Just six months after Iran’s appeal court reduced to 10 years the jail terms handed down to seven Baha’i leaders, the prisoners have been told that their original 20-year sentences have been reinstated.
The Baha’i International Community has reacted with shock and dismay at the news.
“We can confirm that the seven have been told by prison authorities that the ruling of the appeal court has been rescinded,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.
“But nothing has been seen in writing by the prisoners or their attorneys, so we cannot know precisely on what grounds the reduced jail terms have now been set aside.
“It seems, however, that there was a challenge by the Prosecutor General who can appeal any court judgment he believes contradicts Shariah law,” said Ms. Dugal.
Only last month, the international community was told that the 10-year prison terms were confirmed when the Iranian Embassy in Brussels presented a document to a European Parliament briefing, in which it is clearly stated that the court initially issued 20 year sentences for “espionage, acting against National Security and forming an illegal cult.” However, the document then went on to say that the verdict was later reviewed and “decreased to 10 years’ imprisonment.”
Notwithstanding repeated requests, no one has ever received an official copy of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal, said Ms. Dugal.
“This has all the appearance of a ploy, calculated to enable the authorities to manipulate the outcome to suit their own ends. Any fair minded observer can see the duplicity, crass cynicism and vile motives of the Iranian authorities in their prosecution of this case.
“From the initial, illegal, 30-month detention of the seven – through the gross irregularities of their trial – to the judiciary’s refusal to issue any official verdict to the defendants or their lawyers, the actions of the authorities have demonstrated at every turn that the decision to impose harsh sentences was predetermined,” said Ms. Dugal.
“Loyal, law-abiding citizens”
The seven, who were all members of a national-level ad hoc group that attended to the needs of Iran’s Baha’i community, were incarcerated in Gohardasht prison – about 50 kilometers west of Tehran – in August last year, following a brief trial after which they were each sentenced to 20 years in jail.
One month later, the appeal court revoked three charges that accused the seven of engaging in acts of espionage, collaboration with the State of Israel, and the provision of classified documents to foreign nationals with the intention of undermining state security.
“At the same time, the judiciary – determined to find the Baha’is guilty of something – said that their service to the Baha’i community was basically illegal and fixed their sentences at 10 years,” said Ms. Dugal.
The refusal of the authorities to provide prison officials with the necessary documentation regarding the case has also precluded the prisoners from securing temporary leave on compassionate grounds or to obtain much needed medical attention and care, she added.
“The judiciary sanctimoniously claims to be serving the cause of justice while persistently trampling upon the rights of loyal, law-abiding citizens,” she said.
The imprisonment of the Baha’i leaders has provoked a worldwide chorus of condemnation from governments – including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The European Union and the President of the European Parliament have also joined the protest, along with numerous human rights organizations and other groups, religious leaders, and countless individuals.
“It seems that the wide-ranging international pressure did impel the Iranian judiciary to reduce the original prison sentences,” said Ms. Dugal. “Now, however, they must have concluded that they can simply return to the original plan.
“But voices raised during this last month alone should tell them otherwise,” she noted.
Last week, the UN Human Rights Council voted to appoint a special investigator to monitor Iran’s compliance with international human rights standards.
The resolution followed the release of a report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, expressing concern about reports of the persecution of minorities in Iran, which specifically highlighted the case of its Baha’i community and the imprisonment of the seven Baha’i leaders.
In his message of 20 March 2011 for the traditional Persian New Year, U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted human rights abuses in Iran saying, “The world has watched these unjust actions with alarm…We have seen…the Bahai community and Sufi Muslims punished for their faith…”
Members of all political parties in the Netherlands parliament’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs addressed a letter on 17 March to the Iranian Parliament, expressing “deep concern about reports on violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief” in Iran and calling for the immediate release of the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders. Three days earlier, in India, more than 90 prominent citizens renewed their call in an open letter for the release of the seven.
“The persecution of Baha’is has been particularly pronounced,” said an article in the Wall Street Journal on 15 March, penned by Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi who shared a cell in Evin Prison with the two women Baha’i leaders. “After Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, many Baha’is were executed and several disappeared. Some have seen their cemeteries desecrated or had their homes burned to the ground.”
Bani Dugal reiterated the fact that the treatment of the seven is taking place against a backdrop of state-sanctioned incitement to hatred against Baha’is.
“Arson attacks on their places of business, attempts to force them out of their homes, along with a litany of other violations of their rights, have become all too familiar and continue to grow daily. Some 79 Bahais are today in prison in Iran.”
“The Iranian government must know that its actions towards the Baha’is – and all others who suffer oppression at its hands – have only served to sully its reputation further.
“We will not cease in our call to governments, organizations and fair-minded people everywhere, to take whatever steps they can to register the strongest possible protest against Iran’s actions,” said Ms. Dugal.