Support rises on eighth anniversary of Bahá’í group’s imprisonment

The eighth anniversary of the incarceration of the former members of the Yárán saw a remarkable upswell of support around the world on May 14 for the human rights of Bahá’ís in Iran, as well as media coverage surrounding a remarkable gesture of friendship from a prominent political figure inside Iran.

Iranian authorities were admonished to release those seven Bahá’í prisoners — and generally to respect the rights of that country’s religious minorities as well as prisoners of conscience — in statements by:

  • the U.S. State Department, which named all seven imprisoned leaders of Iran’s Bahá’í community — Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Vahid Tizfahm, and Mahvash Sabet — and stated, “We join the international community in condemning their continued imprisonment and calling upon the Islamic Republic of Iran to release them immediately, along with all other prisoners of conscience in Iran.”
  • the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, whose statement of concern characterizes the treatment of the Yárán as “indicative of the widespread, systematic repression of Baha’is in Iran, stemming from the highest ranks of Iran’s clerical and political establishment.”
  • leaders of 29 nongovernmental organizations, who recognized that “Officially-sanctioned repression of Baha’is ranges the entire lifespan, from birth to death,” citing harassment in schools and denial of higher education, jailing of Bahá’ís and shutting of their businesses, defacement of holy places and cemeteries, and widespread hate speech and “fear-inciting propaganda” against Bahá’ís.

Also in mid-May came several interview and opinion articles in national and international media — some of it focusing on the government’s revealing reaction to a visit by a former Parliament member, who is also the daughter of a former Iranian president, with Fariba Kamalabadi, who was on a brief furlough from prison (see article).

Broadcasting in Persian, Voice of America reported on that visit, as well as interviewing Ahmad Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who affirmed that Bahá’ís are the minority receiving the greatest degree of persecution in that country. Additionally, VOA covered an event in Washington, DC, organized by the national Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs to commemorate the anniversary. It featured a panel of experts on Iranian human rights issues including Roxana Saberi, Iranian-American journalist, and Salim Nakhjavani, former UN prosecutor for the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

These reports, as well as others generated by CNN, AFP and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were reposted in a wide range of online publications in both English and Persian.

Additionally, Elliott Abrams, a Middle East expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an opinion piece on the Yárán and the status of the Bahá’ís in Iran that appeared in the Washington Post. The Religion News Service published an opinion article written by Robert George and Katrina Lantos Swett of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

This abundant flow of public support coincided with a campaign initiated by the Bahá’í International Community, “Enough! Release the Bahá’í Seven,” recognizing the anniversary of the May 14, 2008, incarceration of six of the seven members of the Yárán, an informal group that was tending to the spiritual and social needs of the national Bahá’í community — in the absence of Bahá’í administration, which has been illegal in Iran more than three decades. (Mahvash Sabet’s imprisonment began two months before the rest.) Initially sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, the former Yárán members have had their sentences reduced to 10 years.

Considerable momentum benefited these recent opportunities to raise awareness, especially from two currents of effort:

In the longer term, the anniversary of the incarceration of the Yárán has served for several years as an occasion to remind the world of the injustices Bahá’ís face in the country of the Faith’s origin. May 14 has served as a date for a variety of initiatives, including public events, statements of support by global and national thought leaders, outreaches to public officials coordinated by the OPA, and other efforts. Over time, these activities have contributed to building of relationships between Bahá’ís and like-minded human-rights activists.

More recently, the Not A Crime campaign has brought its focus back into the United States, with two new murals supporting the rights of Iranian Bahá’í youth to access to higher education being created in Harlem — the New York City neighborhood where the campaign was launched last fall. One of the murals is by Ricky Lee Gordon as a companion to a mural he created in his homeland of South Africa.

The other, by Australian street artist Rone, depicts Nasim Biglari, a Bahá’í now in California who had studied with the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education — an informal system of university-level instruction that was set up in response to Iranian authorities’ general refusal to allow Bahá’ís to participate in the university system. (See related article for Nasim’s story.)

Initiated by Iranian-Canadian documentary filmmaker Maziar Bahari and with the endorsement of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, the Not A Crime campaign uses public artwork to bring attention to the plight of Bahá’ís and others unfairly denied access to higher education in Iran.  

The campaign, using the social media hashtag #NotACrime, has sponsored murals in selected cities on every continent, including New York and Atlanta. Local Bahá’í communities have also taken the initiative to create their own public artworks in cooperation with the campaign. Details including images of many of the murals are on the campaign website (notacrime.me). Social media updates can be found on:

The National Assembly reminds anyone hoping to participate to abide by local laws and ordinances governing street art, and to obtain clear consent from the owners of a wall before using it for artwork.

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