of ‘spreading corruption on earth’ has a chilling history, and it should alert us to the grave threat to the lives of the Baha’i leaders.
The meaning of ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’
What does ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’ mean? In its Quranic usage, it means “corrupt conditions, caused by unbelievers and unjust people, that threaten social and political well-being.”2 While the term previously referred to traditional Islamic ideas relating to sin, Ayatollah Khomeini transformed it into a tool to be wielded by the Islamic state against its perceived enemies.3
In his first book in Persian, Khomeini wrote (condemning the modernist clergy): “Muslim government [should] stop the spread of such illegal and heretical ideas, and execute in public and in the presence of all true believers all such provocateurs who spread corruption on earth.”4 Elsewhere, he emphasized that the just ruler should “subordinate individuals to the collective interest of society” by rooting out “numerous groups that were a source of corruption and harm” – just as the Prophet Mohammad had “eliminated” the Jews of Medina.5
An anti-Revolutionary charge
What makes the charge of ‘spreading corruption on earth’ especially alarming is that it calls to mind the early days of the Revolution. It was primarily used as a reason to execute hundreds of former members of the Shah’s regime – high officials and military chiefs. It was the charge made against former Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveida in an infamous trial where he spent his last moments debating the legal meaning of ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’, before the judge pronounced him guilty and had him executed minutes later.
The Omid electronic database of human rights violations in Iran registers more than 300 people executed for ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’.6 Most were affiliated with the Shah’s regime, and there have been only a handful of executions under the charge in the past 20 years. The Baha’i International Community reports that it was also used against Baha’is who were executed in the early 1980s. The charges against Baha’is were not usually made public in those cases, so it is difficult to discover more details about the circumstances of the cases (although the arbitrary nature of revolutionary justice and the targeted campaign against Baha’i leaders often made context virtually irrelevant).
The cases of others executed under the charge tell us something about how it was used, however. Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, who was one of the most active judges in applying the charge of ‘spreading corruption on earth’, defined it in his memoirs:
- A Corrupter on earth is a person who contributes to spreading and expanding corruption on earth. Corruption is what leads to the decline, destruction and deviation of society from its [true] nature. People who were executed had striven to spread corruption and prostitution, distributing heroin and opium and exhibiting licentious behavior, atheism, murder, betrayal, flattery: in sum, all these vile qualities. These people’s problems were aggravated by the fact that they did not repent once they saw the people’s revolution.7
Khalkhali referred to those he sentenced to death under the charge as “traitors” who “destroyed society”.
Recent use of ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’
Executions have followed in recent cases in which defendants have been convicted of ‘spreading corruption on earth’. Last month, the official IRNA news agency reported that three men were hanged outside of Shiraz (two of them students) and their charges were upheld because of a ‘conspiracy to overthrow the government’.8 They were convicted of carrying out the November 2008 bomb attack on amosque in Shiraz, and were accused of having ties to the United States.
An alarming development
The charge ‘Mofsed fel-Arz’ has chilling precedents and implications in Iran, and it should be a source of great concern that there may be official discussion about applying it to the imprisoned Baha’i leaders. It signifies collective conspiracy, moral corruption, and collusion with outsiders to undermine the Islamic Republic, and these are all among the baseless accusations that have been leveled against Baha’is in the past. Of greatest concern is that the charge carries the penalty of death.
Fair trials are uncommon in Iran, and judges are not known to be neutral third parties, especially when it comes to deciding cases where such opaque charges make the standards of evidence equally unclear. The fact that these Baha’is have still not been permitted to meet with their lawyer, [the Nobel Peace laureate] Shirin Ebadi, does not bode well for the judicial process.
This new charge against the Baha’is requires the closest attention from the governments and citizens who stand in solidarity with the imprisoned Baha’i leadership. It is an alarming development and a frightening reminder of the sinister intentions of the government.
Download Persian Translation (PDF)
Geoffrey Cameron is a research associate at the London-based Foreign Policy Centre,. Mr. Cameron is also co-author of the 2008 publication ‘A Revolution without Rights? Women, Kurds and Baha’is Searching for Equality in Iran.’
1 See: http://news.bahai.org/story/713
2 John Esposito. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam: “Mufsid fil-Ard”, p.83. See also Sura 5:33 of the Qur’an.
3 Reza Afshari. Human Rights in Iran: The Abuse of Cultural Relativism, p.33.
4 Abbas Milani. The Persian Sphinx, p.84.
5 Elton L. Daniel. The History of Iran, p.187.
6 See: http://www.iranrights.org
7 See: http://www.iranrights.org/english/document-233.php
8 See: http://www.javno.com/en-world/iran-sentences-three-men-to-death-over-bombing_209153
At one point, Baha’is were blamed for this crime, but it was later blamed on a Sunni Muslim group.