Human Rights

Despite promises by Iran to improve human rights, violations against Bahá’ís continue

In Brief: 
  • Despite Iran’s declaration that a “new chapter” has been opened in its relations with the world, the country’s human rights record remains a major concern within the international community.
  • This is evidenced by a UN General Assembly resolution in December and critical reports from the Secretary General and the UN’s expert on human rights in Iran.
  • Bahá’ís, in particular, face continuing and unabated human rights violations.
  • These include unjust imprisonment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and denial of access to higher education.
  • Iran also continues its campaign of economic persecution against Bahá’ís, which is documented in a new BIC report.

UNITED NATIONS — In his third appearance before the United Nations General Assembly last September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that “a new chapter has started in Iran’s relations with the world.”

Upon his election two years ago, he said, the Iranian people had given him a “mandate for consolidating peace and constructive engagement” with the world. Citing the successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, President Rouhani said he has fulfilled that promise.

One thing President Rouhani did not mention, however, was his country’s record on human rights, which continues to be a major concern among the community of nations.

The level of concern is evidenced by a series of reports and resolutions after President Rouhani’s UN appearance that spoke powerfully about Iran’s failure to abide by international human rights law.

In December, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution by a vote of 81 to 37 with 67 abstentions expressing “serious concern” over Iran’s continuing human rights violations, the 28th such resolution since 1985. It called on the Iranian government to end a wide range of violations, including the too-frequent use of the death penalty, failure to uphold legal due process, restrictions on freedom of expression, and ongoing discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and religious minorities.

The General Assembly’s resolution came after a report in October by the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmad Shaheed, who said Iran continues to violate the rights of its citizens, also in a wide range of areas. And Dr. Shaheed’s report followed one by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who also expressed concern over continuing violations — listing similar concerns over executions, freedom of expression and assembly, and discrimination against minorities.

The situation of Bahá’ís

All three actions — the resolution and the two reports — specifically referred to the situation of Iranian Bahá’ís, who continue to face persecution for their religious beliefs.

The General Assembly, for example, expressed “serious concern about ongoing severe limitations and restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” noting specifically the case of Bahá’ís, and also calling for Iran to release the seven imprisoned Bahá’í leaders, who have been wrongly detained since 2008.

Dr. Shaheed’s report devoted three paragraphs to the situation of Iranian Bahá’ís, noting among other things that 74 Bahá’ís were imprisoned as of June 2015, and that authorities “continue to summon, interrogate and arrest Bahá’ís, and close down businesses” belonging to Bahá’ís.

Mr. Ban likewise noted that “authorities have not relaxed restrictions on members of the Bahá’í community,” noting reports of “severe constraints on their professional activities,” fresh arrests, and “incidents of desecration of Bahá’í cemeteries.”

Representatives of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) say the UN’s concern is justified.

“Certainly for Iranian Bahá’ís, the government’s policy of systematic and widespread persecution remains unchanged,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the BIC to the UN, who welcomed the General Assembly’s resolution. “It shows that the international community remains aware and concerned about Iran’s continued violations of the rights of its citizens in a wide range of areas, despite government rhetoric to the contrary and its promises to improve.”

Ms. Dugal noted that in November, just as the General Assembly began to consider its resolution, Iranian authorities arrested 20 Bahá’ís in three cities and closed at least 28 Bahá’í businesses in another six. “Such actions demonstrate the wide-ranging and centrally directed nature of the government’s anti-Bahá’í program.”

80 Bahá’ís in prison

As of December 2015, more than 80 Bahá’ís were imprisoned in Iran. All of the charges against them are related solely to their religious belief and practice. Typically, for example, Bahá’ís who are imprisoned are accused of things like “activities against national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” and/or “membership in the unlawful ‘Bahaism’ administration.”

Diane Ala’i, a representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN in Geneva, explained the government’s rationale for these charges at a Forum on Minority Issues on 25 November 2015, saying that the “lack of fair treatment that Bahá’ís face in the criminal justice system stems from the Iranian government’s false assertion that membership in the Bahá’í Faith is considered to be ‘acting against the security of the State.’”

“Therefore a simple observance of one’s holy day, or providing spiritual education to children and youth, or even putting some flowers on the tomb of a departed relative can provide sufficient evidence for one’s being imprisoned, sometimes for many years,” said Ms. Ala’i. “Members of the revolutionary guards do not simply enter the home of Bahá’ís, they storm into them, ransacking the rooms and confiscating such ‘dangerous’ items as books with religious content and photos of spiritual figures of the Bahá’í Faith.”

Since President Rouhani came to power, the arrest and detention of Bahá’ís has continued — despite his election campaign promises to end discrimination based on religion. Since 2005, more than 800 Bahá’ís have been arrested — and at least 125 of these arrests have occurred President Rouhani’s election.

The government continues to prevent young Bahá’ís from attending university by blocking release of their entrance examinations, or expelling them if they do enroll. Since August 2013, at least 25 Bahá’ís have been expelled. In addition, attacks on Bahá’í cemeteries have also continued, with attackers going unpunished.

Economic persecution

Bahá’ís also faced numerous incidents of economic persecution last year. Many were documented in a Bahá’í International Community report, “Their Progress and Development Are Blocked” — The economic oppression of Iran’s Bahá’ís, published in October. It recorded more than 780 incidents of direct economic persecution against Iranian Bahá’ís since 2007, such as shop closures, dismissals, the actual or threatened revocation of business licenses, and other actions to suppress economic activity.

In October 2014, for example, Iranian authorities descended on some 80 Bahá’í-owned shops in the cities of Kerman, Rafsanjan, and Jiroft, placing official seals of closure on their doors and posting banners saying the shops had been closed due to “violations of trading rules” after shop owners had closed their establishments in observance of important Bahá’í holy days. Similar incidents occurred in April and May 2015, when government agents closed at least 35 shops in some of those same cities, and again in October 2015, as Ms. Dugal noted, when agents closed at least 28 shops in six cities.

“These recent incidents are about far more than a trampling of religious sensibilities,” said the report. “They reflect the latest element of Iran’s long-running, government-directed campaign to suppress the economic livelihood of its Bahá’í citizens — a focus on closing small shops and businesses. This focus is significant since such small enterprises remain virtually the only way left for Iranian Bahá’ís to earn a living.”

The report also detailed the scope of a continuing anti-Bahá’í propaganda campaign, one that has actually expanded since President Rouhani took office. Over the course of 20 months, from January 2014 through August 2015, the report said, government-controlled media in Iran, including websites, published more than 7,000 anti-Bahá’í articles.

Many of these articles “seem calculated to suppress the economic activity of Iranian Bahá’ís,” the report said, inasmuch as they often “repeat fatwas stating that Bahá’ís are ‘unclean’ and suggest that good Iranians should refuse to associate with them or patronize their shops and businesses.”