One of the common tools the Islamic Republic authorities use to harass Baha’is is to close up their shops and places of business without any warning or justification. Ten months ago, they did this to 90 Baha’i shop owners in Nowshahr, a picturesque port and tourist destination on the Caspian Sea.
One of the shops was run by Arastoo Asadi, a Baha’i welder. Since authorities sealed up his shop, he has been conducting his business on the sidewalk in front of his business, using the battery in his car to weld.
He has done everything he could. He has gone to every municipal and provincial government office that he could think of. But each time, officials claim that they have no record or case to explain why, in November 2016, on a Baha’i religious holiday, the Prosecutor’s Office of Mazandaran province ordered the police to shut down and seal up more than 90 places of business belonging to this oppressed religious minority.
Asadi keeps hoping that authorities will allow him back into his own shop before the rainy season starts and the winter sets in. Winter weather would not be kind to a welder working on the sidewalk.
The story received widespread attention when one of Asadi’s customers posted photographs of him working on the sidewalk on social network sites, a post that was shared by many.
“It was November 1, 2016, and a religious holiday for us,” says Asadi. “My wife and I had traveled to Tehran to visit our two children. The neighbors called and said that the Public Places Police had sealed the shop.”
No Warrant, No Answers
Erfan, another Baha’i shopkeeper, told IranWire: “Before sealing the shop, they did not show me a warrant, and since that day I have not received any notices. I never imagined that I would get caught up in such a situation.”
After returning to Nowshahr, Asadi and his friends knocked on every door to find out what was going on, from the prosecutor’s office to the police, and even on the door of the town’s Friday Prayers leader. The office of the provincial government refused to even listen to them. So they traveled to Tehran to appeal to the president’s office, the Interior Ministry and the parliament’s Article 90 Committee, which is authorized to investigate all complaints against the judiciary and the executive. But they got no answers then, and have yet to receive any since.
Neighbors of the Baha’is whose businesses were sealed signed an affidavit and took it to the city governor’s office, declaring that they were unhappy about the situation and urging for it to be resolved. They all expressed their dismay. Erfan says that not a single ordinary person was happy that his shop or others belonging to the Baha’is had been shut down. He says this response shows people’s moral maturity and the recognition that nobody’s faith justifies the violation of their human rights.
Arastoo Asadi did his best to solve the problem, up until March 21, when the new Iranian calendar year began. Then he decided to bring his trade to the sidewalk so that his family would not go hungry. “Life is not easy but I’ve got to work,” he told IranWire. “I do have customers but it has not been easy. In the summer days, I have to work under the scorching sun. But how can I continue in the winter cold when the rains start?”
For a long time after enquiring at various offices, Asadi and his friends still did not know which authority had ordered their shops to be sealed. Finally, a confidential letter by the prosecutor was leaked and published online.
“I cannot understand why they want to put us in a bad financial situation,” says Erfan. “Before the prosecutor’s letter was published on the internet, I knew nothing about what was going on. All government offices told us that it was the prosecutor’s order. But there was no formal court case or indictment. They just don’t want to accept any responsibility. But government offices have to do what they have been ordered to do. They are not really guilty, because they are just carrying out orders.”
Most of these shopkeepers have no other source of income and almost all must support several dependents. Arastoo Asadi is one of them. He is 50 and supports a family of four. The only thing that he knows is welding. “I tried to serve my community but now that I am 50, what new job can I start?”
He is not sure how long he can continue this way. “We told the honorable prosecutor of Nowshahr that if we had broken any laws then he should inform us and that by law the police must form a case within a week, inform us of our charges, send the case to the judge and let the judicial system process the case. I really don’t know what my crime is. But they say that there are no cases about us in any of the branches. Even the head of the Mazandaran provincial Bureau of Justice told me he could not find a record of us in their computer system. He told us to go back to our town because he had no information about our case.”
What Crime Have We Committed?
Erfan had a similar experience. He says that when he went to government offices he was asked to sign a commitment letter printed on paper without a letterhead and which had no identification on it as to who the relevant authority was. The letter required Baha’i shop owners to promise that they would not close their shops on Baha’i holidays.
“If, for reasons other than the official holidays of the country, I want to close down my place of business,” states the letter, “I will be obliged to inform the police, and if they agree, then I can close the shop. Otherwise, if I act against the text of this commitment then I will be dealt with according to the laws and the regulations.”
That the shopkeepers are not even given access to basic information about which authority has handed down these orders shows just how entrenched these violations against the Baha’is are.
“It is our minimum human right to know what authority is asking for our commitment,” says Erfan. “We must know what laws we have broken and what agency is demanding our commitment. By itself, this commitment is a violation of individual rights and even the constitution.”
But none of the Baha’i shopkeepers have any complaints against the people of Nowshahr. They point out how supportive they have been, and say they greatly appreciate the kindness people have shown them.