For weeks now, messages have been multiplying on social networks denouncing the repression and violation of human rights in Iran. Journalists, teachers, filmmakers, activists, etc. have been suffering persecution and arrests, seeing their homes demolished… or simply disappearing. Among them are members of the Bahá’í community.
On Sunday 31 July, 52 homes and businesses were raided, searched and their property confiscated in various cities across the country. Thirteen new people were arrested, including three of the former members of the Iranian Bahá’í community’s board of directors, who had already been tried and then imprisoned for ten years. They are Fariba Kamalabadi, Afif Naemi and the poet Mahvash Sabet.
We spoke about all this with two courageous Bahá’i women living in Spain: Clarisa Nieva, director of their community’s Office of Public Affairs in Spain, and Ryma Sheermohammad, translator of Mahvash Sábet’s book Poemas Enjaulados (Caged Poems).
The following is a brief synthesis of what they said in the interview, which can be seen in full in the accompanying video.
What are Bahá’ís accused of?
The first accusation is that they are spies in the service of Israel. The charge is “supported” by the fact that the world administrative headquarters of the Community is based in Haifa. However, this was the case long before the formation of the state of Israel and as a result of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith, being exiled by the Iranian dynasty in 1863. In order to remove him as far as possible from Iran’s ambit of influence, he was sent to the prison city of Akka – now St. John of Acre – now within the Israeli state. Obviously, this argument has no place and no support.
We are also accused of being a “heretical sect”, when the Baha’i faith is an independent religion, has its own book, its own teachings, its own principles.
However, and because the Iranian constitution guarantees freedom of belief, the most preoccupying charges are the accusations of espionage and alleged community propaganda against the regime, because under these charges, the accused can be sentenced to death or life imprisonment.
The Ministry of the interior made these accusations public as justification for the re-arrest of Mahvash and others, as if preparing the ground for even such measures. Today we do not know the whereabouts of some of the detainees, nor do we know what the charges are against each of them, so we fear for their lives and call for international support.
Support inside and outside Iran
Bahá’ís work for the betterment of society and its individuals, promoting principles such as freedom of opportunity, equality between men and women, the free investigation of truth, the search for knowledge as a way to better oneself… These are principles that free men and women from manipulative thinking, from a leadership that does not allow freedom of thought and consciousness.
Despite all this (or perhaps because of it), the Iranian regime has for a long time been determined to discredit the Bahá’í community in the eyes of the rest of the population, to make a bestial propaganda to present us as if we were strangers and not true citizens with rights.
However, in the face of this new wave of arrests and abuses, there was a “storm” of support on social networks from non-Bahá’í Iranians, from people who say “our neighbours are Bahá’ís and we have never seen anything illegal”; people who understand that nothing justifies 200 agents razing a village where 6 families live, pulling down with cranes the houses they have spent years building….
Also very important is the support received from activists and the Iranian press, who from outside the country have collected and disseminated testimonies, videos and images. And there is the case of a declaration signed by more than 70 activists, journalists, Nobel Peace Prize winners who say “when the human rights of these citizens are at stake, we also consider ourselves Bahá’ís”.
Media outlets around the world have made headlines on the issue. Foreign ministers – from the United Kingdom and Luxembourg, for example – have expressed their support, as have human rights offices in European Union countries.
International support is of great value because in their own country Bahá’ís cannot speak out or defend themselves.
For this very reason, the Iranian government probably did not expect people to dare to demonstrate inside Iran, when they themselves see their rights being violated.
How to help, and how important it can be to do so
The first step is to share this information, make it known, spread it through social networks, share it with journalist friends, with authorities in each place, generate simple personal or collective statements, share a video giving support and of course denouncing, reaching out to platforms and movements that fight for human rights.
All this has a lot of reach and a lot of impact on Iranian society. The same apparatus that manufactures propaganda against Bahá’ís is monitoring all the endorsements, and every one of those endorsements is a sign that Bahá’ís – and human rights in Iran in general – are in the sight of the entire international community.
The value of this support is made clear in a testimony by Mahvash Sabet herself. When she learned that she would spend 20 years in prison*, she asked the judge who had sentenced her: “Wouldn’t it have been better to kill me? He replied, “I wish I had, but I couldn’t find enough evidence”. Since that was what he wanted, Mahvash wondered why his sentence was later reduced to “only” 10 years, why he saved his life and regained his freedom. She concluded that it was because of the support of thousands of people, governments and international organisations who pleaded for her and others.
Now, once again, she and others are in a situation perhaps worse than 10 years ago, and are once again in need of solidarity and help.
*Mahvash Sabet was arrested by the Iranian government in 2008. Sentenced to 20 years in prison, she was released in 2018.
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