Health workers are the front line in our defense against the coronavirus pandemic – including hundreds of Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. But they are not in Iran; instead, they live in countries around the world, treating their patients, where they are admired and praised by the people and governments of the countries where they live. The one country where they cannot do their work is Iran.
Many of these doctors and nurses – who studied and served in Iran – lost their jobs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They were expelled from the universities and their public sector jobs, barred from practicing medicine, jailed and tortured, and a considerable number of them perished on the gallows or in front of firing squads.
The crime of these Baha’i doctors, nurses and other health workers was their faith in a religion that the rulers of the Islamic Republic believe is a “deviant” faith.
In a new series of articles, called “For the Love of Their Country,” IranWire tells the stories of some of these Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. In this installment you will read the story of Dr. Bahram Afnan, a Baha'i from Shiraz, who was executed in 1983 on the eve of his fiftieth birthday.
If you know a Baha’i health worker and have a first-hand story of his or her life, let IranWire know.
On the evening of June 16, 1983, six Baha'i prisoners, from a 34-year-old man to a 66-year-old man, were taken to Chogan Square in Shiraz to be executed. They were among 22 Baha'is who had been sentenced to death by the Shiraz Revolutionary Court even before a trial.
Two days earlier, a leading cleric in Shiraz had summoned the the Baha’is and, while they were being tortured, offered them a choice: "Islam or execution?" The six refused to recant their faith and were hanged together. One of them was Bahram Afnan, a doctor, who was executed two days after his fiftieth birthday.
Birth and Education
Bahram Afnan was born to a Baha'i family in Shiraz on June 18, 1933. His father, Siyyid Mehdi Afnan, was descended from Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the Bab, the founder of the Babi faith in Iran. Bahram’s father Mehdi was studious and educated. He was also a translator. Bahram’s mother, Noraniyeh, was the daughter of Andalib, a famous Baha’i poet. Growing up in a cultured family gave Bahram a love of learning from childhood to the end of his life.
Bahram went to elementary school in Shiraz. His father's house was in Shamshirgarha Alley, in Shiraz, which was near the historic house of the Bab. The house was destroyed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Bahram passed his teenage years in Abadan and Khorramshahr. The Afnan family had moved due to Mehdi’s work so Bahram went to high school in these cities.
He was accepted to the medical school at the Pahlavi University of Shiraz after receiving his high school diploma. He graduated with honors. The new Dr. Afnan went to the United States to continue his education.
In the 1960s, Iran had an extreme shortage of doctors. Most of the country's medical services, especially in the cities, were provided by physicians from Bangladesh, the Philippines, India and Pakistan. It was important to Bahram that he serve his compatriots – so he returned to Iran despite having the opportunity to work and live in the United States.
Dr. Bahram Afnan married Jinus Afnan Ala’i, an educated woman who worked as a midwife in Isfahan in 1972. The couple had two sons and a daughter.
Return to Iran and the Revolution
Dr. Bahram Afnan began working as an assistant professor at Pahlavi University in Shiraz after returning to Iran. He continued teaching until after the Islamic Revolution, but was expelled from university during the 1980-1983 Cultural Revolution, when many people were purged from universities and other institutions, including other Baha'is. In addition to teaching, he worked in two hospitals, Namazi and Saadi (known as Shahid Faghihi today) during the day, and at his private clinic in the evenings.
After the Revolution, the new government began expelling Baha'is from government agencies and departments. Dr. Afnan and his wife, like other Baha'is, were fired from their public sector jobs. He was banned from teaching at the university and attending prison as a doctor. Mrs. Afnan was also discharged from the hospital where she worked. But these bans did not diminish Dr. Afnan’s popularity with his patients who continued to fill his private clinic.
Detention and Torture
At four o'clock on the afternoon of October 23, 1982, Dr. Afnan was driving to his clinic when he was stopped by a private car. The Revolutionary Guards arrested him and took him to their headquarters at the end of Simetri Street in Shiraz. Others later told the Afnan family that agents had severely beaten Dr. Afnan on the way to prison. No information was given to his family for several days. Thirty-eight other Baha'is were arrested in Shiraz on the same day.
Dr. Bahram Afnan was physically and mentally abused more than any other prisoner because of his ancestral connection to the Bab. They believed that if he was tortured, and if he declared his conversion to Islam in a newspaper, other Baha'is would also convert to Islam.
Dr. Afnan was not allowed any visits for a month and a half and was held in solitary confinement. During each interrogation session, the guards beat him with thick electric cables after punching, kicking and insulting him. His cellmates were quoted as saying that the wounds caused by the cables were so deep that Dr. Afnan had difficulty breathing.
The Revolutionary Guards also repeatedly put wet sacks of horse manure on Dr. Afnan's beaten and bloodied body to increase the pain from his wounds.
Dr. Bahram Afnan was in perfect health before his imprisonment and did not have any heart problems. But the severity of the torture in prison caused him to suffer two heart attacks. And although he was taken to the hospital, where doctors tried to give him immediate treatment, he was returned to prison without being fully treated or recovered, by order of Siyyid Zia Mir-Emadi, the Revolutionary Prosecutor of Shiraz at the time.
A Baha'i has now provided IranWire with new information about this incident. He said that, one day, during Dr. Afnan’s imprisonment, he went to the hospital to repair some equipment. In one of the rooms he saw Dr. Afnan lying on a bed in an appalling physical condition. He told the head nurse so that they could take care of him. But the nurse, who was friends with him, said that Dr. Afnan was brought to the hospital not for treatment but to be hidden from inspectors.
Some time after the arrest, the Revolutionary Guards raided Dr. Afnan’s home with such brutality that it frightened Dr. Afnan's three children who ranged in age from two and a half to seven. The Guards confiscated personal belongings, including all family photos, birth certificates, marriage certificates, bank books, ownership documents and similar articles.
The Guards were aware of Dr. Afnan’s fierce love for his family. His wife was detained for two days and the children were taken from her. Mrs. Afnan was pressured to convert to Islam and to ask her husband to convert to Islam. His wife refused and told them that Dr. Afnan would never give up his beliefs – even if it cost him his life.
The pressure and torture on Dr. Afnan to change his mind was increasing – and meanwhile his patients were awaiting his return. Every day, a number of them, mostly heart patients, came to his clinic and home. Some were in the middle of their treatments and could not change doctors. A number of old and new patients tried to secure Dr. Afnan’s release by appealing to officials either through letters or personal meetings.
On December 15, 1982, in response to popular protests against the arbitrary exercise of power by some revolutionary institutions in Iran, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a new decree banning arrests and seizures without a court order. The head of the Supreme Court, Mousavi Ardebili, and the Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, were responsible for overseeing the implementation of the decree and sent inspectors to provincial capitals.
Three inspectors from Tehran traveled to Shiraz to investigate the treatment of prisoners and to inspect local prisons, including Adelabad, a detention center for Baha’is, in December 1982. This is probably the incident when Dr. Afnan was taken to hospital to be out of sight of the inspectors.
On February 12, 1982, the Khabar-e-Junub newspaper published a one-line notice from the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Shiraz. The text of the announcement was as follows:
“In the name of God! Twenty-two members of the Shiraz Baha'i organization, including those affiliated with the Israeli House of Justice, were sentenced to death, including members of the Shiraz Spiritual Assembly.”
The “Israeli House of Justice” was a reference to the governing body of the international Baha’i community, the Universal House of Justice, which is based in Haifa, Israel. This institution is in Israel because the founder of the Baha’i faith, Baha’u’llah, was exiled to Ottoman Palestine, and died there, several decades before the establishment of the State of Israel.
On February 22, 1982, the Khabar-e-Junub newspaper published an interview with Hojatoleslam Ghazaei, the religious authority and head of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court. In this interview, he warned the Baha’i community: “They should embrace Islam before it is too late.” Ghazaei went on to say the Baha’is may later be “eradicated.”
The judiciary also announced the imminent execution of 22 Baha'i prisoners, without naming them, and before they had even been tried.
The trial of these Baha’is – with their sentence already announced – began in Shiraz in April 1983, presided over by the same Ghazaei. He told the prisoners that they had two options: “Islam or execution.” Court hearings were closed and prisoners were denied the right to a lawyer.
On June 14, Ghazaei summoned six of the prisoners, including Dr. Bahram Afnan, and said to them for a final time: “Islam or execution.” All six refused to recant their faith.
On June 15, six Baha'i prisoners were visited by their families. Jinus Afnan still remembers her husband's laughter and high spirits, despite injuries sustained during his physical torture.
On the evening of June 16, 1983, six Baha'i prisoners were taken from the men's ward of Adelabad Prison in Shiraz to Chogan Square and hanged, one by one, a few hours after sunset. The bodies of the dead were taken to the forensic morgue of Shiraz at Shahrdari Square.
Some of the families were able to see the bodies of their loved ones at the morgue. But soon after, when they went to the morgue to collect the bodies, there was no trace of them.
Some time later, a nurse who had worked with Dr. Afnan informed one of the families the bodies had been sent from the morgue to Saadi Hospital, Dr. Afnan's workplace, to be given to the school of medicine for use in autopsy training.
After Dr. Afnan's execution, his and his wife's bank accounts were confiscated. The Revolutionary Guards raided Dr. Afnan's home and confiscated his property, including household items and cars. They sealed the house and evicted Dr. Afnan's wife and his three children, aged two and a half, six and seven, leaving them with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, a single piece of luggage, and little money, not even enough for a taxi.
Dr. Afnan, a physician who loved to serve his compatriots, was executed on the eve of his fiftieth birthday, simply for believing in what the Islamic Republic said was a “misguided" faith.
Read other articles in this series: