Three years on, Iran's imprisoned Baha'i leaders symbolize the oppression of a nation

16 May 2011

— The injustice being faced by countless citizens of Iran has been highlighted around the world, as supporters marked three years since the arrest of the country's imprisoned Baha'i leaders.

In a message dated 14 May, addressed by the Universal House of Justice to the Baha'is of Iran, the jailed leaders were referred to as true prisoners of conscience. The letter also spoke of the numerous Iranian men and women who have accepted to face hardship for the sake of defending their freedom and human rights.

Their plight was recalled at special gatherings, which included a reception on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.; a service at the Baha'i House of Worship in Sydney, Australia; and prayer meetings, held in numerous places of worship throughout the Netherlands.

Reception in Washington D.C.

In the United States, some 300 congressional staff, representatives from human rights groups, media personnel and community members, attended a meeting at Washington's Hart Senate Office building on 12 May, while a worldwide audience logged on to a live webcast of the event.

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The event was hosted by U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, who spoke about a resolution he recently introduced condemning the persecution of the Baha'is.

"I have been very focused on the condition of Baha'is in Iran," said Senator Kirk. "Especially thinking about the seven Baha'i leaders, I think we need to begin to memorize their names.

"They are serving 20 years in prison on baseless charges and I am here today, as I have been for many months now, showing my support for them, and more importantly introducing their individual names to the American people," said Senator Kirk, who recited aloud the names of the seven prisoners to the audience.

They are Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. They were formerly members of a national-level ad hoc group that helped attend to the needs of the country's 300,000-strong Baha'i community.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Kathleen Fitzpatrick told the reception that, while democratic evolution, change and reform is under way in the Middle East, "the Iranian authorities continue to use the brutal tactics of repressing their citizens, even as at times they applaud protesters in other areas..."

"Baha'i and other religious minorities...continue to be subject to arbitrary arrest, persecution and unjust sentences," said Ms. Fitzpatrick. "These circumstances typify not only the life of religious minorities in Iran but also of all Iranians and reflect the oppression that has engulfed the nation at the hands of its leaders."

In his remarks, Kenneth E. Bowers – Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States – noted that those "languishing in Iranian prisons" include not only Baha'is but "lawyers who do nothing more than represent their clients, journalists attempting to ensure that the public receives accurate information, and others such as students and bloggers who express views that the regime does not see as supportive of their policies."

In other speeches, U.S. Representative Michael Grimm praised the resilience of the Iranian Baha'i community; actor Eva LaRue shared stories about the two women in the group; and Iraj Kamalabadi, brother of Fariba Kamalabadi, delivered closing remarks.

Grammy-award winning musician KC Porter performed a new song, titled Yaran, which he composed after learning about the prison conditions and the overwhelming evidence of the Baha'i leaders' innocence.

Events in Australia and the Netherlands

More than 500 people also observed the third anniversary at a special interfaith service on the theme of justice, held yesterday at the Baha'i House of Worship in Sydney, Australia. Among the special guests in attendance was the convener of the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations, Professor Abd Malak, an Egyptian Coptic Christian.

The Australian government among many others has been active and vocal in their support of the seven Baha'i leaders – and human rights in Iran more broadly – said Natalie Mobini-Kesheh, Director of the Australian Baha'i community's Office of External Affairs.

"It's important that we, as the public, continue to voice our concern, so that the Iranian government knows that the world is watching," she told a reception held in the House of Worship's information centre.

Also in attendance was Mehrzad Mumtahan, a nephew of Saeid Rezaei, who spoke of the hope the prisoners feel, knowing that total strangers are thinking of them.

In the Netherlands, 24-hour vigils and other prayer gatherings were held throughout the country to mark the anniversary. In Amsterdam, special prayers were said at the Roman Catholic Salvator church. At the city's Russian Orthodox church, the names of the seven prisoners – as well as Christian and Jewish victims of religious persecution in Iran – were read aloud.

A Protestant church in Veldhoven, the Sisters of Charity congregations in Hertme and Eindhoven, and the Hindu Shree Raam mandir in Wychen, also joined the commemoration. In Utrecht and the Hague, prayers were said in Jewish synagogues.

"I stay connected in prayer with those brave ones," said Awraham Soetendorp, Rabbi of the Reform Jewish community of the Hague. "May all the prayers together open the door to freedom."

The human rights group, United4Iran, launched a poster campaign drawing attention to the fact that by 14 May, the seven had suffered 7,734 days in prison. The campaign calls upon supporters to make their own posters indicating the number of days of imprisonment, or to take a picture or video holding the pre-prepared poster, pictured above.

Further events marking the anniversary are being planned around the world, including a "Solidarity Concert" in New Delhi, India, this Wednesday.

Special Report - "The Trial of the Seven Baha'i Leaders"

The Baha'i World News Service has published a Special Report which includes articles and background information about the seven Iranian Baha'i leaders - their lives, their imprisonment, trial and sentencing - and the allegations made against them. It also offers further resources about the persecution of Iran's Baha'i community.

The International Reaction page of the Baha'i World News service is regularly updated with responses from governments, nongovernmental organizations, and prominent individuals. The Media Reports page presents a digest of media coverage from around the world.

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