Islamic Republic Represses Commemoration of Pre-Islamic Era History

Update: Most of the people arrested for celebrating the unofficial birthday of  “Cyrus the Great” have had their sentences reduced or they have been released on bail. “The Appeals Court has reduced the sentences of most of them to less than a year in prison and many of them have been released after posting bail,” Farshid Rofougaran, who represents some of the defendants, told the Campaign on February 21, 2017. However, he added that “a few” were awaiting potentially harsh sentences for “insulting the supreme leader” Ali Khamenei.

More than 70 people who were arrested in October 2016 at a peaceful gathering celebrating Cyrus the Great were tried in mid-December without legal council and sentenced to long prison terms by the Revolutionary Court in the city of Shiraz.

“The exact number of those arrested is not known because the court has not publicized their cases and their relatives have been ordered not to speak about them,” an informed source told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “The suspects have been handed one or all of these charges: ‘propaganda against the state,’ ‘disturbing public order’ and ‘assembly and collusion against national security.’”

The father of one of the accused told the Campaign that the authorities had warned the detainees’ relatives that if they provided “fodder to foreign media,” their loved ones would be punished more severely.

“The initial number of those arrested [at Pasargad] is between 300 and 700 people,” said the source. “More than 100 were detained for two months. They were interrogated for two weeks and then taken to Shiraz Central Prison, next to Adelabad Prison. Then, around mid-December, Branch 1 of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court sentenced more than 70 of them to prison terms ranging from three months to eight years. They are appealing their sentences.”

One of the accused, activist Homayoun Panahi from the city of Arak, was arrested after singing a poem at the gathering that was later uploaded to YouTube.

“The interrogators initially said that this was not a special case and there was no need to get a lawyer,” continued the source. “The suspects’ appearance in court was so unexpected that none of them got a chance to get a lawyer. The trial date was not provided in advance. It was only after the sentences were issued that the families decided to get a lawyer for the appeal process.”

For the past decade, a growing number of Iranians have been gathering every October 28 around the tomb of King Cyrus the Great at Pasargad (a UNESCO world heritage site and the former capital of the Achaemenid Empire), near Shiraz to commemorate the anniversary of the king’s entrance into Babylon.

Iran’s security establishment has become increasingly sensitive to what it regards as efforts by nationalists to portray pre-Islamic Iran as the “golden age.” This year marks the largest number of state-backed prosecutions for celebrating “Cyrus Day.”

Many of the families of the accused tried to get their loved ones released on bail for the duration of the appeal process, but the court  refused to comply.  

Senior Iranian clerics widely criticized the peaceful marking of this year’s “Cyrus Day,” which is not recognized by the Islamic Republic but is increasingly being celebrated by Iranians living inside and outside Iran.

“I’m surprised that there can be a gathering at Cyrus’ burial place, where the same slogans we hear for the supreme leader of the revolution [Ali Khamenei] are shouted for Cyrus,” said senior theologian Hosseini Nouri Hamadani on October 30.