‘Sharp rise’ in Iranian Baha’i persecution must be stopped, say lawyers

By Rebecca Lowe

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The growing persecution of Baha’i leaders in Iran is a gross violation of international law and must be stopped, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has told IBA Global Insight. The call for action comes on the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven prominent Baha’i leaders.

The ‘Baha’i seven’ were given 20-year sentences in 2010 after being arrested in May 2008. For nine months they were held without charge and for more than a year they were denied legal representation.On 9 May, 18 leading British lawyers, including Lord Lester QC and Geoffrey Robertson QC, signed an open letter calling for their release and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) and Law Society of England and Wales co-hosted a seminar on access to justice in Iran, with a focus on the Baha’i community.

Excerpt from interview with Nobel Peace prize winning Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi (1:22)

Speaking to IBA Global Insight at the event, the UN Special Rapporteur Dr Ahmed Shaheed said: ‘The persecution of key groups like the Baha’i appears to be sharply rising… From the outset of my mandate, reports from members of the Baha’i in Iran have portrayed an on-going situation in which adherents of the unrecognised religion face discrimination in law and practice.’

Members of the Baha’i faith have been severely discriminated against in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but the situation is now reportedly worse than it has ever been. Over 100 Baha’is are currently in prison,on grounds of ‘national security’ or ‘propaganda against the regime’, according to the UN Special Rapporteur’s March 2013 report on the situation of human rights in the Iran. Another 268 are reportedly awaiting trial and 133 are awaiting summonses to serve their sentences.

The 'Baha'i seven', pre-arrest

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Iranian regime is obliged to respect the right to freedom of religion. However, the Baha’i are an unrecognised faith and do not enjoy equal status to Muslims under Iranian law. They are denied access to higher education and often struggle to find employment. They are also prosecuted for holding religious gatherings, and several have reported being psychologically and physically tortured.

‘Iran should fulfil the promise it made to uphold freedom of religion rights when it ratified the ICCPR,’ Kirsty Brimelow QC, Chairperson of the BHRC, tells IBA Global Insight. ‘Iran can demonstrate its compliance by immediately and unconditionally releasing the Baha'i seven. They are being held in breach of fair trial standards and international law.’

In its response to the UN Special Rapporteur’s March report – written remotely after the Rapporteur was denied entry to the country – the Islamic Republic dismissed the document as ‘partial and biased’ and based on ‘undocumented material’. In a letter, it stated: ‘The claim on the increase in discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity, as well as discrimination and persecution of minorities, is refuted. According to the Iranian Constitution and other domestic laws, all people of Iran regardless of their religion or ethnicity enjoy equal citizenship rights.’

Mahnaz Parakand, a Muslim Iranian human rights lawyer who has represented dozens of Baha’i and other persecuted minorities, and who fled to Norway in 2011, sees the situation differently. Speaking of the 2011 trial and imprisonment of seven Baha’i teachers, who helped to establish the Baha’i Institution for Higher Education in 1987 – since declared illegal – she tells IBA Global Insight: ‘The trials bore no resemblance to what proper court proceedings should be. They were completely closed. The judge was noticeably biased and addressed the defendants as “the misguided sect”. There was no sense of a fair trial.’

The Baha’i faith is a worldwide religion which emerged from Iran in the mid-19th century, and around 300,000 remain in the country today. The community, which believes all religions come from one God and that all people are created equal, is viewed as a threat to Islamic cohesion and has faced persecution since its inception.

However, such discrimination only became government policy after the 1979 revolution. In 1991, a memorandum of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Court declared that all Baha’i must be expelled from university, denied employment and prevented from attaining positions of influence.

While civilian courts in Iran observe rules of due process, political ‘enemies’ of the regime are tried in the Revolutionary Court. Here, judges are appointed by the government, and the Minister of Intelligence is permitted to attend and submit evidence.

Parakand urges the international community to stop devoting its attention to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and shift its focus to human rights – a plea echoed by exiled human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. According to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report, the Baha’i community is just one of many groups suffering worsening ‘widespread systemic and systematic violations of human rights’ – including Sunni Muslims, Christians, journalists and human rights activists.

In a 2012 interview, Ebadi told IBA Global Insight: ‘The West is only focusing on the nuclear problem and neglecting human rights. I believe […] they should demand that Iran cooperates with the UN and allows the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to visit Iran, and make that conditional for removing their sanctions.’