Canadian legal luminaries sign letter accusing Iranian courts of persecuting Baha'i faith
A group that includes Brian Mulroney and Jody Wilson-Raybould is denouncing confiscation of Baha'i homes
The rulings of a court in a rural corner of northeastern Iran have brought together a Who's Who of Canada's legal profession to denounce the mistreatment of members of a religious minority who are being driven from their homes.
One former prime minister — Brian Mulroney — three former attorneys-general (including Jody Wilson-Raybould and Irwin Cotler) and four former Supreme Court justices are among those who signed their names to a letter calling for justice for the Baha'i residents of the village of Ivel, where 27 families were recently evicted from their homes.
The letter was also signed by several former provincial Supreme Court and appeals court judges and professors of law.
Cotler said it was the "punitive and predatory" nature of Iranian court rulings against the Baha'i that struck a chord with Canada's jurists, along with the judges' use of openly discriminatory arguments.
The Iranian courts' claim that they were following Islamic law in confiscating property from non-believers has been rejected by many Muslim groups outside Iran, including the Canadian Council of Imams.
"I think that what was so outrageous here was the judicial complicity, brazenly acknowledging that they were engaged in this persecution based solely on what they called 'the perverse sect of Bahaism,' which is known to all the signatories to be a peaceful religious minority," said Cotler.
"I might add that in this legal process, the Baha'is' counsel were not allowed to see any evidence against them, not allowed to adduce any evidence, not permitted to make any representations. In other words, [the ruling was] not only an abandonment of due process, [it] adds to the entire shocking legal and judicial complicity in this."
Crimes of faith
Cotler said Ivel's Baha'is have suffered years of official persecution.
"There've been a series of home raids, assaults, confiscations, arrests, imprisonment," he said.
"In 2020 we saw an alarming new chapter — two courts sanctioning the confiscation of their property based on religious belief."
The confiscation was carried out by members of a state-affiliated organization called Execution of Imam Khomeini's Order (EIKO) that answers directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The U.S. Treasury Department accuses EIKO of controlling "large swaths of the Iranian economy, including assets expropriated from political dissidents and religious minorities, to the benefit of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and senior Iranian government officials."
The Canadian letter is addressed to Iran's chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, who is in charge of Iran's investigation into the destruction of Flight PS752 with 176 people on board. Raisi is often touted as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
A history of persecution
"The Baha'is have been persecuted since the inception of their faith in Iran in the 19th century," said Winnipeg Baha'i Payam Towfigh. He said that persecution caused him to leave Iran for Canada, while his parents already had been exiled internally in the country because of local hostilities.
"Right after they got married in the 1940s, they moved to a village close to Ivel named Damghan, which had a number of Baha'is there," he said.
But local mullahs incited the village's Muslim population against the "heretics" living among them, he said.
"A few of the Baha'i were murdered. My father ended up in jail because of the Baha'i belief that he had," he said.
"After a year or two they had to leave at night because some of their neighbours told them there were rumours they were going to come and burn their house down. So they had to leave town in the night."
Since the Islamic Revolution, said Towfigh, the persecution has become national and organized. "It's no longer just local religious leaders inciting the population against the Baha'i," he said. "Now it's systematic and it's the leader of the country."
He said the estimated 300,000 Baha'is across Iran have watched their situation grow worse.
"Over the last couple of years, Baha'is have lost their shops, their stores, they've been kicked out of their homes," he said. "Government agents feel very comfortable coming to their homes at night and just taking them away to jail.
"What really we are worried about is that this is a test case that could now be replicated and copied around Iran."
Change of heart unlikely
While Cotler said he believes the letter to Iran from some of the best-known legal minds in Canada "is unprecedented," he's "not sure that Chief Justice Raisi will pay attention."
With little hope of a change of heart by the Islamic Republic regime, Cotler said the letter-writers intend to pursue their case in international courts and to call on the Canadian government to use Magnitsky sanctions to punish those who have benefited from the expropriations.
Foreign Minister Marc Garneau has tweeted about the evictions, but the Trudeau government — which doesn't have diplomatic relations with Iran — has taken no substantive actions.
Canada is concerned by the recent court ruling in Iran that land of the Baháʼís of Ivel will be seized due to their religious beliefs. We urge the Iranian authorities to eliminate all forms of discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/HumanRights?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#HumanRights</a>—@MarcGarneau
Canada has used Magnitsky sanctions against Russia, Venezuela, South Sudan and Myanmar, but no Iranian official has been subjected to the measure. The U.S. Treasury Department, meanwhile, has sanctioned Raisi as an individual.
Towfigh said he has no illusions about the letter changing hearts and minds within the regime.
"I am certain that they will dismiss it," he said. "From what I've seen in the past, that will be the posture they will have."
But he said it's still a worthwhile effort, for two reasons.
"The more important one is the effect on the Baha'i who are in Iran right now, when they see and hear that they are not forgotten," he said.
"Because the authorities — not only in Iran but under all of these despotic governments — want to remind oppressed individuals that everyone has forgotten about you, you may as well give up, change your religion. So this brings hope and reminds people that the world has not forgotten about them.
"Secondly, Iran may dismiss this but they are still mindful of their image in the world. Prominent people bringing this up in the United Nations — I personally believe it does have an effect on their behaviour."