Of the hundreds of political prisoners in Iranian jails, there is one group, probably the only one, who have been tried and imprisoned not for attending demonstrations and not for writing and speaking publicly against the government, but simply for being members of a persecuted faith: the Baha'is.
On April 12, seven prominent members of Iran's Baha'i community are going to face their third court hearing in Tehran since they were arrested two years ago.
In March 2008, Mahvash Sabet, one of the seven, received a phone call from the northeastern city of Mashhad. Ostensibly, the Ministry of Intelligence wanted to "clarify a minor issue" with her "related to the burial of a person in the Baha'i cemetery" of that city.
She travelled from her home in Tehran to Mashhad, where she was arrested. Two months later, the other six were arrested in the early morning hours of the same day in their homes in Tehran.
All seven have been trying to inspire and help the Iranian Baha'i community of some 300,000 people since most of that community's leaders were arrested and executed following the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979. All Baha'i religious institutions were then banned.
In a first wave of persecution in August 1980, just a few months after the Islamic Revolution, all nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of Iran's Baha'is were abducted and disappeared without a trace. The Baha'i community has no doubt that they were all killed.
After the harsh repression, the Baha'i community abolished its leadership structures in Iran. An informal group called "The Friends of Iran" administered the basic services of the community, such as education, weddings, divorces, funeral services, and similar issues. Sabet and her six co-believers were active on behalf of the Baha'i community until they were arrested two years ago.
The Baha'i faith -- which was founded in 1863 in Iran and then spread to other countries -- is considered heresy by the Islamic republic. Followers of the faith have faced persecution since its founding. But the waves of persecution have dramatically intensified in the last 31 years. Baha'is are barred from higher education, government employment, or travelling abroad.
Labels As Charges
Political prisoners in Iran are rarely officially charged with what they have really done. The Iranian prosecutor's office has never had any difficulty in finding "legal" labels to justify persecuting or eliminating anybody the regime perceived as an "enemy." First they arrest those "enemies," and later they find the label.
Those who wrote articles in newspapers or spoke against the government were charged with "acting against Iran's national security." Those who demonstrated to protest last June's disputed presidential election were accused of "waging war against God," and those who spoke to international media about the repression were arrested for "collaboration with foreign countries" or "espionage."
The members of the Baha'i faith were never officially charged with being Baha'is. As a matter of religious principle, Baha'is refrain from active politics. Still, two years ago, after security forces arrested the seven Baha'i community leaders, they charged them with '"espionage, propaganda against the Islamic system, the establishment of an illegal organization, cooperation with Israel, and acting against Iran's national security."
"All absurd charges," says Kit Bigelow of the U.S. Baha'i community. "Their only 'crime' is to be believers of a faith that is being persecuted by the Iranian government."
For two years, the seven Baha'i leaders have been kept in prison, partly in solitary confinement, and most of the time without any contact with the outside world, including their spouses and children. Their principal lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, left Iran after the June 2009 presidential election, fearing for her own safety. Now they are represented by two other attorneys of Ebadi's law firm.
"It's not about having good lawyers -- that we have, or even good laws -- that we don't," says Ahmad T., a Tehran-based lawyer. "The point is that they just want to wipe out the Baha'i faith from the Iranian society, since they think it came after Islam and it's heresy."
Asked if the seven Baha'i leaders could be executed, Ahmad T. says: "We are going through a period of ruthless oppression. So, yes, some may end up with death sentences and others with different prison terms. But international awareness and pressure could ease the risk."
Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL