Late on the evening of March 2, members of the Iranian intelligence ministry entered Navid Khanjani's home in the city of Esfahan and arrested him. The next day, they conducted similar raids at the homes of Eeghan Shahidi, Sama Nourani, Hesam Misaghi and Sepehr Atefi. They arrested Shahidi and Nourani, but could not detain Misaghi and Atefi because the two had fled to Turkey weeks before.
Two days later, six intelligence agents went to Dorsa Sobhani's home in the northern town of Sari. Not finding her home, they arrested her father, took him to an unknown location, interrogated him, and pressured him to reveal his daughter's whereabouts. Sobhani turned herself in on March 7, and is currently being held in Evin Prison in Tehran.
Why did the Iranian government target these six young people?
Khanjani and the others are members of the Bahai community, Iran's largest non-Muslim minority with 300,000 members. Despite their intimate ties to the land and the people of Iran (the Bahai faith was founded in Iran in the nineteenth century), Bahais have been the constant target of state-sanctioned discrimination and violence for more than a century.
Today, much of this intolerance stems from propagations by the Iranian government (shared by a few other Muslim states), that the Bahai faith is awayward sect or cult whose members have deviated from Islam and are therefore apostates. After the founding of the Islamic republic in 1979, Iran's Bahais found themselves in the unenviable position of being the country's largest religious minority without any official recognition under the new constitution.
Unlike Iran's Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian populations who are recognised under Article 13 of the Iranian constitution, Bahais have no representation in Iran's Majlis, or parliament. The lack of constitutional recognition - and as a result, the lack of provisions for protection - has made it easier for the government to attack Bahais and their social and cultural institutions with impunity, and to deny them the right to practise their faith openly.
The discrimination has been particularly acute in the area of higher education.
During the 1980s, government policy required all Bahais to renounce their faith in order to be able to attend Iran's public or even private universities. Officials enforced this policy with the full knowledge that Bahais are obligated, as a matter of religious principle, to pronounce their adherence to their faith if asked.
Thus, the government effectively denied thousands of students entry to Iran's universities. When Bahai groups attempted to fill the void by establishing private educational committees to teach their young, the government targeted their activities, shut down the institutions, and charged many of the administrators with crimes such as propaganda against the system.
In 1991, the Iranian government adopted a slightly different policy vis-à-vis its Bahai minority. In a secret directive titled The Bahai question, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution - an executive agency charged with promulgating regulations in public sector employment and education - called for an end to arrests, detentions or punishment "without reason," but, made it clear that the government must deal with Bahais "in such a way that their progress and development are blocked."
With regard to education, the council specifically noted that Bahais "must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahais." With little regard to its blatant violation of both international law and Iranian constitutional provisions banning discrimination, the directive remains in effect.
In 2004, presumably as a result of mounting international pressure, the government finally allowed Bahai students to sit for the national university exams without having to declare their religious affiliation, but, it has found ways of denying access to university enrolment later in the admission process.
According to the Bahai community's United Nations office, over 800 Bahais participated in the exams for the academic year 2006-2007. While 480 of them passed, only 289 were admitted. Of the 289, university administrators eventually identified more than half as Bahais and either rejected them during subsequent stages of the admission process or expelled them after enrolment.
Similar actions were taken during the subsequent academic years. During the 2008-2009 academic year, for example, the government directed students identified as Bahais to a specific internet address to receive their entrance exam results. When they arrived at the web page, the message read: "Error: Incomplete file. Forward correspondence to the Education Assessment Organisation c/o PO Box 31535-3166, Karaj."
It is within this oppressive environment, the six students arrested in March struggled to regain their right to initiate or continue their university education. Over the course of the past few years, the government had either denied them entry or expelled them from Iran's universities because they were Bahais.
Esfahan's Sana'i University dismissed Misaghi after he received a letter from the ministry of science indicating that they knew he was from a Bahai family. Shahidi and Nourani were similarly expelled from their universities. The government allowed Khanjani, Sobhani and Atefi to sit for the national exam, but did not allow them to enrol in a university, claiming their files were incomplete. When the students lodged grievances with the ministry of science and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, their complaints were summarily dismissed.
In response to these events, Khanjani and the others in 2009 helped found a civil society organisation, the Population to Combat Educational Discrimination, to bring attention to the problems of the Bahais and other students denied access to university education because of their religious and political beliefs.
In cooperation with other human rights groups - Human Rights Activists in Iran, the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, and the Council to Defend the Right to Education - the students held meetings in various cities across Iran, including Tehran, Shiraz, Sari and Kermanshah. During their meetings, students and activists openly shared their experiences and shed light on the draconian role played by various government agencies tasked with implementing the 1991 directive from the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.
Iranian government's reaction to these activities has been decisive and brutal, and has included the arrests of the six young people whose only crime was to advocate on behalf of those seeking a college education. During Khanjani's arrest, security agents reportedly told him that they knew Misaghi and Atefi were in Turkey, but, they would eventually succeed in bringing them back to Iran. In addition to these Bahai students, many of the human rights activists with whom they cooperated over the past few years are now also in prison for their activities.
Given this backdrop, it is surprising that during a the periodic review of Iran's human rights record by the United Nations Human Rights Council in February, Iran's representative Javad Larijani boldly declared, "No Bahai in Iran is prosecuted because he is a Bahai."
Then again, perhaps Larijani was partly right. After all, there is at least a plausible argument that Khanjani, Shahidi, Nourani and Sobhani would not be serving time in prison today had they simply kept quiet, and accepted their lot.♦
Faraz Sanei is Researcher, Middle East & North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch