An Iranian court on Sunday sentenced seven Baha'i leaders [case backgrounder] to 20-year prison terms on charges of espionage. The seven were convicted of espionage [AFP report], propaganda activities against the Islamic order, the establishment of an illegal administration and cooperation with Israel. All seven have denied the charges and have appealed the decision. The seven, all members of a national coordination committee for the Baha'i [religious website] community in Iran, were arrested in 2008. Their arrest and subsequent trial prompted international criticism and calls for their release from the US government, UN rights bodies [statements] and governments worldwide. There are 300,000 Baha'i living in Iran, comprising Iran's largest non-Muslim minority. There are an estimated seven million members worldwide. The religion is considered heretical by the Iranian government, and the Baha'i have also faced legal restrictions on their activities in Egypt since the 1960s.
In October, the US State Department [official website] released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom [JURIST report], criticizing the Iranian government's treatment of the Baha'i community. The report found that Baha'i face arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention and have been targeted by negative campaigns in government-run media. The report also noted that, because the Baha'i are not one of the religious groups recognized by the Iranian Constitution [text], they are not free to practice their beliefs and are prohibited from holding any position in the government or military. According to the report, the Baha'i are considered apostates and often face charges of cooperation with Israel because the Baha'i world headquarters are located in Haifa.