Human Rights

For seven imprisoned Iranian Baha'i leaders, continued tribulations — and support

In Brief: 
  • The seven imprisoned Iranian Bahá’í leaders faced new tribulations — and evidence of support
  • In March, the seven learned that their 20-year prison sentence had been unjustly reinstated, after an appeals court reduced it to 10 years
  • But the turnout of more than 8,000 mourners for the funeral of the wife of one leader offered tangible signs of support

TEHRAN — The sight of large crowds anywhere in contemporary Iran is unusual these days, owing to the general unrest in the region. So it certainly took extra courage for an estimated 8,000 people or more to turn out for a funeral in March — and especially for the funeral of a well-known Bahá’í.

But photographs of a memorial gathering held at Gulistan Cemetery here on 11 March 2011 do indeed show thousands of people in attendance — as well as a scattering of security men with cameras on the periphery.

Even more than bravery, the photographs are evidence of the obvious sympathy that many Iranians feel for the plight of Iran’s persecuted Bahá’ís, especially for the seven imprisoned Bahá’í leaders who have been the focus of so much international attention in recent months.

That’s because the funeral was for the wife of one of those leaders, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani. His wife of 50 years, Ashraf Khanjani, passed away on 10 March — and within 24 hours a huge memorial service had been organized.

While an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended, among them was not Mr. Khanjani himself. He was refused compassionate leave by prison officials, and so he remained in Gohardasht prison in Karaj.

“This is a desperately cruel turn of events,” said Diane Ala’i, representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

“For an innocent man to be denied the opportunity to be with his devoted wife as she passed away, and then to be unable to attend her funeral — this shows the depth of inhumanity to which the Iranian authorities have sunk,” said Ms. Ala’i. “Islamic compassion and justice are nowhere to be seen.”

20-year sentence reinstated

Later in the month, the seven learned that their 20-year prison sentences had been reinstated, six months after an appeals court reduced the original sentence to 10 years.

The seven — Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm — were arrested in 2008 and charged with espionage and other crimes against the state that stemmed entirely from their service as members of a national-level group that helped see to the minimum needs of Iran’s 300,000-strong Bahá’í community.

After a plainly unjust trial in the first half of 2010, the seven were found guilty and sent to Gohardasht prison in August 2010, to serve out their sentences. Since then, the seven have faced a series of tribulations, such as appalling prison conditions, threats from other prisoners, and limited visitation and furloughs.

A beacon of hope

Reports indicated that Mrs. Khanjani’s funeral attracted mourners from all walks of life. She had devoted her life to raising her four children as well as caring for others whose parents were unable to feed and clothe them.

“She was looking after up to 40 or 50 children at any one time, without any regard for their religious background,” said Ms. Alai. “This is the kind of person she was — kind and generous, and a beacon of hope dedicated to maintaining the unity of their family in the face of harsh religious persecution.”

Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Mr. Khanjani was a successful factory owner. His brick-making factory — the first automated such facility in Iran — employed several hundred people before he was forced to shut it down and abandon it, because of the persecution he faced as a Bahá’í. The factory was later confiscated by the government.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Khanjani served as a member of the soon-to-be disbanded National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Iran, a group that in 1984 saw four of its nine members executed.

Later, Mr. Khanjani was able to establish a mechanized farm. But the authorities made it difficult for him to operate. Their restrictions extended to his children and relatives and included refusing loans, closing their facilities, limiting business dealings, and banning travel outside Iran.

Mr. Khanjani was arrested and imprisoned at least three times before his latest incarceration in May 2008. “Life over the past three years since this most recent arrest has been particularly hard on his wife and family,” said Ms. Ala’i.

“After Mr. Khanjani was transferred to Gohardasht last August, travelling some 100 kilometers there and back every fortnight for the women has been an extra burden to bear.”

To add to their ordeal, Mr. and Mrs. Khanjani’s immediate family has been targeted by the Iranian government for arrest and imprisonment.

“At this very difficult time, Mr. Khanjani and his family can take comfort in the fact that the thoughts and prayers of governments, organizations and people of goodwill throughout the world are with them,” said Ms. Ala’i on the day of the funeral.