TEHRAN (Reuters) - Seven Iranian members of the Baha’i faith held on suspicion of spying could be indicted by next week, the Islamic Republic’s judiciary said on Tuesday, a day after Britain voiced concern about their imminent trial.
British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said on Monday the detained Baha’i believers were accused of spying for Israel, Iran’s arch foe. Spying is a crime that carries a possible death sentence in Iran.
Noting the European Union had called several times for the immediate release of the seven, Rammell said the Iranian government must at the very least ensure that their trial was fair, transparent and open to independent observers.
An Iranian newspaper last year said they had confessed to setting up an illegal organisation in Iran that took orders from Israel and others to undermine Iran’s Islamic government system.
Baha’is regard their faith’s 19th-century founder as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad. Iran’s Shi’ite religious establishment considers the faith a heretical offshoot of Islam.
The seven detainees were “investigated on charges of spying for foreigners ... and possibly by next week an indictment will be issued and will be discussed in court,” Iran’s judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told a news conference.
He did not mention the group’s alleged link to Israel.
Rammell said in Monday’s statement that the seven Baha’is, who were detained in March or May 2008, had to wait more than eight months to be told of the charges against them and had not been given access to their lawyer.
Jamshidi said: “There is no ban for them based on law to have access to a lawyer and surely during the trial they can have lawyers.”
He said Baha’is were free to live in Iran but any activities against the Islamic state were illegal and a crime.
The Baha’i faith originated in Iran 150 years ago and Baha’is say the faith has 5 million adherents worldwide, including 300,000 or more in Iran.
Baha’is say hundreds of their followers have been jailed and executed since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The government denies it has detained or executed people for their religion.
The United States, Israel, Britain and other powers are locked in a dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme, which they believe has military aims. Tehran denies the charge.
Iran’s judiciary last month said four Iranians had been detained in connection with a U.S.-sponsored conspiracy to overthrow the Islamic system. Iranian media later said two doctor brothers were among the four. Jamshidi said sentences in this case were being appealed but did not give details.