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Families fear for Bahais jailed in Iran

Prison conditions are worsening for seven leaders of Iran's Bahai community who are staying in cramped cells with poor sanitation alongside common criminals, US-based relatives said Wednesday.

From L-R: Sina Sabet Sarvestani, Iraj Kamalabadi, Azadeh Rohanian Perry and Kamal Khanjani, realatives of Bahai prisoners in Iran, tell their stories before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. Prison conditions are worsening for seven leaders of Iran's Bahai community, US-based relatives said Wednesday.

Iran drew international condemnation in 2008 for arresting leaders of the Bahai faith, which has no clergy. The religion was founded in Iran in 19th century and is anathema to the nation's Islamic clerical regime.

Relatives said the seven Bahai were each given 20 years in prison and that the sentences were later lowered to 10 years, although the reduction was made known verbally and not through any official statement.

Iraj Kamalabadi, whose sister Fariba Kamalabadi is among the seven, said the Bahai leaders were transferred last year to Gohardasht prison where violent criminals stay in lice-infested cells next to overflowing sewers.

"I don't think that there is any light at the end of the tunnel at this point of time," Kamalabadi said in a meeting with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an autonomous government body.

"There condition continues to deteriorate and there is no improvement so far that we have seen," he said.

Kamal Khanjani, the brother of jailed 77-year-old Bahai leader Jamaloddin Khanjani, said that five prisoners were crammed into each cell measuring three by five meters (10 by 16 feet).

Sina Sabet Sarvestani, a realative of Bahai prisoner in Iran, speaks before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. Iran drew international condemnation in 2008 for arresting leaders of the Bahai faith, which has no clergy.

Khanjani said he was allowed to speak by telephone once with his brother and, "because of his age and the condition of his prison, I knew his health was deteriorating."

"But when he was talking to me, his voice was wonderful and strong," Khanjani said.

The relatives were optimistic on one point -- they believed the Bahai have won sympathy among prisoners through their deeds and backgrounds. Jamaloddin Khanjani is a successful businessman, while Fariba Kamalabadi is a developmental psychologist.

"In general, the Iranian people have developed further respect and are a lot more sympathetic to their plight," Iraj Kamalabadi said.

Iran tried the Bahai leaders on charges of spying for foreigners, spreading corruption, undermining Islam and cooperating with Israel.

The Bahais consider the Bahaullah, born in 1817, to be the latest prophet sent by God and believe in the spiritual unity of all religions and all mankind.

Azadeh Rohanian Perry, sister-in-law of an imprisoned Bahai leader in Iran, leaves after attending an event organized by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. Prison conditions are worsening for seven leaders of Iran's Bahai community who are staying in cramped cells with poor sanitation alongside common criminals, US-based relatives said.

The Bahaullah was sent into exile and set up the religion's headquarters in Haifa, now in Israel, which leads to Tehran's allegations of cooperation with the Jewish state.

The Bahai faith now has seven million followers around the world, including 300,000 in Iran -- where its members are barred from higher education and government posts.

Leonard Leo, the chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, called Iran's treatment of the Bahai community "outrageous" and supported intensified pressure by the United States.

Leo pointed to the Iran Sanctions Act signed last year by President Barack Obama. The law takes aim at Iranians involved in human rights abuses, adding the issue to US concerns with the Islamic republic such as its nuclear program.

"There are many other things, hopefully, that we can do in waging a broad-based campaign to stop the repression and to defend the rights of not only your family members and brethren but any other Bahais," Leo said.