Oppressive regimes attack human rights on two levels. The most obvious assault, as we have seen in Iran in recent months, aims at suppressing political opponents and protest.
But history teaches us that we need to worry about a secondary level of attack as well, the kind that takes place in the shadows.
That's the persecution directed at weak segments of the population targeted for special repression, the old and sickening story in which minority religious or ethnic groups are singled out as scapegoats of the state, blamed for all its troubles.
This is why we need to be very concerned now for the safety of Iran's approximately 300,000 Baha'is, followers of the gentle, internationalist Baha'i faith, the country's largest minority religion.
The Baha'i religion has been officially banned in Iran since 1979. But now, in a textbook case of scapegoating, Iran's theocratic leaders are blaming the Baha'is for stirring up all the unrest sweeping the country today.
They are even accusing them of stockpiling firearms, which seems ludicrous given the peaceful nature of the religion.
But in an ominous nod to even more persecution ahead, Tehran argues that the Baha'is are doing this in conjunction with Israel, which is really directing the whole conspiracy.
The potential for "cleansing," which is inherent in this kind of scapegoating, is why it is so important for the international community to stay on top of a trial that just started in Tehran:
Seven leaders of the Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly are charged with insulting Islam, spreading propaganda against the state, spying for Israel and, for good measure, "spreading corruption on Earth."
These charges not only carry the death penalty but seem designed to stir up maximum anti-Baha'i hatred in the general population.
The accused, whose innocence has been loudly proclaimed by many international human rights groups, have already endured years of psychological terror.
Since their arrest in the spring of 2008 they've been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, often in solitary confinement. For the first year, they were without access to lawyers or even formal charges.Preordained.
This week, the accused were finally brought before what appears to be a show trial with a preordained ending.
Observers were barred from the court while cameras from the state-controlled media were ushered inside. Never a comforting sign in a dictatorship.
In protest, Diane Alai, a Baha'i representative to the United Nations in Geneva, noted that "Baha'i's are by the most basic principles of their faith committed to absolute nonviolence.
"Any charge that there might have been weapons or 'live rounds' in their homes is simply and completely unbelievable."
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