10,000 Days and Counting…
At the beginning of April, Iranians everywhere celebrate the festival of Sizdah-Bidar, a time for picnics and family get-togethers. But for over 500 Iranians the idea of a picnic with their families is unlikely to be realised. Instead, they are part of a new ‘family’, a family of hundreds of prisoners of conscience that languish in Iran’s prisons.
These people are not criminals. They are people like Masoud Delijani, a school-teacher and Christian convert who has been sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of having faith in Christianity, holding church meetings in his home, evengelising Muslims and unspecified ‘actions against national security.’ (1)
Or Nasrin Soutoudeh, a human rights lawyer and mother of two young children who was arrested in 2010. In January 2011, Nasrin was sentenced to 11 years in prison with a 20 year ban on practising her profession. The charges against Nasrin are that she has been ‘acting against national security’, ‘colluding and propagating against the Islamic Republic of Iran’, and “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center.’ Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi has stated, “Ms Soutoudeh is one of the last remaining courageous human rights lawyers who has accepted all risks for defending the victims of human rights violations in Iran.”
Then there’s 31 year old student and women’s rights activist, Bahareh Hedayat – she’s been in prison since December 2009 and has been sentenced to almost ten years in prison.
In March 2012, the Harald Edelstam Foundation named Bahareh as the recipient of the Edelstam Prize, an award given by the Swedish Edelstam Foundation for outstanding contributions and exceptional courage in standing up for one’s beliefs in defense of human rights. Unfortunately, Bahareh will not be able to accept her prize in person on April 16th, in Stockholm.
Along with these – and hundreds of other prisoners of conscience – there are the seven Baha’i leaders. Prior to their arrests in 2008, the seven were members of an ad hoc national-level group which attended to the spiritual and social needs of Iran’s Baha’i community. They are Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. Ms. Sabet was detained on 5 March 2008. Her six colleagues were arrested in early morning raids on their homes on 14 May 2008.
Some 20 months after being held without charge in Tehran’s Evin prison, a trial began on 12 January 2010. It consisted of six brief court sessions, all devoid of due legal process. The seven were charged with, among other things, espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic, the establishment of an illegal administration – charges that were all rejected completely and categorically by the defendants. To no avail.
They were each sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Shirin Ebadi, who defended the seven Baha’i leaders, stated publicly that her clients’ prosecution was “riddled with irregularities.” Already in prison for 10,000 days, and with no prospect of release until 2028, Ms. Ebadi has described the sentences her clients received as life sentences – and all because they belong to a religious minority.
These seven Baha’is are in prison but, unrecognised as citizens by the Constitution of Iran, all Iranian Baha’is are in constant danger. The Canadian senator Romeó Dallaire’s recent analysis of the situation makes chilling reading. Noting the disturbing similarities between Rwanda and the escalating persecution of Iran’s Baha’is, he sees it as nothing less than a “slow-motion rehearsal for genocide”. Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, recently described it as among the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world today.
Iran’s state machinery now attacks Baha’is at every level. Their leadership has been dismantled, access to higher education is denied, and business licences are revoked. Baha’i-owned shops are sealed or burned to the ground, cemeteries are desecrated, homes are raided and property is confiscated. More than 500 have been arrested since 2004. Even their efforts to educate their own youth were declared illegal – a tactic specifically designed to render the whole community’s existence unviable.
This April, though, these seven Baha’is and hundreds of other prisoners of conscience have one very important thing in common as they suffer torture and deprivation at Sidaz-Bidar this year – they are not criminals and yet they are in prison. They have done nothing except practice their own beliefs and work for the betterment of Iranian society and yet they now survive in cramped, difficult conditions, their situation representative of a deep and growing human rights crisis in Iran.
On Sunday last – in an initiative coordinated by human rights group United4Iran – large images of Nasrin Soutoudeh, Bahareh Hedayat and the Baha’i seven were displayed on mobile billboards and in other settings in some 12 major cities around the world.
“Those of us with the ability to speak out need to be the voices of those who have been silenced,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, director and founder of the human rights organisation, United4Iran. “We hope this action will bring worldwide attention to the plight of the seven Baha’i leaders, and also remind us of all other prisoners of conscience who remain behind bars and who need our unwavering support on their behalf.”
It is high time for Iran’s leaders to be called to account for their actions. To be prevailed upon to release these people whose only crime is working for the well being of Iranian society. If Dallaire’s predictions come true and these human rights abuses escalate into genocide for the Baha’i – and other – communities in Iran we will not be able to say we didn’t know this time. Allowing the human rights of Iranian citizens to be so viciously disregarded will, ultimately, not just be an indictment of Iran and its regime but also of the world’s inability to avert yet another human rights catastrophe.
(1) According to Mohabat News.