A member of the Baha’i religion demonstrates on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro in June 2011 asking Iranian authorities to release seven Baha’i prisoners accused of spying for Israel and sentenced to 20 years in jail (AFP)
A leader of the Baha’i community in Iran was released from jail on Monday, the last to be freed among a group of leaders of the religious community who were arrested in 2008.
Seven members of the Yaran, a Baha’i outreach group seen as the figureheads of the 300,000-strong religious minority in Iran, were initially sentenced to 20 years in jail on charges of “espionage” and engaging in “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic.
Vahid Tizfahm, 44, who completed a 10-year jail term, was the final member of the group to leave prison. He was released shortly before the beginning of Nowruz, the Persian New Year’s celebration.
Five other members of the Yaran were also released in 2018, including Jamaloddin Khanjani on Friday. One member, Afif Naeimi, is on medical leave from the prison and is due to conclude his sentence in the coming months.
Vahid Tizfam and his wife, Furuzandeh Nikumanesh (BIC)
“We are, of course, happy that Mr Tizfahm and other members of the Yaran are reuniting with their families,” said Diane Ala’i, representative for the Baha’i International Community organisation (BIC). “But there can be no joy over the fact that Mr Tizfahm has spent a decade of his life in prison for no other reason than his faith – barred from his family, friends, and community in his 30s and 40s.
“It should also be absolutely clear that this step does not reflect an improvement in the situation of Iranian Baha’is as a whole,” she said.
Adherents of the Baha’i faith – a syncretic religion that combines elements of Islam, Christianity and other spiritual movements – have long faced persecution in Iran.
The Islamic Republic provides legal protection to followers of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, but the Baha’i are branded “heretics” for not accepting the finality of the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad, while still accepting him as a religious prophet.
In addition, they have also been denounced as Zionists for establishing their headquarters in Haifa in northern Israel in 1963.
A former Iranian prosecutor general, Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, told the Fars News Agency in 2009 that Iran offered a variety of services to the Baha’i sect in Iran and respected them as human beings, “but not as insiders, spies, or a political group supported by Britain and Israel to cause disturbance in Iran”, CNN reported.
According to BIC, there were 97 Baha’is in prison as of 1 March.
“Mr Khanjani and the other members of the Yaran should have never been put in prison to begin with,” said Bani Dugal, another BIC representative.
“They not only committed no crimes, but even contributed to the betterment of their communities and their country.”