Views from elsewhere

RSS

For the Bahá'ís imprisoned in Iran, freedom and human rights seem remote

Seven Bahá'ís – members of Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, persecuted by the government for decades – have now spent six years in prison for practising their religion.

An inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by in the infamous Evin jail. Photo: Getty
An inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by in the infamous Evin jail. Photo: Getty

It has been a month of contrasts, frankly of extremes.

May 2014 marked six years since seven adults were taken from their homes and thrown into the notorious Evin prison in Iran. One is the mother of a dear friend whose gifts are treasured in my home. 

Who are these prisoners? The charges against the seven included espionage and propaganda against the Islamic order. They are mothers and fathers, one is a school principal, another an agricultural engineer, a businessman, a psychologist. What matters though is that they are Bahá'ís, members of the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and persecuted by the government for decades. The fabricated charges against them, the illegal closed trial that led to a twenty-year jail sentence – the longest given to any prisoners of conscience in the country – were all set up to punish them for their role in coordinating the affairs of the Bahá'ís in Iran, affairs which are numerous in a religious community that operates through such networks of elected and appointed lay people.

The most moving protest on this anniversary was the large group of prominent Iranians within Iran that risked life and limb to stand up against the unjust imprisonment of the seven by visiting their family members. This group included human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – joint winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize honoring those who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought – and Ayatollah Masumi Tehrani, a senior Muslim cleric who recently gifted a piece of art to the Bahá'ís as an expression of hope for a future Iran committed to respect for the human rights of all.

There remains, however, a very sharp contrast between this cohesion amongst Iranian defenders of human rights and the actions of the Iranian authorities. When a European Parliament delegation visited Tehran last December for the first time in six years, Iran angrily criticised them for “secretly” meeting with so-called seditionists including Sotoudeh. When the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Iran in March, she too was harshly criticised for meeting with a group of leading Iranian women activists, including Sotoudeh. A European Parliament resolution on 3 April 2014 condemning Iran’s “continued, systematic violation of fundamental rights” led to Iran’s Parliament cancelling a planned visit with EU parliamentarians.

As calls for respect of human rights were being heard from Iran, Iran’s revolutionary guards proceeded with their latest attempt at oppression by excavating a historically important Bahá'í cemetery in Shiraz, the southern Iranian city of my birth. Some 950 graves of Bahá'ís that include those of 10 women – the youngest just 17 – executed for refusing to forcibly deny their religious belief, now risk being destroyed forever. Many thousands from around the world will forever be denied the possibility of remembering the 10 Bahá'í women at their resting place. Thousands of family members will be denied the basic dignity of saying prayers for their dead and my daughters will never be able to see the graves of their great-grandparents.

Which of these shall I share with my 8 and 11 year old? The profound joy of principled camaraderie amongst Iranian upholders of justice, or the attack on their dead ancestors? I’ve shared both, trusting that they will gain an insight into the choice we all ultimately face of sacrificing for the greater good or sinking to the depths of hatred. All this, with patient optimism that the former is conquering the latter and the future of Iran is bright.

Dr Nazila Ghanea is Assistant Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and serves as a member of the OSCE advisory panel on freedom of religion or belief. She writes this piece in her personal capacity