Mr. Chair and distinguished members, thank you for the invitation to comment on developments in the religious persecution of the Bahá'ís of Iran since our testimony on the subject on February 26, 2009.
As anticipated in your report, “Ahmadinejad's Iran”, and as documented by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other civil society organizations, the general human rights situation in Iran and that of the Bahá'ís in particular has deteriorated markedly over the interim.
Three developments illustrate this trend: the trial and treatment of the Bahá'í leadership; the coordinated attacks on the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education, the BIHE; and the increasing rate of arrests and arbitrary detention.
First I have a few words about the context within which these developments have occurred. In its 2012 report on the expanding repression of dissent in Iran, Amnesty International noted that, “Non-Muslims, especially the Baha'i community, have been increasingly demonized by Iranian officials and in the Iranian state-controlled media”, and that, “repeated calls by the Supreme Leader and other authorities to combat 'false beliefs'—apparently an allusion to evangelical Christianity, Baha'ism and Sufism—appear to have led to an increase in religious persecution”.
This document, published by the Bahá'í International Community, catalogues 360 articles in print and online media and 58 seminars, conferences, and workshops that incited hatred against the Bahá'ís of Iran between January 2010 and May 2011. It also describes the inclusion of allocations for educational programs to confront the Bahá'í faith in national and provincial budgets, and the establishment of official organs for this purpose. The Iranian government has, in effect, institutionalized incitement to hatred against the members of this religious community, allowing it to persecute Bahá'ís with impunity.
Let us now turn to the trial and treatment of the seven Bahá'ís who served on an ad hoc group that looked after the spiritual and social needs of the community at the national level. Following their arrest on May 14, 2008, Iranian authorities declared the ad hoc group illegal, in an effort to leave the community leaderless. After months of solitary confinement and periods of intense interrogation, without access to legal counsel, the former Bahá'í leaders were brought to trial in January 2010. They were all found guilty and given the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
An appeals court ruling rejected three of the six charges against them—those alleging espionage, collaboration with the State of Israel, and the provision of classified documents to foreign nationals with the intention of undermining state security—and reduced their sentences to 10 years. However, following an intervention by the prosecutor general, their sentences to 20 years' imprisonment were reinstated.
According to Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the head of their legal team:
There is not a shred of evidence for the charges levelled against them. Charges such as espionage for Israel, propaganda against the national security and others, are all excuses. Any just and impartial judge would, without a doubt, issue a complete acquittal and release them immediately.
The second development is the Iranian government's most recent coordinated attack on the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education, an initiative started in 1987 in response to the needs of Bahá'í youth, who, as a matter of explicit government policy, have been denied access to universities because of their religion since 1979.
During the week beginning May 22, 2011, Iranian authorities raided 40 homes in six cities across the country and arrested 19 people associated with the BIHE. Seven were tried and convicted of charges of membership in the deviant Bahá'íst sect, with the goal of taking action against the security of the country in order to further the aims of the deviant sect and those of organizations outside the country. They were sentenced to prison terms of four or five years' duration, and their efforts to provide higher education to Bahá'í youth were declared illegal.
Among those imprisoned is a permanent resident of Canada, Nooshin Khadem, who completed her MBA at Carleton University in 2003. When she graduated, Nooshin's professors urged her to stay here for her own safety, but she returned to Iran to help other Bahá'í youth denied access to higher education. Two other Bahá'ís who completed masters degrees at the University of Ottawa in 2003 and were teaching at the BIHE were arrested in Tehran in September 2011 and have been sentenced to four-year prison terms.
This brings us to the third development, the unprecedented surge in arrests and arbitrary detention. In 2004, two Bahá'ís were arrested in Iran. During 2009, when I last addressed you, 74 Bahá'ís were arrested. That number grew to 125 arrests in 2010, and in 2011, 164 Bahá'ís were arrested, more than doubling the number arrested in 2009. The trend is clear and deeply troubling.
Most of the detentions follow a familiar pattern. Government agents show up at a Bahá'í home, conduct lengthy searches, confiscate personal items such as computers and books, and then arrest the residents. The officials' behaviour is becoming increasingly disrespectful and violent. During a raid in Kurdistan Province, 14 Bahá'ís were questioned regarding Bahá'í meetings, those attending them, and how they are organized. In a recent raid in Shiraz, an 18-month-old child was among those taken into custody. These three developments—the imprisonment of the former leadership, attacks on those associated with the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education, and the dramatically increased rate of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment—are elements of the Iranian government's campaign to eradicate the Bahá'í community as a viable entity. It's a campaign that has been escalating widely, sharply, and rapidly.
Canada has demonstrated consistent international leadership in defence of human rights in Iran and its actions are critical to supporting the development of democracy and the rule of law in that country. While recognizing the threat posed by Iran's military and nuclear capability to the region, the committee has drawn attention to the great threat the Iranian government poses to its own people.
We commend the committee for its timely action in updating and resubmitting its report and recommendations. True progress in Iran can only be measured by the emancipation of its own citizens, including its Bahá'í citizens, from the continued state-sponsored human rights violations.
More specifically, and as yet another expression of its concern, we would ask that the committee mark May 14, the four-year anniversary of the arrest of the Bahá'í leaders, by supporting the adoption of an all-party motion in the House of Commons calling upon Iran to release the seven Bahá'í leaders and the imprisoned Bahá'í teachers, and to end its persecution of members of the Bahá'í faith and all others whose freedom of religion, belief, and conscience is routinely denied by that government.
I will stop there, Mr. Chairman, and would welcome questions.