Community Leader Recounts Iranian Baha’is Perils In Prison Letter
A former leader of the Iranian Baha’i community says the Islamic Republic gives them no chance of “leading a normal life” on account of their faith.
“For forty-five years, we Baha’is have been constantly disqualified from leading a normal life in our ancestral homeland,” Mahvash Sabet, a former member of the Baha’i community’s leadership group wrote in a letter from Tehran’s Evin Prison.
She reflected on the impact of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, stating, “Our ancestral homeland was abruptly taken from us, and we became ‘the others’.” Sabet recounted the misfortunes suffered by the Baha’i community, including the execution of nearly 250 of its members and the confiscation of assets belonging to many others.
The Shia clergy consider the Baha’i faith as a heretical sect. With approximately 300,000 adherents in Iran, Baha’is face systematic persecution, discrimination, and harassment. They are barred from public sector employment and, in certain instances, have been terminated from private sector jobs due to pressure from authorities.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic recognizes only Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has on several occasions called the Baha’i faith a cult and in a religious fatwa in 2018 forbade contact, including business dealings, with its followers.
In her letter, a copy of which was received by Iran International, Sabet has used the term “disqualified” (radd-e salahiyat) to describe Iranian Baha’is deprivation of civil and human rights including freedom of religion, the right to higher education, and most jobs.
In the context of ideological screening primarily carried out by security and intelligence bodies, Radd-e salahiyat means “found disqualified” for a position or status. Screening is conducted in a wide range of situations including higher education, civil service, participation in national sports teams, and elections.
Belief in the absolute guardianship and rule of a jurisprudent cleric (velayat-e motlaqqeh-ye faqih) and the Constitution of the Islamic Republic as a governing system are two of the fundamental requirements for being “qualified” in these situations.
Sabet, now seventy-one, was dismissed from her job as a school principal after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She has been consistently denied the opportunity to publish her poetry in Iran, where books undergo scrutiny and rejection not solely based on their content, but often due to the authors’ ideology, religion, or private lives.
In her letter, Sabet, who has spent nearly twelve years in prison for her faith, reveals that authorities appropriated a sand processing factory her husband had been constructing just a week before its launch. “He was disqualified, too!” she wrote in her letter.
In 2009, seven leaders of the Baha’i community, collectively known as Yaran (friends or helpers), including Sabet, were arrested. They were sentenced by a revolutionary court to 20 years in prison on fabricated charges, including “insulting” Islamic sanctities, propaganda against the regime, and alleged spying for Israel, for which the prosecutor had sought death sentences.
Some of the charges, including espionage, were dropped by an appeal court in 2010, resulting in a reduction of their sentences to 10 years. However, authorities reinstated the original 20-year sentences in 2011.
All members of the Yaran group were released from prison between September 2017 and December 2018. However, Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, another female member of the group, were arrested again on August 1, 2022.
Both women endured months of solitary confinement while awaiting their trial. In December, they were handed another decade-long prison term for “forming a group to act against national security,” a sentence they are currently serving.