On July 29, 1981, nine Baha’i citizens of Iran were executed by firing squad in Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan, without a public trial and without access to a lawyer. Their families believe they were executed without even a trial behind closed doors. The nine – who were well-known figures in the Baha’i community in Tabriz – were executed for their faith.
One of them was Dr. Esmail Zehtab, a respected dentist in the city, who was 61 when he was killed.
Learn Dentistry and the Baha’i Faith
Esmail Zehtab was born in 1920 in the historic Charandab district of Tabriz into a Muslim religious family. Before converting to the Baha’i faith, he was a faithful Muslim and participated in all religious ceremonies.
After the ninth grade, Esmail started working as an apprentice in a dental clinic, and from the very beginning he did his best to learn this trade. Modern dentistry did not exist in Iran at that time and the few who pursued dentistry had to learn by apprenticeship.
Esmail was 18 when he heard about the Baha’i teachings through his uncle Monir Divan, a Baha’i poet. He studied religion for two years and converted at the age of 20.
Clinic in Khalkhal
Young Dr. Zehtab, at the age of 20, had acquired enough experience, knowledge and skills to open his own dental clinic. He wanted to open it in Tabriz but, at the suggestion of the local Baha’i Spiritual Assembly of Tabriz, he decided to move to remote areas of the province where people lacked dental services.
Dr. Zehtab first traveled to Ardebil and after some time moved to Khalkhal where he opened his first clinic.
The arrival of a dentist was a welcome development for this small town and its surrounding villages. Dr. Zehtab was the first dentist in Khalkhal and men and women, young and old, villagers and townspeople, all flocked to his clinic. But what made him doubly popular was his kindness and benevolence. His patients came from all walks of life and all classes, from heads of government offices and gendarmerie commanders to the poor and needy. He was generous and charitable: he did not charge those who could not afford to pay him and several times he even gave them money. Easing a patient’s pain and caring for the patient was more important to him than money, and as a result, no patient left his clinic unhappy.
Harassment and escape from Khalkhal
In Khalkhal, Zehtab married a young Baha’i woman and they had two daughters and two sons, all born in that city.
He was known to be a Baha’i, and as his popularity grew, Islamic religious fanatics became determined to drive him and his family out of Khalkhal. Finally, in 1955, following attacks on Baha’is across the country triggered by sermons given by cleric Mohammad Taghi Falsafi who incited people against Baha’is. Dr. Zehtab was forced to leave town after 13 years. Khalkhal and its surrounding villages were left without a dentist as Dr. Zehtab was still the only one in the area.
Falsafi’s sermons, backed by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Broujerdi, the Shiite high marja or “source of emulation” at the time, led to the death of scores of Baha’is. Their homes were burnt down and many Baha’is who feared for their lives fled into the wild. The perpetrators of these acts have never been held responsible.
The turmoil also reached Khalkhal. Incitement by a few religious fanatics led to attacks on Dr. Zehtab’s house during Ramadan. The assailants – simple stone-throwing Iranians – had been led to believe that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Security and police officials who had previously claimed to be friends with Dr. Zehtab, and who were all his patients, did not raise their hands to stop these attacks. The governor’s office even summoned Dr. Zehtab and asked him to give up his faith and become a Muslim.
The police searched his home and confiscated religious books and other items. Without a warrant, they placed Dr. Zehtab under house arrest and locked him in a room in his own house, under the guise of protecting him and his family, to place two policemen in his home.
One night, after living under house arrest for three months, Dr. Zehtab managed to escape. He went to Tehran and after the situation in Khalkhal calmed down he went to Tabriz. A few months later, he also brought his family from Khalkhal to Tabriz and they started a new life.
Learn modern dentistry
Esmail Zehtab opened a new clinic in Tabriz, and although he was over 30, he went back to school and graduated from high school. The government was now offering a course for traditional dentists to learn modern dentistry and Zehtab successfully completed this course. He then went to Turkey to continue his studies and obtained his university degree in dentistry there.
New threats and harassment
Dr. Zehtab was dedicated to his profession and believed it was his way of serving the people. He was witty and friendly. His patients loved him and his friends and neighbors respected him. He was charitable and often launched charitable campaigns to help the poor and needy.
But his good reputation earned him numerous anonymous threats, both before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution, aimed at forcing him to close his clinic. He was repeatedly beaten by assailants – but he stayed at his job and continued to treat his patients until the day of his arrest.
The first arrest
Dr. Zehtab was elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Tabriz where he was the Treasurer. On October 19, 1979, the Revolutionary Guards raided the home of a Baha’i in Tabriz, where seven members of the Spiritual Assembly were meeting, and arrested them, including Dr. Zehtab.
All but one of the Baha’is were soon released. But at 10 p.m. the same day, officers sent by the Revolutionary Court came to Dr. Zehtab’s home and arrested him after raiding the home and confiscating religious books. For 20 days he was held in solitary confinement and pressured and tortured to renounce his Baha’i faith. He was released after about six months, on March 22, 1980.
Dr Zehtab was free but fears of being arrested again persisted. Most of his friends advised him to leave Tabriz and live with acquaintances in other parts of Iran for a while, but he did not agree and continued to work in his clinic.
“I prepared everything that is necessary to live in prison and put it in a bag, so if I am summoned to prison or arrested, I can go to prison without waiting,” Dr Zehtab told his colleagues. friends.
The second arrest
On July 14, 1980, Dr. Faramarz Samandari, one of the world’s top microscopic ear surgeons, and Yadollah Astani, a businessman and member of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Tabriz, were executed by firing squad. of execution. On July 18, five more Baha’is, including Dr. Esmail Zehtab and Dr. Parviz Firouzi, a pharmacologist, were arrested.
The detainees were subjected to enormous psychological pressure to renounce their faith. They were promised that if they converted to Islam, they would be immediately freed and enjoy all their rights as citizens. They remained in prison for a year before being executed.
The prison clinic
Tooth problems and toothaches were rampant among the inmates. For seven months, Dr. Zehtab volunteered at the prison clinic, treating both prisoners and prison staff. Sometime after his execution, two prison guards visited his family and thanked them for Dr. Zehtab’s treatment of their toothache.
On July 27, 1981, the families of Baha’i prisoners had traveled to Tabriz prison to meet with them when they were told that three of them had been sentenced to death. They were turned back; Dr. Zehtab’s family was the only Baha’i family allowed to meet their relative in person that day.
Two days later, on July 29, the families of nine Baha’is in Tabriz prison were informed that their relatives had been executed and that they were to go to the morgue in Vadi-e Rahmat cemetery to collect the remains. Thanks to strict security measures, the families managed to bury their loved ones in this cemetery in accordance with Baha’i laws.
The Islamic Republic’s judiciary has yet to explain why these nine Baha’is were executed more than 30 years ago.