There have been many heroes and heroines in Iran in recent weeks. We have seen thousands take to the streets, risking arrest or even worse, in support of democracy.
Women have been in the forefront of these peaceful protests, which have, shamefully, been met with violence. It is their rights and hopes that are most under threat.
It is a fight for freedom and justice that Shirin Ebadi, the remarkable Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace laureate, has been leading for decades. Dr Ebadi, a heroine of mine and thousands more around the world, has been tireless in her efforts to represent those facing persecution.
It was typical of her bravery, and her belief in the importance of justice, that she announced she would defend the leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community who were arrested last year before the latest protests. The reaction of the authorities was also typical. Her offices were raided and shut down, angry mobs appeared outside her home and she, and her family, received renewed and serious threats to their safety.
This will have come as little surprise to Dr Ebadi. Not only is she regarded as a thorn in the side of the Iranian authorities, but the Baha’i community, the country’s largest religious minority, has also been the target for severe persecution for much of its history.
For more than 100 years, the followers of the Baha’i faith, a world religion that has its roots in Iran, have faced discrimination and persecution for having progressive ideals that place great emphasis on the unity of religion, the equality of the sexes and the right to education. Bahai’is have been prevented from following their faith, on penalty of imprisonment and even execution.
Their fundamental rights continue to be violated. Arrests remain widespread and arbitrary. Baha’i children are bullied by school officials. Followers of the Baha’i faith can be denied access to higher education and banned from civil service posts. Pensions have been revoked and inheritances refused on grounds of Baha’i belief. Holy sites and graves have been destroyed.
The campaign against the Baha’i community reached a new intensity last spring when its seven-strong national leadership was arrested in dawn raids. More than a year after detention without charge or access to a lawyer, the prisoners’ families have finally been told a court date has been set for this Saturday.
We don’t yet know the charges. But Iranian news reports have suggested that the national committee stands accused of everything from “espionage for Israel” to “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. Such charges carry very serious penalties in Iran, including the death penalty.
What is also very worrying are reports that the case will be heard by the same Revolutionary Court that recently tried, in secret, the US journalist Roxana Saberi. After proceedings lasting only one day, she was sentenced to eight years in jail.
It was only after the international outcry at this parody of justice and the severity of the sentence that she received another trial. This reduced her sentence to a two-year term that was suspended on appeal.
We need the same international pressure now, before the court case, to ensure the seven men and women receive a fair trial and a chance of justice. They must be given full access to their lawyers, who must have time to prepare their defence. The court proceedings must be open to independent observation.
Indeed, we must step up the pressure to ensure that Iran lives up to its international obligations not just on fair trials but on religious freedom. The Iranian constitution supposedly protects the rights of the country’s religious minorities. The reality, as many following other faiths in Iran can attest, is very different. And the 300,000 strong Baha’i community is deliberately excluded from even this nominal protection. Not only do they have no right to practice their faith, they are regarded as heretics who have abandoned Islam.
This gives the Iranian state an open invitation to mistreat and persecute followers of a religion which has a shared belief in the fundamental tenets of all the world’s leading religions and prophets. Far from posing a threat to the Government, its followers are expected to avoid political partisanship as an article of faith.
There is nothing secret about Iran’s systematic ill treatment of the Baha’i — a campaign that has worsened under President Ahmadinejad. The UK, European Union, US Congress, Canadian Senate, Australian Parliament and a range of leading non-governmental organisations have all monitored and condemned their mistreatment. The European Parliament condemned earlier this year the harassment of Dr Ebadi and the closure of her offices, and urged the release of the seven Baha’i leaders, who, it is believed, were imprisoned “solely on the basis of their belief’.
From within Iran, too, students and academics, artists and poets, political and social progressives have also bravely spoken up for the beleaguered Baha’i community. They, in turn, are now feeling the brunt of the state’s anger.
However, we must make sure that our understandable focus on the pro-democracy protests and their bloody suppression does not cause us to overlook the threat to the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. It is at times such as these that the Iranian authorities historically have heaped blame on the Baha’i population.
A fortnight ago, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, accused the British Government of supporting the “wayward Baha’i sect”. Banners have been paraded through Tehran’s streets displaying the words “BBC = Baha’i Broadcasting Company”. Today Iran’s Baha’is face a very uncertain, dangerous future.
We must urge the Iranian Government to give the leaders of the Baha’i community a fair trial and allow independent observers access to ensure this happens. We must also call on Iran to live up to its international obligations to protect all its citizens and allow them to hold and practise their religious beliefs without discrimination or fear.
Shirin Ebadi is a courageous woman and a brilliant advocate. But we cannot let her carry this burden on her own.
Cherie Blair, a barrister at Matrix Chambers.