As the Iranian government struggles to contain growing demands for freedom and democracy from its courageous people, it is flailing around trying to deflect blame for the protests. Foreign media and other countries, including Britain, have been accused of encouraging unrest. But the regime is also worryingly turning on all too familiar scapegoats within Iran.
Once again, followers of the Bahá’í faith within the country are in the firing line. Fresh arrests and harassment of Bahá’ís in recent days have been accompanied by increasingly extreme proclamations in the state-run media against this gentle and unifying religion. Bahá’ís find themselves once more accused of co-operating with Israel to undermine their own country.
What is even more disturbing is news that the long-delayed trial of the country’s seven-strong Bahá’í leadership is about to start. Lawyers acting for the five men and two women have been told that the revolutionary court will begin to hear the case today.
The Bahá’ís have learned to treat such announcements by the court with suspicion. Their leaders have been imprisoned now for almost two years without formal charge. Their lawyers have faced continual obstruction and harassment in preparing their defence, including long periods when they have simply been refused access to their clients. Repeated delays and rescheduling of the trial are another example of the authorities’ contempt for justice.
The hostile environment raises new fears that the defendants will be denied even the semblance of a fair trial. Although it is not clear, it appears the Bahá’í leadership may face unwarranted charges such as espionage for Israel and “spreading corruption on earth”, which both carry the death penalty.
The continued imprisonment of the leadership has already drawn international protest. But this pressure must be stepped up. The revolutionary court system is secretive; the only chance of justice being served is for the case to be held in open court so proceedings can be independently monitored. The Iranian government will be desperate to keep this abuse of justice quiet. They must be shamed into changing their mind.
International pressure does have an impact. The storm of protest over the sham trial and severe punishment of US journalist Roxana Saberi last year forced President Ahmadinejad himself to intervene. His move led to the guilty verdict and eight-year sentence imposed by the revolutionary court being thrown out and the journalist freed.
But along with demands for a fair trial, we need to step up pressure on the Iranian government to drop the intimidation and harassment of other religious minorities, too. When leading British Bahá’ís approached me last year for advice on human rights, I was shocked to hear about the record of persecution the followers of an intrinsically peaceful faith had suffered.
The Iranian constitution may promise religious freedom but the reality is different, as the 300,000-strong Bahá’í community knows to its cost. Bahá’ís have suffered persecution in Iran since the religion was founded, in the mid-19th century. But this has been stepped up since the Islamic revolution in 1979, with the elimination of the Bahá’í faith becoming state policy. Hundreds have faced torture and execution; thousands have been imprisoned; and arrests remain common and arbitrary.
At the heart of this persecution is theology. Bahá’ís see their faith as an independent world religion that builds on the prophets and scriptures of other faiths. This is anathema to the Iranian regime, which has designated them “unprotected infidels”, giving the authorities a free hand to flout legal protections.
More than six decades ago the right of every individual to freedom of thought, conscience and religion was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Bahá’ís are not asking for special privileges but just that this fundamental right is met.
The trial of the Bahá’í leaders should matter to all who care about human rights. In Iran, for the Bahá’í community among others, the fight for human rights has become a matter of life and death.
Cherie Blair, a barrister at Matrix Chambers in London. She is married to Tony Blair, the envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, and former prime minister. She chairs the Cherie Blair foundation, working to strengthen the capacity of women entrepreneurs in countries where they lack equal opportunities.