A bleak future for Baha'is

International pressure may have set Roxana Saberi free, but the plight of seven Iranian Baha'is, imp

Earlier this week, US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from prison in Iran after having her sentence for "spying" reduced. The charge, which she strongly denied, sparked international attention and calls for her release, which has now been widely welcomed.

But Ms Saberi leaves behind her many other inmates in Tehran's notorious Evin prison whose “crimes” against the Iranian state are also open to question.

Thursday (14 May) marks the first anniversary of the arrest and detention of seven prominent members of the Baha'i faith, Iran's largest non-Muslim religious minority.

The five men and two women made up an informal national committee, serving the needs of the country's 300,000 strong Baha'i community in the absence of formal Baha'i institutions, which are outlawed. Their committee – which had operated with the full knowledge of the authorities – along with all local ad hoc Baha'i administrations – was disbanded in March this year in a gesture of good will from the peaceful and law-abiding Baha'is to their government.

In the one year since their incarceration, the seven detainees have faced no charges nor have they been allowed access to their legal counsel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi. They have faced spurious accusations of "espionage for Israel", and "insulting religious sanctities".

Iran’s prosecutor-general, Ayatollah Dorri-Najafabadi, has asserted that there is evidence that the seven have been involved in "intelligence-gathering" and "infiltration", thus more or less declaring their guilt before any trial date has been announced. The evidence he refers to has yet to be disclosed to the public or produced in a court of law.

In recent days, however, a report from the Baha'i's UN office indicates that another charge is being levelled against the seven prisoners; that of “spreading corruption on earth.”

To the Western reader, such an accusation may seem to be a confusing or even nebulous basis for criminal charges. But in theocratic Iran it has a basis in the penal code and leaves the accused in an extremely vulnerable position.

The term, found in the Koran, has increasingly been used within Islamic legal practice to brand any undesirable "offender": Muslims considered to be too lax in their practices; those who are considered socially evil, such as drug-traffickers and prostitutes; or those with whom the authorities have a fundamental theological disagreement, such as the Baha’is.

Vague as these charges may be, they still have the potential to lead the accused to the executioner.

The allegations against the Baha'is are as nonsensical as they are unjust. The accusations play to the fears of certain areas of the Iranian population about enemies - internal and external - conspiring to undermine the country.

Iran remains a state with a great sense of its own historic legacy and with a clear goal of attaining a mantle of regional leadership - of both moral, as well as political, dimensions.

For the seven Baha'is being held in the grim confines of their Evin cells, their best hope for release might lie in a public protest as widespread as the one that led to the freeing of Roxana Saberi.

Such an outcry may help Iran’s leaders to reflect that imprisoning and persecuting the innocent is not in their national interest.

Moojan Momen is an Iranian author and academic, and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society

Tags:Iran