This edition of the newsletter will rival the best written episodes of Law & Order. I can just see the scene in my mind’s eye: the courtroom, the throng of people, the surprise ending. . . but I’m getting ahead of you since you haven’t read it yet.
Notice that from the way they are talking about the treatment of Baha’is in Iran during their time (1977) there was a marked improvement in their lot. This can be deduced from what is said, as well as what is not said. At the time of this LA study class, it had been more than 20 years since Baha’is had been systematically persecuted and martyred for their Faith. In fact, Baha’is of that time in Iran enjoyed many freedoms and were literally thriving in this new and friendly atmosphere. Some of them even held positions of privilege and prominence in government and industry.
If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.
On with the 70′s class . . .
April 11, 1977
LAST GASP DEPARTMENT (Ishqabad Division): Okay, this is it. Positively the last correction to our original Ishqabad appears below. Although it is embarassing to have to correct a correction we ran last time, we must do it. Here we go. The person who urged Baha’u’llah to approve the migration of Baha’is to Ishqabad was not, as reported Haji Muhammad Rida. The man’s correct name is Siyyid Muhsin, a relative of the Bab (Afnan). Muhammad Rida was a Baha’i living in Ishqabad (a representative of this Afnan) who was stabbed to death in the city’s bazaar by Muslim fanatics. Baha’u’llah refers to this murder, by the way, in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. Also, it was Siyyid Muhsin, and not Baha’u’llah Himself who wrote to Iran to urge Baha’is to emigrate to southern Russia. Baha’u’llah had personally approved this course of action, however. One more thing. Volkov, the Russian architect of the House of Worship at Ishqabad, (also spelled Volkoff) was given a Baha’i funeral when he died. Abdu’l-Baha sent a tablet praising the architect and saying that by building a great edifice for the Baha’is on earth, he had constructed himself a palace in heaven.
NEXT CLASS DEPARTMENT: The next class will be held at the apartment of Carol Alston [Ed. personal home address and directions follow]. The speaker will be Dr. Amin Banani who will give a short lecture on the question of authenticity in religious scriptures. [Ed. hand written note: Sunday April 17 at 3 pm]
SPINOFF DEPARTMENT: Susan Berkman, Sid Morrison and Anthony Lee are beginning a new deepening class on the Baha’i Faith which will be more oriented toward basic principles, concepts and teachings that this one is and is especially recommended for new Baha’is. Of course, even Basic Concepts can be discussed in depth and those looking for a shallow performance are warned away. The class will begin at 8 pm on Friday, April 15 (to coincide with your income tax deadline) at the home of Sidney and Karen Morrison [Ed. personal home address and phone number follows]. The subsequent classes will be held at the same time and place every Friday night. The first of a series of nine classes will be on establishing a personal relationship with Baha’u’llah.
WE HAVE GOT TO GET ORGANIZED AROUND HERE DEPARTMENT: At our last meeting we decided . . . to volunteer Paula Wahlstrom as the group’s treasurer. Although we have established $1 a month as the charge for these letters, we have been having problems with people either not mailing in any money, or just mailing in $1 and assuming that covers everything. It doesn’t.
So . . . from now on, to continue receiving these letters you will have to subscribe for six months at a time. That will be $6. Persons living outside the United States are exempted from this charge altogether. Paula is going to keep books, so everyone better pay up.
DOWN TO BUSINESS DEPARTMENT: At our last class, Mr. Kazemzadeh spoke to us about his personal recollections of persecution of the Baha’is in Iran in the early 1950′s. He was one of the defense lawyers in a famous trial which involved several Baha’is, including all members of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Yazd.
In 1949, an impoverished washer woman named Mrs. Soghra and five of her children were found murdered in the Persian village of Abarqu, in the district of Yazd. The woman was a Muslim and one newspaper in Tehran reported the story immediately, implicating a wealthy landlord in the district as the guilty party. It seems that this woman had acted as a matchmaker for a woman that the landlord wanted to marry, but had arranged her marriage to someone else. The newspapers printed the story that was furious and so hired assassins to kill Mrs. Soghra. Another newspaper stody also implicated this same landlord but reported that he had lured one of the children to his house, and had raped her there, later ordering the murders to cover up his crime.
Meanwhile, legal authorities began investigating the murder. After conducting a hurried probe, the prosecuting-investigator (those two roles are combined into one office in Iran) had three people arrested for the crime, but the landlord was not one of them. However, the superficial nature of the investigation left so many questions unanswered, that the odor of cover-up was strong in the air. Reopening the probe, the prosecutor announced that, though at first he had been baffled by the motivation for the crime, “the doors of heaven suddenly opened before my eye” and he “realized” that the murders had a religious basis. Before this, none of these events had any connection with the Baha’is of Yazd.
But determined to find something – anything – on which to base a case, the prosecutor, another attorney and the Chief Justice of Yazde district began to direct their attention to Baha’is. Using Gestapo interview tactics, including outright torture, they got a variety of stories, but settled on one in which three men were reported to have come from the village of Isfandabad and committed the crime. Isfandabad, as it happened, had a small Baha’i population. Three Baha’is were arrested there by the police for alleged involvement in the murders of Soghra and her children. Eventhough witnesses told authorities that the three men taken into custody were not in town when the crime took place, the trio was carted off to jail to await trial. Also arrested by the police was an old man, in his 70′s, Abbas Ali, a Baha’i pioneer and travelling teacher in the area near Abarqu. Because he had been give money by the Local Assembly of Yazd and sent to the area, all nine members of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Yazd were also arrested. In all, 18 persons, were arrested and held for trial.
Ordinarily, in a felony crime such as this, the murder of Mrs. Soghra would have been held in Kirman, [Ed. also spelled: Kerman] the administrative center of Yazd district. But, the wealthy landlord succeeded in having the trial transfered to Tehran, where he had considerable political influence. In Persian criminal trials, there is no jury. A five member judicial panel hands down a verdict. These judges are employees of the state and can be dismissed at any time.
The trial of the 18 defendants (17 of them Baha’is) did not begin until almost three years after the murder, in 1952. During much of this time, the defendants were in jail, awaiting trial. The trial itself was held in a near-circus atmosphere, in a huge courtroom with 700-800 spectators on hand. Newspapers began writing stories and articles hostile towards the Baha’is. Leaflets were handed out to spectators at the trial denouncing the Baha’is and their defense attorneys. Mr. Kazemzadeh recalled that one leaflet said: “If the court and judges do not punish these shameless killers of our innocent Muslim sister and her five children, or if they postpone or delay carrying out the death penalty, we, the brave sons of Islam, will ourselves send to hell all these criminal Baha’is.”
The five defense attorney prepared their cases in an atmosphere of barely suppressed terror. Three of them were Baha’is (including Mr. Kazemzadeh) and two were Muslims. Every day they had to be escorted to the courtroom and out again by a flying wedge of young Baha’i bodyguards. One attorney, a Muslim, caved in to the pressure and withdrew from the case, citing poor health. There were ten attorneys on the other side who jockeyed for notice and were eager for the trial to begin.
Reading from his indictment, the prosecutor opened the trial by attacking the Baha’i Faith and accusing the Baha’is of fifty years of bloodshed in Iran which had crippled the progress of the nation. He told the audience that he would settle for nothing less than the most severe punishment in this case. His opening statement was so inflammatory that all of the defense attorneys, including Mr. Kazemzadeh, resigned from the case, charging a mistrial. The Chief Justice responded by appointing two of them as court-designated counsel (from which they could not withdraw) and was ready to proceed. The other attorneys withdrew their resignations and the trial went on.
The other prosecuting attorneys followed. Two or three of them argued the facts of the case, but most of them concentrated their remarks on the Baha’i Faith in general. Their statements provoked a steady stream of outbursts and demonstrations from in the courtroom, which the presiding judge made no effort to halt. Charges were freely levelled that Baha’is were disloyal to the nation and believed in killing people to spread their Faith.
At last, the defense attorneys had their turn. The began refuting the charges that the Baha’is advocated or practiced violence, but were soon interrupted by the presiding judge. All that, he ruled was irrelevant to the case. The attorneys would have to confine their examination to the murder and not refute charges made against the Baha’i Faith. After three weeks of trial, all defendants were found guilty as charged. Three Baha’i peasants from Isfandabad who had been “identified” under torture as the murderers were sentenced to death. The old pioneer, Abbas Ali, who during the course of the trial had denied that the was a Baha’i, was sentenced to ten years at hard labor. Then, making the extraordinary statement that it was well known that no Baha’i would take any important action without consulting his Local ‘Spiritual Assembly, the court (on that evidence alone) found all nine members of the Yazd Assembly guilty as co-conspirators to the crime. They were sentenced to, from three to ten years, hard labor.
But in this haste to condemn, the judges made a legal error. Under Persian law, no one over 70 could be sentenced to ten years at hard labor. Therefore, Abbas Ali’s sentence was clearly illegal. On this basis alone, the attorneys could appeal. There was a second trial, which upheld the verdict of the first one, but commuted all of the sentences three years at hard labor.
Those who attended the class were fascinated by Mr. Kazemzadeh’s and urged him to tell us something about the much more widespread persecutions which broke out in Iran a few years later in 1955. Space does not permit a full summary of those remarks.
Mr. Kazemzadeh cautioned us that the events which he recounted took place over twenty years ago in Iran and that conditions for Baha’is have improved a great deal since then. Baha’is are not severly persecuted in Iran now, though the possiblity of new outbreaks can not be denied. He explained that in the early 1950′s Iran was in a state of near anarchy, the central government was weak, and the Shah almost powerless. This unstable state of affairs provided the atmosphere in which persecution could erupt.
The original scanned documents can be found here.