Two appellate courts, in Iran’s Mazandaran province and the capital Tehran, recently finalized and enforced a confiscation order for Baha'i properties in the village of Ivel in Mazandaran. But was the ruling legal under the laws of the Islamic Republic? A review of court documents and other materials referred to by judicial authorities shows the ruling was contrary to legal principles.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution – and the ascendancy of religious extremists the country’s government – caused the situation of non-Muslims in Iran to drastically worsen.

The Baha’i religious minority suffered the most: their homes were destroyed, they were arrested and jailed, beaten, some were killed and others displaced, they were barred from attending university and their businesses were closed.

But the authorities did not consider these measures sufficient. They ordered the confiscation of Baha'i properties on several occasions and in various parts of Iran.

Confiscations of Baha'i properties in the village of Ivel, which began after 1979 and occurred again in 2010, in Mazandaran is a clear example of this pattern. Baha’is from Ivel appealed seizures at various levels of the judiciary and administration, but all officials, unanimously, ruled in favor of the government’s efforts to appropriate their lands and property. The ownership of property by Baha'is in the village of Ivel was revoked.

The legal document on the basis of which judicial authorities authorized the confiscation of Baha'i properties in Ivel is Article 49 of the Constitution and the Law on the Implementation of Article 49. Fatwas issued by several ayatollahs, including Nasser Makarem Shirazi and Mohammad Taqi Behjat, who have said that Baha'is are infidels and have no right to property in the Islamic world, are also included in these jurisprudential documents.

Opinions differ over the existing fatwas and whether they are correct. But while some clerics have disagreed with these fatwas, it is necessary to distinguish between legal issues and Sharia law; for example, slavery is not rejected in Islam, and even contemporary jurists cite the rules of slavery in their treatises, but current Iranian law has criminalized slavery.

Iran’s codified laws are therefore sufficient when trying to establish whether the seizure of the Baha’i properties in Ivel has been legal or illegal.

Article 49 states: "The government is obliged to confiscated property accrued from usury, usurpation, bribery, embezzlement, theft, gambling, misuse of endowments, misuse of government contracts and transactions, sale of uncultivated and unowned lands, income of places of corruption and other illegitimate cases, and to return it to its rightful owner, and if the owner is not known, to transfer such property to the treasury. This order must be enforced by the government through investigation, inspection, and religious proof.”

In other words – only proper that has been demonstrably obtained illegally can be confiscated by the government. Article 5 on the Law on the Implementation of Article 49 makes this clear. But the Baha'is in Ivel have lived and owned property in the village for generations. They inherited or acquired their property and lands from their ancestors. There is no evidence that this property was obtained through crime.

Article 5 of the Law on the Implementation of Article 49 also lists the types of individuals who may be liable to losing their property under the Constitution. They are:

The law clearly does not grant any authorization to confiscate Baha'i property. Nor were any specific legal documents provided in the court rulings which authorized the confiscations. The rulings instead relied on the fatwas of the ayatollahs – though even in this case it is unclear which fatwas were being used to justify the ruling.

The first court’s verdict stated that Baha'is entered the village of Ivel during the Pahlavi era with the cooperation of Amir-Abbas Hoveyda, a prime minister under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to harass the local Muslims

Reports have also suggested that the other villagers in Ivel met with local officials and decided to confiscate Baha’i property. The Article 49 court ruling, presided over by Judge Morteza Mousavi, described the Baha’is as “infidels” and “impure” and that their property was illegitimate. A ruling such as this in a democratic country could lead to a political and judicial crisis. But in Iran it was simply confirmed in the higher courts.

But the case law mentioned in the court rulings have no legal validity. Ownership under Iranian law has nothing to do with religion or beliefs and any citizen who has acquired property under the law has the right to the property and ownership cannot be revoked.

Allegations that the Baha'is are “infidels” or that they entered the village during the Pahlavi era, even if true, which they are not, nevertheless to not diminish their property rights.

The hearing referred to in the court ruling was meanwhile just an informal hearing attended by unqualified persons. Is it possible for a government official, together with a group of villagers, to decide whether certain properties and lands should be confiscated?

In one of the available documents, the Muslim villagers wrote a letter to Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, asking him to define the status of Baha'i property. Jannati responded by commenting that, according to face-to-face negotiations with the Iranian judiciary, the property owned by the Baha’is in fact belongs to the Supreme Leader. The duties of the secretary of the Guardian Council are set out in law and he has no authority to comment on any property that can be confiscated.

Nor does the head of the judiciary have any such authority. The head of the judiciary manages the judiciary and has no authority to issue verdicts. Confiscation are a judicial matter that only a judge can address within the framework of the law. And it is extraordinary that some citizens within Ivel – perhaps incited by officials and the local clergy – can insist that their fellow citizens not be allowed to access their properties or to live in their own homes.

The court rulings make clear that Judge Mousavi was concerned that a small number of Baha’is may have shaken the beliefs of their Muslim neighbors.

But under the law, the possibility that Baha’i residents in the region may share their beliefs, or that these beliefs may be taken up by others, has no bearing on property ownership. The fact that the ruling mentions this dimension exposes the fact that the confiscation of the properties took place purely on ideological and political grounds – not legal standards.

The rulings issued by Iran’s judiciary to confiscate Baha’i properties in Ivel are therefore completely illegal and contrary to Iranian law.

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