May 14, 2016 marked the eight-year anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha’i leaders in Iran. Their names are Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. After a year in prison, these Iranian citizens were accused of and tried for committing several crimes, including “propaganda against the regime.” Initially, they were all sentenced to twenty years in prison, which was later reduced to ten. The most recent United Nations report on their case states that, “the seven Baha’i community leaders, known as the Yaran, remained in prison solely for their religious beliefs.”

The Baha’i International Community has recently launched a new campaign calling for the immediate release of the “Baha’i Seven”. The campaign emphasizes the fact that Baha’is are eligible for conditional release under Iran’s penal code.

In what follows, Ahmed Shaheed (the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran) and I discuss the situation of Baha’is and human rights in Iran, especially since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

Shortly after Shaheed and I discussed Baha’i rights, the issue became a hotly debated topic in Iran, sparked by a meeting between Faezeh Hashemi and one of the imprisoned Baha’i leaders, Fariba Kamalabadi, who was on furlough from prison. Faezeh Hashemi is a former member of Iran’s parliament, founder of a banned women’s magazine, and daughter of former Iranian president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Kamalabadi and Hashemi were former cellmates in Evin prison.

Many high-ranking Iranian religious and political officials, including Faezeh Hashemi’s father, have condemned the visit. Other officials, including Iran’s Prosecutor General, the head of the Iranian Judiciary, and Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, have indicated that Hashemi’s visit with a Baha’i might be considered a criminal act.

According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, prisoners at Evin’s women’s ward may be being collectively punished for the meeting, as it is being reported that all female prisoners may no longer receive furloughs or be granted the right to mail letters to relatives.

Zackery M. Heern (ZH): Since the election of President Rouhani, the nuclear deal, and recent Iranian elections that have indicated gains for Iran’s more moderate politicians, has the human rights situation in Iran improved or gotten worse?

Ahmed Shaheed (AS): Overall I would not say there has been a considerable improvement in the human rights situation in Iran under President Rouhani. In some aspects, like the rate of the executions (including those of juvenile offenders), the human rights situation in the country has gotten worse. In some other aspects, however, like the country’s engagement and cooperation with UN human rights bodies and mechanisms, we see some improvement. It is important to note, however, that the most egregious rights violations in Iran today are being perpetrated by elements in the security and intelligence forces and the Judiciary – all sectors of government that are largely outside the control of President Rouhani and his administration.

Of course, this does not mean that President Rouhani and his administration are off the hook. In fact, the President, as the second highest official (after the Supreme Leader), has some control over security and intelligence functions, and heads important governmental organizations like the National Security High Council (which plays an important role in influencing state policy making). Additionally, the president and his administration are both the representatives of the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic of Iran on the international stage. President Rouhani is, therefore, responsible for formulating the policies necessary to implement both the country’s constitution and the civil rights it affords Iranian citizens, and Iran’s international human rights obligations.

ZH: Why do you think there is not more media coverage on the plight of Baha’is in Iran?

AS: I think the situation of the Baha’is in Iran is extremely worrying and I have done my utmost to draw attention to their plight since my mandate began in 2011. In my latest report, for example, I have dedicated a section to the government’s ongoing targeting campaign against Baha’i citizens, and have expressed my alarm at the discriminatory and hateful language government officials continue to use against community members. In some ways, I think human rights organizations (and the Baha’i community itself) have done an excellent job drawing attention to the persistent and systematic nature of the targeting campaign against this vulnerable community by the Iranian government. In other ways, you are right to acknowledge that their situation deserves perhaps even more attention in light of the severity of the repression that takes place against this vulnerable community.

ZH: How serious is the human rights situation for Baha’is in Iran? Do you think it has gotten worse in the past five or ten years?

AS: As I mentioned above the situation regarding the Baha’is is extremely worrying and dire. In some ways you can argue that the root of the problem lies in legal discrimination against this community because the Baha’i faith is not recognized as a religion under Iran’s Constitution. But, in fact, there is a long history of anti-Baha’i sentiment that goes back to the period before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. These sentiments have often been stoked by some members of the clerical establishment, who have received explicit or tacit support by various government organizations or officials throughout the years. Of course, the situation for Baha’is became much worse after the 1979 Revolution. Today, Baha’i businesses are constantly under attack, their right to higher education is systematically violated, and their freedom to practice and manifest their beliefs is severely restricted and grounds for harassment, arrest, prosecution and long prison terms. Unfortunately, the situation has not gotten any better for this community in recent years and after the election of President Rouhani.

ZH: Do you think that the situation for Baha’is and human rights more generally will improve in Iran any time soon?

AS: This is a difficult question to answer because neither I nor anyone else knows what the future will hold for human rights in Iran. At this point, I do not see enough evidence suggesting that the situation will improve in the short-term. Yet, I remain hopeful. What is critical is that the international community continues to shine a spotlight on the human rights situation in Iran while simultaneously increasing its engagement with the government in the political, economic and social spheres.

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