The case of Mahvash Sabet, a 62-year-old Iranian teacher and poet, was among those highlighted by PEN on 15 November to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Sabet is one of a group of seven Bahá’í leaders known as Yaran-i-Iran (‘Friends of Iran’) who have been detained since 2008 for activities aimed at supporting the Bahá’í community in Iran.
The country’s 300,000-strong Bahá’í community has suffered systematic, state-sponsored persecution since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran’s largest religious minority, Bahá’ís are routinely oppressed, banned from working in government offices and denied the opportunity to study at university. The Bahá’í faith emerged after a split in Shia Islam in the 19th century. It was founded in Iran, but is now banned there. Bahá’ís consider Bahá’u’lláh, born in 1817, to be the latest prophet sent by God. Islamic fundamentalists view the Bahá’í faith, including its progressive positions on women’s rights and education, as an affront to Islam. Since 2005, persecution of the Bahá’ís has intensified and more than 710 members have been arrested. Other forms of intimidation include the denial of pensions and rightful inheritances, the intimidation of Muslims who associate with Bahá’ís, the denial of access to publishing or copying facilities for Bahá’í literature and the unlawful confiscation or destruction of Bahá’í properties, including holy places.
Yaran-i-Iran was formed after the Islamic Revolution with the full knowledge of the government. The group served as a coordinating body for Bahá’ís, supporting the spiritual and social needs of the Bahá’í community, until its entire membership was arrested in 2008. Sabet herself was detained on 5 March 2008 while on a trip to Mashhad. The other six members of the group – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm – were arrested nine days later at their homes in Tehran. All were imprisoned without charge until January 2010. During this time they were held incommunicado for weeks and were not allowed access to legal counsel. All suffered appalling treatment and deprivations during pre-trial detention.
Sabet’s lawyer, Mahnaz Parakand, a member of the Defenders for Human Rights Center, has described the first time he was allowed to meet her: ‘My first encounter with Mahvash Sabet took place on a hot summer’s day. After many hours of tedious waiting in a special room set aside for lawyers, I was finally allowed to meet her in the presence of two women guards … it was obvious that the Bahá’í prisoners had been deprived of fresh air and daylight for a long time; their entire beings seemed thirsty for the energising heat and light of the sun. However, despite all their hardships, their will remained unbroken.’
The group’s trial began on 12 January 2010. They were charged with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and ‘spreading corruption on earth’. Haifa, in present-day Israel, is the final resting place of Bahá’u’lláh and has been the faith’s administrative headquarters since 1868. Although sites in and around Haifa were considered holy to Bahá’ís before the creation of the state of Israel, the Iranian government uses the connection as an excuse to accuse Bahá’ís in Iran of spying for Israel.
On 14 June 2010, after six brief court sessions characterised by their lack of due legal process, each of the defendants was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. Their sentences were later reduced to ten years each when an appeals court revoked three of the charges. However, in March of the following year, the detainees were informed of the reinstatement of their original sentences. They have never received official copies of the initial verdict or the appeal ruling, despite repeated requests.
Sabet is married and has two grown-up children. She began her professional career as a teacher and worked as a head teacher at several schools. She also collaborated with the National Literacy Committee of Iran. Following the Islamic Revolution, Sabet was fired from her job and blocked from working in public education, like thousands of other Iranian Bahá’í educators. She served for fifteen years as director of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, which provides alternative higher education for the Bahá’í youth. She began writing poetry while in prison; a collection has recently been translated into English by Bahiyyih Nakhjavání and is available to buy on Kindle. In one poem, ‘From Evin to Raja’i Shah’, she writes:
Beyond those gates, another world, another race,
a people poisoned and oppressed by woe;
they stared wearily at us, the prisoners we faced,
with sunken eyes, lack-lustre, circled with sorrow.
Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Iranian authorities to demonstrate their commitment to reform by releasing Mahvash Sabet and all those currently imprisoned in Iran solely for exercising their right to legitimate freedom of expression; imploring them to end the persecution of the Bahá’í community; and urging that further measures be taken to enshrine the right to freedom of expression in law and practice in Iran as provided for under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei
President Hassan Rouhani
The Ambassador’s post is currently vacant but readers can send copies of their appeal to firstname.lastname@example.org and
Secretary General, High Council for Human Rights
Mohammed Javad Larijani
Update: Saba Azarpeik (LR, Sept 2014) has been released on bail in Iran. Human rights groups continue to call for any charges relating to her right to freedom of expression to be dropped and for an investigation into reports of her ill-treatment during her detention.