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Shohreh’s story: How Iran violated a top student’s rights

GENEVA, 28 September 2011 (BWNS) – Like many young people the world over, Shohreh Rowhani grew up with high hopes of a good university education.

 Shohreh Rowhani from Nowshahr, Iran, ranked among the top 1% of candidates in her university entrance exam. But she has been barred from higher education for being a Bahai. Here her story is reported on a Persian-language human rights website.

But now she has run up against a system which – while promising opportunity on the surface – is cruelly designed to block her and other young Iranians from ever getting a degree.

Ms. Rowhani is a Baha’i, and her experience is made all the more unjust by the fact that she is among Iran’s most gifted students; she ranked 151 in the country after passing the national university exam in her chosen field of languages. In other words, her result put her among the top 1% of candidates who took the exam.

Buoyed by her impressive grades, Ms. Rowhani – who comes from the northern Iranian city of Nowshahr – began the online process of selecting her courses. But when the results of those applications were listed, she discovered that her submission had been rejected as an “incomplete file.”

It is a phrase well known to young Baha’is. For several years now, the term has appeared frequently as one among several ruses crafted to prevent them from actually matriculating even if they pass the national university exams.

Undeterred, Ms. Rowhani courageously went to the regional office that oversees the examination process and asked officials to explain what was wrong.

"They told me that this has happened because you are a Baha’i," she reported in a letter recently sent to several human rights organizations.

"Since you are a Baha’i you do not have the right to enter university," she was told.

She decided to take her case to the next level, managing to get a meeting with the head of the admissions department.

When confronted, this official simply “expressed his regret for this matter and told me that there is nothing he can do,” said Ms. Rowhani. “He said there is no way out of this and even if you enter university you would be expelled after three or four terms.”

She asked him if the results would have been different if she had said she was a Muslim.

"He said it makes no difference, as they know you," she wrote. “‘The ministry of intelligence has identified your family and all of the Baha’is already.’"

"They told me that I will not get any result, no matter who I might refer to," she said.

The experience of Shohreh Rowhani is also a familiar story for thousands of Baha’is in Iran who are barred from higher education on religious grounds.

Even for the fortunate ones who might be offered a place, expulsion often follows during the course of their studies. In recent months, two students at the Isfahan University of Technology were prevented from registering for the next term, also for having “incomplete documents;” a Baha’i studying English literature was thrown out of the University of Kerman; a biomedical engineering student at the University of Sahand was dismissed; and a physics student at the University of Mazandaran was expelled after completing eight semesters on the honor roll and gaining admission to a Master’s program.

Three decades of exclusion

All kinds of methods have been used by Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to prevent Baha’is from attending university – firstly, by expelling them all, and then, imposing an outright ban on their accessing higher education.

In response to international condemnation, the Iranian government changed the rules in 2003, declaring that Baha’is could now take the examination. But when nearly a thousand Baha’is moved ahead in good faith, they encountered new barriers.

At first, exams were returned with “Islam” written in the religious affiliation slot – something unacceptable to Baha’is, who are taught by their faith to tell the truth at all times, especially about their religious beliefs.

So the government indicated that the word “Islam” referred only to the particular sub-test on religion that each applicant is required to take, allowing Baha’is in good conscience to apply for higher schooling. Then, in the mid-2000s, a number of Baha’is successfully entered various universities around the country – only to find that they were then often expelled soon after matriculation.

In March 2007, for example, the Reuters news agency reported that some 70 Baha’i students had been expelled that academic year from universities in Iran. In that report, an anonymous spokesperson for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations was quoted as saying in reply: “No one in Iran because of their religion has been expelled from studying.”

After another international outcry, Iran changed tactics again. Baha’is who took the exam began to find their results were simply being withheld. When they went to the national website to find out their scores, many received the message that they had “incomplete files” – leaving them in a bureaucratic limbo.

"Unjust and oppressive practices"

In an open letter sent last month to Iran’s minister for higher education, the Baha’i International Community called for an end to the “unjust and oppressive practices” that bar Baha’is and other young Iranians from university.

The letter also addressed the government’s crackdown on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an informal community initiative run by Baha’is to educate their youth who are barred from university. In May, government agents raided the homes of more than 30 individuals associated with the BIHE and arrested 14 of them. Seven educators have this week appeared in court. Dozens more, including students, have been called in for interrogation – all in an effort to close the project down.

"Such actions, as you know, have been conducted as a matter of official government policy and as part of a systematic campaign to eliminate the Baha’i community as a viable entity in your country," said the open letter, addressed to Kamran Daneshjoo, the Minister of Science, Research, and Technology. Read the open letter here: <>

For Shohreh Rowhani and her co-religionists, the fight for their right to education continues.

In her letter to human rights organizations she has expressed her desire that everyone should “know how senselessly my rights have been violated.”

NEW YORK, 26 September 2011 (BWNS) – As a number of Baha’i educators appear in court in Iran, two Nobel Peace Prize winners have sharply criticized the Iranian government, comparing its actions to “the Dark Ages of Europe” or the “Spanish Inquisition.”

The remarks by Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, and Jose Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor, appear in an open letter to the academic community published today in the “Huffington Post,” under the title ‘Iran’s war against knowledge.’

In the letter, the Nobel laureates call upon the Iranian government to release unconditionally and drop charges against the seven Baha’is currently on trial in Iran for their educational activities.

"The forward progress of humankind in the last centuries has been fueled, more than any other factor, by increasing access to information, more rapid exchange of ideas, and in most parts of the world, universal education," they write.

"So it is particularly shocking when despots and dictators in the twenty first century attempt to subjugate their own populations by attempting to deny education or information to their people.

"Not only is it futile in the long term, it makes them appear fearful of the very age they live in, and haunted by the new thinkers in their midst."

"Perhaps the most glaring example of this fear today is the denial of higher education to the members of the Baha’i Faith in Iran – a peaceful religion with no political agenda, which recognizes the unity of all religions," says the letter.

Court appearances

The publication of the open letter has coincided with reports that trials have now begun in Iran for seven Baha’i educators. They were detained in connection with an informal community initiative known as the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), which gave Baha’i professors – debarred by the Iranian government from practicing their professions – the opportunity to teach young community members who are themselves banned from university.

"Those arrested were neither political nor religious leaders," observe Archbishop Tutu and President Ramos-Horta in their letter. "They were lecturers in subjects that included accounting and dentistry, who today face the prospect of decades in prison. The crime with which they are charged – delivering higher education to Baha’i youth."

The Baha’i International Community has learned that six of the seven – detained after raids last May on some 39 homes of Baha’is associated with BIHE – are now being tried in pairs.

"The lawyer who was preparing to defend them is himself now in prison; two of the prisoners reportedly had court hearings yesterday; two appeared today and two tomorrow – and it seems that another was in court last week," said Bani Dugal, Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations.

"All the signs are that we cannot expect a fair trial," she added.

Ms. Dugal expressed the gratitude of the Baha’i International Community to Archbishop Tutu and President Ramos-Horta.

"We thank them – as well as all the governments, organizations and people of goodwill throughout the world whose efforts send a clear message to the Iranian authorities that their actions are being closely watched and condemned," she said.

Expelled for their beliefs

The open letter also highlights the plight of other Iranian youth who have been expelled from universities “for their beliefs or for holding viewpoints determined to be counter to the ruling party, including pro-reform views.”

"We believe it is important to recognize that these actions are neither the result of or dictated by the Islamic faith. One need only look at the Dark Ages of Europe or the Spanish Inquisition to see that Iranian Ayatollahs are certainly not the first to use religion as the cloak to attempt to forcibly suppress ideas and knowledge that they fear could threaten their power. The rich philosophical and artistic Iranian traditions, the contributions of Iranian scholars worldwide, and the actions of the Muslim community members who have aided and supported the BIHE, are testament to the fact that the actions of their leaders are no reflection of the Muslim faith or the many good-willed Muslims in Iranian communities," the letter says.

"And while we believe that both historically and in today’s ‘wired’ world it is futile to suppress the quest for knowledge, there are many in Iran whose lives are being threatened or damaged by the attempt.

"They need our support."

Among other demands, the Nobel laureates are urging the academic community to register with their Iranian counterparts their disagreement with, and disapproval of, any policy which bars individuals from higher education based on their religious background or political persuasion.

Worldwide condemnation

The international outcry at Iran’s persecution of Baha’i educators has spanned the world in the past four months, from Australia to Zambia.

On 5 September, Baroness Catherine Ashton – High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs – expressed her “serious concern” about the attack on BIHE.

Three days earlier, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the arrests of BIHE staff  ”are based on unfounded charges of conspiring against national security. This institute provides valuable educational services to the Baha’i community, which is denied formal higher education in Iran.”

The seven Baha’i educators facing trial are: Vahid Mahmoudi and Kamran Mortezaie, who reportedly appeared in court yesterday; Mahmoud Badavam and Nooshin Khadem, who were scheduled to appear today; and Ramin Zibaie and Riaz Sobhani, who will appear tomorrow. It is understood that Farhad Sedghi appeared in court on Tuesday 20 September.

Rainn Wilson BIHE Video Appeal by Education Under Fire.

The Baha’i’s in Iran, the country’s largest religious minority, have been persecuted since the 1979 revolution. Thousands were arrested and hundreds executed. Today, over 100 Baha’i’s are unjustly imprisoned including seven former community leaders and a number of educationalists. Iranian Baha’i’s are barred from university and even prevented from holding their own higher educational classes.

Young students in the UK share their views on their own education and their thoughts on this outrage

For more information on how you can support access to education for all in Iran visit:

GENEVA, 16 September 2011 (BWNS) – As a number of Baha’is in Iran await trial for providing higher education to youth barred from university, the Baha’i International Community has been distressed to learn of the arrest of a lawyer who was preparing to defend them.

Abdolfattah Soltani – a senior member of the legal team representing the prisoners – was arrested last Saturday. Mr. Soltani was a co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center along with four other lawyers including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi. The Tehran-based Center was shut down in a police raid in December 2008.

An Amnesty International appeal calling upon Iran to release Mr. Soltani immediately has described him as “one of the bravest human rights defenders in Iran…” 

"One by one courageous Iranian lawyers are being summoned and then arrested, or have to flee their homeland," observed Diane Ala’i, representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva.

"We are deeply concerned at the detention of Mr. Soltani," she said. "What precisely are the motives of the Iranian authorities for this arrest, just before his clients are expected to face trial?"

Seven Baha’is are still in prison in connection with their involvement in an informal educational program in which Baha’i professors – debarred by the Iranian government from practicing their professions – voluntarily offer their services to teach young community members who are banned from higher education.

Press reports in Iran have recently announced that the program – known as the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) – has been declared illegal.

Iranian authorities carried out raids three months ago on some 39 homes of administrators, staff and students of BIHE. The seven still detained are Mahmoud Badavam, Nooshin Khadem, Vahid Mahmoudi, Kamran Mortezaie, Farhad Sedghi and Ramin Zibaie – all arrested 22 May; and Riaz Sobhani – arrested 14 June.

"Many people associated with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education have been arrested and interrogated," said Diane Ala’i. "Some have been imprisoned and then released. In addition to the seven who remain in prison, four others connected with BIHE were detained earlier this week."

Details of any imminent legal proceedings have been hard to establish, she said.

"We have received no formal report of the charges leveled against them, other than an indication that the accusations are once again related to matters of national security. Despite their best efforts, the lawyers have only been able to meet with three of the currently detained Baha’is."

"We call upon governments, organizations and people of good will everywhere to do whatever they can to dissuade Iran from perpetrating yet another appalling miscarriage of justice," said Ms. Ala’i.

"O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. — Hidden Words, Arabic #2"

Injustice Against Baha’is is Injustice Against Iranians

Please do read the linked blog by Christopher Schwartz: