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Iranian President-elect Hasan Rouhani at a June 17 news conference in Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP )
Winston 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).
Avoid any kind of socializing with the “deviant and misleading sect.” These are the words in the fatwa of July 29, 2013, issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, against the Baha’i Faith. Its release was so close to the August 4 inauguration of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, that it could be reasonably viewed as a pre-emptive move to block any plans of the new president to reduce the persecution of religious minorities in Iran, especially Baha’is.
Rouhani has sparked considerable speculation about the future of Iran. Who is he? What will he do? Is he a true “moderate” or a “conservative”? Will he align himself with Khamenei’s most recent attack against the Baha’is? Or, will he be the same voice of hope for Iran’s oppressed minorities when, while campaigning, he stated that religious minorities should have the equal rights of citizens? One thing is clear: his assumption of office presents an opportunity for significant change in tone and perhaps even policy. Although Iran’s nuclear aspirations capture headlines, also of great concern are Iran’s human rights practices, particularly regarding religious freedom and those who defend those rights.
In Iran today, there are hundreds of prisoners of conscience. Among the most noted are three human rights lawyers, Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani,
Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Mr. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Their crime: defending prisoners of conscience.
Soltani co-founded, along with Dadkhah and Ms. Shirin Ebadi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran. He was detained in 2011 while defending the seven leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community, who were imprisoned for their faith. Soltani was sentenced to 13 years in prison and banned from practicing law for 20 years. While in prison in 2012, he was awarded the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Award.
Similarly, Dadkhah defended Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was, at one point, sentenced to death for his Christian faith, but was ultimately freed. Dadkhah was detained in 2011, sentenced to nine years in prison, and banned from practicing law for 10 years.
Sotoudeh, noted for defending religious minorities, was sentenced in 2011 to 11 years in prison and banned from practicing law for 20 years. In 2012, while in prison, she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. In addition to these brave prisoners, other lawyers, such as Ebadi and Ms. Mahnaz Parakand, are currently in exile for defending the rights of Iranian citizens.
Religious freedom may be the most important front in the struggle for human rights in Iran, for it is the freedom that most deeply challenges the regime’s vision for an ideologically homogenous theocracy. Each of these lawyers defended religious minorities, and Ebadi, Soltani, Sotoudeh, and Parakand defended members of the Bah ‘ Faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority. Baha’is have been a favorite target of the regime and are routinely arrested and imprisoned. Since January 2011, the number of Bah ‘ s in prison has doubled, from roughly 56 to 112, and the number awaiting trial, appeal, sentencing, or the commencement of their sentences increased from roughly 230 to 435.
Among the Baha’is currently in prison are the seven members of the former ad hoc national leadership group. They were responsible for tending to the basic needs of the Baha’i community, such as dealing with marriages, divorces, and funerals. They were imprisoned on baseless charges, including espionage and corruption on earth, and were defended by both Ebadi and Parakand before these lawyers were forced to leave the country. In May of this year, they completed the fifth year of their 20-year sentences, the longest sentences given to any prisoners of conscience in Iran to date.
With harsh sentences handed down to Baha’is, Christians, and the lawyers who dared to defend them, Iran sent a clear message about its restrictions on religious freedom. Now is Rouhani’s chance to make good on his campaign pledge by ending this abuse. Khamenei’s fatwa will make the new president’s task more difficult. Indeed, the fatwa could even be a signal of worse things to come.
Accepting religious pluralism the clear implication of Rouhani’s campaign pledge — would greatly strengthen Iranian society. Considerable evidence has been amassed in recent years, most notably in rigorous studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, showing a strong correlation across the globe between religious freedom and social stability. If Rouhani and the clerical elite leading Iran’s government are truly concerned with the well-being of the country, they would do well to begin by granting greater freedom, including of religion.