LONDON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Britain voiced concern on Monday at the imminent trial in Iran of seven members of the Baha'i faith who are accused of spying for Israel and could face the death penalty.
"I am very concerned at news that seven leading members of the Iranian Baha'i community ... have been charged with spying for Israel, 'insulting religious sanctities' and 'propaganda against the Islamic Republic'," Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said in a statement.
"It is hard not to conclude that these people are being held solely on account of their religious beliefs or their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association."
Baha'is believe in the spiritual unity of all mankind and regard their faith's 19th-century founder as the latest in a line of prophets including Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad.
Iran's Shi'ite religious establishment considers the religion an heretical offshoot of Islam.
Rammell said the seven, who were detained in March or May 2008, had to wait more than eight months to be told of the charges against them.
They had not been given access to their lawyer and their lawyer has not been given access to their case files, he said.
Noting the European Union had called several times for the immediate release of the seven, he said the Iranian government must at the very least ensure that their trial was fair, transparent and open to independent observers.
Rammell said there had been a serious deterioration in Iran's human rights environment in the past few years, including a worsening crackdown on human rights defenders and a sharp increase in the use of the death penalty.
Iranian authorities have in the past accused the detained Baha'is of acting against Iran's national security and have denied the arrests were linked to their faith.
The Baha'i faith originated in Iran 150 years ago and Baha'is say the faith has 5 million adherents worldwide, including 300,000 or more in Iran.
The United States, Britain and other powers are locked in a dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme. The powers suspect Tehran of seeking to produce a nuclear bomb, whereas Iran says it just wants civil nuclear energy.
New U.S. President Barack Obama's offer of direct talks with Tehran has raised hopes of an improvement in their relations. (Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Sophie Hares)