A group of independent United Nations experts today reiterated its call on Iranian authorities for the immediate release of seven Baha’i community leaders imprisoned five years ago this month with 20-year sentences – the longest of any current prisoners of conscience.
“The Iranian Government should demonstrate its commitment to freedom of religion by immediately and unconditionally releasing these prisoners of conscience,” the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, said in a news release that also urged the international community, including faith leaders worldwide, to join in the appeal.
“These cases are apparently characterized by failures to safeguard fair trial standards and jeopardizes overall religious freedom in Iran” which does not officially recognize Baha’i.
On 14 May 2008, authorities in Tehran arrested Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. A seventh Baha’i leader, Mahvash Sabet, was earlier arrested on 5 March in the northern city of Mashhad near the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The seven had formed an ad hoc national administrative group for Iranian Baha’is called the Yaran.
Authorities reportedly held the seven in custody for over 20 months without charges and cut their access to lawyers, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) whose UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention denounced the detentions in 2008.
Each member of the group received a 20-year prison sentences in August 2010 on charges of espionage, ‘propaganda against the regime,’ ‘collusion and collaboration for the purpose of endangering the national security,’ and ‘spreading corruption on earth.’
“These seven Baha’is are imprisoned solely for managing the religious and administrative affairs of their community,” said human rights expert El Hadji Malick Sow, who currently heads the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. “These persons were condemned after trials which did not meet the guarantees for a fair trial established by international law.
UN bodies, including the Human Rights Committee, have repeatedly expressed concern for discriminatory laws and policies that restrict Baha’is from forming religious institutions, entering universities and gaining public sector employment in Iran.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, warned that Baha’is in Iran are facing numerous limitations on their ability to worship freely, “I again remind the Government that, as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it cannot distinguish between favoured and un-favoured groups as far as freedom of religion is concerned.”
The UN Independent Expert on Minorities issues, Rita Izsák, recalled that Baha’is is Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. “Their existence and religious identity must be protected under the UN Declaration on Minorities,” she stressed.
Hundreds of Baha’is have been reportedly arrested for acts including organizing religious gatherings and advocating for the right to education. In his March 2013 report to the UN Human Right Council, the Special Rapporteur on Iran noted that at least 110 Baha’is were imprisoned in the country at the start of the year.
Special rapporteurs are appointed by the Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.