By Azadeh Rohanian Perry
Azadeh Rohanian Perry is a Bahá’í living in the United States and is the sister-in-law of Saeid Rezaie, a prisoner of conscience in Iran.
It was 4:00 a.m. in the summer of 2010 when I awoke to the voice of my brother-in-law, Saeid Rezaie, phoning from Rajai Shahr prison in Gohardasht, Iran. He had just been transferred from the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, and it was a quick exchange. He told me how much he loved us and how he prayed for us. He said he wanted us to be strong and content. After hanging up, I couldn’t fall back asleep.
Saeid and six others were part of the “Yaran-i-Iran,” or friends of Iran, an ad hoc leadership group of the Bahá’í community of Iran who were arrested and detained in 2008. May 14 will mark six years since Saeid and his colleagues were imprisoned for no other reason than their faith.
At the beginning of their imprisonment, the Yaran endured four months of solitary confinement. Now, family visits are once a week for 10 to 15 minutes. Saeid’s sister, Maliheh, and I live in the U.S. and the last time we had contact with Saeid was when he was at the hospital for emergency heart surgery. Even then, we were only allowed a few minutes to speak over the phone.
Following surgery, doctors recommended that Saeid rest for a month and receive therapy, but the authorities put him back into a prison cell just a week after his surgery. In the political prisoner section of the prison, where Saeid is kept, inmates are not allowed any interaction with other sections of the prison. As a result, they are not given adequate time for fresh air, as they must be separated from other sections at all times.
The Yaran are particularly mistreated and victimized. Despite the fact that the activities of the Yaran were confined to the affairs of the Bahá’í community, which is strictly nonviolent and non-political, the Yaran are serving the longest prison sentences of any prisoner of conscience in Iran: 20 years. For some, including Saeid, this is not the first time they have been unjustly imprisoned. Saeid was arrested and held in Evin Prison with five other Bahá’í men for six weeks in 2005.
It has long been a common practice of the Iranian government to arbitrarily arrest Baha’is, whose only crime is engaging in peaceful activities inspired by their faith. Saeid’s two daughters, Martha and Maaman, and another niece of mine, Rahil, were also arrested and held for a week in May 2006, along with 51 other youth, most of them Baha’is but some of them Muslims, who were conducting a Baha’i-inspired literacy program for underprivileged youth in Shiraz. Part of their punishment was to attend a three-year long Islamic re-education class, which required Saeid’s daughters to travel all the way from Tehran to Shiraz each month.
Baha’is embrace all the great religions of the world as divinely inspired, yet the Baha’is, who constitute the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, are unrecognized by the Iranian constitution. Baha’is have been persecuted since the inception of the Bahá’í Faith, but the persecution increased dramatically after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Following the Revolution, when I was still in Iran, my own immediate family members lost their jobs. I had constant difficulties, including psychological manipulation and pressure from teachers, administrators and religious clerics. At one time, we were even told that there would be attacks on our home and the rape of women. My good friend, Mona Mahmudnezhad, who was only 16 years old at the time, was executed along with nine other Bahá’í women in my native Shiraz. Mona’s only “crime” was teaching a class to neighborhood Bahá’í children.
Today, Bahá’í youth are barred from higher education, Bahá’í property is ransacked, Bahá’í cemeteries are desecrated, and the Bahá’í community is vilified in the mass media. Notwithstanding these obstacles, Baha’is have never stopped pursuing the betterment of the larger community, as the teachings of the faith state that Baha’is should strive to serve humankind.
On this sixth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Yaran, I ask you to join with Maliheh and me in remembering Saeid, the Baha’is, and all prisoners of conscience in Iran. We ask you to raise your voice in support of human rights and freedom for all the people of Iran who await the day when they will be recognized as citizens of one country and members of one human family, regardless of religion or creed.