Iranian Baha'is sentenced to prison were helping underprivileged youth

February 6, 2008
Haleh Rouhi, Sasan Taqva and Raha Sabet were taken into custody in November 2007. They are serving a four-year sentence on charges connected entirely with their belief and practice in the Baha'i Faith.

GENEVA, Switzerland — Accusations by the Iranian government that 54 Baha'is were engaged in anti-regime "propaganda" when they were arrested almost two years ago are patently false, the Baha'i International Community said today.

In November, three of that group were re-arrested and imprisoned for four years. The others have reportedly been given suspended one-year sentences.

"Far from working against the government, the Baha'is who were arrested in May 2006 were engaged in a humanitarian project aimed at helping underprivileged young people in the city of Shiraz," said Diane Ala'i, the Baha'i International Community's representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

"Charges by the government that suggest otherwise are nothing less than an attempt to repress Iranian Baha'is generally and to deflect international criticism of Iran's human rights record," she said.

Concern over the status of the Baha'is sentenced in Shiraz was highlighted last week after an Iranian government spokesperson accused them of engaging in anti-government "propaganda," according to wire service reports. (While those reports put the total arrests at 54, Baha'i sources indicate that only 53 Baha'is were arrested in May 2006.)

Class in Shahlabad, outside Shiraz, Iran. Slideshow
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Class in Shahlabad, outside Shiraz, Iran.

That charge of anti-regime propaganda came several days after the US State Department and Amnesty International expressed concern over the fact that three of the Baha'is arrested had been summarily imprisoned in November for terms of four years.

According to Agence France-Presse, an Iranian judiciary spokesman, Ali Reza Jamshidi, confirmed the prison sentences for the three and also told reporters on 29 January that 51 others had received suspended one-year jail terms, conditional on their attendance of courses held by the state's Islamic Propaganda Organization.

"The accounts emerging from Iran tell of a government that is desperate to justify its actions in the jailing of three innocent people by accusing them of teaching the Baha'i Faith, which is synonymous with 'anti-regime propaganda' in the government's twisted perspective, said Ms. Ala'i. "This is further evidenced by the requirement that the others attend re-education classes, which are clearly aimed at coercing them away from their religious beliefs.

"While teaching the Baha'i Faith cannot be considered a crime of any sort, given that freedom of religion is protected by international law, the fact is that the Baha'is who were arrested almost two years ago in Shiraz were not working to spread Baha'i teachings -- rather they had initiated and were participating in a number of literacy and youth empowerment projects in various locations in and near Shiraz.

"Moreover, the group had introduced the projects to the Islamic Council of the city of Shiraz in 2005 and had subsequently received a letter from the Cultural Commission granting permission to continue their activities," said Ms. Ala'i.

Ms. Ala'i also discussed charges, made in court documents, that the use of a workbook titled "Breezes of Confirmation," which focuses on teaching language skills and basic moral principles, constitutes part of the evidence that Baha'is were teaching the Baha'i Faith.

"The fact is," said Ms. Ala'i, " 'Breezes of Confirmation' makes no direct reference to the Baha'i Faith -- and its lessons reflect moral lessons common to all religions.

"In view of the government's continued rebuff of international appeals for the immediate release of the three prisoners, it is important to provide a detailed account, so as to set the record straight," said Ms. Ala'i. The names of the three are Haleh Rouhi Jahromi, 29; Raha Sabet Sarvestani , 33; and Sasan Taqva, 32.

Read an account of the development of the social service projects initiated by the Baha'i community of Shiraz.

View a sample lesson from the workbook "Breezes of Confirmation"