By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
TEHRAN, Feb. 17 -- Seven leaders of the Bahai faith who have been detained for more than eight months in Iran have been officially accused of espionage, a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary said Tuesday.
"Next week, an indictment will be issued and will be discussed in court," judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told reporters, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. The seven leaders were arrested in May, prompting international criticism of Iran for its treatment of Bahai followers.
On Friday, in response to initial reports that the seven leaders would be charged with spying, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood issued a statement condemning the leveling of "baseless charges" against the Bahai leaders. "The accusations reported in Iranian and international media are part of the ongoing persecution of Bahai in Iran," Wood said.
Bahai officials also said the Iranian detainees were innocent of the charges.
Followers of the Bahai faith, an offshoot of Islam that originated in 19th-century Persia, say the Bahai founder is the final prophet, a distinction that Muslim scholars say should be reserved for the prophet Muhammad. Iranian officials do not recognize the Bahai faith as a religion, referring to it as an "organization."
Bahais claim 300,000 followers in Iran, but there are no independent statistics on the denomination's size in the country. The Islamic republic allows Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who are regarded as members of monotheistic religions, to hold religious gatherings. Bahais are forbidden to hold such meetings, and those who make their faith public are banned from studying at universities, serving in the army and working in government offices.
The seven arrested Bahais form the leadership of the sect in Iran. The Bahai International Community, which represents members of the faith worldwide, says hundreds of followers have been jailed and some executed in the years since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran denies that it has detained or executed people because of their religion.
"Any activity which would be propagation against the country, system and Islam is certainly a crime, and the instigators will be punished," Jamshidi said in response to a question about a letter by Iran's prosecutor general in which Bahais were portrayed as spies for Israel. "However, there is no problem for these people in Iran, just as they have lived in Iran for years," he said.
The prosecutor general, Ayatollah Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, wrote in a letter made public Sunday that there are "strong and long-term relations between the Bahais and the Zionists," as Iranian officials often refer to Israelis. The Bahai headquarters is in Haifa, Israel, but the denomination says it has adherents in virtually every country.
"All evidence points to the fact that the Bahai organization is in direct contact with the foreign enemies of Iran," Dorri-Najafabadi wrote in the letter, which was addressed to Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei. The letter appeared in the Kayhan newspaper, which has strong ties to the government.
"The ghastly Bahai organization is illegal on all levels, their dependence on Israel has been documented, their antagonism with Islam and the Islamic System is obvious, their danger for national security is proven and any replacement organization must also be dealt with according to the law," Dorri-Najafabadi wrote.
Abdolfattah Soltani, one of the lawyers for the Bahai leaders, said he had not been permitted to meet with his clients. "How can I make my case ready? I'm only their lawyer in name," he said in an interview. The Bahais are also being represented by Soltani's colleague Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and Nobel peace laureate.
"Like most political or faith-related cases in Iran, due, fair and legal procedures were not observed," Soltani said. "I believe that this legal procedure is not ethically, humanly or legally acceptable."
Jamshidi, the judiciary spokesman, said the Bahais will be allowed to bring lawyers to court hearings next week.