On Tuesday, March 8, Behzad Zabihi Mahforouzaki, a member of Iran’s Baha’i minority, was arrested for the fourth time in the past five years. Zabihi, a resident of the city of Sari in northern Iran, owned a shop that sold eyeglasses. On the day of his arrest, authorities also closed down his shop for the third time.
Mahforouzaki spent seven days in a detention center run by Sari’s Intelligence Bureau, before being released on bail of 90 million tomans ($30,000). Zabihi says he was arrested illegally and subjected to torture and insults. He also says he was pressured to abandon the Baha’i faith. His family was prevented from visiting him in jail.
The following report is based on Zabihi’s account of those seven days.
1. Illegal Search and Arrest
Five agents of the Intelligence Ministry entered Zabihi’s home with an unsigned, handwritten warrant that lacked the letterhead or stamp of the judiciary. They searched the house and seized religious books, computers, and mobile phones. When Zabihi pointed out that the arrest warrant and search were not legal, they told him “we are going to arrest you with this paper and you can file a complaint against us.”
Throughout the house search, the agents continually insulted the Baha’i faith, using words such as “heretic,” “infidel,” “apostate,” “Israeli,” and “fake religion.” They told him, “You do incest and make your wife available to any man. You have no God and instead worship your prophet.”
Later, when Zabihi brought up the illegal behavior of the agents with the assistant prosecutor, he was told that the warrant had been legal.
2. Torture and Beatings
When Zabihi was being transferred to the Intelligence Bureau’s jail, he was handcuffed and was ordered to put his head between his knees. On the way to jail, he was repeatedly assaulted and subjected to further insults. Upon arriving at the jail, one agent told the prison official, “come and take away this unclean Baha’i. Be careful not to pollute yourself when you are taking the handcuffs off.”
3. Sealing Off Zabihi’s Business
In the afternoon of the same day, the agents of the Public Space Police, under the supervision of the Intelligence Bureau’s interrogator, sealed off Zabihi’s eyeglasses shop, even though his business had not broken any laws. His permit had been renewed for five years, and he had paid his business taxes regularly. On November 13, 2015, his business had been illegally sealed off for nine days because he had closed the shop for one day for a Baha’i religious holiday.
4. Disruptive Intervention of the Intelligence Bureau’s Interrogator in the Investigation
At 1:45pm on Wednesday, March 9, after 30 hours in detention, Zabihi was taken to Branch 6 of the Sari Prosecutor’s Office to be told of charges against him. This phase of the legal process is exclusively for informing the accused of his charges, and for answering questions posed by the examining magistrate. But the Intelligence Bureau’s interrogator was present during proceedings and prevented Zabihi from answering questions and defending himself.
The interrogator frequently preempted Zabihi and answered in his place, trying to confuse the examining magistrate, and to convince him to extend Zabihi’s detention so he would spend Iranian New Year holidays in jail. Zabihi asked the magistrate to release him so that he could attend to his year-end financial obligations. He also asked him not to issue an indictment because his case lacked convincing evidence, but the interrogator intervened and prevented the magistrate from deciding in Zabihi’s favor.
The assistant prosecutor issued an explicit order that Zabihi was allowed to phone or meet with his family, but the agents of the Intelligence Bureau refused to honor the judicial order and prevented his family from visiting him. They even refused to receive and pass on his medication, in violation of the law.
5. Invitation to Religious Debate
On the third day of his detention, one of Zabihi’s interrogators told him that if he agreed to participate in a religious debate about the Baha’is faith and Islam, “the interrogations would be off the table and you will be done sooner.” Zabihi refused the invitation and pointed out that the interrogators had repeatedly warned him that religious minorities in Iranian are not allowed to engage in religious debates and proselytizing. At midnight on March 14, which was Zabihi’s last night in solitary confinement, the interrogator played a tape of statements made by Mahnaz Raoufi, a convert from the Baha’i faith to Islam, and told him “I would like you to understand that your religion is a fake religion, and I want to guide you towards the true religion of Islam.”
6. Religious Inquisition Instead of Investigation
When Zabihi was arrested, he was charged with “propaganda against the regime,” but was later told he was accused of “propaganda against Islam and the Koran.” By changing the charge, the interrogator wanted to focus his questions on the religious beliefs and the commands of the Baha’i faith, so that Zabihi’s case would grow in volume, and the interrogator could prove Zabihi’s guilt not by his actions, but by his words.
The interrogator insisted that Zabihi must answer questions about his beliefs, even though Article 23 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic explicitly states that “the investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
7. No Formal Case and No Examining Magistrate
In the process of arresting and interrogating Behzad Zabihi, authorities violated the law in many other ways. These violations mean that his case does not conform to the standards of a proper judicial process. The interrogator said the case had been opened on the basis of “a report by the public,” but the case lacks any evidence of a crime.
The case was registered at Branch 8 of the Revolutionary Court’s Prosecutor’s Office, but at the time, the examining magistrate of the branch was on a leave of absence. The president of the Revolutionary Court, who also functions as the assistant prosecutor, referred Zabihi’s family sometimes to Branch 6, sometimes to Branch 8 of the court. When the family went to Branch 6, the branch’s examining magistrate told them that after informing the accused of his charges, the case had been sent to Branch 8, and it was no longer his responsibility. But when they went to Branch 8, they could not get any answers.
The leave of absence by the examining magistrate of Branch 8 also delayed the writ for setting his bail.
8. Repeated Trumped-Up Charges
In the course of his multiple arrests, the Intelligence Ministry interrogators repeatedly told Zabihi, “You Baha’is have no place in this country. You are third-class citizens and you have no civil rights. We cannot tolerate your presence and eventually you must leave this country.” These sentiments were also expressed to his family. And so it seems that Zabihi was arrested only because of his Baha’i faith, and that the intention behind his arrest was to force him and his family to leave Iran to escape pressure and harassment.