April 10, 2023

Mahvash Shahriari Sabet, an imprisoned poet and educator

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Mahvash Shahriari Sabet, a 70-year-old Baha’i educator and poet, is a renowned figure not only for her fight against discrimination in Iran but also because of her poetry, of which she has authored several collections during her time behind bars. 

After gaining international attention for an English-translated compilation of Sabet’s work, titled “Prison Poems,” the International Pen Association (PEN) presented her with the “Courageous Writer” award in 2017, and she also received the prestigious “Words on Borders” literary prize from Norway.

At the Pen Prize ceremony, Irish poet Michael Langley compared Sabet to a caged songbird, praising her lyrical poetry that captures the world’s beauty. 

Mahvash Sabet: Who is she?

Born in 1953 in Isfahan, Sabet earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked as an educator and school principal before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. However, she was fired from her job and faced multiple arrests between 2005 and 2009. 

In February 2009, Tehran’s Security Prosecutor’s Office charged Sabet and six other Baha’i leaders with crimes which included spying for Israel, insulting sacred sites, and disseminating propaganda against Iran’s Islamic Republic. Sabet was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June 2010, but was released in 2017.

Sabet’s freedom was short-lived, as she was arrested again in 2022 alongside other Baha’is during a renewed crackdown by the Islamic Republic of Iran. She was held in solitary confinement for five months, during which she endured mental and physical torture. 

Innocent women are unfairly tried

On November 21, 2022, Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi faced trial in a private court session at the 26th branch of the Tehran Revolution Court, overseen by Judge Afshari and attended by their legal counsel. IranWire reported that Mostafa Nili, one of their attorneys, was detained and absent from the proceeding. The Baha’i World Community later described the hearing as predominantly “insulting and humiliating” toward the defendants, with Judge Afshari becoming irate as he believed the two women had not learned from their past incarceration.

Roya Kamalabadi, Fariba’s sister, informed Zamane that the court hearing concerning Fariba’s charges was “very brief” with family members in attendance, but the proceedings were “unusual and formal.” No evidence or proof supporting the allegations against Fariba Kamalabadi was presented, and the defense attorneys were not permitted to speak. Ultimately, both Sabet and fellow Baha’i citizen Kamalabadi received unjust 10-year prison sentences for forming and managing an illegal group.

Sabet experienced torture according to Narges Mohammadi and Faezeh Hashemi

Recently, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of the late Akbar Hashemi Rafanjani who is critical of the Islamic Republic, condemned the unjust treatment of Sabet and Kamalabadi, who she says are wrongly imprisoned simply for their Baha’i faith.

According to Hashemi, the charges against Sabet and Kamalabadi were never presented to them, and they remain unaware of the specifics. Additionally, they have been denied access to legal representation, further suggesting the baselessness of the accusations.

Hashemi also discussed the mistreatment Sabet endured during interrogation. She recounted that the interrogator would forcefully strike Sabet’s chair, causing her knees to collide with the wall. Later, they showed her a photograph of her injured knee. From Evin Prison, Narges Mohammadi reported that Mrs. Sabet endured three years in total of solitary confinement without adequate medical care, spending eight of the 36 months in the Ministry of Information’s Ward 209 under harsh conditions.

Growing support for Baha’is rights

While extremists have inflicted considerable pain and resentment upon the Baha’i community in Iran historically, many Iranians from diverse religious, political, and cultural backgrounds now denounce the government’s infringement on Baha’i rights. On March 11, 2023, a group of civil activists denounced the arrest and imprisonment of Kamalabadi and Sabet in a statement released by the Center of Human Rights Defenders. The signatories labeled the charges against the two Baha’i citizens as unfounded, attributing the severe and unjust sentences to their faith. The statement also highlighted Sabet’s deteriorating health due to her prolonged imprisonment and Kamalabadi’s missed family milestones, including her children’s marriages and the birth of her grandchildren, as a result of her previous conviction.

Empathy for the Baha’i community extends beyond political and civil activists to Shia and Sunni religious authorities who criticize the persecution of Baha’is as contrary to their faiths. Recently, Molavi Abdul Hamid, a Sunni religious figure in Iran, addressed Baha’i followers during his Friday prayer sermon, emphasizing their humanity and right to human rights and citizenship, regardless of their faith.

Among Shia scholars, Ayatollah Montazeri, a prominent religious authority, defended Baha’i rights. A year before his death in 2009, he argued that although the Baha’i faith is not recognized as a religious minority in the constitution due to the absence of a holy book, Baha’is, as Iranian citizens, are entitled to rights and their treatment was in contradiction to Islamic teachings as emphasized by the Quran and religious leaders.

We urge the Iranian authorities to release all those prisoners unjustly detained, including Mahvash Shahriari Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi and other Baha’i prisoners being persecuted for their faith.

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