Iran attacked for hanging follower of peaceful sect
By Judith Whelan
RAN has been accused of mounting a persecution campaign against members of the Baha'i sect, a peaceful religion which espouses racial and sexual equality.
One Baha'i man has been executed and three more are under threat of death in Iranian jails because of their beliefs, say leaders of the Baha'i community in Britain.
Ruhu'llah Rawhani, a 52-year-old medical supply salesman and father of four, who had been in prison for 10 months, was hanged in Mashhad on July 21. He had been accused of converting a young woman from Islam to the Baha'i faith, a charge she later denied.
It is illegal in Iran to declare oneself a Baha'i and the constitution does not recognise it as a religion. Three other Baha'is currently in prison in Mashhad were arrested with Mr Rawhani last September and were condemned at the same trial earlier this year.
Their convictions were overturned on a technicality, and they are awaiting the verdict of a retrial. At least 15 other Baha'is are in prison for their beliefs, according to the British community.
Barney Leith, its secretary general, said: "The government of Iran, which is making liberalising noises about improving things for Baha'is there, is unable to handle its Baha'i situation. We want Baha'is not to be persecuted and harassed but for them to be recognised as a group. In Iran, Baha'i marriage is not recognised, you can't go on to higher education, you can't meet as a community."
A spokesman for the Iranian embassy in London said that Mr Rawhani had been executed for "action against the security of the country". The three others were also being held for security offences. He could not say what those security breaches were but added that Mr Rawhani was not executed because he was a Baha'i.
The American, Canadian and Australian governments all condemned the execution and called on the Iranian government to guarantee the safety and right of religious expression of the Baha'is within its country. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said that Britain and its European Union partners were disturbed about the case and would be making representations to the Iranian government.
There are an estimated 300,000 Baha'is in Iran. They follow the teachings of Baha'ullah, a 19th-century Persian philosopher, who believed that all religions were one, that men and women were equal, as were all races, and that no one nation or culture was superior to another.
Baha'is follow the moral code of the Ten Commandments and also forbid gambling, alcohol and drug abuse. The sect is found throughout the world - the American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie was a Baha'i - but is often not recognised by Islamic governments.
According to the Iranian embassy spokesman, devotees in Iran have full citizenship rights as non-Muslims so long as they do not declare themselves to be Baha'is. He said that a strong anti-Baha'i sentiment had taken root in Iran even before the Islamic revolution of 1979.
He said: "The Iranian people think Baha'ism is a political religion created by other countries," he said. "Baha'is are equal in public opinion to spies. Not only the government but the people are hard on Baha'is. The government cannot guarantee that if someone says, 'I am a Baha'i', that people will not attack him.
"No country can claim a perfect record of human rights and this is true for Iran as well. If someone claims to be a Baha'i, he will be followed by the law. But nobody is going to be executed because he is a Baha'i."
Since 1979, more than 200 Baha'is have been killed in Iran and 15 of the community's leaders have disappeared. Mr Leith said: "Although the Baha'is have been under pressure there all the time, there hasn't been an execution [of a Baha'i] since 1992, so this sudden execution of Mr Rawhani came as a surprise."
After his arrest, Mr Rawhani was allowed to see his family once in October. They did not see him again until July 20, when his jailers allowed them to visit for an hour. But they were not warned of his impending death and were told of it only the following day when asked to collect his body.
The three men awaiting their retrial result - Sirus Dhabihi-Muqaddam, Hidayat-Kashifi Najafabadi and Ata'ullah Hamid Nasirizadih - have also not seen their families for most of their imprisonment. For their final trial, they were given only court-appointed defence counsel who, they claim, gave misleading statements to the court.
©Copyright 1998, The Daily Telegraph