Iranians Call For Freedom of Shiraz Councilman Who Tried to Secure Release of Detained Baha’is
Iranians have taken to social media to call for the freedom of Mehdi Hajati, a member of the Shiraz City Council who was arrested on September 27, 2018, two days after tweeting about his efforts to free two detained members of the Baha’i faith.
“In the past 10 days, I have knocked on every door to try to free two of my Baha’i friends from detention without any success,” Hajati tweeted on September 25. “As long as we are facing foreign enemies, our generation has a responsibility to make an effort to correct judicial or other actions that undermine social justice.”
The charges against Hajati have not been officially announced but on the day of his arrest, the Fars News Agency, which maintains close relations with Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claimed Hajati had been arrested due to his “support for the false Baha’i faith.”
It is very rare for an Iranian official to publicly defend the rights of members of the Baha’i faith, a severely persecuted religious minority in Iran.
Iran’s Constitution does not recognize the Baha’i faith as an official religion. Although Article 23 states that “no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief,” followers of the faith are denied many basic rights, including university education, and Baha’i activists are routinely imprisoned on trumped-up national security charges.
Following Hajati’s arrest, several Iranian users noted on Twitter that he had been targeted because of his outspoken advocacy against corruption and his opposition to the destruction of his city’s historic fabric as a result of the expansion of Shahcheragh, a 10th century Shia shrine.
Calls for Hajati’s Release
His arrest also led to a flood of calls for his release on various social media networks including Twitter and Telegram.
“Mehdi Hajati has been elected by the people and detaining him for trying to defend the rights of his constituents is disrespectful to the people’s votes,” tweeted Tehran city council member Shahrbanoo Amani on September 28. “Do not disillusion the people in these difficult times.”
Shiraz Member of Parliament (MP) Bahram Parsaei tweeted: “Mehdi Hajati had received threats for opposing the destruction of historical buildings in Shiraz for the expansion of the Shahcheragh Shrine. His detention for defending the rights of a group of citizens is unacceptable. Let’s not allow honest critics to be silenced with such accusations. If his detention continues, I will say more things to the people.”
Another MP, Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, tweeted: “The Parliament Speaker [Ali Larijani]… is responsible for what happens to lawmakers and council members. Yesterday it was Sepanta Niknam, today it’s Mehdi Hajati. How many times are we going to see the people’s votes being disrespected? If Hajati is not immediately released, have no doubt we will raise our voice in the open session of Parliament.”
Sepanta Niknam is a city councilman in the city of Yazd, southeastern Iran, who was suspended in September 2017 for being a member of the minority Zoroastrian faith who was elected in a Muslim-majority constituency. He was reinstated when the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbitration body, reaffirmed the right of recognized religious minorities to be elected in any constituency.
Hajati, 39, is also a victim of his youthful optimism, according to Kaveh Madani, who was the youngest deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment before leaving the country due to threats to his security by intelligence agencies.
“Let’s not overlook the fact that Mehdi Hajati’s crime was being too young. They are afraid of young people whose hearts beat for Iran and Iranians, who openly express frustrations, who bravely discuss problems and have the potential to grow and become leaders for change and betterment,” Madani wrote.