On October 24, 2015, Azita Rafizadeh, a computer engineering teacher at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), began a four-year prison sentence for her work educating members of the Baha’i community, Iran’s largest religious minority. Rafizadeh and her husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, also a teacher at BIHE, were tried separately in June 2014 and May 2015, and convicted in connection with alleged “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.” Koushk-Baghi was sentenced to five years in prison, but he has not yet been informed of the date when he must report to prison.
Since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, members of the Baha’i community have been denied access to the country’s higher education institutions. The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education was founded in 1987 with the purpose of educating members of the persecuted Baha’i community. Baha’is make up the largest non-Muslim minority group in Iran, accounting for roughly one half of one percent of the population.
Prior to their prosecutions, in 2010, Rafizadeh and Koushk-Baghi’s home was reportedly raided by security forces, religious and personal items were seized, and the couple was questioned about their involvement with BIHE. Rafizadeh and Koushk-Baghi were reportedly later informed that they would not be charged with a crime if they ceased working at BIHE. They refused, and were subsequently prosecuted. Iranian appellate courts have since upheld the verdicts against them.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about arbitrary imprisonment and prosecution of scholars. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from arbitrary arrests and prosecution of scholars for exercising their internationally recognized rights to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information.