One Day Is a Crime, 10,000 an Atrocity

Iran - Sunday marked the 10,000th cumulative day that seven former Bahai leaders in Iran have been incarcerated. Each of those days has been a crime filled with the privations of Iran's most notorious prisons—filth, degradation, denial of medical treatment and spaces so cramped that even lying down becomes a forgotten luxury. Each of those days has been a crime of separation—innocent men and women kept from their families. Jamaloddin Khanjani, who has been locked up for his beliefs at least three times before, was forbidden to attend the funeral of his wife. Each of those 10,000 days has seen Iran's largest religious minority, numbering over 300,000, unjustly deprived of its national leadership.

Why are they behind bars? The Iranian authorities have shed their early bluster—ludicrous charges such as "spreading corruption on earth"—and now imprison Bahai leaders solely for tending to the needs of their community. Being Bahai is their only crime. No pretense is now offered. The government openly expresses hatred for the Bahais and, for theological reasons alone, is striving to render the entire community's existence unviable.

Iran's egregious treatment of the Bahais is emblematic of an escalating human-rights crisis that afflicts every segment of Iranian society. Reports from many sources, including U.N. special rapporteurs, Amnesty International and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, are united in their condemnation of Iran's record. The world has an urgent duty to protect an afflicted population.

The imprisonment of Bahai leaders is but the tip of a multifaceted campaign against Iran's Bahais. Arrests have increased dramatically since 2005, when the military and security agencies were instructed to monitor the community. In 2004 just four Bahais were imprisoned. But over 540 Bahais have since been arrested, of whom 112 are now in jail. In recent weeks, more than 20 Bahais were arrested in Shiraz alone, including an eight-month old baby and her parents.

Meanwhile, economic pressure on the Bahais is being systematically intensified. Business licenses are arbitrarily revoked or denied with growing frequency. Shops are sealed, shut down and sometimes firebombed. Bail costs are crushingly high, forcing innocent families to surrender homes and livelihoods. Access to higher education is denied as a matter of state policy, and even the Bahai Institute for Higher Education—an informal initiative to educate young Iranian Bahais in the arts and sciences—has been declared illegal. For good measure, a number of the Institute's educators were each sentenced to four or five years imprisonment after trials utterly devoid of due process or reason.

These attacks are not random. They are consonant with a 1991 memorandum of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council that explicitly calls to block the progress and development of the Bahai community. Religious persecution cannot be more blatant.

The government also backs a media campaign to dehumanize and vilify the Bahais. They are depicted as armed opponents of the regime, as agents of Israel and the West, as the promoters of obscene immorality and as the controllers of foreign media such as the BBC. Sometimes they are simply portrayed as ghouls. Such actions cannot be regarded as anything other than an attempt to foment distrust and hatred among the wider population. History shows that this can presage wider attacks and violence.

Little wonder, then, that Canadian Sen. Roméo Dallaire, an expert in genocide, recently warned that "we are witnessing a slow-motion rehearsal for genocide . . . in a country where the targeted population is obvious." Finding a way to safeguard the Bahais' future security should be of paramount concern for all who desire to uphold values of tolerance, justice and freedom of religious belief.

Ten thousand days represent a milestone in an unfolding atrocity, one that is becoming ever more sinister and stifles the progress of Iran. In recent Iranian New Year messages, Western leaders impressed upon the Iranian government the need to uphold the basic rights of its citizens. Let calls from all quarters add that the government must halt its attempt to systematically destroy an entire religious community.