Foreign Policy Blogs

In Need of Moral Leadership for the Rights of Bahá’ís in Iran

Ataollah Rezvani

Ataollah Rezvani

Editor’s Note:

Gissou Nia is Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Prior to her tenure at the Center, Ms. Nia worked on war crimes and crimes against humanity trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands.  She is a frequent lecturer and commentator on the rule of law in post-conflict and transitional societies and the human rights situation in Iran.


by Gissou Nia

In her first televised remarks following her much exalted release, Nasrin Sotoudeh—the famed Iranian human rights lawyer whose unjust imprisonment and repeated hunger strikes thrust her into the global consciousness—took care to express her concern for the prisoners she left behind.  Of those mentioned, Ms. Sotoudeh first cited her worries for Bahá’í prisoners of conscience.

To someone less familiar with human rights developments in Iran, the mention of prisoners of the Bahá’í Faith may have appeared innocuous. However, to veteran Iran watchers, Ms. Sotoudeh’s express reference to this persecuted minority was not insignificant.

Just last month, Ataollah Rezvani, a prominent member of the Bahá’í community in the city of Bandar Abbas, was shot and killed in what is believed to have been a religiously motivated murder following pressure and threats from agents of the Ministry of Intelligence in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

The killing of Mr. Rezvani is the latest hate-crime in a long line of actions and omissions committed by the IRI against the Iranian Bahá’í community. In an Islamic Republic, where members of the Bahá’í Faith are considered to be apostates—or those who have renounced Islam, a crime that can be met with the death penalty—the relationship between Iran’s current leadership and members of the Bahá’í Faith has never been easy.

While the Bahá’í community in Iran has faced repeated cycles of repression since the founding of the faith in the mid-19th century, persecution of the Bahá’ís became more overt, more widespread and more systematic following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the consolidation of clerical rule.

In 1980 and 1981, members of the First and Second National Spiritual Assembly (democratically elected councils that govern the Bahá’í Faith) were abducted, and many of them executed by the IRI agents. In 1983, twenty-two Bahá’ís in Shiraz were executed for refusing to recant their faith.  In 2008, seven Bahá’í leaders were arrested by IRI authorities—they remain in prison until this day.  And in the last couple of years, increasing persecutory and violent attacks against Bahá’ís in the city of Semnan—including arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, closure of Bahá’í-owned businesses and acts of arson—have the population on edge.

Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh

Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh

Adding to the concern, the IRI’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently issued a fatwa—or religious edict—expressly prohibiting Muslims from socializing or associating with members of the Bahá’í Faith.

Unfortunately, the state-sanctioned targeting and persecution of the Bahá’í Faith and isolation of its members, buoyed by the latest discriminatory, anti-Bahá’í edict of the IRI’s highest-ranking leader, have had a trickle-down effect on some segments of Iran’s lay population.

Shortly after the issuance of Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa banning contact with Bahá’ís, Mr. Rezvani was murdered. According to reports, his death was the first religiously motivated murder of an Iranian Bahá’í in fifteen years.

Yet, despite these claims, there has been no public call by the IRI authorities to investigate Mr. Rezvani’s murder and bring the perpetrators to justice. For Iranian Bahá’ís, many of whom have experienced arrest, imprisonment and even execution first-hand in their communities, the murder has been a painful reminder of the impunity of the IRI officials when it comes to answering for their crimes against the Bahá’ís and in failing to give protection to Bahá’ís as equal citizens under the law.

Given this context, Ms. Sotoudeh’s reference to Bahá’í prisoners of conscience was not merely a sentiment.  Rather, it was a call to action—not just to release prisoners of the faith, but to reject decades of state-sponsored repression and discrimination. Despite the hazards involved in defending this persecuted religious minority, for which many an Iranian lawyer has landed in jail, Ms. Sotoudeh demonstrated bravery and true moral leadership in the defense of Bahá’ís.  Every Iranian should follow Ms. Sotoudeh’s lead and press the Iranian leadership for answer and accountability in the death of Mr. Rezvani and other innocents before him.