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Baha'i woman recalls imprisonment in Iran
August 31st, 2010
11:10 AM ET

Baha'i woman recalls imprisonment in Iran

Minoo Vosough can still hear the guards' boots marching down the cold hallways of Iran's Gohardasht prison. The screams of other inmates burn her ears.

She can feel the thud of a fist coming down on her head. And the world going black as she was blindfolded and shoved in a courtroom to hear her fate.

She was arrested in Tehran more than 25 years ago - beaten, interrogated and thrown into solitary confinement. Once a week, she was taken out for a shower. She could tell if it was bright or overcast only by the small window high up in her cell. She cherished the chirping of birds outside.

All she had was a blanket, a spoon and a broken fork.

The Iranian regime accused Vosough of espionage, though she was never charged or afforded legal representation. Her crime in the Islamic republic, she says, was - and still is - her faith.

She is a Baha'i.

She has not spoken publicly about her terrifying experience in an Iranian jail. Until now.

This month, the spotlight again fell on Iran's 300,000-strong Baha'i community as seven national leaders were sentenced to 20 years each in prison for espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of an illegal administration.


Seven Baha'i  leaders are  imprisoned in Iran's Gohardasht prison.

The Baha'i International Community says the charges are trumped up in an effort to stifle the religion, the largest minority faith in Iran. The sentences were condemned by human rights groups and by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sternly reminded Iran that "freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places."

Iran denies mistreatment of Baha'is and says followers of  the faith are free to live in Iran. But it says  it considers activities against the Islamic state illegal and thus views the seven Baha'is accused of spying for  Israel as criminals.

Vosough, a petite, soft-spoken realtor in Atlanta, Georgia, has been following the story of the Yaran, as the seven Baha'i leaders are known. One, Saeid Rezaie, is a classmate from her days at Pahlavi University, now called Shiraz University.

Vosough has tried to keep her own heartbreaking memories locked in the crevices of her mind. But seeing Rezaie's gentle face, reading about the plight of the Yaran, everything came rushing back.

"I want the whole world to know what is happening in Iran," she said.

"What was my crime? What is their crime? We simply believe in our faith. Why don't we have that right?"

Stamped an infidel

Vosough was born in 1956 into an Iran ruled by the shah. Her religion was then just over a century old, founded by two prophets: the Bab (the gate) and Baha'ullah (the glory of God).

Baha'is consider Baha'ullah the most recent in a line of God's messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Mohammed.

She learned from her parents and from her days at a Baha'i school about the key principle of her religion: oneness of humankind.

Baha'is had never been accepted in Iran but their station in life plunged with the arrival of the Islamic revolution in 1979.


Vosough, right, had to rent a cap and gown after Iranian authorities denied her a college diploma and a place in commencement ceremonies.

A young college student then, Vosough was forced to rent a graduation cap and gown to celebrate with her Baha'i friends after she was denied an official diploma and consequently, she was unable to land a job. These days, Baha'is are barred from enrolling in universities. Or even having a gravestone.

Vosough's father-in-law was buried with just a paper marker bearing his name and the number of the cemetery plot, she says, staring at an old color photograph of the grave.
Four gladioli lie before the crude marker. Otherwise it's hard to tell that a father lies there.

The Tehran government seemed to be looking away for a while, but repression for all religious minorities in Iran has worsened since the presidential elections of 2005 and in particular after the disputed polling last year, according to a 2010 report compiled by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"A consistent stream of virulent and inflammatory statements by political and religious leaders and an increase in harassment and imprisonment of, and physical attacks against, these groups has led to a renewal of the kind of oppression seen in the years immediately following the Iranian revolution," the report says.

Baha'i blood is "mobah," which means members of the Baha'i faith can be killed with impunity, the report says. Iranian authorities view Baha'is as "heretics" who may face repression on the grounds of apostasy.

Since 1979, the Iranian government has executed more than 200 Baha'is and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs, the commission's report says. Baha'is may not establish places of worship, schools, or any independent religious associations in Iran. In addition, Baha'is are barred from the military and denied government jobs.

"This is a community that has really felt the jackboot of the Iranian government," says Leonard Leo, chairman of the commission.

Vosough says the Iranian government is determined to sow prejudice against the Baha'is. Even Muslims who associate with Baha'is are often harassed by authorities, she says.

On public forms, people are asked to mark their religion: Muslim. Christian. Zoroastrian. Jewish.

There is no box for the Baha'is.

"So you are stamped an infidel," says Vosough. "You have no rights."

Making a 13-day escape

She had been married two months in 1984 when she was arrested after a family gathering. The government suspected her of "illegal activity."

Officials stopped her car and demanded documents she didn't have. There were no Miranda Rights. No lawyer. She was wrestled away to Tehran's notorious Evin prison, her family left to scour the route she took.

She was only 27 - and frightened.

Vosough at her engagement party in Tehran.

"I didn't know what was happening," she says. "In my heart, I knew I was there because I was a Baha'i."

In jail, she reflected on her faith. That gave her strength. She recited prayers and tried to count days. That kept her lucid.

She was taken to Gohardasht prison on the outskirts of Tehran and kept in a cell by herself. Later, when she was returned to Evin for her trial, she was placed in a room with 60 other women. A Baha'i woman was nursing her six-month-old baby. Vosough gave the woman her share of prison milk. The mother needed strength.

"Why should a baby be in prison?" she asks. "For what crime? Was that baby also a spy for Israel?"

After three months, Vosough was released. But she could not escape prison. She could no longer walk the streets without fear. And when she became pregnant, a panic set in.

"I wasn't going to let my child ever be in a prison like that," she says.

Or t be unable to go to school, get a job. Or do anything freely.

On a summer day in 1985, Vosough said goodbye to Iran. She took with her only a small bag with two changes of clothing for an escape that took 13 days. She and her husband traveled by the darkness of night, on horseback, on foot, over the mountains into neighboring Turkey.

The next year, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency, Vosough began a new life in the United States. She has no Iranian passport, required of all returning Iranians. Nor does she own any documentation of the life she left behind.

In her native Iran, she is more of a nobody than before.

At 53, Vosough does not know if she will ever again touch Iranian soil. Perhaps, she fears, she has already embraced her 86-year-old mother for the last time.

But in America, she says, she can practice her faith freely.

"You don't know freedom until it has been taken away from you," she says, sitting under a framed drawing of Baha'ullah¹s son Abdu¹l-Baha in her suburban home.

"It was taken away from me."

Ensuring survival

If Vosough could talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she would tell him one thing: "This is not what Islam promotes."

The seven Baha'i leaders imprisoned now were the pillars of their communities, Vosough says. They are even more important because the Baha'is do not follow clergy. Instead communities plan their own meetings and services.

In Iran, the seven were working to ensure the survival of their way of life in a country that does not recognize them.

"I think I survived everything pretty good," she says, a moment of acute sadness interrupting the smile that is often splashed across her face.

But she worries that her 300,000 Baha'i brothers and sisters in Iran may not.

She has felt emboldened to write to her congressmen, to push them to apply pressure on Iran.

If the world forgets, she fears, what will become of her people?

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Baha'i • Iran • Journeys

soundoff (456 Responses)
  1. No way Joe

    And the libs fuss and fume about a little water boarding of terrorists.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Right because when we use torture and murder it is ok! If I accept Jesus as my savior then nothing I do is a sin. Even cannibalism, murder, rape or anything else because I say so and therefore I'm right!

      Sorry but I don't buy your evil disguised as logic.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  2. Babak From Los Angeles

    I am from Iran. Any none Muslim is in danger in Iran. They either have to go under-grouond or convert. Please don't tell me how wrong that is, I know that. I live in America for that reason. They killed 38 people from my family; diferent issue we were very pro Shah. She should consider herself lucky to live to tell about it. Welcome to middleeast where life is cheap. I fell her pain.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  3. et

    The National Government will preserve & defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards christanity as the foundation of our national morality, & the family as the basis of national life. (Adolf Hitler, Berlin, 1933, first radio address after coming to power)

    August 31, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Thanks for some truth. You Win!

      August 31, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  4. jamshid

    ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch
    -persian nobleman

    August 31, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
  5. Reality

    But Islam is a relgion of peace!!! So how can this be?

    More koranic-driven acts of "peace":

    1a) 179 killed in Mumbai/Bombay, 290 injured

    1b) Assassination of Benazir Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh

    2) 9/11, 3000 mostly US citizens, 1000’s injured

    3) The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,481 and 924 died in non-combat, 97,172 – 106,047 Iraqi civilians killed mostly by Sunni or Shiite suicide bombers.

    4) Kenya- In Nairobi, about 212 people were killed and an estimated 4000 injured; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85.[2]

    5) Bali-in 2002-killing 202 people, 164 of whom were foreign nationals, and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 209 people were injured.

    6) Bali in 2005- Twenty people were killed, and 129 people were injured by three bombers who killed themselves in the attacks.

    7) Spain in 2004- killing 191 people and wounding 2,050.

    8. UK in 2005- The bombings killed 52 commuters and the four radical Islamic suicide bombers, injured 700.

    9) The execution of an eloping couple in Afghanistan on 04/15/2009 by the Taliban.

    10) Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops killed in action 1,116 killed in action, 902killed in non-combat situations as of 08/10/2010. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed mostly by the koranic-driven, darkage Talban.

    11) The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran.

    12) 38 Russian citizens killed on March 29, 2010 by Muslim women suicide bombers.

    13) The May 28, 2010 attack on a Islamic religious minority in Pakistan, which have left 98 dead,
    14) Lockerbie is known internationally as the site where, on 21 December 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed as a result of a terrorist bomb. In the United Kingdom the event is referred to as the Lockerbie disaster, the Lockerbie bombing, or simply Lockerbie. Eleven townspeople were killed in Sherwood Crescent, where the plane's wings and fuel tanks plummeted in a fiery explosion, destroying several houses and leaving a huge crater, with debris causing damage to a number of buildings nearby. The 270 fatalities (259 on the plane, 11 in Lockerbie) were citizens of 21 nations

    15) Followed by the daily suicide and/or roadside and/or mosque bombings every day in the terror world of Islam.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • Babak From Los Angeles

      And how many people have been killed in the name of Christianity!?!? Thsi is not about God or rwligion; it is about suppression of masses to benifit a few greedy ones.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
    • Babak From Los Angeles

      And how many people have been killed in the name of Christianity!?!? This is not about God or religion; it is about suppression of masses to benifit a few greedy ones.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
    • Frank Rizzo

      Your religious bigotry has no bounds, according to the Media and Terrorist Experts it's People like you that Racial Islamic Extremist do Jihad here in the US and Around the World. Ask yourself this: "What Would Jesus Do."

      August 31, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Nick

      SO CAN I ARGUE THAT THE THE 18000 ANNUAL KILLINGS IN AMERICA ARE COMMITTED BY CHRISTIANS SINCE CHRISTIANITY ACCOUNTS FOR 90% OF THE POPULATION HERE?

      August 31, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Reality – Terrible name since you tell only a tiny fraction of the story. These chains of events started long before the point your narrative starts. You left out the Catholic terror attack on the C of E dominated parliament of the UK. You left out 500 years of genocide by white Europeans towards almost the entire world. You are quite a skilled liar but you are still a liar.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
    • Reality

      A summary of our 70 year War on Terror and Aggression:

      -Operation Iraqi Freedom- The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in Iraq, US Troops killed in action, 3,481 and 924 died in non-combat, 97,172 – 106,047 Iraqi civilians killed as of 8/10/2010 mostly due the Shiite and Sunni suicide bombers.

      – Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: US troops 1,116 killed in action, 902 killed in non-combat situations as of 08/10/2010. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror,

      – Sa-dd-am, his sons and major he-nchmen have been deleted. Sa-dd-am's bravado about WMD was one of his major mistakes. Kuwait was saved.

      – Iran is being been contained. (beside containing the Sunni-Shiite civil war in Baghdad, that is the main reason we are in Iraq. And yes, essential oil continues to flow from the region.)

      – Libya has become almost civil. Recently Libya agreed to pay $1.5 billion to the victims of their terrorist activities. Apparently this new reality from an Islamic country has upset OBL and his “cra-zies” as they have thre-atened Libya. OBL sure is a di-sgrace to the world especially the Moslem world!!! Or is he???

      – North Korea is still u-ncivil but is contained.

      – Northern Ireland is finally at peace.

      – The Jews and Palestinians are being separated by walls. Hopefully the walls will follow the 1948 UN accords. Unfortunately the Annapolis Peace Conference was not successful. And unfortunately the recent events in Gaza has put this situation back to “squ-are one”. And this significant stupidity is driven by the mythical foundations of both religions!!!

      – Bin La-d-en has been cornered under a rock in Western Pakistan since 9/11.

      – Fa-na–tical Islam has basically been contained to the Middle East but a wall between India and Pakistan would be a plus for world peace. Ditto for a wall between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

      – Timothy McVeigh was exe-cuted. Terry Nichols will follow soon.

      – Eric Ru-dolph is spending three life terms in pri-son with no par-ole.

      – Jim Jones, David Koresh, Kaczynski, the "nuns" from Rwanda, and the KKK were all dealt with and either eliminated themselves or are being punished.

      – Islamic Sudan, Dar-fur and So-malia are still terror hot spots.

      – The terror and tor-ture of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and Kuwait were ended by the proper application of the military forces of the USA and her freedom-loving friends. Ra-dovan Karadzic was finally captured on 7/23/08 and is charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war – charges related to the 1992-1995 civil war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's secession from Yugoslavia.

      – And of course the bloody terror brought about the Ja-panese, Na-zis and Co-mmunists was with great difficulty eliminated by the good guys.

      August 31, 2010 at 11:42 pm |
  6. Really?

    Can we please just stop believing in God? The ignorance it creates is endless.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  7. Erky

    Why is this news after 25 years? There are millions of terrible things that have happened to innocent people since then, by many different governments – some of them were our "friends". Could it be that the media is promoting Iran bashing, to develop public support for a ground invasion?

    August 31, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Linda Jensen

      It's news 25 years later because it's still happening and more so! And other countries care about it, too! It's brought to the public attention because of the twenty years that seven Baha'is were just sentenced to prison–just a few weeks ago!

      August 31, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  8. Not Fooled

    "islamic" countries such as this are full of examples of the intolerance of the muslims to people of other faiths. name it...iraq, indonesia, malaysia, kuwait, saudi arabia..... yet, every one of the muslim profess that their's is a religion of tolerance and peace. bubkus i say. we give in to these nutters and we are doomed. islam is a theocracy. they simply don't have the intelligence to separate mosque and state.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      ... and yet almost all people that believe as you do want to establish a Christian Theocracy. Too bad you lack the intelligence to see the irony.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Not Fooled: Islam is a religion. Iran is a country. A theocracy is a mode of govt. Don't equate them all with each other or you will become unecessarily confused and confusing.

      August 31, 2010 at 9:50 pm |
  9. monica

    We should all live by the words of John Lennon's song 'Imagine'

    August 31, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • Lisa

      Someday according to the Bible Monica, we will. The Bible says in Daniel 2:44 that there will be one world government soon, but not from men. You have probably prayed for it if you prayed the Lord's Prayer- Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. It will be God's Kingdom that will be one government and it will rule with peace and righteousness. Psalm 37:10,11 and 29 shows that wickedness will be done away with and righteous people will fill the earth. And in Revelation 21:4 it says there will be no more pain or outcry or death. I hope you will look this up.

      August 31, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  10. Laura

    You sound like Jesus Christ! The God Almighty Judge of everyone's soul.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  11. Cassarit

    And with this steady stream of propaganda against Iran they hope to do what? Prepare Americans for an attack against Iranians? It's necessary to hold the media responsible for their role in prosecuting criminal wars of agression. I'd love to see a few hundred, reporters, managers and industry execs put on trial for war crimes, convicted and executed. That would be REAL justice.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • Laura

      You miss the point. Is it true?

      August 31, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Maybe it's just a human-interest story and she happens to be from Iran?? On the one hand people say this whenever there is a negative story from Iran, and on the other, whenever there is anything trying to be positive or just humanizing about Islam in general – well you know the reaction.

      August 31, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
  12. Guest

    @Scott, You are an idiot. Quit reading your revised history 'Christian' history books and learn the facts for yourself. You obviously have been given the anti-Catholic version.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:27 pm |
  13. Tom

    Can't tell if this is supposed to be a story of how great religions are or how stupid religions are.

    I'm thinking the latter.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
  14. krystina

    its a horrible experiance, i wish no one has to go through what she did or anyone else for what ever religion they may beleive in ! usa is freedom to her and put her at peice !

    August 31, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
  15. View from Damavand

    Learn how you can help the Bahai in this exclusive interview:

    http://viewfromdamavand.com/2010/08/31/human-rights-podcast-the-bahai/

    August 31, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
  16. Jcthinker

    False imprisonment and torture for wrong faith, or no faith, sounds alot like a past practice of a little place called the Vatican.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  17. Peanut

    Regardless of the idea of religion being evil- the Iranians themselves are evil. If someone can take an elusive concept like religion and use it to do REAL PHYSICAL harm to people then religion is not the root of evil- the soul of the person delivering the pain is. That country is a waste of space. It's stories like these that make me wonder if the pitiful group of want-to-be humans living there deserve to breath.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
    • Salvatore

      Wow... It's not the religion... It's the souls of the Iranians themselves... But wait, it's not that... It's all men! Uh... Men with beards! Oh no... It's All humans... No, I need to blame someone... It's GOD! (gasp!). Your position is the scarriest of all.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • Frank Rizzo

      Maybe you should take time and study World History before posting such idiotic statements, your lack of education amazes me. Your parents should be upset that all that time, money has been wasted. Please extend my sincere apologies to your family.

      August 31, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
    • Kraznodar

      Peanut – I'm confused. You think the woman in this story is "Evil!!!" and should die because she is Iranian? Please don't breed. Ever.

      August 31, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
    • MrsFizzy

      Hate to break it to you but you could say most societies throughout history have used religion as an excuse to inflict REAL PHYSICAL harm on others at some point – very few of our ancestors would be worthy of breathing air no matter where we are from!

      August 31, 2010 at 8:28 pm |
  18. Hmm...

    @The Number – It's embarrassing all around, sadly. As a Protestant, I am also ashamed. I am sad that reasonable conversation seems mostly impossible.

    Well, keep up the good fight. : )

    August 31, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
    • The Number

      @Hmm... For my children's sake I hope there are more people like you that come out and make your voice heard. Best to you!

      August 31, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  19. bettie

    Proving once again that religions, ALL religions, are the scourge of the Earth.

    Only when we turn away from the folly and intolerance and violence of religious belief will mankind begin to live in peace and harmony.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  20. Cassarit

    I have an idea. Before alerting us to these problems in Iran, why don't you idiots worry about prison conditions right here in America.

    August 31, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.