On January 30, 2011, the Iranian judicial courts handed out one of the harshest prison sentences to a human rights activist ever given: Navid Khanjani, a Baha’i journalist, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was also slapped with a heavy fine and banned from being able to leave the country. His crimes, according to the court, were “founding the Baha’i Education Rights Committee”, and “membership in [two human rights organizations], the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR) and Human Rights Activists (HRA)”, in addition to  “acting against national security”, “propaganda against the regime”, “disturbing public order” and “Libel”. In his work with these organizations, Khanjani had become a prominent voice in support of education rights for minorities in Iran. This consequently made him a target for the regime, which often labels any activism against it as “propaganda” or ‘”libel”.

Khanjani’s own activism comes from a deep, personal place: as a Baha’i, he was banned from pursuing higher education. In an interview with the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF) in 2009, Khanjani explained why this was:

Denying Baha`is the right to education was based on a directive by the Cultural Revolution Council, issued in 1991. This directive states that Baha`is do not have the right to education. It is written by Mr. Golpayegani and is signed by [the Supreme Leader] Khamenei during the Cultural Revolution. It is an [internal] law that has never been announced [which] says that Baha`is do not have the right to higher education. They can only study up to the university level. Some claim that this directive no longer exists. [But] it has been published on several websites and shown several times. This is a directive which they refer to unofficially, but it has never been publicly announced by a governmental source. It is used, but it doesn’t formally exist.

After several of his friends received expulsion orders referencing their Baha’i faith as the reason they were being denied University admittance, Khanjani helped found the Oppose Discrimination in Education Association and began his career as a stout activist for education rights. The Association advocated for all people deprived of their rights to schooling in Iran, not just Baha’is, though the regime labelled the group as a seditious Baha’i group. In response to Khanjani’s criticism of the government’s treatment of Baha’i students, state news outlets organized a media campaign against him, using him as an example of the subversive nature of the Baha’i community. He was called “a member of the cyber army” and “one of the perpetrators of the soft war” against the Islamic Republic. Because of his faith, they attempted to portray him as an outsider to Iranian society, said Safora Elyasi, a spokesperson for the Association.

“Other human rights activists have been facing such sentences, but the 12-year sentence of Mr. Khanjani is enormous compared to those who are sentenced to four, five, six and even seven years. We expect leaders of Green mMovement to react to Mr. Khanjani’s conviction because if they stay silent now, the question of ”insider and outsider” will be brought up, because of religious differences, and they cause the movement to fail right now,” she said. In regards to the Association, she added,  ”We are fighting against discriminations. Mr. Khanjani always believed that we need to fight against all kind of discrimination, either ethnic, national, religious, academic or human rights related.”

On March 2nd, 2010, six intelligence officers raided the home of Khanjani’s father. After searching through and confiscating his personal belongings, they arrested Khanjani and had him transferred to Evin Prison, where he would stay for 65 days, deprived of legal assistance. For 25 of those days he was in solitary confinement. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, “He was beaten several times and went on a hunger strike in order to protest the bad conditions of his detention and the prison authorities’ failure to respect his rights as a defendant. He was also under pressure to record video interviews to confess against himself.”

He was released briefly on $100,000 bail, and then later sentenced to the 12 years. But it was not long after that Khanjani was arrested again — along 34 others volunteer students and relief workers  – while providing aid to earthquake victims in Azerbaijan. Security officials had raided the relief camp and detained the workers in the Tabriz intelligence office. Later, state media would claim the workers were all Baha’is plotting against the regime. This transgression added another 5 months to Khanjani’s sentence. In September 2012, he was transferred to Raja’i Shahr Prison, where he is currently serving the rest of his sentence.

Last March, Khanjani wrote a letter from prison, quoting the poetry of Ahmed Shamloo, a prominent Persian poet, to describe his emotional and mental state:

“Again, we are left with a city that has lost its beat.

All that is left are hyenas, wolves, and foxes.”