Iran moving toward sentencing Bahai leaders it accuses of plotting overthrow

Tehran, Iran - Iran's judiciary is deciding on prison sentences for seven leaders of the Bahai community, who are being put on trial behind closed doors in Tehran, the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency reported. Bahai is an outlawed faith in the Shiite Muslim republic.

Arrested in 2008, the five men and two women, who acted as an unofficial leadership council for the faith's Iranian community, are accused of espionage and collaboration with Israel, Iran's archenemy. Bahai representatives have denied the charges.

"Iran's own law says that you can't be in jail without charges for over two months," said Shastri Purushotma, human rights officer for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States. "Iran has violated their own law by keeping them in jail for so long."

Purushotma, in Washington, dismissed the idea that the Bahais on trial had acted against the Iranian government and said they were scapegoats. "This is purely a case of religious persecution."

Bahai representatives in Washington said Sunday that the last information they had was that there had been a three-hour session Tuesday in which the judiciary read out the accusations against the seven.

The Bahai community faces increasing pressure after being blamed in part for organizing anti-government protests on Dec. 27. Eight people died during clashes with security forces.

The Javan Web site, which is close to the security forces, said 80 Bahais were arrested after the protests. Initially, it reported that 16 had been detained.

The government rounded up politicians, dissidents and members of minority groups after the demonstrations. Some are accused of trying to implement what the government says is a foreign-backed plot to overthrow Shiite Islamic rule.

Members of the Bahai faith face arrest and other forms of persecution, according to U.S. officials and others. Followers of the Bahai faith, which was founded in 19th-century Persia and emphasizes religious unity and racial equality, are not allowed to practice their religion or study at universities. The government regards the faith as heretical.

The seven Bahai leaders -- Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm -- acted as representatives of the Bahai in Iran. Their trial has been postponed three times. Their lawyer, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, is currently outside Iran, fearing arrest if she returns.