Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

https://www.iranrights.org
Omid, a memorial in defense of human rights in Iran
One Person’s Story

Akhtar Sabet Sarvestani

About

Age: 25
Nationality: Iran
Religion: Baha'i
Civil Status: Single

Case

Date of Killing: June 18, 1983
Location of Killing: Abdollah Mesgar Garrison (Chogan Square), Shiraz, Fars Province, Iran
Mode of Killing: Hanging
Charges: Religious offense
Age at time of alleged offense: 24

About this Case

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was a happy, intelligent, devoted, and selfless individual. In high school and college, she would spend time to make sure his fellow students were making progress in their academic studies. At work, she would work as a replacement for her colleagues who were on leave.

News of the execution of Ms. Akhtar Sabet Sarvestani, daughter of Hossein and Havva, and that of 9 other Baha’i women was published in the Baha’i News Monthly, run by the United States National Spiritual Assembly (June 18, 1983), Baha’is Office of Public Relations (June 20, 1983), and the Times newspaper (June 21, 1983). She was one of the 206 individuals whose name was published in the Worldwide Baha’i Community’s 1999 report. This report, entitled “The Baha’i Question: Iran’s Secret Blueprint for the Destruction of a Religious Community”, dealt with the persecution of members of the Baha’i faith in Iran by the Islamic Republic, and contained a list of Baha’is who were killed in Iran since 1979. Additional information was obtained from Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper (February 12, and February 22, 1983); The New York Times (May 22, 1983); Sahifeye Imam (“The Imam’s Book”), Volume 17 (May 28, 1983); Baha’i World Almanac, Volume 18, 1979-1983 (Haifa, 1986); Shiraz’ Adelabad Prison’s visitation card (1983); an account of events as published in “A Tribute to the Faithful” by Mah Mehr Golestaneh (1992); the book “Olya’s Story” written by Olya Ruhizadegan, Andalib Magazine (Winter 1988); the Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran (undated); Morteza Esmailipur’s YouTube Channel (January 26, 2016; June 15, and July 6, 2016); Martyrs of the Baha’i Religion website (undated); Dar Gozar-e Tarikh (“Throughout History”) Telegram Channel (June18, 2019); and the Report of the United States Congressional Hearing published in the World Order Magazine (Winter 1983-1984); Baha’i Instruction website (June 12, 2017); Payam-e Haq website, the Baha’i faith’s messenger service, library, and information provider (21 July 2018).

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was born in 1958-59 in the town of Sarvestan in the south of Fars Province. She went to school in Sarvestan until 9th grade and subsequently moved to Shiraz where she obtained her high school diploma. Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was single and had an associate degree from Shiraz’ Nursing Education Center. In December 1978, Sarvestan’s Baha’is were attacked by a group of Sarvestan residents, who had been instigated by revolutionary religious clerics to put pressure on Baha’is to reject their faith. The Sabet Sarvestani family’s home and business were set on fire and their possessions were pillaged. This attack caused Baha’i families, including Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s, to move from Sarvestan to Shiraz. She spent her childhood in poverty; she also worked in the last two years of high school in order to make money and help out in the family’s expenses. Ms. Sabet Sarvestani worked as a nurse at the children’s wing of Sa’di Hospital. She also taught ethics classes for Baha’i children (Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran; Iran Wire; Morteza Esmailipur’s YouTube Channel, June 15, and July 6, 2016; Dar Gozar-e Tarikh (“Throughout History”) Telegram Channel; Payam-e Haq website; Baha’i Instruction website).

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was a happy, intelligent, selfless, devoted, disciplined and committed person who lived a simple life. She was a woman with a strong personality and a rich social education. In high school and college, she would spend time to make sure her fellow students were making progress in their academic studies. She liked the nursing profession and she would work at the hospital as a replacement for her colleagues who were on leave. (Iran Wire; Morteza Esmailipur’s YouTube Channel, July 6, 2016; Payam-e Haq website).

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s case is related to the issuance of a death sentence for 22 Baha’is, and the execution of 6 men and 10 women in June 1983 in Shiraz.

Extensive international efforts were made in order to save the imprisoned Baha’is. About a month prior to the implementation of the death sentences, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan asked the Islamic Republic of Iran’s authorities to stop the executions. A week after the American President’s message, Ayatollah Khomeini, then-Leader of the Islamic Republic, addressing the U.S. government at a gathering of Iranian officials stated: “We wouldn’t have heard a peep out of you if these people were not spies. [You’re speaking up now] because these are a bunch of people who are on your side and [protect] your interests…And now [you] are making all this noise for 22 Baha’is, who, they claim, ‘have gotten entangled and been entrapped’ in Iran, and now all of a sudden [you] are humanitarians and are crying foul and pleading with the whole world to come to these people’s rescue. [But] people know you [better]…” (The New York Times, May 22, 1983; Sahifeye Imam, Volume 17, May 28, 1983).

The Baha’is in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Background

The Baha’i religious community is the largest minority group in Iran, with approximately 300,000 members in 1979 (more current figures are not available).*  The authorities of the Islamic Republic have subjected Baha’is religious  to systematic harassment and persecution, depriving them of their most fundamental human rights. The Baha’i religion is not recognized under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, and Iranian authorities refer to it as a heresy. As a result, the Baha’is have been denied the rights associated with the status of a religious minority; they cannot profess and practice their faith and are banned from public functions. Discrimination under the law and in practice has subjected them to abuse and violence. **

Arrest and detention

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was arrested at her family’s home in Shiraz on the night of October 22, or 23, 1982, and was detained at the city’s Revolutionary Guards detention center. Forty other Baha’is were also arrested at the same time in Shiraz, five of whom were members of Shiraz’ [Baha’i] Spiritual Assembly. According to one of her ward mates, Ms. Sabet Sarvestani endured severe physical and psychological torture during her detention because she was a member of the Baha’i organizational structure. Ms. Sabet Sarvestani had told her ward mates that during interrogations, one of the interrogators who had read her account of her life and had been deeply affected by it had told her: “Why don’t you just say you’re not a Baha’i and get it over with and free yourself?” To which she had replied: “How can I reject the righteousness of [the Baha’i] faith?” she was transferred to Shiraz’ Adelabad Prison after more than a month in detention, and was cellmates with two other Baha’i women until the time of her execution. Ms. Sabet Sarvestani and her cellmates were considered “unclean” because they were Baha’i, and were treated in a demeaning manner. For instance, she and 25 of her ward mates were given only a single small wash tub to wash their clothes. Furthermore, the section of the Prison where they lived was humid and moldy. Ms. Sabet Sarvestani had a good voice and would recite Monajat (Baha’i prayer) every morning and would prepare the necessities for her ward mates’ breakfast. In addition to providing [medical] treatment to her ward mates, she helped them in washing their clothes or performing their daily tasks while in prison. Starting at least in early April until June 18, 1983, she visited weekly with certain members of her family. Prison officials had set restrictions on her visiting with all the members of her family. (Archives of Baha’i Persecution; Adelabad Prison’s visitation card; the book “Olya’s Story”; Andalib Magazine; Morteza Esmailipur’s YouTube Channel, July 6, 2016; Payam-e Haq website).

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s interrogator was overwhelmed after reading her life’s story, and asked her: “Why don’t you just say you’re not Baha’i and get it over with and free yourself?” To which she replied: “How can I reject the righteousness of [the Baha’i] faith?”

Trial

The Shiraz Islamic Revolutionary Court tried Ms. Sabet Sarvestani. (Andalib Magazine).

According to available reports, the authorities gave Ms. Sabet Sarvestani numerous opportunities to reject her religion and convert to Islam. According to one of her ward mates, the Judge and the Revolutionary prosecutor both gave Ms. Sabet Sarvestani an ultimatum that she would be executed if she did not “repent”. It is not clear whether these conversations and ultimatums were entirely given in the course of trial sessions or they had replaced the hearings. (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 12, 1983; the book “Olya’s Story”; Iran Wire; Morteza Esmailipur’s YouTube Channel, July 6, 2016).

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was not represented by an attorney at trial.

Charges

According to the statements of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court Judge, Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s charges were related to her religious beliefs and her activities, such as “being a Baha’i”, “membership in the Baha’i organization”, and “being single” (which is not a crime in Iranian law). When the chief of the hospital where Ms. Sabet Sarvestani was employed contacted the prosecutor to follow up on her case, he was told that Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s crime, which was membership in Baha’ism, had already been proven. (the book “Olya’s Story”; Payam-e Haq website; Baha’i Instruction website).

Ms. Arjomandi had been interrogated and put under pressure to deny her faith during her detention. Furthermore, according to an interview published in Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, the Shari’a judge adjudicating the case who was the head of the Shiraz Islamic Revolutionary Court, had warned Baha’is “to take refuge in the arms of dearest Islam… and to reject Baha’ism which is intellectually and logically damned [and void].” (Andalib Magazine; Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 22, 1983). 

In explaining the charges brought against the defendants, the Shari’a judge stated that they were arrested because they were active members of the Baha’i organization, and that they were also [charged with and] being tried for their “direct or indirect” contact with [the Baha’i] “Beit-ol-Adl” (“The House of Justice”) headquartered in Israel which follows [the dictates of] the State of Israel. The Shari’a judge emphasized that the religious activities of the defendants were “criminal” activities, and that “pursuant to Principle Thirteen of the Constitution, any activity by the Baha’is is unconstitutional, and organizing and establishing Assemblies, “Lajne” (“committees”), Parties, and the like, are all crimes.” (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 12, and 22, 1983).

The Shari’a Judge dismissed the claim that Baha’is do not interfere with or engage in politics and that they abide by the government’s rule, and noted that they had not supported the Islamic Republic and that they had their own organizational structure: “ … They say ‘we did not participate in any of the demonstrations against Taghut (“the Devil”; derogatory term to refer to the former Shah) … that we have not taken part in any elections in the Islamic Republic … because these all constitute politics and we condemn interfering or taking part in politics … We have our own various elections and the Baha’I organizational structure is an independent one …’ Therefore, we can fully see that these sources of corruption and children of the Devil, and mercenaries of Israel’s Beit-ol-Adl, have created an organization, albeit a ridiculous one, in opposition to the organization and rule of Islam. What is funny is that they say they obey the government and that they will follow whatever the government dictates. This, however, is a ploy to hide their actions, actions that are not in line with the actions of the people.” (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 22, 1983).

In the interview, the Shari’a judge called on all Baha’is (and not just Baha’i activists) to either reject their faith, or accept and suffer the consequences, “otherwise, in a not too distant future, there will come a day where the Ummah (“people”, “adherents”) of Islam will act in accordance with their Islamic duties toward Baha’is just like with the Monafqin (derogatory term meaning the “hypocrites” used to describe menbers of the MOjahedeen Khalq Organizatio) …who adhere to [the dictates of] a Satanic religion. And a word of warning to Baha’is… the Ummah of Hezbollah (“the Party of Allah”) will be perfectly capable of eradicating them [once and for all].” (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 22, 1983).

In a speech given in late May 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini alluded to the 22 Baha’is put on trial and expressly called them “spies”, stating: “Baha’is are not a religion, they’re a political party, a political party that Britain used to support in the past, and now America is supporting … [We would not have tried and sentenced them] if they were not spies. There are many other people who also have misguided and deviant beliefs, who are communist, [for example,] or other things; but our courts did not arrest and imprison them just because they were communist or had deviant beliefs.” (Sahifeye Imam, Volume 17, May 28, 1983; The Times newspaper, June 21, 1983).

The validity of the criminal charges brought against this defendant cannot be ascertained in the absence of the basic guarantees of a fair trial.  International human rights organizations have drawn attention to reports indicating that the Islamic Republic authorities have brought trumped-up charges, including drug trafficking, sexual, and other criminal offences, against their opponents (including political, civil society activists, as well as unionists and ethnic and religious minorities). Each year Iranian authorities sentence to death hundreds of alleged common criminals, following judicial processes that fail to meet international standards. The exact number of people convicted and executed based on trumped-up charges is unknown. 

Evidence of guilt 

The report of this execution does not contain information regarding the evidence provided against Ms. Sabet Sarvestani and her connection with Israel or espionage. In his interview with Khabar-e Jonoob, the Head of the Revolutionary Court and Shari’a Judge stated the evidence of the crime as being the activities beliefs of Baha’is. The Shari’a Judge dismissed the claim that Baha’is do not interfere with or engage in politics and that they abide by the government’s rule, and noted that [the evidence indicates] that they do not abide by the rule of the Islamic Republic government and that that they are traitors. Furthermore, the fact that the Dar-ol-Adl (the Baha’i headquarters) is in Israel, which is independent from that State, was definitive evidence of the [Baha’i] Organization’s and the Baha’is allegiance and obedience of the government of Israel. (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 22, 1983).

According to the Shari’a Judge, the fact that the Baha’is’ organization structure is separate and independent from that of Islam is itself proof of the follower of this cult’s treason and sin: “Therefore, we can fully see that these sources of corruption and children of the Devil, and mercenaries of Israel’s Beit-ol-Adl, have created an organization, albeit a ridiculous one, in opposition to the organization and rule of Islam. What is funny is that they say they obey the government and that they will follow whatever the government dictates. This, however, is a ploy to hide their actions, actions that are not in line with the actions of the people.” (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 22, 1983).

Defense

According to the statements of the Baha’i community’s representatives and to available information and evidence existing in Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s file, the principal reason for the arrest and prosecution of Baha’is is their religious beliefs. The information these representatives have obtained regarding their fellow adherents indicates that the defendants’ requests for access to their file is customarily denied, and although they are allowed to have a defense lawyer, attorneys at law have been pressured into not accepting Baha’i clients since the 1990’s.

Ms. Sabet Sarvestani did not have access to an attorney and there is no information regarding her defense at trial.

A Summary of the Legal Defects in the Adjudication of Ms. Akhtar Sabet Sarvestani’s Case

According to available information, Ms. Akhtar Sabet Sarvestani was executed on charges of membership in Baha’i assemblies and connections to foreign [entities] including Israel. One can surmise from the statements made by judicial authorities that she was also charged with espionage. Ultimately, she was most probably tried on the charge of Moharebeh (“waging war against God”) and Efsad fel-Arz (“spreading corruption on Earth”). The fact is that the crime of Moharebeh and Efsad fel-Arz was not defined in the laws at the time, and judges, who had been handpicked from among clerics or individuals loyal to the Islamic regime, derived such a charge from religious (Shari’a) texts. Even in religious texts, however, Moharebeh consists of an act where an individual takes up arms within a group, and deprives a large segment of the populace of their safety and security. There was no sign or evidence of any use of weapons in this case. Furthermore, the defendants’ actions did not result in the people being deprived of security in any way whatsoever. Another charge leveled against the Defendant was spying for Israel, whereas the crime of espionage consists of an individual putting classified information [at the disposal of or] turning the same over to people without standing or authorization. The Defendant in this case was simply a nurse and was never in a position where she could have had access to classified information. Judicial authorities do not specify at all in their statements what connection the Defendant had with Beit-ol Adl in Israel and what type of cooperation she had with said Assembly. It is not clear how the Defendant engaged in espionage. In other words, none of the charges brought against Ms. Sabet Sarvestani were proven.

In an interview conducted regarding the execution of 22 Bahai’is, including Ms. Sabet Sarvestani, the Shiraz Revolutionary Court Judge alluded to Principle Thirteen of the Constitution and considered Baha’is’ activities to be criminal. Although said Principle officially recognizes Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism, that does not mean, however, that it is prohibited to hold any other religions or that the activities of adherents of other religions is prohibited. Principle Thirteen is solely concerned with [private law and] personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. In order for an act to constitute a crime, it must be defined as such in criminal laws, the commission of which carries a specified penalty, whereas nowhere in Iranian laws has holding a particular belief or religion, or promoting the same, has been criminalized.

The aforementioned Shari’a judge also advised Baha’is to accept and convert to Islam, or suffer the consequences; he also threatened that Moslems would otherwise annihilate Baha’is. These statements demonstrate that the judicial officials simply had a problem with the fact that the defendants were Baha’i, and had tried and convicted them solely on the basis of their beliefs. [Such thinking] was not based on or reflected in the laws in force at the time. 

Judgment

In mid-February 1983, the Shiraz Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced Ms. Akhtar Sabet Sarvestani and 21 other individuals to death. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The authorities did not inform Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s family of the Court’s decision. In justifying the sentence, however, the Head of the Shiraz Islamic Revolutionary Court stated in an interview with Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper:

“It is a clear and unquestionable fact that there is not the slightest room for Baha’ism and Baha’is in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He labelled the individuals sentenced to death as “Koffar Herabi” (meaning atheists who live outside the boundaries set by Islamic rule and have no rights, even the right to life. [The terms literally mean “atheists or infidels with whom Moslems must wage war”]), and added: “These people who have been sentenced to death were active members of Baha’ism, from whom naïve people were not safe, and whose affiliation [and allegiance] to domestic and foreign devils was unquestionable, and their enmity toward Islam and Moslems was self-evident to a great extent.” He also cited Koran’s Nooh Surah, Verse 26, and promised the prompt execution of the convicted Baha’is. In this Verse [and in Verse 27 that follows], Noah calls upon God and says: “My Lord! Leave not a single one of the disbelievers on Earth. Indeed, if You leave them, they will mislead Your servants and will beget none except [ingrate] sinners and disbelievers.” (Khabar-e Jonoob newspaper, February 22, 1983).

As a result of the publication of this interview, the families of the prisoners went to see the Fars Province Friday Prayer Imam and the Province Governor, as well as the authorities in the capital, to make sure the news was accurate. At the same time, international efforts to save the Baha’is from execution also began, but they bore no fruit.

On June 18, 1983, Ms. Akhtar Sabet Sarvestani, along with the other Baha’i women, was transferred to Shiraz’ Abdollah Mesgar military base, better known as Chogan (“Polo”) Square and forced to witness the hanging of the other women. When it was her turn, she was given one last chance to reject her religion. She refused, and she too was hanged. (The Times newspaper, June 21, 1983; Archives of Baha’i Persecution in Iran).

Two days prior to the execution of the Baha’is, government authorities told people who worked at Shiraz’ Golestan-e Javid Cemetery to prepare a number of graves. The families of Ms. Sabet Sarvestani and the other executed individuals gathered in front of the Judiciary Morgue when they were informed of their loved ones’ demise. Ms. Sabet Sarvestani’s family was able to see their child’s body but the authorities did not turn her body and the bodies of other executed Baha’is over to the families, and buried them in the graves prepared at Shiraz’ Golestan-e Javid Cemetery, without washing and cleansing and observing any of the customary burial rites. Shiraz’ Golestan-e Javid Cemetery was in the possession of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps at the time, and the families of those executed were not able to enter the Cemetery even if only to see their loved ones’ graves and say a prayer. (Andalib Magazine; Baha’is in the Media; Morteza Esmailipur’s YouTube Channel, January 24, 2016; Iran Wire). 

-----------------------------------

* ‘Slow Death for Iran’s Baha’is’ by Richard N. Ostling, Time Magazine,20 February 1984. Also see ‘The Persecution of the Baha’is of Iran, 1844-1984, by Douglas Martin, Baha’i Studies,volume 12/13, 1984, p. 3. There is no information about the current number of Baha’is in Iran.
** The Islamic Republic Penal Code grants no rights to Baha’is, and the courts have denied them the right to redress or to protection against assault, murder, and other forms of persecution and abuse. In so doing, the courts have treated Baha’is as unprotected citizens or “apostates,” citing eminent religious authorities whose edicts are considered a source of law equal to acts of Parliament. The Founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, made execution a punishment for the crime of apostasy and decreed that a Muslim would not be punished for killing an apostate.
Banishment from public functions has seriously damaged the Baha’is’ professional, economic, and social lives. Soon after the revolution, a Ministry of Labor directive called for the dismissal from public office and all governmental organizations and associations of those “who belong to any of the misguided sects recognized by all Muslims as heretical deviations from Islam, or to organizations whose doctrine and constitution are based on rejection of the divinely-revealed religions.” Finally, the mandatory requirement of specifying religion in application forms and official documents (lifted recently in some areas under international pressure) has seriously limited Baha’is’ freedoms and opportunities in all areas of their lives including divorce, inheritance, access to universities and travel.
In practice, since 1980, thousands of Baha’is have lost their jobs, pensions, businesses, properties and educational opportunities. By banning the Baha’i administration including Spiritual Assemblies -  the elected bodies that lead and administer the affairs of Baha’i communities at both local and national levels -  the Islamic Republic has denied Baha’is the right to meet, elect, and operate their religious institutions. Further, the Iranian government has executed at least 200 Baha’is and has imprisoned, tortured, and pressured to convert to Islam scores more.
Because of the unanimous international condemnation of the persecution of this quietist, apolitical religious community, Iranian authorities do not always admit that the Baha’is are being punished for their religious beliefs. Therefore, judicial authorities have often charged Baha’is with offenses such as “being involved in counter-revolutionary activities,” “having supported the former regime,” “being agents of Zionism,” or “being involved with prostitution, adultery, and immorality.”

Correct/ Complete This Entry