By Kian Sabeti
January 25, 2019
An Iranian Baha’i woman accused of “propaganda against the regime” has been acquitted in a historic verdict that activists hope signals a move away from the discriminatory policies against the country’s largest religious minority community.
The verdict in the case of Lisa Tibanian stated that belonging to the Baha’i faith or proselytizing were not crimes.
Prominent journalist Isa Saharkhiz welcomed the news. “While agents of the Intelligence Ministry of Rouhani’s government are busy arresting Baha’i citizens on charges such proselytizing Baha’ism, propaganda against the regime, espionage, etc, there is this good news from Karaj,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Judge Ali Badri, the presiding judge of Branch 12 of Alborz province’s Court of Appeals, has announced [that] merely proselytizing for the Baha’i faith cannot be considered propaganda against the regime and, fundamentally, the law does not consider belief in the Baha’i faith a crime to justify prosecuting and punishing individuals based on this charge, especially since the appellant [Lisa Tibanian] accepts the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic and is considered [an Iranian] citizen…” Saharkhiz has himself faced prison on several occasions for his work as a journalist.
Over the last four decades since the Islamic Revolution, hundreds of Baha’i Iranians have been tried and imprisoned on the charge of “propaganda against the regime” for “proselytizing the Baha’i faith.” Throughout these years, Islamic Revolutionary Court judges have defined any and all religious, social or civil activities by the Baha’is as propaganda against the regime, which is punishable according to Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. It states: “Anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to between three months and one year of imprisonment.”
Officials have cited this article when cracking down on a range of activities, including the closure of businesses to observe Baha’i religious occasions, pursuing higher education and civil rights, participation in social and environmental campaigns, and even pursuing artistic endeavors. Baha’is have also been targeted for socializing with non-Baha’is, attending Baha’i religious classes and even burying people from the faith according to Baha’i religious practices. Historically these activities have been condemned as “propaganda against the regime” and the offenders have been punished with prison sentences.
The prosecution of the Baha’is has been ongoing. In the last few months alone, at least 60 Baha’is have been arrested, tried and sentenced.
One of them is Lisa Tabianian (Enayati). She was originally arrested at her home on February 13, 2017 and later detained for 10 days before eventually being released on bail on March 26, 2017. She was tried at Branch 4 at the Karaj Revolutionary Court, with the judicial authority citing Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code and sentencing her to seven months in prison. On August 1, 2018 Tabianian and her lawyer were informed of the lower Revolutionary Court verdict.
On December 31, 2018, Branch 12 of Alborz Province’s Revolutionary Court under Judge Ali Badri acquitted Lisa Tabianian on the charge of propaganda against the regime. According to the text of the verdict and the indictment obtained by IranWire, the appeals court has ruled that proselytizing Baha’ism and belief in Baha’i faith are not crimes. The judge stressed the fact that the appellant accepts the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic and this was an important reason for not finding her guilty.
According to the judge, proselytizing is a crime under Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code only if it is aimed against Iran’s political system. Otherwise, the judge said, “religious proselytizing in a way that cannot be construed as against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regime is not a crime.” He also stated that punishing someone for proselytizing on those terms “would even violate citizens’ rights under the constitution.”