Vahid Tizfahm was released from prison in Iran on March 19 – the day before the Persian new year, Norooz. He is the last of the seven former members of the “Yaran” (or “Friends”) of Iran, an informal leadership group for Iran’s persecuted Baha’i religious minority, to be released or granted leave after spending 10 years in jail.
Ten years is a long time. Barack Obama was still just campaigning for the presidency back in 2008; and in Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in his own first term as president, a year away from the street protests that followed his disputed reelection. Neda Agha-Soltan was still alive. The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva was inaugurated that year; it went on to discover the Higgs Boson, the so-called “God Particle,” and win physicist Peter Higgs a Nobel Prize. The iPhone was less than a year old and used mostly by geeky early adopters. Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.
And in that same year, seven Iranian Baha’is were arrested and jailed for a decade. Each has been gradually released in recent months – and only now are they all free. (The final member of the Yaran yet to formally conclude his sentence, Afif Naeimi, is currently on medical leave from prison.)
The members of the now-disbanded Yaran – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm – were arrested in 2008 because of their faith.
A Long History of Persecution and Outlandish Charges
The Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority (with at least 300,000 adherents) and they are systematically persecuted by the government. More than 200 Baha’is were executed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution; since then, thousands of young Baha’is have been barred from attending university, hundreds of Baha’i-owned businesses have been closed by the authorities, nearly a hundred are in jail, and the Baha’is are vilified by some clerics and the media. The established clergy rejects Baha’i ideals – such as the equality of men and women – and calls the Baha’is “unclean” apostates because they believe in divine messengers that came after the Prophet Mohammad.
The Yaran spent months without access to lawyers or any knowledge of what crimes they had allegedly committed. When the charges were finally handed down, they were outlandish: the seven Baha’is were accused of espionage, links to foreigners and Zionists, spreading propaganda against the regime and a crime translated from Persian as “spreading corruption on earth,” a capital offense under Iran’s religious laws.
Human rights campaigners and government officials in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere have all insisted that these Baha’is are innocent of their alleged crimes. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and lawyer for the Yaran, said that there was “not a shred of evidence” for the charges against her clients.
A further accusation – that the Yaran had established an “illegal administration” – exposed the Iranian judiciary’s dishonesty. The Baha’is had disbanded their elected bodies in the 1980s after the revolution, on instructions from the new government. The Yaran was an informal body that saw to a minimum of the Baha’i community’s needs – arranging for such fundamentals as marriages and burials. And it existed with the full knowledge of the Iranian government.
The trial for the Yaran did not begin until January 2010 – almost two years after they were arrested. The Baha’i International Community said at the time that the first session was “marked by numerous violations” of legal due process. Lawyers for the Yaran had to argue their way into the session while a film crew and the prisoners’ own interrogators were seen entering the courtroom.
And so it was no surprise when the trial – after three closed sessions, some of which the Yaran themselves declined to participate in due to irregularities, and a fourth session to which their families were finally admitted – resulted in 20-year sentences handed down against each of the Baha’is. The sentences were later reduced to 10 years apiece because of a change in the law.
The Iranian Government’s Losing Battle
The Yaran were gone. But a decade of extraordinary twists was set to follow. And as much as these people were forced to bear the constant crises of interrogations, cramped prison cells, lack of bedding and even beds, long stretches in solitary confinement, and personal tragedies, their incarceration was marked by victories that attest to the losing battle that Iran’s government insists on waging against the Baha’is.
Jamaloddin Khanjani, a successful industrialist before the revolution and the eldest member of the group, who entered prison at the age of 73, lost his wife in 2011 after he had spent three years in jail. The authorities refused to grant him temporary leave to attend the funeral. But 8,000 others went; Baha’is of course, and also people from most other religious backgrounds. Khanjani’s incarceration and what he went through in prison give good examples of the sorrows and joys felt by each of the Yaran – and of their painful lives on the inside. A granddaughter married during his early years in prison and gave birth to her own child; again, Khanjani saw none of this with his own eyes. His health also deteriorated and authorities refused to grant him a single medical leave during his 10-year sentence.
The international community soon got involved. Six Nobel Peace Prize laureates, all women, issued a statement in 2008 calling for the Yaran’s release. A global day of action was held on June 12, 2010, the same day as the fourth and final trial. The Canadian prime minister, the European Union and the United Kingdom all issued statements on that day, calling for fair treatment of the Yaran. People around the world, from Brazil to Germany to many other countries, staged peaceful demonstrations to raise awareness of the imprisonment of the Yaran and to call for their release. And over the years the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran’s human rights issued report after report mentioning the Yaran specifically and calling for their release.
The Iranian government surely hoped that jailing the Yaran would cause them to be forgotten. But this hope was failing – helped by the world and by the Yaran themselves.
Prison as a Platform
Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2012 on a wave of support for reform and vowing to improve the recognition of Iranians’ rights. He touted a “Charter of Citizens' Rights” to meet this promise. But the Charter failed in a key test: the rights of the Baha’is. Iran’s constitution recognizes Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as religious minorities; the Baha’is, the largest minority, are excluded. Baha’is are unprotected by the law and Rouhani’s new Charter did nothing to rectify this exclusion.
The Yaran heard Rouhani’s promises. In 2013, they wrote to Rouhani, saying that they were “impelled by a moral duty towards our homeland ... to add our voice” to the discussion on citizen’s rights. Their message was respectful but uncompromising: “none of these aspirations [for progress] can be accomplished unless social and legal conditions make it possible for all the constituent elements of society to be treated equally and well, for all individuals to be accorded their basic human rights, and for no one to be subjugated and oppressed by reason of their ethnicity, gender, religious belief, or any other distinction.” Prison became a platform for the Yaran.
A glimpse of their lives inside prison also began to emerge. Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist, was arrested in Iran in 2009 and spent 101 days in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Saberi happened to share a cell with two of the Yaran – Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet – and after her release and return to the United States she was able to share her experiences in that cell. “Mahvash and Fariba also taught me compassion,” Saberi wrote in 2017, “even for our interrogators, who subjected us to relentless questioning, pressured us to confess to false charges and threatened us with long sentences and even execution.”
“Bad things happen to all of us,” one of the Yaran women told Saberi. “What matters is how we deal with them.”
Saberi was not the last high-profile cellmate to meet Kamalabadi and Sabet. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former politician and an outspoken activist, was jailed in Evin Prison in 2012 for six months after criticizing the government; in jail, she met the two Yaran women. Faezeh, as she is widely called in Iran, is also the daughter of the late former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Her profile meant that, when Kamalabadi was released for a brief prison furlough in 2016, prompting Faezeh to not only visit her former cellmate but to publicly share a photo of her with Kamalabadi and other Baha’is, the reaction inside and outside Iran was electric.
Faezeh told IranWire after visiting Kamalabadi that “My relations with Fariba and others [in prison] were friendly. I see this as a human rights issue. I believe that Baha’is should be allowed to enjoy all human rights, just like other citizens. They have no rights. It does not matter that I am a Muslim and they are Baha’is, or which religion is good and which one is bad. This is not the question. The question is human rights. and unfortunately certain sections of our society are denied basic rights. This is not acceptable — and Islam does not accept this discrimination either. There are many statements in Islam and Koranic verses that refer to this. We have the advice that Imam Ali gave to his companions, which says you have to observe the rights of those who do not share your faith. So what we see here is not Islamic behavior. This is what we are witnessing in the Islamic Republic.”
State media tried to discredit Faezeh after her visit. But Iranians had been exposed to this sight of a prominent activist associating with the Baha’is – and it was the government that suffered a further loss of credibility because of its actions.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer, shared a cell with Kamalabadi for over two years. “The Baha’i community is still under pressure,” she said, “but now the media, technology and social networks are ending the indifference of public opinion towards these sufferings. I hope this a prelude for the public to use its power and force the government to respect the rights of all Iranian citizens including the Baha’is.”
Poetry in Prison
One person in particular came to symbolize the Yaran’s plight over the years. Mahvash Sabet was a schoolteacher and principal before the revolution; afterward, because of her faith, she was dismissed from public education. Sabet later served for 15 years as the director of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an “underground university” created to give young Baha’is barred from university a chance to study. But once she was in prison she found her voice as a poet.
Sabet wrote poems about suffering and hope and shared these with her fellow inmates. A few poems made it outside the prison walls. And after several years, enough had been collected and adapted from the Persian by the writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani to become the book Prison Poems. Sabet was recognized by PEN International – which dedicated the 2014 Day of the Imprisoned Writer to her – and after Sabet’s release in September 2017 she was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for International Writer of Courage.
The Irish poet Michael Longley, who shared his Pinter Prize with Sabet, called her a “songbird trapped in a cage,” adding that “Mahvash is at heart a lyrical poet who sings the beauty of the world. Her imagination is rhapsodic. Her poems want to soar. I rejoice that she has been released from prison. Her incarceration by the Iranian authorities was a sin against the light.”
Sabet’s “most unhappy” experience in prison, she said after her release, was being denied news from the Baha’i community and Baha’i texts. And she had a “hard time” over her seven months in solitary confinement, saying in an interview with Qantara: “I saw it as a kind of struggle between what was right, that which I carried in my heart, and the misconceptions in the minds of those who were keeping me locked up.”
But Sabet’s poetry suggested that Evin was not the prison; rather, the prison was injustice itself, not only in Iran but around the world. “Beyond those gates,” she wrote, “another world, another race, a people poisoned and oppressed by woe; they stared wearily at us, the prisoners we faced, with sunken eyes, lack-luster, circled with sorrow.”
“Our experience can be realized across the whole of Iran.”
The released Baha’is do not seem afraid that, if they talk, the authorities will come crashing down on them again. But they have not criticized their jailers in anger, preferring to praise their fellow inmates and simply pointing to the poverty of an ideology that relies on discrimination and fear.
Saeed Rezaie, one of the Yaran members, experienced this first-hand in prison. “Both ordinary and political prisoners looked at us as their compatriots,” he said after his release in February. “In prison, we achieved co-existence with political prisoners who thought differently from us, and this was an extraordinary experience for both sides. Now we have no doubt that if Iranian people were free and if their minds were not poisoned against each other, they could live together. Our experience can be realized across the whole of Iran.”
Rezaie also confirmed that the espionage charge against him and his fellow Yaran members had a dubious provenance.
“The counter-espionage department of the Intelligence Ministry had issued a letter saying that up to the point we were arrested they had found no evidence that we were spies,” Rezaie told IranWire. He added that their lawyer suggested to the judge that he was “ahead of the prosecution” in assuming guilt on the espionage charge.
Rezaie also added that the international community’s efforts to raise awareness about human rights in Iran was essential work. “In prison this coverage made us happy,” he said. “Don’t believe that covering this news is futile.”
Kamalabadi was released in October 2016 with her own stories of harsh prison conditions and unfeeling guards. And she commented on Faezeh’s visits to her during her prison furlough. “She is following Islamic teachings,” Kamalabadi said. “Many people and officials are like her but a minority views things wrongly. Their way of thinking, however, prevails. Many others are real Muslims, like Ms. Hashemi. Nothing unusual has happened, but the conditions have become such that it looks strange if somebody follows the teaching of her or his religion.”
Generations of Disinformation
Vahid Tizfahm spoke exclusively to IranWire just hours after his release on March 19. He said that his interrogations, in the early months of his imprisonment, came with insults, humiliation and sometimes physical abuse, and he called this kind of treatment “integral” to life in Evin Prison. A painful example was the way Tizfahm’s interrogators used the story of his father – who was executed by the government in 1982 – against him.
“I was abused and interrogated and could not give the appropriate answer to that interrogator,” Tizfahm said. “He always called me the ‘son of the hanged-man.’ It really pained me psychologically. For me, my father is not a ‘hanged-man’. For me, he is a martyr who sacrificed his life for his faith, for Iran and for all of us.”
The father’s sacrifice may well have yielded something for his son. Tizfahm said that the “best achievement” of the Yaran’s time in prison was their encounter with members of Iran’s civil society.
“This was a chance for us to be cellmates,” Tizfahm said, “with journalists, political activists and prisoners of conscience like religious converts, especially after the aftermath of the [disputed 2009 presidential election]. They were many discerning, educated and deep individuals who got to know the Baha’i community and our beliefs.” Iranians have been fed generations of disinformation about the Baha’is by the clergy so this one shift represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes.
One of Tizfahm’s fellow inmates told him that prison was the “trash can” of society. “But even if you search the trash can of a house,” the prisoner said, “you might find jewels in them. You are the jewels that have been thrown in here.”
Tizfahm’s release a day before the Persian new year gave him a chance to offer Norooz (meaning “new day”) greetings to his fellow Iranians. “As a Baha’i,” he said, “I wish happiness and prosperity for Iran. ... God willing, with the help of Baha’is and non-Baha’is — and only as human beings and Iranians — we can join hands to achieve a prosperous, thriving, democratic and dynamic Iran.”
Ten years is a long time. Now that the former Yaran are out of prison, and because of their imprisonment, perhaps more Iranians than ever before bid them the same happiness and prosperity that Vahid Tizfahm mentioned after his release. All of which means that somehow, despite its best efforts, the Iranian government has spent 10 years of energy and time, money, international credibility and moral authority on jailing these seven Baha’is — and what was actually achieved was the start of a new day.
Interviews by Aida Ghajar, Natasha Schmidt, IranWire staff and Qantara.de