The persecution of young and innocent children whose parents are unjustly imprisoned due to their religious beliefs is a brutal expression of the violation of human rights.
May 19, 2013. Barmaan was only one month old when his mother began serving a 23 month term, in July 2012, in the overcrowded and oppressive women’s prison of Semnan, a city in northern Iran. The crime of this young mother and her husband was belief in the Baha’i Faith, a religion which seeks nothing but peace and unity for humankind. His deplorable plight began earlier when his mother was about seven months pregnant with him. After a harsh raid by guards on his family’s home, his mother was so emotionally affected by the disturbing situation that she gave birth to Barmaan two months prematurely. His father had also been previously imprisoned in another section of the prison for men so the baby had to be taken into prison with his mother. It was as if a cruel and unjust world had no room for him except in the confines of a terrible prison.[i] One may wonder why a young mother was forced to endure prison with a nursing baby in her arms? When she is released Barmaan will be two years old.
Science and psychology consider the first two years of the life of a child to be vital in its development. Being deprived of proper care and nutrition as well as a safe environment are but a few of the hazards imposed by prison life for a child of this age. Babies who are born in prison or brought into this kind of detention centre after birth may face dire consequences from malnutrition, infectious diseases, emotional problems as well as developmental challenges. Jailed mothers are often subjected to psychological and physical insults and brutality. But how long can mothers and infants survive in such an oppressive environment?
In recent years, in Europe and the United States, facilities have been developed for women prisoners. However in Semnan and other cities in Iran it has been reported that there is hardly any space for women, let alone Baha’i women with babies. In the case of Barmaan he had to face all the negative impact of such an environment as well as being born prematurely which certainly made him more vulnerable than babies born at term.
However, Barmaan is not the only baby whose mother has been imprisoned and who has had no choice but to take her baby with her. Two other Baha’i infants are suffering the same fate. At one point during 2012 there were seven babies under two years of age including four of Muslim mothers who were incarcerated with 70 women, some of whom are violent. Because of limited space for so many women, some of the Baha’is sleep on the floor, which, for those with babies, is unsafe and intolerable.[ii] And what is happening to the Baha’i and other women prisoners is not unique to Semnan. It also occurs in other Iranian cities.
The persecution of young and innocent children whose parents are unjustly imprisoned due to their religious beliefs is a brutal expression of the violation of human rights. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency of Iran (HRANA) a 12 month-old Baha’i infant, Rassam who lived with his mother in prison developed a serious respiratory infection which required treatment in hospital. Earlier, his mother had requested several times that he be sent for medical treatment outside of prison but the authorities ignored her pleas for help. She too was imprisoned due to false accusations that she had been “teaching against government” and had been practicing her religion which included the education of children. She was sentenced to 20 months in prison. HRANA also reported other instances of prison atrocities which have had physical and emotional impact on women prisoners in Semnan. In April 2013 many of them found pieces of broken glass in the meals served to them and therefore refused to eat that food. Consequently, many nights they went to bed hungry as they were not allowed to buy food from the prison store. Imagine what effect this would have on a nursing baby? Furthermore, it was recently reported that a foundation that supports women and children decided to donate, on the occasion of Child’s Day (Rooz-e-Koodak) some money for each child in prison. However, children of Baha’is were barred from receiving such aid because of their religion. Although this deprivation was not materially significant, it was psychologically demeaning and discriminatory. [iii]
Imprisonment of women with babies, regardless of religious or political affiliation has been on the rise in the world. As discussed above, it creates a cruel and hazardous situation for the babies. However, leaving babies or young children with caregivers is also fraught with many difficulties. When children are separated from their mothers at a young age, they may be scarred for life by emotional isolation, depression, insomnia and suffer developmental consequences unless that are properly cared for and looked after. The mother and child bonding and relationship takes place during the first two critical years of life when infants form a strong attachment to their mother. Through this bond, a sense of security and trust develops and children learn about their need to love and be loved. A forced separation of mothers and babies is a form of violence not only against women but is an abuse of the rights of children for safe and proper care, education and upbringing in a family environment.
Inciting hatred and oppressive persecution against the Baha’is of Iran has taken a new turn during recent years. The Baha’is of Iran presently constitute the largest non-Muslim minority of Iran whose rights have been violated. Baha’is have been subjected to systematic and widespread attacks individually and collectively. In some parts of the country their homes have been raided, their property confiscated or vandalized, their stores set on fire and hundreds of them have been arrested and imprisoned with physical and psychological torture and terror.
Although none of this is new in the 170 – year history of the Baha’i Faith in Iran, it seems that targeting individuals for persecution is no longer confined to the adult population. School children are discriminated against and ridiculed because of their beliefs. The doors of universities are shut in the faces of students for the same reason. But as if this persecution was not enough, the authorities are now targeting the most vulnerable members of the community, those who are unable to defend themselves – babies. This constitutes perhaps one of the most despicable forms of oppression to date.
Since 2008 the Baha’is of Semnan have been targeted with relentless persecution including raids, arrests and imprisonment. “Their cemeteries have been vandalized, their beliefs have been attacked in the media and from the pulpit of mosques. Perhaps most ominously their children have been denounced in the city’s schools.” [iv] In brief, this is a community under fire where, since last year, young mothers with newborn infants have been convicted and sentenced to prison, thus subjecting the latter to hardship and mistreatment, a few examples of which have been presented in this article.
[i] Iran Press News, July 24, 2012
[iv] Baha’i International Community: Inciting Hatred – The Baha’is of Semnan, Special Report October 2012, p.2