Dare to be different

Nir Boms and Shayan Arya

Roxana Saberi was finally released from Evin prison and allowed to leave Iran. Although her ordeal may have come to a happy ending, the fate of many other innocent prisoners in the Islamic Republic of Iran is uncertain.  Among them you will find juveniles, political prisoners and many prisoners of conscience whose only crime is to believe in a different religion other than Shiite Islam. President Obama, himself a symbol of diversity and minority rights, will hopefully not miss their plea as he prepares his notes for engagement with Iran.

Last year on, May 14, all the seven members of national ad hoc committee of the Iranian Baha’is were abruptly arrested. During this time not even their Nobel Prize winner lawyer, Ms. Shirin Ebadi has been given access to their files.

Last February, the Prosecutor’s office stated publicly that the seven had been charged with “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and that they had “confessed” to their crimes. But that might not be enough. They have recently been charged with “spreading corruption on earth,” (Mofsede-fel-Arz), a crime which under Iran’s penal code carries the threat of the death penalty.

The  Bahá’ís believers are not alone in daring to be different. Take the case of Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Kazemeyni Borujerdi for example. He is the only courageous Ayatollah in Iran who has dared to publicly challenge the official interpretation of Shiite Islam by the Islamic regime and publicly call for a return to a system of government that separates religion and politics.

He along with many of his followers was arrested in 2006. From his prison cell in Yazd, Ayatollah Borujerdi continues to issue statements and send letters to UN officials asking for help. According to Amnesty international, on May 1, Ayatollah Boroujerdi wrote a letter to the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, requesting that international observers be sent to Iran in order to pave the way and assist Iranian people in an open referendum on the system of government.

For his refusal to be silenced he was subjected to beatings on 5 May 2009 in Yazd Central Prison, where he was transferred in the latter part of 2008. He is reportedly on hunger strike and the prison authorities have informed his family that their visitation privileges have been suspended, reports Amnesty International.

Other religious minorities such as Sufis and Sunni Muslims are also under pressure. Sufi places of warships in many cities such as in Isfahan and many Sunni mosques in Baluchistan province have been demolished by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s security forces. Many religious leaders have been arrested and some Sunni clerics, such as Moulavi Muhammad Yousof Sohrabi and Abdoulghodus Mollazhi have been executed in Baluchistan province in order to intimidate others.

Children are not spared as well. According to Iran Human Rights, Mohammadreza Tork (18) was hanged last in a prison in the city of Hamedan. He was hanged together with two other men convicted of a murder that was allegedly committed when he was 16 years old. Stop Child Executions, a group that monitors children rights in Iran, reports that Mohammadreza is the seventh child executed in Iran this year and that at least 141 juvenile offenders believed to be on death row.

Delara Darabi  was one of them,  executed early morning May 1st 2009, in the prison yard of the northern city of Rasht.  Delara was convicted of a murder that was probably committed by a family member and that happened during a break-in to her residence that occurred when she was 17 years of age.

While President Obama’s administration welcomes and celebrates Roxana Saberi’s release, as they should, neither the administration nor anyone else should forget the fact that there are countless other innocent prisoners in Iran.

The Seven Bahaii leaders, Ayatollah Broujerdi, Sufi leaders, Sunni clerics, Juvenile offenders and countless other “prisoners of conscious” in Islamic regime’s prisons may not have a dual citizenship and the privilege of carrying an American or European passport in their pockets.  But their lives and the injustice they face are just as important. Let us hope that the UN, international community and President Obama Administration will not forget them as he seeks to re-engage the region.

The region’s governments would be happy to see what might be dubbed as an American political falter but the people of the region are eagerly waiting for an American moral rise. For many around the world, President Obama symbolizes a new hope that being different does not prevent one from making a difference. Obama could. And many  in the Middle East hope that  he will not forget this as he begins to engage leaders who refuse to  accept that novel idea.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and a Co-founder of the Cyber Dissident Project. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran

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