Baha’i leader Behrouz Tavakkoli has spoken out about the Iranian government’s “misunderstandings” about his minority faith.
Tavakkoli spoke to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on December 15, 2017, 11 days after his release from Rajaee Shahr Prison where he served a 10-year-prison sentence for his religious beliefs.
“Those in charge of the country knew how the Baha’i community operated but there were some misunderstandings that led to the charge of ‘acting against national security,’” he said.
“For instance, just because the Baha’i international community’s headquarters is based in Haifa [Israel], they accused us of spying for an enemy state,” he added. “We tried to explain and get rid of these misunderstandings but unfortunately we were not successful.”
Iran is 90 percent Shia Muslim and the country’s Constitution does not recognize the Baha’i faith as an official religion. Although Article 23 states that “no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief,” followers of the faith are denied many basic rights as one of the most severely persecuted religious minorities in the country.
Tavakkoli was one of seven Baha’i leaders known as the “Yaran” (“the friends”) who were arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaborating with enemy states” in a mass trial.
Baha’i leader Mahvash Sabet was freed on September 18 and Fariba Kamalabadi on October 31.
“The charges against us were completely false,” said Tavakkoli. “The authorities were convinced that we had formed an illegal organization. But the Baha’i community is active in 184 countries. We perform religious duties such as marriage, divorce, and burials for our followers and offer spiritual teachings. We also provide social services in various countries but in Iran we are not allowed to do so.”
The Yaran were initially sentenced to 20 years in prison each for several national security charges, including “collaborating with enemy states,” “insulting the sacred,” and “propaganda against the state” by Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in August 2010.
Their sentences were eventually reduced to 10 years in prison each based on Article 134 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, which allows prisoners to serve only the longest sentence in cases involving convictions on multiple charges.
“I served as a member of the Yaran for 18 years but it does not exist any more,” said Tavakkoli. “We have no titles or responsibilities.”
“In March 2009, the prosecutor general issued an order that the Yaran’s operations were against national interests,” he added. “The Baha’i community complied and disbanded the group and local affiliates. Officials even opposed Baha’is performing marriage, divorce and burial ceremonies.”
Continued Tavakkoli: “Now there’s no national leadership and if rights are violated, every Baha’i is individually responsible for themselves. Of course, international organizations such as the United Nations always follow up and mention the violations against the Baha’i community in Iran in their resolutions. But for the time being, there is no Baha’i administration in Iran.”
Tavakkoli told CHRI that during his 10 years in prison, he was denied the right to go on furlough.
“There was no physical torture when I was being interrogated,” he added. “But we were held in solitary confinement, which is a form of psychological torture.”
“When you don’t know what has happened to your family, that’s psychological torture,” he said. “I was not allowed to use the phone to call my family for two months after my arrest. Family visitations were banned for four months while I was held in solitary confinement.”
Tavakkoli was expelled from the Iranian Welfare Organization in 1981, where he worked as a psychologist, because of his faith.