By Peter Kenny
Religion News Service
(RNS/ENInews) The Baha'i International Community said the harsh prison sentences meted out against seven Iranian Baha'i leaders are an unjust punishment against innocent people and an entire religious community.
The five men and two women imprisoned were arrested in May 2008 and later charged with "spying for foreigners," as well as "spreading corruption on Earth" and "cooperating with Israel."
Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose Defenders of Human Rights Center represented the Baha'i defendants, said she was "stunned" by the seven- to 20-year jail terms.
"I have read their case file page-by-page, and did not find anything proving the accusations, nor did I find any document that could prove the claims of the prosecutor," Ebadi said in an interview with the BBC.
The Baha'í faith is a monotheistic religion founded in 19th-century Persia, and which emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. It has around 6 million followers in more than 200 countries and territories, but is considered an illegal sect inside Iran.
The sentences triggered protests from governments around the world, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. The European Union and the president of the European Parliament also condemned the sentences, as did human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.
Diane Ala'i, Baha'i representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said the Baha'i International Community wonders how long the Iranian authorities can remain deaf to the concerns of the international community.
"These statements (of condemnation) demonstrate that increasing numbers of people of all races and religions throughout the world want to see justice done in Iran--not just for the Baha'is but all of its citizens who face gross human rights violations," said Ala'i.
Bani Dugal, chief representative of the Baha'i International Community to the U.N., said, "The trumped up charges, and the total lack of any credible evidence against these seven prisoners, reflect the false accusations and misinformation that Iran's regime has used to vilify and defame a peaceful, religious community for an entire generation."
The seven leaders belonged to group that acted with the government's knowledge, Iranian Baha'i leaders said.
"That these manifestly innocent people should each be jailed for 20 years after a sham trial is utterly reprehensible," Dugal said.