Governments condemn Iran's reversal on jail terms

April 6, 2011
Examples of the widespread protest being made by governments and organizations around the world at the reinstatement of the 20-year prison sentences for Iran's seven Baha'i leaders.

GENEVA, Switzerland — Governments and human rights organizations have been swift to condemn the reinstatement of 20-year jail sentences for Iran's seven Baha'i leaders.

The seven were informed last month by prison authorities that the 10-year sentences – imposed after an appeal court revoked three charges against them in September last year – have now reverted to the lower court's ruling of 20-year jail terms. Nothing has been seen in writing by the prisoners or their attorneys.

The development has provoked immediate and widespread response – both publicly and privately. Statements have been made by the European Union and European Parliament, as well as by governments, institutions and individuals, in Brazil, France, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States.

All of these voices of support are combining throughout the planet to give this clear message to the Iranian authorities: Whether or not you intentionally took this action when global attention was focused on the drama unfolding in other parts of the Middle East, you cannot fail to appreciate that the world is closely watching your actions towards your own people, including the Baha'is in your country. You cannot hide this systematic abuse of innocent citizens.

Diplomatic support

In a statement dated 1 April, Baroness Catherine Ashton – the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – said she was "disturbed" by the latest news concerning the Baha'i leaders. "I call on the Iranian authorities to clarify the legal situation of the seven individuals concerned," she said. "They and their lawyers should be given the requisite access to all relevant documentation regarding their cases."

Baroness Ashton called for the immediate release of the seven and an end to the persecution of religious minorities in Iran.

The President of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, also expressed his "grave concern" at developments. "I appeal to the Iranian authorities to stop the unjustified detention of these religious leaders and provide more clarity and legal explanations in a transparent manner regarding their case," said Mr. Buzek, in a statement on 4 April.

"The freedom of religion or belief is one of the most fundamental human rights," he said.

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated that he was "deeply disturbed" to learn that the 20-year prison sentences have been reinstated.

"In August last year, I made clear that we believe the leaders are fully entitled to practice their faith," said Mr. Hague on 4 April. "I stand by what I said then, and once again call on the Iranian judiciary to review the case and to cease persecution of the Baha'i Faith."

"I am also concerned by the reports that the seven are facing physical threats from other inmates and guards in the prison they have been moved to," Mr. Hague added.

"This is yet another example of the Iranian authorities' disregard of the legitimate rights of the Iranian people. While restating that I do not believe there are adequate grounds to detain the leaders, I urge the Iranian authorities to ensure their safety while in custody, and provide them with full legal rights under Iranian law."

Germany's Foreign Office Commissioner for Human Rights policy, Markus Löning, described the prison sentence as "scandalous."

"The fact that this decision is taken in secret shows once more that Iran is not prepared to be transparent and respect fundamental constitutional principles," said Mr. Löning, on 5 April.

In its statement, dated 1 April, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of France strongly condemned "the violence, discrimination and harassment against the Baha'is in Iran which prohibit them from exercising their freedom of religion or belief..."

The United States described the sentencing as an "unprecedented step" and a violation of Iran's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights." A Department of State press briefing – in Washington D.C. on 31 March – was told that the United States was "deeply troubled" by reports of the reinstatement of the former prison sentence.

In Brazil, Federal Deputy Luiz Couto – former President of the Human Rights and Minorities Commission – addressed a plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies and called upon the National Congress, Brazilian society and other countries to express their support to the Baha'i community.

"The accusations that keep the Baha'i leaders imprisoned are completely false, invented with the intention to justify the unacceptable, purely religious persecution," said Deputy Couto on 4 April.

An open letter, already signed by some 90 prominent citizens from throughout India, has attracted more high-level signatories since news broke of the restoration of the 20-year sentence.

Senior members of the judiciary – including a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India – as well as prominent figures in education, have now joined the campaign.

"As citizens of India, a country that has rightfully prided itself in exemplifying for the world the spirit of coexistence and tolerance, we express our deep concern for the imprisoned Baha'is and their families" the statement says.

"Deeply entrenched discrimination"

A number of human rights organizations have also reacted strongly to reports of the 20-year jail terms.

Amnesty International has described Iran's latest move as "vindictive" and "outrageous."

"Yet again, the Iranian authorities are manipulating their own justice system to persecute members of a religious minority," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty's director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"Instead of doubling their sentences, the authorities should be setting the Baha'i leaders free, right now, and guaranteeing their freedom to practice their religion free from threat or persecution.

"Such arbitrary and vindictive acts are a salutary reminder of why the UN Human Rights Council voted recently to create a Special Rapporteur on Iran. The Council's decision came not a moment too soon," said Mr. Smart.

"This is the latest example of the deeply entrenched discrimination faced by the Baha'i minority in Iran," he observed, adding that it "is also a reminder to the international community of how little regard the Iranian authorities pay to international human rights standards on freedom of belief, association, expression and the right to a fair trial."

"The reinstatement of such a severe sentence on the Baha'is is a further blow to the group," said Stuart Windsor, National Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who added "it is clear that both the Baha'is and certain Christian communities are being targeted solely on the grounds of their faith.

"The international community must press Iran to release all detainees who are held solely on account of their religion," said Mr. Windsor. "The Iranian government must also ensure that the members of the Church of Iran...receive due process, and are acquitted of all charges that have no legal bearing under Iranian law."

The seven Baha'i leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm – were all members of a national-level ad hoc group that attended to the needs of Iran's Baha'i community. They are incarcerated in Gohardasht prison - about 50 kilometers west of Tehran.

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.