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Nagan is a professor of law and the founding director of the Institute for Human Rights and Peace Development at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and a former chairman of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA (1989-91).
Imagine living in Semnan, Iran, a town about 120 miles east of Tehran, where religious minorities have been particularly harassed by the government. There, more than a dozen businesses owned by members of your faith community have been shut down in the last three years. Arrests, summons for interrogation, and short to lengthy detentions are the norm. As a member of the Baha’i faith, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, you are used to insecurity. However, now you are a mother with an infant at home and have become acutely concerned because your worst nightmare has become a reality.
But this isn’t your imagination. This is the reality for Baha’is in Iran. Freedom House, a religious freedom watchdog organization, notes that three first-time mothers, Mrs. Zohreh Nikayin, Mrs. Taraneh Torabi, and Mrs. Neda Majidi have been imprisoned in that country for being Baha’is. Each is accompanied in prison by her infant of less than a year. I have also seen reports indicating that since September 2012, Mrs. Nikayin’s son, Resam, contracted an intestinal infection and developed an ear condition, was prescribed medicine and returned to prison, while Mrs. Torabi’s son, Barman, contracted a lung disease and was hospitalized. Mrs. Majidi has been in prison with her infant since December 2012. In the last few months we have learned of outbreaks of arrests of Baha’is and business closures have occurred in several other cities in Iran, most recently in Gorgan and Hamadan.
What could motivate the state to so blatantly violate international norms by sanctioning the imprisonment of infants? Has religious prejudice gone so far as to extinguish any feeling of empathy or, for that matter, shame?
Historically, human rights abuses in Iran have been monitored closely by the U.S. government as well as the international community, and this year is no different. The extraordinary New Year’s Day congressional session brought some emotional relief to American families with relatives in Iran and others worried about religious persecution there, when the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 134. It spotlighted and condemned the human rights abuses committed by the government of Iran, particularly against its Baha’i community.
In her supporting statement on New Year’s eve on the floor of the House, the outgoing Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, added that the resolution “urges the President and Secretary of State to use measures already enacted into law under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 to sanction Iranian officials responsible for human rights violations against Baha’is and others.” She stated, “I was a co-author of that legislation, and those measures are not there for show. They are there to punish those responsible for these egregious crimes, and deter future human rights violations.”
At a time when extreme partisanship in the House has been perceived as the norm, it was noteworthy that this resolution, introduced by Congressman Robert Dold (R-Ill.), garnered 78 Republicans and 68 Democrats as cosponsors before it reached the floor of the House.
Only twelve days before the passage of H. Res. 134, on December 20, 2012, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution enumerating a number of human rights concerns regarding Iran, including, among others, “increased persecution and human rights violations against persons belonging to unrecognized religious minorities, particularly members of the Baha’i faith and their defenders, including escalating attacks, an increase in the number of arrests and detentions, and the restriction of access to higher education on the basis of religion.”
It further adds the need to “eliminate the criminalization of efforts to provide higher education to Baha’i youth denied access to Iranian universities” and “to release the seven Baha’i leaders held since 2008, and to accord all Baha’is, including those imprisoned because of their beliefs, the due process of law and the rights that they are constitutionally guaranteed.”
Naming, shaming and sanctioning individual perpetrators of egregious human rights violations has become, in the last several years, a popular means for curbing impunity. Whether this year will bring greater use of this tool to mitigate the plight of Iran’s Baha’is, Christians, Sufi and Sunni Muslims, and so many others suffering abuse is a question that the U.S. government and the international community will need to consider. In the meantime, House Res.134 and the recent U.N. resolution shine a bright light on the Iranian government’s human rights violations and provide hope for Mrs. Nikayin, Mrs. Torabi, and Mrs. Majidi for themselves and for their infants.