Aug 11th, 2010
Baha’u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, through no crime of their own, spent the better part of their lives in exile and imprisoned, but they never became embittered although they were the victims of injustice. Bahai teachings
Mahvash Sabet had to go to Mashhad.
Though she was a professional woman – teacher and later head of a number of schools – it was not in this capacity that she was travelling. She had lost her job many years before and was barred from working in public education.
She was the director of an alternative higher education institute but her qualifications in this area were not what took her to Mashhad.
Nor was it her skills in literacy that were wanted. Although as part of her work she had collaborated with the National Literacy Committee of Iran, this job too had stopped.
She was a psychologist but could not practise and it was not for her abilities in this area that she was wanted in Mashhad.
She had taught management but although the Islamic Azad University in her home town of Ardestan teaches this subject, Mahvash would not be able to teach there herself. This talent was not the reason for her journey to Mashhad.
She had been training for Iran’s special education corps, which sent recent graduates to remote areas in Iran to teach in schools. But she was thrown off the programme and her abilities in this direction were not required in Mashhad.
Mahvash had been born Mahvash Shahriyari in 1953. Her home town of Ardestan, some 400 km south of Tehran, near Isfahan, sits in the eastern foothills of the central mountains. It is, by most accounts, an old city, where local farmers grow a special kind of fig and the mulberries and pomegranates much loved by Iranians. Was the family happy there? I don’t know. Years later homes of Bahá’ís in Ardestan would be sprayed with insulting graffiti. When Mahvash was 9 or 10, in the fifth grade, she moved with her parents to Tehran, where she went to school. She must have done well because she went on to university to study psychology and got a bachelor’s degree. She married when she was 20, moved to Hamadan and had two children, a boy and a girl.
So, there stood Mahvash on that day during the Bahá’í fast in March 2008, holding the phone in her hand. The call had come from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security. The voice on the other end demanded that she come to Mashhad. Now.
What could the Ministry of Intelligence possibly want to know that they could not ask her today by phone or email? Why did she need to go all the way to Mashhad, more than 900 km away? Couldn’t they ask her in Tehran?
It seems she was wanted to answer questions about the burial of an individual in the Baha’i cemetery in Mashhad. Why would she know the answers to these questions? Perhaps because she acted as secretary to the `Yaran’, the `Friends’ - an informal group of seven Bahá’ís who attended to the spiritual and social needs of the several hundred thousand Baha’is in Iran.
So it was that Mahvash, 55 years old, left her home for Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city and a site of pilgrimage to the shrine of the eighth Imam, Reza. What did she pack? Probably just enough clothes for a few days. Definitely a coat, for the temperature in Mashhad on that not-quite-spring early March day did not rise above 7 degrees C. An umbrella? Maybe not, as it rained only one day that whole month – on the 5th. In any case, she would not need her umbrella again.
We do not know exactly what Mahvash did when she arrived in Mashhad but we do know that she did not return home. On that rainy Wednesday, 5 March, she was arrested. No one knew what had happened. She was held incommunicado. She was not allowed to see a lawyer. She had, effectively, disappeared.
Eventually Mahvash was transferred to Evin prison. One day she was taken to a public place by Intelligence Ministry agents. A family member had a moment to identify her.
Other than this, no one visited Mahvash. Her family was not permitted to see her. She was not allowed telephone calls. She had no access to a lawyer.
Then, on 14 May, she was joined by the six other `Friends’. They too had been arrested, at their homes in Tehran. They too were not permitted visitors, phone calls or legal advice.
Mahvash was held in solitary confinement for about four months. She did not know what she was charged with.
In September 2008 Mahvash was relocated within Evin prison to another cell. To her surprise, this was the cell of another `Friend’, Fariba Kamalabadi, who had also been in solitary confinement,
The five men `Friends’ were in a cell together elsewhere in the prison.
Mahvash’s cell was small, about four metres by five metres in size. Two small metal-covered windows let in some light but not enough to see by unless a light was switched on. Her bed was a blanket on the thinly carpeted concrete floor. Her bed sheet was her chador, her pillow a tightly rolled blanket.
One year passed.
A second year, bar two months, passed.
On 12 January 2010 Mahvash and the other `Friends’ appeared in Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court. She was charged with `espionage’, `propaganda activities against the Islamic order’, `insulting the sacredness of Islam’ and `corruption on earth’.
She appeared again on 7 February.
Then, on the eve of the joyous Baha’i festival Intercalary Days, Mahvash’s family was able to visit. Such a wonderful gift for her!
But two days later, on 27 February 2010, Iran’s Attorney-General, Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, stated that Mahvash and the other `Friends’ had confessed. She had not, nor had they.
The next court hearing was on 12 April. Shortly afterwards Mahvash and the `Friends’ were charged with an additional crime: `Aiding, teaching and propagating the Baha’i religion in Iran’. This is the same as `spreading corruption on earth’, a crime that carries the death penalty.
Then, over three days in June, Mahvash and the `Friends’ were tried in Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. She pleaded `Not Guilty’. She was not guilty.
Mahvash was returned to her cell at Evin prison to await sentence. It was clear to all the world that the charges against her were trumped up. Would it be equally clear to the judge?
No. Mahvash and the six other `Friends’ were sentenced this week to 20 years in prison.
Twenty years in prison for being a Baha’i.
Each one is a person. Each one has a story like Mahvash. Here are their names:
Behrouz Tavakkoli, Saeid Rezaie, Fariba Kamalabadi, Vahid Tizfahm, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi and Mahvash Sabet.
Here are their faces:
Today there are many apparently more important and dramatic stories that grab the headlines and find their way onto the main news broadcasts. It is right that we are alarmed and worried about the millions of people who are affected by the flooding in Pakistan, by the potential devastation that a powerful earthquake in Vanuatu and its resulting small tsunami could wreak and by the massive loss of life in the landslides in China.
But there are others, too, who are suffering, not from natural disasters but from human-made ones, people like Mahvash Sabet, a mother, a teacher, a woman of my own generation, who is today sitting in a jail cell somewhere in her homeland, a cell she will occupy for 20 years, because some people don’t like her beliefs.