"President Rouhani could signal his seriousness of purpose by announcing, at a minimum, the release of the seven Baha'i leaders"
Since taking office in August, the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has been on an international charm offensive, making speeches to the UN, doing interviews with reporters, and tweeting to Iran’s historically marginalized Jewish community. His conciliatory tone on a wide variety of issues, from nuclear weapons to Iran’s role in the Middle East, has diplomats, policy-makers and ordinary citizens everywhere looking for ways to measure his sincerity.
In a phrase, they are asking: will his deeds match his words?
There is, actually, a simple test by which to gauge his intentions. That is the degree to which President Rouhani and his government begin to take concrete steps to improve the human rights situation in Iran.
In recent years, Iran’s record on human rights has sharply deteriorated. In early October, the UN Secretary-General and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran issued their latest reports documenting the continuing human rights crisis in Iran. As usual, they expressed deep concern over Iran’s policy of arresting, imprisoning and otherwise repressing lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and ethnic and religious minorities, not to mention its treatment of women and record of juvenile executions.
President Rouhani implicitly knows that he cannot begin to mend Iran’s reputation on the world stage without addressing human rights. On September 18, his government released at least 11 prisoners of conscience, including noted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who had been imprisoned since 2010 on an 11-year sentence.
As soon as Ms. Sotoudeh was released, she bravely called for the release of other prisoners of conscience, as a full demonstration of the new government’s direction. First among the persecuted groups that Ms. Sotoudeh mentioned was the Baha'i community of Iran. “We ask you to end the injustices against our Baha’i citizens,” she wrote in a letter to President Rouhani, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency.
Soon after its release of these 11 prisoners, the government announced that it was releasing another 80 prisoners. The fact that no Baha'is were among those released is a telling and conspicuous omission. It points to the distinctive situation of Iran’s Baha'i community, which is the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and has been the target of state-sponsored persecution since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Indeed, if there is a specific litmus test for the seriousness of President Rouhani’s new direction, it will be in the way that he handles “the Baha'i Question.”
Those were the words actually used in a 1991 secret memorandum signed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that outlined a series of repressive social, economic and cultural measures to be instituted against Baha'is. So far, that policy has been followed to the letter.
Since 2005, nearly 700 Baha'is have been arrested, and the number of Baha'is in prison has risen from fewer than five to the current figure of 115. The list of prisoners includes all seven members of a former leadership group serving the Baha'i community of Iran. In 2010, the seven were wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison – the longest term currently facing any prisoner of conscience in Iran.
Baha'is also face economic and educational discrimination, strict limits on the right to assemble and worship, and a government-led campaign of hate speech in the news media. Baha'is are prevented from attending university. Attacks on Baha'is or Baha'i-owned properties go unprosecuted and unpunished, creating a sense of impunity for attackers. As noted recently by a top UN human rights official, the government-led persecution spans “all areas of state activity, from family law provisions to schooling, education, and security.”
On August 24, 2013, a well-known member of the Baha'i community of the city of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran was murdered. Mr. Ataollah Rezvani was found in an isolated location, shot in the head, and numerous human rights defenders have said his killing was religiously motivated. Among other things, his death came against a backdrop of hate speech directed against Baha’is by a local cleric. Sadly, more than ten Baha'is have been killed or died under suspicious circumstances in the last decade.
President Rouhani could signal his seriousness of purpose by announcing, at a minimum, the release of the seven Baha'i leaders – something that has also been called for by Sotoudeh. He could allow young Baha'is to freely attend university. He could begin to prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes against Iranian Baha'is, such as the killer of Rezvani.
These things would truly signal a new beginning for Iran.