On Wednesday night I attended an annual human rights event which I hope I never have to attend again. It marked yet another year during which Iran’s authorities have trampled on the human rights of its own people.
The event in Sydney highlighted the unjust imprisonment of the seven leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community. Every year the anniversary of the unjust imprisonment of these five men and two women is marked by events around the world. Each additional year marks an increasing burden of injustice felt by the prisoners, their families and their communities. Each year the Iranian government brings more shame on themselves and besmirches Iran’s reputation world-wide.
The Baha’i seven have now been unjustly incarcerated for eight years. Those gathered at New South Wales Parliament House heard a message from Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience in Iran, including the seven Baha’i leaders. Concern about the persecution of Iran’s Baha’is has been expressed by both sides in Australia’s parliament over a number of years. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has also expressed concerns about the treatment of the seven Baha’i leaders, as have governments and human rights campaigners around the world.
There are many persecuted groups in Iran – religious and ethnic minorities, women, journalists and more. In my last post I wrote briefly about the many years of persecution faced by the Baha’i community which is one of the largest non-Muslim religious groups in Iran. The seven Baha’i leaders, commonly referred to as the Yaran, were arrested in 2008 on spurious charges and were sentenced to twenty years in prison – the longest term of any prisoners of conscience in Iran.
An open letter signed by some of Australia’s leading lawyers was launched at the event which was held at the New South Wales Parliament House. They have written to Iran’s Ambassador to Australia urging his government to obey Iranian law and release the prisoners of conscience immediately.
As members of the legal profession, we are gravely concerned about the plight of the seven former leaders of the Baha’i community in Iran, who since 2008 have been unjustly imprisoned”, said the twenty-eight signatories.
The group of prominent Australian lawyers pointed out that the treatment of the Yaran transgressed many clearly expressed Iranian laws. Amendments to Iran’s penal code in 2013 means that according to Iranian law, the Yaran should be released immediately.
The Australian legal experts noted that the seven Baha’i leaders were put on trial with “vague charges for which no evidence has ever been presented”. “To this day, they have not been presented with formal charges or a judgment in writing, in clear violation of the Iranian constitution”, they said.
As I briefly mentioned in my review of the memoirs of an Iranian Baha’i refugee, it is only the most courageous lawyer who will dare to represent Baha’is in the Iranian legal system. In their open letter, the Australian lawyers observed that two lawyers who represented the Yaran, Nasrin Sotoudeh and Abdolfattah Soltani were subsequently imprisoned, Soltani is still in prison and in poor health. Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi and Mahnaz Parakand also represented the seven Baha’is and have been forced to live in exile from Iran. Human rights lawyers are another group in a long list of Iran’s persecuted people.
John Dowd AO QC, former Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court and one of the signatories of the open letter spoke at the event on Wednesday night. The jailing of the Baha’i leadership, he observed, “is a symbol of religious persecution in Iran”. He recommended that we take the time to read the US State Department’s work on religious freedom around the world. The State Department’s 2014 report on International Religious Freedom says that the Iranian government, “discriminated against all religious minority groups in employment, education, and housing. Government rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Bahais.”
John Dowd spoke of the importance of holding events like this, of speaking out about human rights abuses. I first heard about the Baha’i Faith because of an article written in the Time magazine about their persecution in Iran in the mid 1980s. For years I, along with many others around the world, have been taking whatever action I can to join other voices in a chorus of condemnation of the persecution of the Baha’is of Iran. There are many other groups in Iran who also need our support. If Iran’s government changes their current practices and abides by the country’s laws and observes basic human rights principles, this will not only help the country’s Baha’i minority. It will help all people in Iran.
It is easy to become despondent about the state of human rights in the world. There are so many people in so many countries on our planet who desperately need help. Those who have the freedom to voice concern about human rights abuses need to be committed and tenacious so that these stories continued to be heard.
Over many years of persecution since 1979, Baha’is from Iran have found refuge in countries around the world. Several relations of the imprisoned seven Baha’i leaders now live in Australia. Addressing the gathering, the brother of one of the Baha’i seven, reminded the audience that the persecution of Baha’is in Iran has occurred for a very long time. Amin Tavakoli from Adelaide described the jailing of the Yaran as “a blatant abuse of power” by the Iranian authorities. Mehrzad Mumtahan from Sydney who is the nephew of jailed Saeid Rezai, described the impact their imprisonment has had on their families. “Eight years of injustice is enough”, he said. “Release these people and let them return to their families.”
In their egregious treatment of Iran’s Baha’is and other groups in Iran such as women, journalists, ethnic and other religious minorities, the Iranian government is writing itself into the world’s history books for the wrong reasons.
- The Baha’i International Community has more background about the issues concerning the imprisonment of the seven Iranian Baha’i leaders:
- ‘Enough! Release the Baha’i Seven Now‘ – Baha’i International Community
- ‘Profiles of the seven imprisoned Iranian Baha’i leaders‘
- ‘Violations of Legal Procedures‘
- ‘Innocent of All Charges‘
- Overview of the current persecution of Iran’s Baha’is – The Baha’i International Community provides regular updates on the many forms of persecution affecting the Baha’is in Iran.
- ‘Prominent lawyers joined by Australia’s foreign minister in call for release of Baha’i leaders‘ – At the end of this article about Wednesday’s event you can access the open letter and the message from Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. A list of the signatories is also available in this article.
- ‘Human rights remain nonexistant for Iran’s Baha’i population‘, Washington Post, 12th May, 2016.
I became a Baha’i in 1987 and worked as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community between 2003 and the beginning of 2007.