Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Washington Post: in Iran, shackling the Bahai torchbearers

By Roxana Saberi

Saturday, August 28, 2010

For several weeks last year, I shared a cell in Tehran's notorious Evin prison with Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, two leaders of Iran's minority Bahai faith. I came to see them as my sisters, women whose only crimes were to peacefully practice their religion and resist pressure from their captors to compromise their principles. For this, apparently, they and five male colleagues were sentenced this month to 20 years in prison.

I had heard about Mahvash and Fariba before I met them. Other prisoners spoke of the two middle-aged mothers whose high spirits lifted the morale of fellow inmates. The Bahai faith, thought to be the largest non-Muslim minority religion in Iran, originated in 19th-century Persia. It is based on the belief that the world will one day attain peace and unity. Iranian authorities consider it a heretical offshoot of Islam.

After I was transferred to their cell, I learned that Mahvash had been incarcerated for one year and Fariba for eight months. Each had spent half her detention in solitary confinement, during which time they were allowed almost no contact with their families and only the Koran to read. Recently the two had been permitted to have a pen. Oh, how they cherished it! But they were allowed to use it only to do Sudoku and crossword puzzles in the conservative newspapers the prison guards occasionally gave them.

Mahvash, Fariba and their five colleagues faced accusations that included spying for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and, later, "spreading corruption on earth." All three could have resulted in the death penalty.

The Bahais denied these charges. Far from posing a threat to the Islamic regime, Mahvash and Fariba told me, Iran's estimated 300,000 Bahais are nonviolent and politically impartial.

Despite the gravity of the accusations against them, Mahvash and Fariba had not once been allowed to see attorneys. Yet my cellmates' spirits would not be broken, and they boosted mine. They taught me to, as they put it, turn challenges into opportunities -- to make the most of difficult situations and to grow from adversity. We kept a daily routine, reading the books we were eventually allowed and discussing them; exercising in our small cell; and praying -- they in their way, I in mine. They asked me to teach them English and were eager to learn vocabulary for shopping, cooking and traveling. They would use the new words one day, they told me, when they journeyed abroad. But the two women also said they never wanted to live overseas. They felt it their duty to serve not only Bahais but all Iranians.

Later, when I went on a hunger strike, Mahvash and Fariba washed my clothes by hand after I lost my energy and told me stories to keep my mind off my stomach. Their kindness and love gave me sustenance.

It pained me to leave them behind when I was freed in May 2009. I later heard that Mahvash, Fariba and their colleagues refused to make false confessions, as many political prisoners in Iran are pressured to do.

It was January when the Bahais' trial began. This month, the same Iranian judge who had sentenced me to eight years in prison on a false charge of spying for the United States sentenced the Bahais to 20 years. The charges they were convicted of have not yet been reported.

Human rights advocates have said the trial was riddled with irregularities. The defendants were eventually allowed to see attorneys but only briefly. The lawyers were given only a few hours to examine the thousands of pages in the prosecution's files. Early in the trial, state-run TV crews were present at what were supposed to be closed hearings. After the Bahais' attorneys objected, family members were allowed to attend the hearings, but foreign diplomats were barred, and the only journalists permitted were with state-run media. It appears that no evidence was presented against the defendants.

As their lawyers appeal, Mahvash and Fariba sit in Rajai Shahr prison outside Tehran. Even Evin prison, cellmates told me last year, is preferable to Rajai Shahr. The facility is known for torture, unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical care for inmates, who include murderers, drug addicts and thieves.

While Iranian authorities deny that the regime discriminates against citizens for religious beliefs, the Bahai faith is not recognized under the Iranian constitution. The known persecution of many Bahais includes being fired from jobs and denied access to higher education, as well as cemetery desecration. (The Bahais created their own unofficial university, which Mahvash used to direct; Fariba earned a degree in psychology there.) In addition to the seven leaders, 44 other Bahais are in prisons in Iran, the Baha'i International Community reports.

People of many nations and faiths have called for the release of the Bahai leaders. But many more must speak out -- such as by signing letters of support through Web sites such as Protests of these harsh sentences can make clear to authorities in Iran and elsewhere that they will be held accountable when they trample on human rights. Mahvash and Fariba occasionally hear news of this support, and it gives them strength to carry on, just as the international outcry against my imprisonment empowered me.

I know that despite what they have been through and what lies ahead, these women feel no hatred in their hearts. When I struggled not to despise my interrogators and the judge, Mahvash and Fariba told me they do not hate anyone, not even their captors.

We believe in love and compassion for humanity, they said, even for those who wrong us. Roxana Saberi, a journalist detained in Iran last year, is the author of "Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran."

RNW: Family have “failed” Dutch-Iranian prisoner

Zahra Bahrami has been in detention in Tehran since the end of last year on charges of endangering national security and possessing drugs. But her family is not doing enough to secure her release, according to the son of another Dutch-Iranian political prisoner. In total five Dutch nationals are currently in jail in Iran. Ms Bahrami's daugher says her mother has never been a member of a political party.

Zahra Bahrami could be facing a death sentence, according to Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s Tehran correspondent Thomas Erdbrink. Dutch caretaker Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has expressed his concern about her fate to the Iranian ambassador. The Netherlands has called for her to be given a fair trial.


45-year-old Zahra Bahrami had travelled from the Netherlands to Iran to visit her daughter when she was arrested. She is one of thousands of Iranians detained in the aftermath of the summer 2009 elections. “Like everyone else, my mother took part in the demonstrations in Tehran,” said Ms Bahrami’s daughter, Banafsheh Erfani, speaking on the Dutch current affairs TV programme NOVA. “She had contact with Iranian broadcasters abroad. But she has never been a member of a political party. Never, I know for certain.”


Adnan al-Mansouri was shocked to learn of Zahra Bahrami’s imprisonment. “I heard about it yesterday on the radio. It’s terrible news,” he said, speaking from his home in the southern Dutch town of Sittard. Mr Al-Mansouri feels for the family. He has been campaigning for his father’s release from an Iranian jail since 2006.

But the news about Ms Bahrami also makes him angry, says Mr Al-Mansouri. Not just with Iran, but also – despite his sympathy – with her family.

“They haven’t done enough. They’ve failed her, and also themselves. I understand that Ms Bahrami has been in detention since last year. It’s reprehensible that we should only find out about it now. Not only have human rights organisations like Amnesty International only now been informed, but the same goes for the Dutch government.”

Independence campaigner

Zahra Bahrami may not be a political activist according to her daughter, but Adnan al-Mansouri’s father is a different story. Abdullah al-Mansouri was granted political asylum in the Netherlands at the end of the 1980s. From the southern Dutch city of Maastricht he headed the Ahwaz Liberation Organisation (ALO), which strives to establish an independent state for Arabs in the Ahwaz region of Iran. In 2006 he was arrested in Syria and extradited to Iran. Since then his son Adnan has been campaigning from the Netherlands for his father’s release.

Other Dutch detainees

Mr Al-Mansouri and Mr Bahrami’s cases are not isolated. In a statement in response to the Bahrami case, the Dutch foreign ministry confirmed that a total of five Dutch citizens are in jail in Iran. Four of them – including Ms Bahrami – are accused of involvement with opposition movements.
In the European Parliament, Dutch MEPs for the D66 party have appealed for the European Union to take action. MEP Marietje Schaake appealed to the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton to raise the matter with Tehran. At present, sanctions against Iran are only directed at the country’s nuclear programme – “A missed opportunity,” says Ms Schaake. “Security and human rights are linked.”

The Sun: 58 days in Iran prison for Photo

A BRITISH tourist was locked up for 58 days in a hellish Iranian jail - for taking this photo. 

Andrew Barber, 43, was accused of spying because the snap - meant to be of a sunrise - showed pylons near a power plant. 

Jailed ... Andrew Barber
Jailed ... Andrew Barber

Cops then searched his laptop and found photos Andrew had taken of buildings in IRAQ where he had worked for delivery firm DHL.

They thought he had taken them in Iran, and accused him of espionage. A judge then threw him into Tehran's notorious Evin prison, which houses political detainees - some awaiting execution.
Andrew said: "When the judge called me a spy, I went weak at the knees and started staggering with the shock."

Andrew was refused access to the British embassy, blindfolded in interrogation then put in a 14ft by 8ft cell for 26 days. He was subjected to psychological torment, dubbed "white torture".

He said: "I had no furniture, and almost no natural light, only a bright fluorescent tube that stayed on 24/7, even when you were trying to sleep.

"I was allowed out of my cell ten minutes a day to use the toilet. I started to lose my mind after about seven days. It was hard to keep sane because I had no information about how long I was going to be there for."
Andrew, of Clapham, South London, said he survived by making playing cards from cardboard cups and playing solitaire.

He was eventually moved to share a cell with an Iranian prisoner before being handed over to the British embassy.

Andrew said: "I can't sleep properly because of what I've been through. I still get flashbacks."
He had been in Iran for three weeks when held on June 21 in Ahwaz, in the south.

Britain's minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, has given Iran's ambassador in London a dressing down over the incident.

Scotsman: Two more sentenced to death by stoning
02 September 2010
Iran was last night courting further international outrage by sentencing two more people to death by stoning for alleged adultery.

The inflammatory rulings have emerged as Iranian hardliners have gone on the offensive against mounting Western pressure over the harrowing case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a mother of two who has been condemned to a stoning death on an unsubstantiated dultery charge.

Iran's supreme court approved the verdict on 28 August against a man and a woman convicted of having an extra-marital affair, Iran's Human Rights Activists News Agency said yesterday.

Amnesty International described the agency's report as "credible" and said it had received reports from the same agency in January that the couple had been found guilty of adultery and that the verdict was recently upheld by Iran's highest court.

Drewery Dyke, Amnesty's Iran expert, said that his organisation was also looking into recent reports that another couple, from Ghouchan, a city province in north-eastern Iran, had been sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery.

"We don't have precise information on these cases but we will be raising them directly with the Iranian authorities," Mr Dyke last night told The Scotsman.