Iran recently sentenced eight Iranian citizens who believe in the Baha’i faith to prison on ambiguous charges. Iran has a long history of targeting and persecuting its religious minority groups, especially the Baha’is. The sentencing led to criticism from the international community.
In December 2020, a revolutionary court in Bandar Abbas issued the verdict that called for the imprisonment of the eight individuals. The court handed two-year prison terms to Omid Afaghi, Mehrallah Afshar, Mahnaz Jannesar, Arash Rasekhi, Nasim Ghanavatian, and Maral Rasti and a one-year term to Adib Haghpajooh and Farhad Ameri. Before the verdict was given, the defense lawyers representing the eight individuals realized that the Iranian authorities had changed the nature of the charge. Initially, the eight individuals were charged with spreading anti-government propaganda, but later it was changed to “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” The objection to this change was dismissed by the judge. In addition, the court banned the eight individuals from joining any organization, whether political or social. A similar verdict was issued by Branch 36 of Tehran’s Appeal Court in December 2020 which sentenced nine Baha’is to one-year prison terms for “propaganda against the state by proselytizing Bahai’ism.” Earlier in 2019, nine Baha’is in Birjand were detained and imprisoned by the Birjand Revolutionary Court.
According to several reports issued by various human rights organizations, Iran has ramped up its persecution of the Baha’i community in recent months. Last year, during a court hearing in the city of Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’i community in the city. Reacting to the remarks, the Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations (UN), Bani Dugal, said, “Such an outrageous statement by an official is an obvious demonstration of the religious bigotry and prejudice that the Baha’is in Iran face. It is also clear evidence of the injustice against the Baha’is within the judicial system and the authorities’ true motivation.” Sources in Iran reported that Iran’s security forces raided the homes of nearly 50 Baha’i families in various Iranian cities including Tehran, Karaj, and Shahriar in November last year. They also seized their personal documents and electronic devices including laptops and mobile phones. Some of them were asked to report to the local intelligence office. In recent months, there have been more frequent reports about Iranian intelligence agents targeting the Baha’i community.
In response to Iran’s continuous persecution of its minorities, last year the UN General Assembly passed a resolution urging Iran to end its human rights violations. The Third Committee of the General Assembly approved the resolution with a vote of 79 to 32. The resolution called upon the Iranian government to “eliminate, in law and practice, … all forms of discrimination on the basis of thought, conscience, religion or belief, including economic restrictions, … the denial of and restrictions on access to education, including for members of the Baha’i faith.” The resolution further urged Iran to end other human rights violations.
The Iranian leadership has also exported its intolerance towards religious minorities to other regions. The Houthis that have occupied northern parts of Yemen since 2014 have waged a similar campaign against religious minorities in Yemen. In 2018, Houthi authorities put on trial and sentenced more than 20 Baha’is citing different reasons. However, last year six of them were released and the Houthi Deputy Foreign Minister, Hussein al-Azzi, remarked that they were released in the hope that in the future “they would respect the law and observe the general order of Yemeni society.”
Nearly 350,000 Baha’is are living in Iran and they are not allowed to practice their faith or keep links with their co-religionists in other countries. Iran continues to detain and imprison them because of their religious beliefs. The religious authority in Iran considers them to be apostates. They are also viewed as counter-revolutionaries who are loyal to the Pahlavi monarchy. They have not been allowed to maintain administrative institutions or engage in communal activities since 1983. Reports suggest that since the Iranian revolution, more than 200 Baha’is have been executed or murdered and thousands of them have been detained, imprisoned, and harassed. Their places of worship as well as other holy places have regularly been confiscated or destroyed by the Iranian authorities.