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November 22 2023

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A Letter from Evin Prison: Mahvash Sabet

The Islamic Republic has “Disqualified” us Baha’is from Living 

When the revolution happened, I was 26 years old, working as the principal of a school in the south of the capital [Tehran]. One day, I received word that I had been “disqualified” from my job. Around the same time, I was also “disqualified” from continuing my studies at the university. My spouse used to come home from work only once every fifteen days. He had been working in an aluminum container on the outskirts of the Karaj River in Shahriar, enduring the heat and cold. He was busy building a sand and gravel factory, but a week before the launch, his factory was seized. He, too, had been “disqualified”.

My father, my brother, all our relatives and friends, and co-religionists gradually became unemployed and housebound, and our lives were all caught in a storm. Hundreds of people across the country were arrested and imprisoned, and every day we heard news of the execution of some acquaintances and friends on the radio. 100% of our community’s assets and the properties of many of our fellow Baha’is were seized, and nearly 250 people were executed simply for being Baha’i. The elected Baha’i administrative body responsible for managing our community’s internal affairs was also shut down, and we all were collectively “disqualified”. Suddenly, our ancestral homeland was taken from us, and we became ‘the other’. Amidst these heavy, crippling accusations and shocking blows, we struggled for basic civil rights, for employment, for higher education, for fair treatment, and for defending our beliefs, which were under attack and subjected to distortion and hatred.

We were even “disqualified” from having normal human relations with our fellow countrymen. When I was arrested in 2008 and spent two and a half years in tight, dark high-security cells under pressure and interrogation, when the seven of us, members of a group known as the ‘Friends of Iran,’ were taken to court with a death penalty indictment, and when for our simple humane activities, namely voluntary service in managing our community, we were sentenced to 20 years of penal imprisonment, I told myself that one day I would write everything down and expose the baselessness of these espionage charges. I will tell the people that we have never betrayed our country. We love Iran and wish for the dignity and pride of our homeland. Finally, thanks to a legal provision, our 20-year sentence was broken. After ten years, the seven of us were gradually released. But even beyond those walls, I remained “disqualified”!

On the day of my release, no one came to welcome me. My family was expecting my release the next day and I wasn’t allowed to make a phone call. Therefore, I left Evin Prison without my family’s knowledge, without any money, and even without an address for my home. A strange anxiety gripped my heart. Why had the prison done this? They had taken away my joy. A kind person offered me their phone to call my family, but involuntarily, I pulled my hand back. I was afraid of mobile phones, which were forbidden in prison, and moreover, I didn’t even know how to turn one on! I stood at the top of the stairs for an hour and a half until finally my husband arrived and we went home together. It had taken years to change my habits and adapt to life in the closed, merciless world of prison under surveillance cameras, and now I had to change my physical and mental habits and psychological adaptations again, which was not easy at all. Crossing the street filled me with fear and anxiety. Large stores overwhelmed me. The speed and congestion of the streets gave me headaches and nausea. The rapid changes left me dizzy and incapacitated. Sometimes I closed my eyes to not see the chaos. I had developed agoraphobia. Everything had changed. The world I knew and the image I had carried of life outside prison for years were no longer there. The children had grown up, and the dust of old age had settled on the heads and faces of the young. Many had left Iran. Sometimes I would ask about someone only to find out they had died. Sometimes I met friends whose names I could not remember, and I would confuse people with one another. The technology was shocking. The first time I stared at my daughter’s face on a mobile phone screen, who had called from Australia, I was amazed and shed tears. Online rideshares, voice guides, computer and internet facilities amazed me and my inability in these areas distressed me. I did not recognize the currency and could not believe the inflation and price increases. I preferred to stick to modest and limited shopping like in prison. My speed had drastically reduced, and I was surprised and tired by the crowded gatherings and the nature of conversations. The fever and excitement of freedom and the initial visits finally subsided the following year, and following the advice and invitations of friends and the insistence of my family, I went on a few domestic and international trips. But wherever I was, I was a stranger, with half of my being left in prison and alongside my cellmates, and the sufferings of the women in the prisons of Mashhad, Gohardasht, Qarchak, and Evin, with whom I had lived, did not leave me.

I had become a divided person. The two and a half years of society grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and staying at home added to the intensity of my unwanted isolation. The only thing I could do during these years was to write and prepare my prison poems for publication, a significant part of which I had probably lost during the raid on my house! Although I longed to meet my only grandchild and was in the process of obtaining a visa, fate did not grant me the opportunity. My fate was men waiting to attack after two and a half years, as soon as I left home for a short trip to Ramsar. In my absence, they raided our house multiple times, turning our lives upside down, and I never knew what they did or took. Meanwhile, another group unexpectedly attacked my sister’s house in Ramsar and arrested me while I was suffering from COVID-19, then transferred me to section 209 after charging me. I couldn’t guess the basis of my arrest until I saw the proxy warrant for my arrest in Ramsar’s Revolutionary Court, which stated: ‘Membership in the deviant Baha’i sect.’ I spent 42 days in solitary confinement under the harshest interrogations, which were accompanied by violence, insults, threats, and slander. I suffered severe symptoms of COVID-19 and was examined at least three times in the 209 clinic due to intense coughing, respiratory problems, and knee pain and swelling.

From 209, I was taken to the prosecutor’s office adjacent to Evin to see the new charge, which was “managing a population under the guise of a deviant and misled sect with the aim of disrupting the country’s security.”I wrote a letter to the Tehran prosecutor, stating that they were fabricating a case against me. I did not accept this charge, and it was impossible that even a single document existed to prove this allegation. I asked him to personally oversee the case. I conveyed the same to the prosecutor’s representative whom I met during those days, and he took note, but I was dismissed and received no response! I wrote to the branch investigator that this charge was baseless and lacked any evidence. If they could even introduce three people in this country whom I had managed in any way and for any purpose to prove the allegation, I would accept the charge! The investigating judge, without even a glance or a word, guided me out of his office until the day of the trial, and I still did not have the right to know the contents of my file before the trial. I had no meeting with my lawyer and did not know if they had read my file. But whatever it was, how could a defense take place without meeting or contacting the accused? The judge, in a brief court session, reached his guilty verdict upon seeing us.

After five months, on a cold winter day, wearing the summer clothes I had on at the time of my arrest, I was transferred to the women’s ward of Evin Prison. My body was worn out and my knees were hurting and swollen from hitting the wall during interrogations. I returned to the women’s ward of Evin, where less than five years earlier, after enduring ten years of imprisonment, I had kissed the ground in front of my fellow political and ideological prisoners and left the place. My only friend and companion, Fariba Kamalabadi, who herself has been “disqualified” all her life, welcomed me and informed me that we both had been sentenced again to ten years in prison. Simultaneously with receiving this verdict, my husband, after years of struggle and effort, was forced to surrender the keys of the house, the result of his lifelong work, to the men who had seized our home. He left his house, which he loved and of which he knew every leaf of the trees in its garden, forever. I realized then that we Baha’is have been continuously “disqualified” from having a normal life in our ancestral country for 45 years. I remember when I told the interrogator years ago that eventually I would leave this prison, he calmly said, “Yes, but whether horizontally or vertically is up to us.” Now, I no longer see a horizon ahead of me and have lost hope in the justice of the government regarding myself. I address the people of Iran and say that if our government has “disqualified” us for life, you should not. Like other people of this precious land, we have the right to a decent life. To have civil rights, to work and earn a living based on our abilities and strengths. To go to university, to have relationships based on mutual respect with our compatriots. Everyone has the right to have their beliefs and live accordingly. Everyone deserves to enjoy comfort and security, to be safe from any harassment or aggression by any individual or group, and to devote all their strength and capabilities to the prosperity of the country, instead of defending themselves. Fellow citizens, our story is one. Please do not “disqualify” us and hear our narratives from us directly.

Mahvash Sabet

Evin Prison, November 2023