Persecution of the Baha'i community of Iran – a review

, , Leave a comment Toronto, Ontario, 28 April 2011 (CBNS) — When 81-year-old Ashraf Khanjani-the wife of jailed Baha’i leader Jamaloddin Khanjani, 77, was on her deathbed, her last wish was to see her husband, said Nika Khanjani, her niece, a Montreal filmmaker. But Mrs. Khanjani had to content herself with a photograph of her husband, which she kissed shortly before passing away on 10 March 2011.

“They had an old-fashioned and cordial, but very robust love.” Ms. Khanjani said of her uncle and aunt’s 50-year marriage.

Since May 2008, Mr. Khanjani has been serving a jail term along with six other Baha’is who were members of the “Yaran-i-Iran” or “Friends in Iran” a national-level group that attended to the needs of Iran’s Baha’i community. Their crime is none other than being members of the Baha’i Faith, a religion which has been the focus of systematic, government-sponsored persecution in Iran since the 1979 revolution.

“In the files, in the case, there is nothing, no reason that basically convicts them,” said Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the lawyer of the seven leaders in a article on 16 August 2009.

While Ashraf Khanjani’s funeral attracted between 8,000-10,000 mourners of all walks of life, Mr. Khanjani was denied the opportunity to attend it by Iranian authorities, a decision described by the Baha’i International Community as “desperately cruel.”

The Khanjani family’s experience illustrates some of the effects of the persecution faced by many of the approximately 300,000 Baha’is in the country. Iranian Baha’is are subjected to government-sanctioned arrests and violence, economic pressures, denial of the protection of the legal system in the country, denial of access to higher education and anti-Baha’i propaganda in the media among other human rights abuses.

Iranian citizens who are not themselves members of the Baha’i Faith but defend the rights of Baha’is are also intimidated by government officials.

The Canadian government has denounced the Iranian regime’s suppression of its own citizens, and has raised the issue repeatedly at the UN General Assembly. The 47-member UN Human Rights Council decided to establish a special investigator on Iran on 17 March 2011. Canada, though not a Council member was among the sponsors of the resolution.

In a Canadian House of Commons debate on 6 February 2011 on the human rights situation of Iran, six members of parliament, including members of the Conservative, Liberal and NDP parties, expressed their support of the Baha’is in Iran and their condemnation of the Iranian government’s record in respecting the human rights of the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the country.

Member of Parliament Jim Maloway described the treatment of Baha’is in Iran as very disturbing while (MP) Mario Silva said that he was struck “by the sheer violation of human rights against such a targeted group.”

MP Deepak Obhrai said in the same debate that the Iranian government should be “condemned in no uncertain terms” for its “suppression” of its own citizens, including the Baha’is.

The seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders previously mentioned-five men and two women- are among many that had experienced this “suppression” firsthand even before their imprisonment.

Mr. Khanjani, 77, was a successful factory owner, who lost his business after the 1979 Islamic revolution because of his membership in the Baha’i Faith. Mr. Khanjani has four children and six grandchildren.

Mahvash Sabet, 57, a schoolteacher and principal and mother of two was dismissed from public education for being a Baha’i.

Fariba Kamalabadi, 48, a developmental psychologist and mother of three was denied the opportunity to study at a public university because of her faith.

Afif Naeimi, 49, a businessman and father of two was unable to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor because as a Baha’i he was denied access to university.

Saeid Rezaie, 53, an agricultural engineer and father of three moved from Shiraz to Northern Iran to work because the persecution of Baha’is was intense in that area.

Behrouz Tavakkoli, 59, a social worker and father of two lost his government job in the early 1980s because of his Baha’i belief.

Vahid Tizfahm, 37, an optometrist and father of an 11-year-old has now been in prison during the formative years of his son’s life.

Many of the Baha’i leaders were rounded up in early morning raids at their homes in a sweep that is similar to episodes in the 1980s when scores of Iranian Baha’i leaders were summarily rounded up and killed in a similar attempt to eradicate the Bahá’í community as a viable entity.

On 12 January 2010 – after 20 months of imprisonment without charge during which they were subjected to physical and psychological hardship – the trial of the seven Baha’i leaders began. They had been permitted hardly one hour’s access to their legal counsel.

The Baha’i leaders were charged with, among other things, espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of illegal administration-charges that were all rejected by the defendants.

Their trial ended on 14 June 2010 after six brief sessions characterized by the lack of due legal process, even from the standpoint of Iranian law.

The initial sentence of 20 years imprisonment for each of the defendants sparked condemnation from governments around the world-including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

One month later, the appeal court revoked three of the charges and reduced their sentence to 10-years imprisonment.

In March 2011, the prisoners were informed that their original 20-year sentence had been reinstated. Notwithstanding repeated requests, neither the prisoners nor their attorneys have ever received official copies of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal.

It appears that the appeal court ruling reducing the sentence to 10 years imprisonment was set aside as the result of a challenge launched by the Prosecutor General against the ruling on appeal, said Susanne Tamas, Director of Governmental Relations for the Baha’i Community of Canada. This was carried out under a provision of the Iranian legal system which allows the Prosecutor General to appeal to the Head of the Judiciary against any judgment rendered by a court that is deemed to be in contradiction with the provisions of Shariah law, she said. The 20 year sentence “is tantamount to life imprisonment for several of these prisoners,” said Ms. Tamas.

The latest development is “outrageous, and yet sadly unsurprising,” wrote Kishan Manocha, director of public affairs for the Baha’i community in a Wall Street Journal column written on 3 April 2011. Manocha said that the recent media attention given to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa has made the Iranian government feel secure that the international community has forgotten the Baha’i case.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in the 16 February 2011 debate that the human rights situation in Iran in general was forgotten as international attention shifted to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

He said that the Canadian government needed to keep their “focus on the Iranian people and the suffering that is happening there and the courage that is being expressed.”

The reinstatement of the sentences of the Baha’i leaders has been condemned by the European Union and European Parliament as well as governments, institutions and individuals in Brazil, France, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have also expressed outrage at the sentence.

In addition to the unlawful arrest of the Baha’i leaders, since August 2004, some 379 Baha’is have been arrested in Iran, with over 70 Iranian Baha’is currently in prisons across the country because of their religion.

In March 2010, four Baha’is were arrested in connection with the provision of kindergarten-level education in Iran’s Kerman province.

Baha’i-owned businesses have been firebombed and torched and many Iranian Baha’is are regularly denied employment and their business licenses have been revoked.

The Khanjani family has been among those targeted by these economic pressures. Working in the agricultural sector, many of Mr. Khanjani’s children and relatives have been refused loans, had their businesses shut down, been subject to unexplained fines and had their business dealings limited because of their faith.

“I don’t know how my relatives are doing it, surviving day-to-day,” said Nika Khanjani of the current situation.

Baha’i youth are also barred from university by Iranian authorities. Some alternative education is provided to Baha’is through the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, developed to meet the educational needs of those who were denied post-secondary education in Iran on the basis of their religion.

The Baha’i Institute of Higher Education is one of the many ways that the Baha’is of Iran have equipped their youth to continue to serve their country in the midst of severe persecution.

American journalist Roxana Saberi-cell mate of the jailed female Baha’i leaders Mrs. Sabet and Mrs. Kamalabadi- remembered their “generosity” and “compassion” in an opinion piece written for the Wall Street Journal on 15 March 2011. She said that the women lifted the spirits and gave hope to the other prisoners and took care of her when she was on a hunger strike.

She said in the article that when authorities at the Rajai Shahr Prison announced that inmates should cut off their contact with the Mrs. Sabet and Mrs. Kamalabadi, the fellow prisoners refused and continued to seek them out.

The late Mrs. Khanjani also continued to serve her country, notwithstanding the severe persecution inflicted by her government. “She looked after between 40-50 children at any given time without regard for their religious background”, said Diane Ala’i, representative of the Baha’i International Community for the United Nations in Geneva.

Ms. Khanjani said that since her aunt’s death her family members in Iran are grieving “on a very quiet and private level,” but are continuing on with their lives and their service to the community.

In the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on 27 March 2009, Member of Parliament Mario Silva spoke out on behalf of the situation of the Baha’is of Iran such as the Khanjani family.

“As parliamentarians and as leaders in the international community with a long commitment to promoting fundamental human rights, we must condemn this situation without reservation at every available opportunity,” he said.




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