Enough! Release the Baha’i Seven

By all standards of justice, the seven imprisoned Iranian Baha’i leaders should be immediately released

Eight years ago, seven innocent men and women were rounded up and thrown into Iran’s infamous Evin prison. After more than a year of illegal detention, they were put on trial, accused of espionage, “propaganda against the regime” and other alleged crimes that, in fact, related solely to their religious belief and practice.

The seven Baha’is – whose names are Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – were sadly convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In November, that term of imprisonment was reduced to 10 years, due to the very delayed application of a new national penal code adopted in 2013, which essentially states that sentences should be served concurrently instead of consecutively.

Under the terms of the new penal code, the seven are also now eligible for conditional release. Indeed, as with their reduction in sentence, this should have happened promptly after passage of the new code. The seven must therefore, as a matter of justice and consistency with Iran’s own national laws, be released immediately.

On the eighth anniversary of their incarceration, the Baha’i International Community is launching a campaign on the theme: “Enough! Release the Baha’i Seven.”

“The theme – Enough! – states simply and clearly our urgent call for the release of these seven innocent prisoners,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. “They should never have been arrested in the first place and their long incarceration – based exclusively on their religious beliefs – is unjustifiable legally, logically, and morally.

“The campaign,” said Ms. Dugal, “is to encourage individuals, governments and organizations from all sectors of society around the world to call on the government of Iran to follow the rules of its own national laws and to immediately release the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.

“We hope that their story can serve as yet another reminder of the need to protect the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief.

“The government of Iran is one of the most egregious violators of this fundamental freedom in the world today. We hope that by calling attention to the long and unjust imprisonment of these seven innocent men and women, we highlight the oppression that many others are also going through in that country,” said Ms. Dugal.

Violations of international law

Beyond the question of whether conditional release has been improperly denied, the story of the seven and their arrest and trial is one fraught with violations of national and international law.

Mrs Sabet was arrested in Mashhad on 5 March 2008, while the other six were taken from their homes in Tehran in early morning raids on 14 May 2008.

During their first year in detention, the seven were not told of the charges against them and they had virtually no access to lawyers. Their trial—conducted over a period of months in 2010 and amounting to only six days in court—was illegally closed to the public, demonstrated extreme bias on the part of prosecutors and judges, and was based on non-existent evidence.

“The bill of indictment that was issued against our clients…was more like a political statement, rather than a legal document,” said one of their lawyers, Mahnaz Parakand. “It was a 50-page document…full of accusations and humiliations leveled against the Baha’i community of Iran, especially our clients. It was written without producing any proof for the allegations.”

The seven continue to endure harsh conditions in two of Iran’s most notorious prisons. The five men are now incarcerated at Gohardasht prison in Karaj, a facility known for its overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and the violence of its inmates. The two women remain at Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Global outcry

In December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran, which among other things called for the release of the seven. The General Assembly also called for their release in 2014, 2013, and 2012. In 2011, the Assembly called their trial “deeply flawed” and asked that they be given “the rights they are constitutionally guaranteed.”

In May 2015, on the seventh anniversary of their imprisonment, numerous individuals likewise called for their release. They included five members of the European Parliament, who issued video statements calling the imprisonment of the seven "cruel" and "unacceptable,” former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Rob Nicholson, who said the continued imprisonment of the seven "serves as disturbing reminder of the Iranian regime's blatant disregard for religious freedom,” and German Human Rights Commissioner Christoph Strasser, who said their trial “lacked any transparency and disregarded fundamental rule-of-law principles.

In May 2014, influential Iranian personalities, human rights activists, journalists and a prominent religious leader boldly gathered at the home of one of the seven to commemorate the sixth anniversary of their imprisonment. Later that year, faith leaders from every major religion gathered in London to call for their release.

And, in May 2013, four top UN human rights experts called for their immediate release.

Systematic persecution

The arrest and imprisonment of the seven reflects but one aspect of a systematic, cradle-to-grave persecution that is among the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world today, according to Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

In the 1980s, more than 200 Iranian Baha’is were killed for their beliefs. Hundreds more were imprisoned and tens of thousands lost jobs, had their properties confiscated, or were denied access to education. After an international outcry, the persecution subsided somewhat in the 1990s, only to pick up again in the first decade of this century.

Since 2005, more than 800 Baha’is have been arrested, and, as of February 2016, at least 80 Baha’is, including the seven, were wrongfully imprisoned. Currently, Baha’is are blocked from attending university, prevented from worshipping as they choose, and discriminated against in a wide range of economic activities. In addition, the government continues to attack Baha’is in the media, waging a hate campaign against them. And the Baha’i community in recent years has been beset by various forms of violence, including arson attacks, anti-Baha’i graffiti, the desecration of Baha’i cemeteries, and assaults on schoolchildren.