Tehran puts 7 Bahais on trial for spying

Tehran, Iran - Iran on Tuesday put on trial seven members of the banned Bahai religion on charges of "spying for foreigners" and cooperating with Israel, the ISNA news agency reported.

"The first hearing for seven leaders of the illegal group of Bahais who were arrested in May 2008 was held today in the presence of their lawyers in Tehran revolutionary court," ISNA said.

The charges include "spying for foreigners, cooperation with the occupier regime of Qods (Israel), holding meetings with the aim of action against domestic security and corruption on earth."

Under Iran's Islamic law, "corruption on earth" is punishable by death.

"All the activities of the outlawed Bahai's sect in Iran is being led by its global centre based in Israel," ISNA cited the revolutionary court as saying in a statement.

The Bahais have a sprawling temple in Haifa, in northern Israel, which is the Islamic republic's arch-foe.

"Based on the evidence and the defendants' confessions, they held meetings with ambassadors of different Western countries and discussed information and actions with them," it added.

Followers of the Bahai faith, founded in Iran in 1863, are regarded in the Islamic republic as infidels and suffered persecution both before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Bahais consider Bahaullah, born in 1817, to be the latest prophet sent by God.

Washington on Monday condemned Iran's decision to try the seven Bahais.

"The United States strongly condemns the Iranian government's decision to commence the espionage trial against seven leaders of the Iranian Bahai community," US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said.

"We are deeply concerned about Iran's ongoing persecution of Bahais and treatment of other members of religious minorities who continue to be targeted solely on the basis of their beliefs," he said.

Iran has also arrested around a dozen Bahais who it said will go on trial this week in connection with anti-government protests in late December.

"They were not arrested because they are Bahais ... Arms and ammunition were seized in some of their homes," Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said.