Faezeh Hashemi (3rd from R), the daughter of former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, meets members of the Baha’i community in Tehran, May 2016

Iran’s authorities have sentenced four members of the Baha’i religious community for the crime of pursuing higher education.

The defendants, whose names have been withheld to protect them and their families, were each given 5-year terms for “acting against national security through the Baha’i cult organization and posting falsehoods online” after they tried to enrol or teach in universities.

The judge cited an article of the Iranian penal code which punishes anyone who establishes or directs a society which “aims to perturb the security of the country”.

Iran’s Constitution does not recognize the Baha’i faith as an official religion, and members have faced persecution and discrimination for decades, including denial of property rights, equal burial rights, and a ban on higher education.

See also Want a National ID in Iran? Then Deny Your Faith.

The judge called the defendants “activists in a secret, illegal, educational organization”: the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an independent, web-based university established in 1987. He condemned one defendant as a BIHE graduate who was “invited by leaders of this false Baha’i cult through email to teach classes to Baha’is and grade their work”.

The court ruling condemned the four Bahai’s for “holding classes for students…and registering their grades online with a password that was sent via e-mail”. The crime of one defendant was a channel on the Telegram messaging appliction where “all its members were Baha’is”, while others were punished for online posts about the injustice of the university ban, portrayed by the judge as “accusing the Islamic Republic of ethnic discrimination”.

The court even cited one defendant’s establishment of a day care facility: “The said person intended to carry out the plans of the false Baha’i cult to train children and youth by creating home-based day care and educate the children with the cult’s psychological programs.”

Two of the defendants had left the BIHE’s online classes when they were accepted by an Iranian university that did not require declaration of religious faith on their applications. However, they were expelled when the university officials discovered they were Baha’i.