Foreign Policy Blogs

The Fifth Anniversary of the Incarceration of Seven Baha’i Leaders in Iran

An Interview with Gissou Nia, Executive Director of IHRDC

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i Leaders in Iran, on Monday, May 6, the U.S. Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs is hosting an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. This event is part of the Baha’i International Community’s “Five Years Too Many” campaign calling for the immediate release of the seven Baha’i leaders and all prisoners of conscience in Iran. This is part of a global campaign that will run from May 5 to May 15.

Gissou Nia, the Executive Director of Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) based in Connecticut, sat down with the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) to discuss human rights and in particular the living conditions of the Baha’i community in today’s Iran. In recent years, IHRDC has published numerous reports that document the discrimination against the Baha’i community in Iran

The seven Baha’i Leaders Arrested in Iran in 2008The seven Baha’is Leaders Arrested in Iran in 2008

How do you characterize the situation of the Baha’i community in Iran today?  Have their conditions improved or worsened in recent years?

As many of your readers will no doubt already know, the Bahá’í community is one of the most persecuted groups inside Iran today.  While discrimination against Bahá’ís predates even the current Islamist leadership, there is no question that the scale and intensity of that persecution increased significantly with the ascension of the current Shia-led government, that regards adherents to the Bahá’í faith as heretics.

While the oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran has been on an ongoing basis in the last 34 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran, over the past year, IHRDC has received particularly troubling reports about acts of aggression and harassment against Bahá’ís in the ities of Semnan and Gorgan.

According to reports that IHRDC has gathered, Bahá’í homes and businesses have been subject to arson and other attacks at the instigation of local authorities, and there have been intensified harassment and constant surveillance of Bahá’í individuals who are regularly interrogated about their daily movements.  In some instances, the authorities have targeted parents who are arrested without any provision for the care of their small children. There are also reports that the Iranian authorities are gathering the names of Bahá’í school children and subjecting them to pressure and humiliation. Taken together, this is an ominous development for an already persecuted religious minority. There is some indication that the pattern in Semnan may be a test case for a wider policy of “religious cleansing” aimed at pressuring Bahá’ís to either recant their faith or to leave Iran.

For readers who want further information, many of these cases have been comprehensively documented by the Bahá’í International Community in a recent report, The Bahá’ís of Semnan: A Case Study in Religious Hatred.

Many organizations and groups outside Iran work on raising awareness on the situation of the Bahá’ís in Iran.  What have been their achievements?

Organizations like the Bahá’í International Community and the different regional, national and international Bahá’í representatives have done a tremendous job of amplifying the plight of the Bahá’ís in Iran to a global audience.  And the oppression of the Bahá’ís in Iran is not just an issue that concerns their community—the treatment of this religious minority concerns all who work for human rights progress in Iran. Many other groups focused on human rights in Iran have also documented and advocated for these issues as well.

Collectively, these groups have succeeded in elevating concerns about the denial of higher education to Bahá’ís, violations of religious freedom and the arbitrary arrests and imprisonment they are subjected to on account of their faith to a matter of global concern.  Concerns about the treatment of Bahá’ís in Iran are consistently raised by U.N. member states in discussions of Iran’s human rights record and debates on religious freedom.

As a more informal indicator, I often find that when I lecture about Iran’s human rights record to non-Iranian audiences, many of the questions from the audience invariably mention the treatment of the Bahá’ís.  In a media culture where the focus vis-à-vis Iran is often exclusively on the nuclear issue or Iran’s greater geo-strategic ambitions, the level of knowledge among non-Iranian audiences about the plight of Bahá’ís in Iran is quite impressive and suggests that efforts to educate the global public about these concerns is succeeding to a large extent.

Do the advocates of Bahá’í rights and of religious, ethnic and sexual minorities collaborate with each other to address the situation of human rights in today’s Iran?

Despite the differences in the way these respective groups live their lives, I find that the persecution that they have all been subjected to by the Iranian state on account of their identity or beliefs functions as an unbelievably powerful unifying force.  And this translates into the activism for these respective causes.  In human rights work, the focus is on how the actions of the State affect its citizens—and in the case of Iran, the government applies a heavy-handed approach to anyone that challenges the Shia Muslim-led government, either directly or simply by virtue of their existence. In a sense, the broad brush treatment from the Iranian state is the ultimate equalizer; human rights groups recognize that and try to find the commonality and parallels between the discrimination these groups are subjected to and their patterns of persecution.

In line with these observations, one of my most memorable experiences in my work at IHRDC is when I was on an investigative mission in Turkey in the spring of 2010.  A colleague and I were traveling through central Turkey, visiting small towns with sizable populations of Iranian refugees who had fled persecution in Iran and waited for admission by UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.  One day we got a lead on a potential witness who could testify to the persecution she endured in Iran after converting to Christianity.  When we arrived at her place of residence we were surprised to find that a group of women were in the home — including Christian converts, members of the Kurdish ethnic minority, Green Movement supporters, lesbians and transsexuals.  As we sat down to a meal of home-made ghormeh sabzi (a Persian dish) prepared graciously by our Christian host, she recounted the powerful feeling of alienation that she had. Her family, who were devout Muslims, decided to cut off all ties with her after her conversion.  As she told us her story, she rested her head on the shoulder of a fellow Iranian refugee, a transsexual, who nodded in agreement and confirmed that her family had disowned her as well once she decided to live life as a female.  In that room, people who may never have otherwise been brought together under their everyday circumstances in Iran, had built a community and a camaraderie borne out of the similar struggles they faced living as a persecuted group back home. The parallels between their experiences do not only lend themselves to a feeling of moral support, but also carry legal significance when analyzing the acts of the Iranian state.

How do you assess the overall human rights situation in Iran?

It’s hard to be positive about the way things are trending at the moment.  In global media, concerns about the nuclear issue and the geo-political aims of Iran’s leadership tend to dominate headlines but our work is focused on protecting the people—and the general outlook there is bleak.  Arrests of political and human rights activists, journalists, ethnic and religious minorities and other persecuted groups and perceived opposition are a daily occurrence.  And the treatment of prisoners behind bars—with regular reports of torture and forced confessions—leaves much to be desired.  One only needs to look at the report that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva this past March to understand the scope and magnitude of the violations that are occurring in Iran in a widespread and systematic manner.

However, amidst the raft of abuses that the Iranian government perpetrates against its people, one of the more troubling developments in my estimation is the treatment of the country’s criminal defense lawyers.  Prominent defense attorneys like Nasrin Sotoudeh and Abdolfattah Soltani are currently behind bars because of the Iranian government’s displeasure at the representation of their clients in politically sensitive matters.  Other lawyers, like Mahnaz Parakand, have been forced to flee Iran because they refused to compromise their independence — in Ms. Parakand’s case, her representation of the Yaran the seven leaders of the Bahá’í community, contributed to making her a target of the Iranian leadership.  Further, a bill is currently pending before Iran’s parliament that seeks to relegate control of the Iranian bar association to a quasi-judicial body—thereby effectively eviscerating the independence of the legal profession.

The reason the trampling of the independence of the legal profession in Iran is so concerning is because respect for the rule of law is the cornerstone of any human rights abiding system.  However, regrettably, since the disputed presidential election of June 2009, the Iranian leadership has seemingly only regressed in this regard.

What kind of a future do you envision for the Bahá’í community in Iran given their ongoing persecution?  What are some of the most effective ways to address the situation given the socio-political circumstances in today’s Iran?

Although the Iranian leadership has been quite clear in its stance on the Bahá’í community, my conversations with some judges and lawyers working inside Iran today have given me hope that while top officials may be recalcitrant in their approach, others do see the injustice in the way Bahá’ís are treated and recognize that they need to be afforded greater legal protections.

Separate and apart from institutional change and legal measures to ensure Bahá’í rights though, human rights groups should work towards further educating the Iranian population about the Bahá’í faith so as to counter the aggressive propaganda campaign that the Islamic Republic has instilled in the country’s schools and institutions, enforcing a fabricated and ideological view that Bahá’ís are heretics and members of a cult.  Where government is unwilling or unable to take a progressive stance, individual citizens should work towards deeper societal change so that the Iranian people as a collective whole become a buffer between the state and this persecuted minority — and act as their champion so that the persecution of this group becomes something that is unacceptable for the whole society.