KOBE — Japan’s Baha’i community is calling on the government to join the growing list of countries and international organizations that have condemned Iran for its arrest of seven of its members.
Those arrested in Tehran in January include Jinous Sobhani, who worked for two human rights groups founded by Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and is representing the group but has not been allowed to see them.
The defendants are accused of spying for Israel, an offense that carries the death penalty.
They are members of a Baha’i-run charity group called Friends in Iran, which Tehran has long known about but until January’s arrests had largely left alone. Under Iranian law, all Baha’i institutions were banned by the government after the 1979 revolution.
“There is a long history of persecution of members of the Baha’i faith. One of its tenets is that we don’t get involved in politics,” said Masoud Sobhani, a Iranian-American long-term resident of Japan and a member of the Kansai region’s Baha’i community who is related to one of the people under arrest. “Those who were arrested were definitely not spying for Israel.”
Worldwide condemnation has been growing over the arrests. In mid-February, the U.S. government declared the charges of espionage baseless and noted that at least 30 other Baha’i remained imprisoned in Iran.
The European Union, the United Kingdom and the United Nations have also condemned the trial.
At the end of February, Sobhani and two other members of Japan’s Baha’i community visited the Foreign Ministry to express their concern over the arrests and to update the government on trial developments and the reactions of other nations.
“We were told by the Foreign Ministry there was nothing the Japanese government could do,” said Tokyo-based Nobuko Iwakura, assistant secretary of the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly of Japan.
Hiroyuki Kaneda, a Foreign Ministry official on the Iran desk, said the government is aware of the trial but has not yet made a statement.
Through multilateral organizations, Japan has offered support for the Baha’i in the past. Foreign ministers attending the 1998 Group of Eight summit called on Iran to take measures to ensure the human rights of all of its citizens, including the Baha’i.
In 1999 and 2000, Japan supported U.N. resolutions expressing concern about persecution against the Baha’i and calling on Iran to invite a U.N.-mandated human rights special rapporteur to visit.
The Baha’i enjoy strong relations with the United Nations and were present when the U.N. was formed in San Francisco in 1945.
In the 1970s, the Baha’i International Community was granted consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council and UNICEF. The group also works with the World Health Organization and U.N. Environment Program.
The Baha’i faith was founded in what is now Iran in 1844 by Baha’u'llah, a Persian nobleman from Tehran, and now claims to have 5 million followers worldwide. Sobhani said there are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Baha’i followers in Japan, of which about 90 percent are Japanese.