Iranian Bahai dies after 10 years in prison

United Nations - An Iranian of the Bahai faith has died in his jail cell of unknown causes, 10 years after being imprisoned by Tehran for abandoning Islam, the Bahai International Community said on Monday.

Zabihollah Mahrami, 59, had been sentenced to death by Iran's Revolutionary Court in January 1996, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison following an international outcry.

"His death comes amidst ominous signs that a new wave of persecutions has begin" in Iran, the group's UN office said in a statement. At least 59 Bahais have been arrested, detained or imprisoned so far this year, up sharply from the last several years, it said.

The Bahai faith, an offshoot of Islam, originated in Iran 150 years ago. It claims five million members in 191 countries world-wide, including thousands in Iran where it is officially considered "a misleading and wayward sect."

Mahrami died in his cell last Thursday in a government prison in Yazd, where he had been forced to perform arduous physical labor and was the regular target of death threats, said Bani Dugal, Bahia's principal representative to the United Nations. She did not say where her information came from.

"In this light there should be no doubt that the Iranian authorities bear manifest responsibility for the death of this innocent man, whose only crime was his belief in the Bahai faith," Dugal said.

Mahrami was a civil servant who, like many other Bahais, lost his job following Iran's 1979 revolution. More than 200 Iranian Bahais have been killed and hundreds more imprisoned since 1978, the group said.

He was earning a living installing Venetian blinds when arrested in 1995 on charges of "apostasy," a term used in Iran to denote abandoning Islam.

He was sentenced to death in January 1996, triggering protests from the European Parliament and numerous governments including Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and the United States.

Iranian officials later said he had been sentenced to death for spying for Israel rather than following the Bahai faith. His death sentence was in any case quietly dropped in 1999.