The experience of Kamal Kashani and the other Baha’is from the city of Gorgan is but one example of religious intolerence and persecution in Iran, writes Dr. Zackery M. Heern.
As Iran gears up for next month’s presidential election, its largest religious minority, the Baha’i Faith, continues to face persecution. Last week marked the five-year anniversary of the incarceration of the seven Baha’i leaders in Iran known as the Yaran (Friends), who have been sentenced to 20 years in prison.
According to the Guardian, Iran is holding at least 870 prisoners of conscience. More than 100 of these prisoners are Baha’is – who do not participate in partisan politics and are not calling for regime change.
In addition to being the largest religious minority in Iran, the Baha’i Faith is the second most geographically widespread religion in the world. Therefore, countless Baha’i communities around the world have supported the international campaign called “Five Years Too Many” by raising awareness of the plight of their co-religionists in Iran, who are still struggling for basic human rights.
Government officials throughout the world, UN resolutions, and global leaders continuously call on Iran to stop persecuting Baha’is and other prisoners of conscience. Comedians Rainn Wilson and Omid Djalili as well as Roxana Saberi, journalist and former cellmate of members of the Yaran, are among the most outspoken supporters of Baha’i prisoners. However, the Iranian government is not showing signs of backing down.
Iran’s systematic campaign to repress Baha’is is organized both nationally and locally. Understandably, most international coverage of Iran’s human rights abuses focuses on high profile national cases. However, local abuse also appears to be on the rise.
One of the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world
Among the localities that have received considerable attention is Semnan, where a Baha’i cemetery was destroyed in 2009 and several infants are currently in prison with their Baha’i mothers.
Another such local campaign has targeted Baha’is in the city of Gorgan for the past six months.
According to a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, Iranian authorities raided more than 24 Baha’i homes in or near Gorgan last October, which resulted in 25 arrests. According to Dr. Shaheed, the detainees were charged with “cooperating with an enemy Government,” “participating in a group of more than two people inside or outside the country with the intent of disrupting the security of the state,” and other trumped-up charges.
After several weeks of interrogation and torture, the majority of the Baha’is in Gorgan were released from detention after posting bail. However, six of them were transferred to Tehran – first to Evin prison and then to Gohardasht prison, where they are currently being held.
One of the six Baha’is from Gorgan is Kamal Kashani. According to sources in Iran, guards entered his home and confiscated books, computers, CDs, even wall hangings. Two hours later the guards arrested him and took him in for questioning. He has been in prison ever since.
Kashani’s wife, Parisa, went to the police station everyday asking for his whereabouts. Finally, after 4 days she received a handwritten note from her husband requesting warm clothing. She was finally granted a visit with her husband after one month of his arrest. She was shocked at how much weight he had lost. She recounts that he had been severely beaten and his fingers were so skinny that his wedding ring would no longer stay on his finger.
Another Baha’i from Gorgan, Farhad Fahandezh, was beaten so badly that he was transferred to Tehran in an ambulance. One Baha’i prisoner remembers an Iranian official telling his torturer that he was permitted to beat Baha’is as much as he wanted, but was not permitted to kill them for fear of international media attention.
Kashani’s first court appearance was last February, four months after his initial arrest. At this time he had not been officially charged with specific crimes.
At the court hearing, Kashani’s lawyer explained to the judge that he had not been granted ample time with his client. The judge planned to sentence Kashani and the other Baha’is from Gorgan after 30 minutes. However, the judge agreed to postpone the trial for three months so that the lawyer could prepare a defense.
Kashani and the other Baha’is from Gorgan had their second and apparently final court date on April 24. The judge spoke to each prisoner for about 10 minutes. He asked Kashani why he was organizing gatherings for the “service of humanity.” Kashani replied that Baha’is are not permitted to organize gatherings in Iran. The judge then asked him if he prayed at home. “Of course,” Kashani said. The judge asked whether he prayed with his family. Again, Kashani replied affirmatively. The judge then explained that these family prayers amounted to illegal Baha’i gatherings.
The judge promptly ordered Kashani to be beaten in the courtroom. Severely injured, Kashani could hardly stand for the remainder of the hearing.
The judge announced that he would hand down a sentence the following week. However, the ruling was delayed for nearly a month because the judge reportedly went on pilgrimage to Mecca.
As the imprisoned Gorgan Baha’is were awaiting the judge’s ruling in Gohardasht prison, Kashani’s wife Parisa was arrested in Gorgan on May 8, which meant that her four children were left home alone. Similar arrest warrants were issued for the wives of the other imprisoned Baha’is from Gorgan.
After a week and a half, authorities in Gorgan finally confirmed to the children that their mother was in custody. On May 20, Parisa was suddenly released after her children paid a steep fee, which prison officials had demanded.
On May 22, Kashani and most of the other Baha’is from Gorgan were sentenced to five years in prison. This is the second prison sentence for Kashani. He served a five year term after the 1979 revolution. His brother, Jamal Kashani, was also executed by the Islamic Republic in 1984.
The experience of Kamal Kashani and the other Baha’is from the city of Gorgan is but one example of Iran’s human rights crisis. Iran’s persecution of Baha’is is one of the most “extreme manifestations of religious intolerance and persecution” in the world, according to UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt.
EDITOR’S PICK Musa al-Gharbi: A primer on Middle East conflict