Religious leaders face spying charges in Iran

Tehran, Iran - Seven imprisoned leaders of the Baha'i faith in Iran have been accused of espionage and will face court hearings within a week, a judicial spokesman said Wednesday.

Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ali-Reza Jamshidi saying the charges related to acts including spying for "foreigners," a term regarded as a reference to Iran's archenemy, Israel.

"One of their accusations is that they had cooperated with Israel. Generally, the Bahai's are accused of this," said Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian rights activist who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. She says her team at the Center for Defenders of Human Rights in Iran has taken their case.

Iranian Baha'is have faced systematic persecution in Iran under the current government, which regards their faith as heretical.

The movement has been accused of espionage in the past, and many Baha'is believe the assertions result from the fact that Baha'i World Center is in the Israeli city of Haifa, a fact that predates the founding of the Jewish state.

Baha'is are caught in the middle of the antagonism between Israel and Iran. Iran does not recognize the existence of Israel and has backed anti-Israeli militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel fears that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weaponry and using it against Israel.

On Sunday, Iran's Prosecutor General Dorri-Najafabadi said "there is irrefutable evidence that adherents of the Baha'i sect are in close contact with the enemies of the Iranian nation," IRNA said.

The Baha'i movement quotes him as saying that "Baha'i organizations are illegal and their connections to Israel and their enmity toward Islam and the Islamic system are absolutely certain and their threat against national security is a proven fact."

Another Iranian official, deputy public prosecutor Hassan Haddad recently said the accusations would include "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic republic," according to the Baha'i movement.

The group denies all charges against the seven: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naemi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm. Sabet was arrested in March and the others in May.

The group comprised an "ad hoc coordinating committee" who "helped tend to the needs of the 300,000 Baha'is in Iran. Of the seven, Kamalabadi and Sabet are women.

The arrests and charges have been deplored internationally.

The United States slammed the "Iranian government's decision to level baseless charges of espionage against seven leaders of the Iranian Baha'i community."

Amnesty International believes the charges are "politically motivated" and the seven are "prisoners of conscience, detained solely because of their conscientiously held beliefs or their peaceful activities on behalf of the Baha'i community. If convicted, they would face lengthy prison terms, or even the death penalty."

The Baha'i religion is a 19th century offshoot of Islam. Its founder, Baha'u'llah, is regarded by Baha'is as "the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad." But Muslims believe Prophet Mohammed is the final prophet.