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End Repression of Religious Freedom in Iran | Commentary

With the release of a new State Department report on religious freedom around the world, the U.S. government revealed the shocking fact that 116 members of the Baha’i faith are unjustly imprisoned in Iran solely for their beliefs. Among them, sadly, are seven prominent Baha’i leaders unfairly incarcerated since 2008.

Prior to their arrest, the two women and five men ranging in ages from 40 to 80 — Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm — worked together to attend to the basic spiritual needs of Baha’is in Iran such as marriages, divorces and Baha’i children’s spiritual education. After five years of confinement, it is time for members of the international community to demand an end to this injustice.

In an effort to call attention to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran, members of the United States Congress introduced legislation on March 12. S.Res. 75 and H. Res. 109 condemn the state-sponsored persecution of Iran’s 300,000-member Baha’i minority, which contravenes Iran’s international obligations as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international instruments. Additionally, the resolutions call on the president and secretary of State to demand the immediate release of prisoners held solely on account of their religion and to sanction Iranian officials directly responsible for serious human rights abuses, including abuses against the Baha’i community in Iran.

Statements by Sens. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Reps. James P. Moran, D-Va., and Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., in the Congressional Record mark the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. The statements remind Americans that the seven members are real people, with real names who face charges that include espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, establishment of an illegal administration and even “corruption on earth,” among others.

Following a trial replete with due process violations, including the denial of timely and meaningful access to their attorneys — Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi and now-imprisoned Abdolfattah Soltani — the seven leaders were sentenced in 2010 to 20 years in prison. These prison terms reportedly represent the longest sentences of any current prisoners of conscience in Iran. Currently, they are detained in two of Iran’s most notorious prisons — the women in Evin and the men in Gohardasht.

Iran’s current persecution of Baha’is extends far beyond its leaders. Under Iranian law, Baha’i blood may be spilled with impunity. From 1978 to 1998, more than 200 Baha’is were killed, mainly by execution, and thousands more imprisoned. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, persecution has intensified. Since 2005, more than 660 Baha’is have been arrested. In addition to the 116 Baha’is who are currently imprisoned, 448 more sit nervously outside prison awaiting trial, appeal, sentencing or summons to serve sentences.

Over the past several years, the Iranian government has also sponsored an intensive defamation campaign that provokes discrimination and hatred against Baha’is. During a recent 16 month period, the campaign included at least 365 articles and numerous conferences, television and radio series that vilify and demonize the Baha’i faith and community. The government-controlled newspaper Kayhan, whose managing editor is appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, regularly publishes articles that distort Baha’i history and paint Baha’is as tools of foreign governments such as Great Britain, Russia and Israel, instigators of government opposition, and brainwashers seeking to entice Muslims away from their faith.

Religious discrimination in Iran is not limited to the Baha’is. Iran routinely persecutes members of nearly all non-Shia Islam minority groups, including Sufi Muslims, Christians and Jews. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported that religious freedom and human rights conditions in Iran had regressed to a point not seen since the Islamic Revolution. Reports issued in 2013 by the UN Secretary General and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran express deep concern over Iran’s violations of universal human rights, including serious discrimination against Baha’is and other religious minorities. The State Department’s new International Religious Freedom Report further details Iran’s increased harassment of Christians, including several hundred reported arrests. The authoritative U.S. report singles out Iran for worrying expressions of anti-Semitism manifested by Iranian officials, including state-sanctioned Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic propaganda that contributes to increased concerns about the future and security of Iran’s Jewish community.

Victims of Iran’s increasing assault on human rights extend beyond religious minorities to include human rights defenders, women’s rights advocates, journalists, lawyers, opposition activists and ethnic minorities.

In the lead up to Iran’s June 14 presidential elections, reports of increased repression of human rights advocates are surfacing, as well as tight restrictions on who may run for president. Only eight of some 700 registered candidates have received approval from Iran’s Guardian Council to stand for election. The sanctioned list excludes both former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad’s preferred successor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Now is the time to draw attention to increased repression of religious freedom in Iran and recommit to promoting human rights for all Iranian citizens by rallying the international community. A good place to start is with the immediate, unconditional release of the seven Baha’i leaders and all other prisoners of conscience imprisoned in Iran.

Felice Gaer and Marra Guttenplan serve as director and advocacy officer of AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

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