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US Condemns Persecution of Iranian Religious Captive Who Died in Prison

The United States Friday condemned what it said was the persecution of an Iranian of the Baha'i faith who died in prison last week. The State Department said members of minority religions and political dissidents in Iran are systematically oppressed.

In a written statement, the State Department condemned the persecution and imprisonment of Iranian Baha'i adherent Zabihullah Mahrami, who died in prison in the central Iranian city of Yazd a week ago of unknown causes.

Mr. Mahrami, 59, a civil servant in the government of the late Shah of Iran, had been sentenced to death by an Iranian revolutionary court in 1996 for apostasy, abandoning Islam.

The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment after protests from the European Parliament and several western governments including the United States and Britain.

In the statement offering condolences to Mr. Mahrami's family, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said he had received death threats in prison and been forced to perform arduous physical labor.

Mr. Ereli said the Mahrami case, unfortunately, is not unique and that the government of Iran is engaged in the systematic oppression of its citizens including the persecution of individuals for religious and political reasons.

He said members of Iran's religious minorities including Sunni Muslims, Sufis, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are frequently jailed, harassed and intimidated.

Spokesman Ereli said Iranian Baha'is are denied the right to assemble, maintain administrative institutions or worship freely.

He said the United States calls on the Iranian government to allow freedom of religion for all, and to ensure the rights of free speech and expression without fear of discrimination, intimidation or imprisonment.

The Baha'i faith, an offshoot of Islam, originated in Iran 150 years ago and claims more than five million members around the world including thousands in Iran, where it is officially rejected as a wayward sect.

A Baha'i community statement in New York earlier this week said Mr. Mahrami's death came amid ominous signs that a new wave of persecutions of the group in Iran is underway.

It said nearly 60 Bahai's have been arrested, detained or imprisoned so far this year, up sharply from the last several years.

A Baha'i spokeswoman said Iranian authorities bear full responsibility for the death of Mr. Mahrami, whose only crime she said was his belief in the Baha'i faith.

Shia Islam is the official religion of Iran but some other faiths including Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognized religious minorities, and under Iranian law are nominally free to conduct rites and ceremonies and religious education.

However Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups says Iran has fallen short of those commitments in practice, and that other provisions of Iranian law are clearly discriminatory, especially toward non-Muslims.

The Bush administration has been a persistent critic of Iran on human rights issues.

In his statement Friday, spokesman Ereli again cited the case of Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist jailed in 2000 after publishing stories accusing senior Iranian officials of involvement in the killing of several opponents of the regime.

U.S. officials have also strongly condemned recent statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denying the World War II Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews, and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Senior officials say the remarks have stripped away a veneer of moderation cultivated by Iran during the tenure of former President Mohammed Khatami, and have made U.S. concerns more acute about other Iranian activities including what they say is its drive to acquire nuclear weapons.