A mobile billboard bearing the image of the seven Baha’i leaders imprisoned in Iran will be making the rounds of the iconic sites of Washington, D.C., this Sunday to mark their 10,000 cumulative days in prison.
The United States capital is one of 12 cities around the world participating in the April 1 campaign calling for the release of these prisoners of conscience.
Prior to their arrests in 2008, the seven were members of an informal national-level group that attended to the spiritual and social needs of Iran’s Baha’i community. They were each sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment after six brief court sessions characterized by a lack of due legal process.
“It is clear that these individuals have done nothing wrong and are imprisoned solely for their faith,” said Director of External Affairs for the U.S. Baha’i community Anthony Vance. “It is ironic and unfortunate that the government has imprisoned people who are so oriented towards service to their country in a totally apolitical, nonpartisan fashion.”
The group was held without charges in Tehran’s Evin prison for about 20 months when a trial began on Jan. 12, 2010. They were charged with, among other things, espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic, the establishment of an illegal administration – charges that were all rejected completely and categorically by the defendants.
Former imprisoned activist and hiker Sarah Shourd, who is now the political prisoner advocate for human rights nonprofit United4Iran, had a touching encounter with one of the imprisoned Baha’i leaders.
“Fariba Kamalabadi and I were being led blindfolded to the prison clinic. We were walking in single file and the first thing she did was reach out and rub my back affectionately. She smiled at me, whispering that she was sorry that I was alone, then hastily told me who she was,” Shourd said. “Later, when I was released and was able to learn more about the seven Baha’i leaders, who are being held without proper legal representation or a fair trial, I was even more astounded by Fariba’s kindness and bravery that day.”
Shourd is joining the call for the release of Kamalabadi and her colleagues, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm.
“They are being held solely for their religious beliefs, for demanding the right of Baha’is to civil rights and an education,” Shourd said. “The Iranian government is in severe contradiction of international law regarding these cases and they must all be released immediately.”
The five men are currently serving out their sentences at Gohardasht prison, some 30 miles west of Tehran. The two women are in Evin prison after previously being held in Gohardasht and a brief stay in appalling conditions at Qarchak prison.
In an initiative coordinated by United4Iran, mobile billboards depicting the prisoners are expected to be on display in locations including Amsterdam, Netherlands; Berlin, Germany; Brasilia, Brazil; Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg in South Africa; London, England; Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand. In New Delhi, India, organizers are expected to hold a peace march with banners from the Baha’i temple to the ISKON temple in Delhi.
The large image of the Baha’i prisoners featured on the billboards and banners is constructed of smaller photographs of hundreds of people currently jailed in Iran, including journalists, trade unionists, student and women’s activists, religious leaders and opposition leaders.
“We hope this action will bring worldwide attention to the plight of the seven Baha’i leaders, and also remind us of all other prisoners of conscience who remain behind bars and who need our unwavering support on their behalf,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United4Iran’s director and founder.
“Those of us with the ability to speak out need to be the voices of those who have been silenced. It is important for us to continue pushing against the persecution of religious minorities in Iran who continue to be subject to arbitrary arrest, persecution and unjust sentences,” she said.
Bani Dugal, the Baha’i International Community’s principal representative to the United Nations, said, “The seven were, and remain, totally innocent of any wrongdoing. Ten thousand days of their lives have literally been stolen from them forever – days that they would have dedicated to the service of their fellow countrymen. The day is long overdue when these prisoners are freed to be able to make their contribution to the country they love.”
HOW TO HELP (updated): The group is meeting at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 1, near the U.S. Capitol Building on New Jersey Avenue near Constitution Avenue to pose for pictures with the mobile billboard. You must enter the parking area on New Jersey Avenue (between C Street and Constitution Avenue) from the C Street side. You can park on the weekend in the spaces that are marked “SAA Authorized Permit Parking Only.”