Meet Iran’s Oldest Security Threat – 80 Year Old Baha’i Leader Behind Bars

What is the definition of a criminal? At its most basic level, it is someone who deliberately breaks a law. Now, picture a man who is a loving father and grandfather, a devoted husband, and a businessman who is open, warm, and spends time engaged in service to his community. Sounds criminal, right?

Meet Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, an 80 year old Iranian arrested at least three times in the past few decades, who was most recently incarcerated in 2008 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Among the false allegations? Endangering Iran’s national security by being a member of the Baha’i Faith.

According to Khanjani’s brother, Kamal, who now lives in the United States, Khanjani’s kindness, sense of humor, and desire to help others is unmatched. Kamal recalled a story of his brother bringing 40 children from a  rural village to the town of Isfahan, where he lived, to receive an education. He also pointed to the ways in which his brother was continually serving the Iranian Baha’i community, which is the reason for his multiple arrests.
In 1984, Khanjani served on the elected governing council of the Baha’is of Iran, which tragically saw all but two of its nine-member body executed by the Iranian government. Khanjani’s most recent prison term is a result of his involvement in a seven-member ad-hoc leadership group for the Baha’is of Iran.
Given Khanjani’s age, this 20 year sentence is for life: an injustice so cruel. Yet, the length of his sentence is not the only cruelty Khanjani has experienced.
In 2011, roughly three years after his most recent arrest, Khanjani’s wife of over 50 years, Ashraf Khanjani, passed away. To make matters worse, Khanjani was not allowed to visit her during her final days, nor was he permitted to attend her funeral. When injustice of this magnitude takes place, it is imperative that action is taken.
The U.S. government has stepped up to the plate with the passage on January 1 of House Resolution 134, “condemning the Government of Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of its Baha’i minority and its continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights.” This resolution had a total of 146 co-sponsors, 78 Republicans and 68 Democrats.
This bipartisan effort calls on the President and the Secretary of State to condemn Iran for its continued human rights violations and to demand the immediate release of all prisoners held for their religious beliefs (including Khanjani and the six other Baha’i leaders), as well as to impose sanctions against officials and individuals responsible for these violations.
Some may ask why the U.S. House of Representatives would be concerned with such things as religious persecution in Iran. The social stability that increased human rights and religious freedom would provide to Iran and, by proxy, other countries in the region is reason enough to want these freedoms for all Iranians.
But the reasons for desiring the end of persecution against the Baha’is specifically are also significant. As the largest religious minority in Iran, with some 300,000 adherents, the persecution of the Baha’is affects all Iranian citizens. If Baha’is, unjustly labeled by the Iranian government as members of a “deviant sect,” were to gain the human rights and religious freedom that Iran is obligated to provide under the International Covenants on Human Rights, this would virtually guarantee that minorities in officially recognized religions, such as Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews, would gain greater religious freedom as well.
The injustice seen in Khanjani’s case alone is shocking. More generally, however, arbitrary detentions, the harassment of Baha’i school children, the pressuring of private sector employers to dismiss Baha’is, the denial of business licenses, and abrupt business closures are increasingly frequent. And, there are 107 Baha’is who are currently incarcerated, which is about double the number of Baha’is in prison in early 2011. These are parts of an alarming trend of increased state sponsored persecution.
Human rights advocates, both inside and outside Iran, can be encouraged by this most recent congressional action. Kamal Khanjani believes that there is a “need for a reaction on the international level, no question about it.”
The passage of H. Res. 134, together with the U.N. General Assembly’s passage of a resolution on December 20 chastising Iran for its egregious human rights violations, including specifically those perpetrated against the Baha’is, are significant steps by the international community towards further
exposing the Iranian government’s abuses and calling for action to improve the state of religious freedom for all Iranian citizens.

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