‘The world is watching’: Australian daughter of Iranian Baha’i in prison pleads for her release

When Negar Sabet awakes after a restless night in Sydney, she agonises about her elderly mother, Mahvash Sabet, who has been locked up in Iran’s notorious Evin prison since the end of July.

“She’s in solitary confinement, again, with just a piece of cloth,” Negar tells ABC News.

It’s not the first time her mother, who is a teacher, writer and poet, has been arrested — that was in 2005, on the day of Negar’s wedding.

That time, Ms Sabet was released after questioning but in 2008, she spent 10 years in prison.

This time, Negar is conscious of the stories her mother has told about prison, but she doesn’t want to imagine how her mother is being treated.

“This is 2022 and the world is watching,” she says.

“They cannot simply torture a woman. Do they have no respect for such a thing as a woman, elderly, [who] already spent [time] in jail, and [is] sick?”

Negar Sabet with her mother Mahvash Sabet, before the arrest. 
Negar Sabet (left) says her mother Mahvash Sabet (right) needs medication.  (Supplied, ABC News.)

In the latest arrest, Iranian authorities took Ms Sabet, together with other members of the Baha’i community including Fariba Kamalabadi and Afif Naemi, who were part of the now-disbanded group Yaran, or “friends”.

Until 2008, this group helped administer the affairs of Iran’s Baha’is, a non-Muslim minority community that has been under persecution for 43 years.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has accused them of “spying” and of having links to the Baha’i centre in Haifa, Israel and collecting and transferring information there – a common allegation used by Iran’s authorities against Baha’is.

Afif and his wife sitting holding hands
Afif Naemi, pictured with his wife Shohreh Khallokhi, has also been arrested by Iranian authorities. (Supplied, ABC News.)

Negar, who says the charges are unfounded, is hoping for her 69-year-old mother’s release but, as time passes, she gets more nervous about her fate.

“I don’t even want to think about it, to be honest,” she says, noting her mother has been denied fresh air and visitors since her arrest and that this routinely happens while prisoners are being interrogated.

She worries that Iran’s authorities are denying her mother visits from her father or other family members in Iran, so they can “disconnect them from the world” and “fabricate” a case against her.

She has not spoken to her mother since the arrest and is worried she is not strong enough to withstand the conditions in Evin Prison.

Negar says her mother had COVID at the time she was arrested.

She also noted her mother got tuberculosis the last time she was sent to Evin. The disease, caused by infection, most commonly affects a person’s lungs but can also affect other parts of the body.

Negar says it has left her mother unable to properly bend her knee and in need of medication, which she has no access to.

“How will she kneel,” Negar asks hopelessly.

“How can she survive … I mean, how is she even passing her days? … That’s what I keep thinking about the second I wake up in the morning.”

Negar Sabet with her baby girl. 
Negar Sabet wishes her mother, who has been in an Iranian prison since July, could meet her baby girl.(Supplied, ABC News.)

Iran’s ‘state-driven and systematic discrimination’ against Baha’is

The persecution against Baha’is has been ongoing since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the monarchy held by the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was ousted and replaced by an Islamic regime.

In recent months, international media reports note that discrimination has escalated against Iran’s estimated 300,000 Baha’is, with the regime’s authorities arresting more Baha’i activists, closing down dozens of Baha’i businesses, demolishing their houses and bulldozing their farmland.

Those who practice the Baha’i faith in Iran — a young religion that originated in Iran in 1844 and is estimated to be practised by about 5 million people worldwide —cannot go to universities, have cemeteries for their dead, or freely run businesses and own property. They are accused by Iran’s government of being “heretics”.

Negar, who migrated to Australia in 2017, recalls the constant discrimination she faced as a Baha’i growing up in Iran.

“After the revolution — they have this term ‘pak-sazi’, which means to cleanse (purify) the community — remove all the Baha’is from all the jobs they have, and to not let them finish their degrees at school, at university,” she says.

“And this is basically paralysing the whole Baha’i community.”

Mahvash and Negar Sabet in happier days. 
Mahvash and Negar Sabet in happier days. (Supplied, ABC News.)

She says the discrimination against her started early, from being ignored by her teachers in primary school when she raised her hand to ask to go to the toilet, to being thrown out of school in grade 3 for refusing to recite a Muslim prayer.

It continued later in life — she says she was not allowed to attend university and she got sacked from working in an administration role for a pharmaceuticals business.

Negar says this all happens while Iran’s regime tries to brainwash people against the Baha’is.

“The Islamic Republic uses its platforms, like social media, on TV — all kinds of platforms that they have — to spread hatred against the Baha’i people,” she says.

Amnesty International notes that in 1991, an official policy was approved by Iran’s Supreme Leader which clearly states that “the state’s dealings with the Baha’is must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked”.

This is backed up by a report in March this year by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed.

He notes Baha’is have been subject to “smear campaigns and speech that may incite violence against them based on their faith identity”.

Mr Ahmed Shaheed UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief 
Ahmed Shaheed says Baha’is have been subject to “smear campaigns” by Iranian authorities. (Supplied, ABC News. )

“In Iran, discrimination against and persecution of Baha’is is state-driven and systematic,” he said in an annex to his report specifically about the Baha’i community.

The consequences of the lack of legal recognition of the Baha’i community in Iran, he said, were far-reaching.

“They include loss of custody in divorce proceedings, children being ‘born out of wedlock’ because Baha’i marriages are not recognised, and disregard to contents of wills or Baha’i inheritance laws in disputed estate matters,” Mr Shaheed said.

Iran’s court system ‘a painful charade to watch’

Negar says Iran’s authorities have focused their attention on her mother because she fights to practise her religion.

Mahvash Sabet began her professional career as a teacher and worked as a principal at several schools but, following the Islamic Revolution, Ms Sabet was fired from her job.

She served for 15 years as director of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, which provides alternative higher education for Baha’i youth, before being arrested.

“They accused them [her mother and six others they arrested in 2008] of espionage and also spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” Negar says.

Negar was in Iran during the time of the trial, where Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi acted for her.

“It was a painful charade to watch because they [the Baha’is arrested] had no right to talk,” Negar explains.

Mahvash Sabet’s story has captured international attention, with calls for her release at the time of the 2008 arrest and the most recent one in July.

When Ms Sabet was arrested in 2008, Ms Ebadi acted for her throughout the trial.

Shirin Ebadi speaking at an event
Nobel Peace Prize laurette Shirin Ebadi has acted for Mahvash Sabet previously as her lawyer. (YouTube)

The court had sentenced Ms Sabet to 20 years, but it was reduced to 10 years.

Negar says that during her captivity, Ms Sabet wrote the book Prison Poems, detailing her ordeal.

In 2017, Ms Sabet received the PEN Pinter Prize with Michael Longley for her prison poems.

International calls for Baha’is arrested on ‘espionage’ allegations to be released

PEN International and PEN Centres, who campaign on behalf of writers who have been silenced by persecution or imprisonment, have called for Ms Sabet’s “immediate and unconditional release”.

The plight of Iran’s Baha’i community has also captured the attention of the wider international community.

In August, a group of 70 political and human rights activists, academics and artists condemned in a joint statement the Islamic Republic’s treatment of the Baha’i community following a spike in restrictions and pressure on its members.

Shirin Ebadi and Iranian-American movie star Shohreh Aghdashloo are among the signatories.

Actress speaking on YouTube
Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is a signatory to a joint statement against the Islamic Republic’s treatment of the Baha’i community.(YouTube.)

Rouhollah Taefi, the husband of the other Baha’i recently arrested with Ms Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, says that the Ministry of Intelligence issued a formal statement about the arrests.

Fariba Kamalabadi with husband Rouhollah Taefi in happier times
Fariba Kamalabadi with husband Rouhollah Taefi. He is pleading for his wife’s release from an Iranian prison. (Supplied, ABC News.)

He says it alleges that his wife and Ms Sabet were against members of the “Baha’i espionage [political] party” and that those arrested were “propagating the teachings of the fabricated Baha’i colonialism and infiltrating educational environments” including kindergartens.

Mr Taefi wrote a letter to the presiding judge of Branch 3 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, concerning the arrest and incarceration of his wife.

His letter notes that on August 1, Iran’s official television station announced that the Ministry of Intelligence had arrested “the central core of the Baha’i espionage party, which, in connection with the House of Justice, has been spying for Israel”.

Mr Taefi says in the letter that “all the Baha’i offices and homes of Baha’is have been searched hundreds of times and they have not found any document confirming espionage”.

He writes that the “Baha’is of Iran, including my wife and other Baha’i prisoners … love the sacred land of Iran” and asks, “how is it possible to accuse these people of espionage?”

The Iranian embassy in Canberra has been contacted for comment but has not responded at the time of publication. 

 ‘You pay whatever you had in your life’ for freedom

In one of her book’s poems, entitled “Dust”, Ms Sabet wrote:

“I drew near the mirror.

To see myself better.

It said, go and get lost!

You’re nothing but dust.”

Asked why her mother did not consider leaving Iran years ago for a country where she could freely practise her religion, Negar says: “Iran is our homeland”

“Iran is the country that we love – it’s in our roots. This is the country where the Baha’i faith originated from.

Negar and Mahvash at a birthday party
Negar Sabet with her mother Mahvash Sabet. Negar says her mother has lost everything to defend her freedom to choose her religion. (Supplied, ABC News. )

“And we’ve put up with these [Iran regime’s] restrictions, persecutions, pressure, torture, execution — everything.

“But what Baha’is want is to have constructive resilience … You believe in this, and you pay whatever you had in life.”

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