New Film on Persecution of Baha'is to be Released Just as Iran Slaps Harsh Sentences on Baha'i Educators

October 20, 2011

Riaz Sobhani
BIHE teacher Riaz Sobhani

Say what you want about the Iranian government, but you just can’t fault their flawless timing.

One would think that a country that at this very moment is having its human rights record scrutinized by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva would be on its best behavior. But in just the past few days Iranian courts have not only confirmed the outrageous sentence against renowned film director Jafar Panahi and handed women’s rights activist Fereshteh Shirazi a prison sentence of three years, but also sentenced seven educators with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) to a total of thirty years in prison. One might almost think Iran even coordinated the handing down of the sentence with the release of a new documentary that addresses the very issue of the persecution of Iran’s Baha’i community and their systematic exclusion from higher education.

The Iranian authorities have already jailed dozens of Baha’is, including the seven leaders (Yaran) of Iran’s Baha’i community who are currently serving sentences of twenty years each in one of Iran’s filthiest and most disease-ridden prisons. They had been convicted of baseless charges of “espionage for Israel,” “insulting religious sanctities” and “propaganda against the system.”

Baha’is, whose religion is not recognized in Iran’s Constitution, are also systematically excluded from the opportunity to obtain a university education. The BIHE was established to address the need to educate young members of the community, who because they cannot earn degrees, are unable to pursue a number of professions in Iran including medicine, law, engineering, science, and academics. However, in their relentless campaign to punish the Baha’is the Iranian authorities have also declared the BIHE illegal  and arrested a number of its faculty and staff. The deprivation of the right to education is a violation of internationally agreed upon human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which Iran is a state party.

The seven educators were sentenced to terms of four to five years each after trials that failed to adhere to international standards. The authorities have also gone after their lawyer, noted human rights attorney Abdolfattah Soltani, who was arrested in September as he was preparing to defend his clients. Mr. Soltani remains in detention facing charges of “propaganda against the regime,” “establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Center,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and “accepting an unlawful prize,” apparently referring to the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award, which Mr. Soltani received in 2009.

But the Iranian government will have a harder time trying to avoid negative publicity or shrug off outrage over these latest violations now that a new documentary film Education Under Fire” shining a harsh spotlight on the persecution of the Baha’is is being released next week. The film, directed by Jeff Kaufman and produced by Single Arrow Productions was made with the participation of Amnesty International USA, that is co-sponsoring its premiere in New York—at Columbia University on October 28 and New York University on October 29. The film will also be shown at Amnesty USA’s western regional conference in Los Angeles on November 5, at the northeast regional conference in Boston on November 11, and at a Human Rights Day event just outside Chicago on December 10.

Amnesty International encourages its activists, and in particular student groups, to order copies of the film and show it at public venues, high schools and colleges, to inform as many people as possible about Iran’s deplorable denial of the right to education to its citizens on ideological and religious grounds.