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Clinton, Human Rights Activists Condemn Iran for Sentencing 7 Bahai Leaders

Seven Bahai leaders have been sentenced to 20 years in prison this week by the Iranian judiciary. The sentences were met with widespread condemnation.

The verdict against the seven Bahai leaders was harsh, even by Iranian standards, and came after almost two years of arbitrary detention in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

The five men and two women were arrested in May of 2008. They were charged by the Iranian authorities with "spying for foreigners," "spreading corruption on Earth" and "cooperating with Israel." Those accused denied all the charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deplored the condemnations in a statement Thursday, saying that the US is committed to defending religious freedom around the world, and we have not forgotten the Bahai community in Iran.

Clinton went on to say that the sentences were a violation of Iran's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Iran's persecuted Bahai minority numbers around three hundred thousand, according to unofficial figures.

Diane Ala'i, who is a Baha'i spokeswoman in Geneva, says that the charges against the seven who were condemned this week, were broad, but vague:

"The charges that they have been accused of were spying for foreign countries, acting against the security of the state and acting against Islam," she said. "But, unfortunately Baha'i is sometimes often in the mind of government officials, especially the conservative side, you know, Baha'i equals spy, so if you're a spy, then you're a Baha'i."

Many reports from inside Iran in recent months tell of sporadic persecutions against the Baha'i minority, including the ransacking or demolition of houses, attacks against members of the community and of their homes and shops. Ala'i complains that discrimation is widespread:

"There is an official document that was published, where Baha'is are banned from 25 professions, and this comes from the concept of impurity that is in Islam, so that anything that has to do with food, or being an optician, or things like that, then their businesses are systematically shut down," she added.

Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who was their attorney before fleeing Iran, complained that she and her colleagues had no access to their clients or to the charges against them.

She told a group of students recently in Paris that the Iranian constitution grants minorities, including Baha'is various rights, but that in practice they are discriminated against. Baha'is, she noted, are not even allowed to attend university in Iran.

Ebadi also told Radio Farda, recently, that the world needs to insist that Iran improves its human-rights record. We must, she stressed, see to it that Iran and its representatives abroad are obliged to do a better job of guaranteeing human rights inside the country.