Global solidarity with seven imprisoned Iranian Baha'is

26 May 2015

NEW YORK — A global campaign to call attention to the long and unjust imprisonment of seven Iranian Baha'i leaders spawned a worldwide outcry this month on the seventh anniversary of their arrest.

From simple village assembly halls to government chambers, individuals and groups raised their voices to denounce the unjust incarceration of the seven, along with the 110 other Baha'is currently jailed for their religious beliefs and other prisoners of conscience in Iran.

"We were touched by the depth and heart with which people around the world, from so many different backgrounds and experiences, came together in support of the seven wrongfully imprisoned Baha'i leaders in Iran," said Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha'i International Community's United Nations Office, which coordinated the campaign.

"The degree to which people everywhere understand the magnitude of injustice experienced by Iranian Baha'i citizens as a result of government policy was truly highlighted by this campaign. We can see their support in not only the official statements that the campaign generated, but also the songs, poems, personal stories and other demonstrations of solidarity it produced. The suffering of the Baha'is is mirrored in that of other religious minorities and free-thinkers in Iran. An improvement in conditions for the Baha'i community will signal a greater respect for the human rights of all citizens," said Ms. Dugal.

The campaign took the theme "Seven Days in Remembrance of Seven Years in Prison for the Seven Baha'i Leaders."

Each day of the week-long campaign, starting 14 May 2015, was dedicated to one member of the seven: Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm.

The campaign prompted numerous articles in the news media, statements of support from senior government officials, parliamentarians, and human rights organizations, and hundreds if not thousands of events and observances organized by individuals and groups around the world to honor the seven.

SLIDESHOW
5 images
The imprisoned individuals are, top from left, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm, Mahvash Sabet; bottom from left, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Saeid Rezaie and Afif Naeimi.

In moving displays of sympathy and unity with the imprisoned Baha'i leaders, relatives and friends of the seven posted numerous personal accounts and recollections. The niece of Saeid Rezaie, Pooneh Heidarieh, recorded a video honoring her uncle. Other video interviews with relatives of Fariba Kamalabadi and Behrouz Tavakkoli, were also widely distributed. A number of relatives of the seven were quoted in an extensive article on Iranwire.

The campaign was most visible on social media, using the hashtag #7Bahais7years. Two Facebook event pages in English and Persian also served as rallying points for the campaign.

"What was most inspiring about this global campaign was that it highlighted, through a vibrant social media community, the injustices faced by the seven imprisoned Baha'is. We saw messages, videos, and images on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter from nearly every continent, displaying a wide variety of creative expression," said Ms. Dugal.

For example, in Germany and Austria, young people who had gathered at previously scheduled conferences to consult and plan about serving humanity through neighborhood processes and projects decided to dedicate their time and musical devotions to the seven.

In Zaragoza, Spain, a group dressed in striped prison costumes gathered in front of the provincial council building, holding signs calling for all prisoners of conscience in Iran to be freed.

And in India, in the village of Barama in Assam, a group of children arranged a special prayer meeting in an orphanage on 20 May. Photos show children holding up signs saying: "We are with you Yaran." (Yaran means "friends" in Persian.) This was a frequent slogan on signs at vigils around the world - from Vietnam to Brazil, South Africa to Australia - as people young and old came together to share stories, say prayers, and sing songs in support of Iran's persecuted Baha'i citizens.

Officials from around the world have been among those raising their voices in support of the prisoners:

● In Brussels, five members of the European Parliament issued video statements calling the imprisonment of the seven "cruel" and "unacceptable."

● In Brazil, Federal Deputy Luiz Couto, former president of the national human rights committee, and at least two other Federal Deputies, lent their support to the campaign.

● In Canada, Minister of Foreign Affairs Rob Nicholson issued a statement saying the continued imprisonment of the seven "serves as disturbing reminder of the Iranian regime's blatant disregard for religious freedom."

● In Germany, Human Rights Commissioner Christoph Strasser issued a statement calling for the immediate release of the seven. "The seven detainees were each sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in a trial that lacked any transparency and disregarded fundamental rule-of-law principles," he said.

Other human rights activists and organizations also raised their voices.

● Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer who was for a time imprisoned with several members of the seven, recorded a video statement calling their 2010 trial "utterly unjust" and asking Iranian authorities to "release them today."

● Mahnaz Parkand, an Iranian lawyer who defended the seven at their 2010 trial and was later forced to flee Iran, spoke out several times while visiting Washington DC, explaining how Iran prevented the seven from receiving a fair trial.

● Sini Maria Heikkila of Christian Solidarity Worldwide issued a video statement saying "if Iran is serious about addressing human rights concerns, ensuring the rights of religious minorities is a vital first step."

● Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a blog post that Iran's brutal treatment of Baha'is highlights the "true nature" of its government. "The truth about life in the Islamic Republic is revealed not by the smooth diplomats it sends abroad for international negotiations, but by the suffering of these peaceful and vulnerable citizens," said Mr. Abrams.

Actors and musicians added their voices to the campaign, as well. British actor/comedian, Omid Djalili, recorded a video message for the imprisoned Baha'is. "We say seven years, seven Baha'is, that is seven years too many." Also in the UK, actress Fiona Wade lent her support in a video statement. On 20 May, Shane Lynch, of the Irish band, Boyzone, issued his own message honoring Behrouz Tavakkoli.

Musicians Grant Hindin Miller and Sonbol Taefi from New Zealand created a special music video for the occasion and, in the USA, singer-songwriter Shadi Toloui-Wallace released a special song written for the seven.

"We are moved by the international show of support for these seven Baha'i leaders. It is through efforts such as these, taken around the world - at the grassroots level, in the media, and among government officials - that awareness will be raised about their plight," said Ms. Dugal. "We hope that these calls for their release serve to ensure that in 2016 a campaign marking their eighth year of captivity will not be necessary."