Prof. Payam Akhavan (Faculty of Law, McGill University):
Thank you for inviting me to appear before your committee, Mr. Chairman. It is indeed a great privilege and a great pleasure for me to share a few ideas on the human rights situation in Iran.
I would like to begin by situating the significance of discussing human rights in Iran in a broader context. In particular, I think it's imperative to understand that human rights in Iran are linked to many of the peace and security considerations that seem to be preoccupying the international community at the moment. For instance, I believe that the nuclear question, which seems to have completely preoccupied the attention of the international community, is inextricably linked with the democratization of Iran. The problem we have to understand in Iran is not so much the question of nuclear capability; the problem is the nature of the regime.
The problem is that an authoritarian regime that is not responsive to the wishes of the people of Iran will need, as an ideological expedient, confrontation with the west, anti-American rhetoric, anti-Israeli rhetoric. A regime that feels besieged because it is a menace to international peace and security will feel the need to have a nuclear capability as some sort of insurance against military confrontation.
We have to understand that in the same way the regime, or rather hardliners within the regime who are tenuously holding onto power, engages in the demonization of foreign enemies, they link that demonization to the internal repression of dissent. Every single Iranian dissident who ends up in prison, including Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo, who I'm sure you're all familiar with, the Canadian Iranian who spent last summer in solitary confinement until he confessed, predictably, to having worked as some sort of American agent, unwittingly--everyone who is targeted within Iran is ultimately linked to some sort of foreign conspiracy in order to portray all indigenous calls for domestic change as somehow something that has been planted into the minds of the Iranian people by the United States or others.
There has recently been a deterioration of the human rights situation in Iran under President Ahmadinejad, and I believe my learned colleagues will address that in greater detail. But I think it's very important to understand the radicalization of politics in Iran, the deterioration of the human rights situation, less as a long-term trend and more as a dying gasp of a regime that has lost legitimacy and that is completely unresponsive to the wishes of the vast majority of Iranians.
The demographics are on the side of democratic change. Seventy per cent of Iranians are 30 years of age and under. They are part of a post-ideological, post-utopian, pragmatic culture and are much more concerned with employment, transparency, rooting out corruption, developing the economy, creating hope for the future, having cultural freedoms, and enjoying human rights and democratic freedoms.
The average Iranian does not wake up in the morning fantasizing about nuclear capability or about wiping Israel off the map. This is an expedient of President Ahmadinejad because this kind of polemic is the only thing he can offer the Iranian people as they decline further and further into hopelessness, social despair, and economic decline.
In this respect also I think it's very important to steer clear of any construction of the conflict we have with Iran in terms of a clash of civilizations. This is not a clash of civilizations. This is a clash between authoritarianism and democracy. Suffice it to say there are more Islamic clerics in prison today in Iran than there ever were under the regime of the Shah, and some of the greatest opposition to the sort of totalitarian state structures, which of course have become somewhat relaxed now, comes from within the ranks of the Islamic clerics themselves, in addition to the many other social movements that exist in Iran.
In short, there are two Irans. There is the Iran of the hard-liners, and there is the Iran of the majority, which has a thriving civil society, human rights movements, feminist movements, and social activists involved in all walks of life. This reality requires a nuanced foreign policy, which on the one hand isolates those hard-liners who stand in the way of the wishes of the vast majority of the people of Iran and at the same time helps to empower civil society, which is ultimately the only long-term solution, not only for resolving the interests of the international community in terms of regional stability, but also for the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people.
I regret to say that for the most part the history of western policy towards Iran has put the human rights of the Iranian people a distant second to real political concerns. Here is an opportunity for Canada to adopt not only a principled foreign policy, but also a realistic foreign policy that understands the links, once again, between regional security and respect for human rights.
Suffice it to say that recently the survivors of the Bam earthquake in Iran protested about why the Iranian government is sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Hezbollah in Lebanon when the survivors of the earthquake still have not been provided with adequate housing. And in a democratic Iran, surely, people will ask whether it's worth spending $15 billion on a controversial nuclear program that risks military confrontation with the west at a time when, officially, there's a 25% unemployment rate, and unofficially, a rate that could be as high as 40%.
The way forward, I believe, is to look simultaneously at targeted sanctions, sanctions that target specific elements of the regime without penalizing the vast majority of Iranian people. Those targeted sanctions, in and of themselves, will significantly empower Iranian civil society to bring about a genuine transformation of the Iranian political system, as opposed to a solution imposed from the outside through some sort of intervention. I need not emphasize the very painful lessons we have learned from the case of Iraq about the consequences of trying to impose solutions from without.
In this respect, I think Canada has a very important role to play. We have, on the one hand, the rather belligerent, I dare say, cowboy diplomacy of the United States, which has played right into the hands of President Ahmadinejad by helping refashion him as some sort of Islamic saviour in a clash of civilizations. The conference on the denial of the Holocaust in Tehran and all these events are invitations to condemnation that help create some sort of legitimacy by rallying the Iranian masses, who have, obviously, nationalistic sentiments, and it's something we need to bear in mind.
On the other hand, the European policy, I dare say, has for the most part bordered on appeasement, even if there are now some more assertive policies in relation to the nuclear issue. Somewhere between appeasement and military confrontation is a policy that I think is effective, and I think in that respect the Canadian government, beyond speaking of human security and these principles in abstract terms, now has to accept this as a challenge to which it must rise.
I'll begin, in terms of particular recommendations, to speak about what I think is a unique challenge, but also a unique opportunity for the Canadian government, and this relates to the death of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who came from my home town of Montreal. Last summer, the Iranian government included in its delegation Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious prosecutor general of Tehran implicated in Zahra Kazemi's death, not least by a presidential commission of inquiry under President Khatami in Iran and by a parliamentary commission of inquiry in Iran.
When he came to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, it was a slap in the face of the international community. It was a slap in the face of Canada. It was a slap in the face of all Iranians. The message was that we were going to send one of the most notorious figures, who has put hundreds and hundreds of webloggers and journalists and women's rights activists in Evin prison, to the Human Rights Council as a demonstration of the complete impunity with which we can abuse the rights of Iranian citizens.
In this respect the Canadian government, the Honourable Prime Minister, with great courage, I think, called for the arrest of Saeed Mortazavi. Not only was this a principled response, but it really had a profound effect on events within Iran. I've heard from more than one reformist or human rights advocate how emboldened the democratic opposition became when it became clear that this seemingly untouchable symbol of the regime now had to fear arrest. He quickly returned to Tehran and now has to question whether he can ever travel abroad without facing arrest. I think that was a unique example of how so little can go so far, how soft power actually can have very hard results.
I regret, though, that there has been no follow-up to what I think was a very commendable and principled move. Here we have a case in which a Canadian citizen has been brutally tortured, raped, and murdered. Her torture and murder have been the subject of an extensive cover-up by no less than the prosecutor general of Tehran.
As a matter of principle, if we call ourselves a multicultural society and we benefit from all that immigrants bring in terms of wealth and skills, I think we must also accept the burden. When a Canadian citizen, who happens to have a second nationality and has spent the vast majority of her life in Canada, is brutally tortured and murdered in another country, we have an obligation to defend her rights.
One of the arguments I hear about why we cannot move forward with the indictment of Saeed Mortazavi is that this is a problem of universal jurisdiction, that if we indict the likes of Saeed Mortazavi, Canadian courts will become like global courts and we'll have the problem Belgium has of indicting heads of state from across the world.
This is absolutely false. The Criminal Code of Canada, in section 7, paragraph (3.7)(d), expressly provides that Canadian courts can exercise jurisdiction over the crime of torture where the victim is a Canadian citizen. That is all that is required for the exercise of jurisdiction by Canadian courts, that the victim of torture is a Canadian citizen. It is completely inappropriate to suggest that this is somehow a universal jurisdiction case that is going to open a Pandora's box and turn Canadian courts into some sort of global court. If the Criminal Code specifically provides for the exercise of jurisdiction, why should we treat the murder of this Canadian citizen differently than the murder of any other Canadian?
Another argument against the indictment of Saeed Mortazavi is that we don't have access to the evidence. Obviously we cannot go to Iran and conduct an investigation. I believe that is a misleading argument. First of all, there is considerable evidence outside of Iran. We have reports from the Iranian parliamentary commission, from the presidential commission. There is the testimony of the Iranian doctor, who sought asylum in Canada recently. What we're dealing with here is not an isolated instance of criminality where you need the smoking gun or the fingerprints or that decisive piece of evidence.
Saeed Mortazavi is involved in systemic criminality. For all the years he was a senior judicial figure, hundreds and hundreds of dissidents went through Evin prison at his behest and were tortured and murdered. It's just a question of finding the many, many dissidents who have now sought asylum in Europe and North America in order to construct a compelling circumstantial case.
At the very least, even if the evidence is difficult to get, if the Canadian government does not express its intention at least to launch an investigation, then how will those who potentially could provide evidence step forward and help provide what is required for the indictment of Saeed Mortazavi?
I want to emphasize that the administration of justice, obviously, should never be actuated by political considerations. We should not be indicting Saeed Mortazavi as a foreign policy matter. This is a matter of criminal justice. Diplomacy with Iran ended when it became clear that the regime was completely unwilling to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice. At that point, diplomacy has to end and criminal justice has to begin. This is the lesson of the International Criminal Court, this is the lesson of the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals, that when you commit torture, when you commit crimes against humanity, you're no longer a minister, you're no longer an attorney general, you are a criminal.
In this case, though, I think we can't be oblivious to the far-reaching foreign policy consequences of pursuing this case. Not only will aggressive pursuit of this case send a message that Canada will not allow Canadian citizens to be murdered with impunity, but I think it will also send the message to the regime in Iran that there is a cost attached to human rights violations, that you cannot torture Iranians, whether they happen to be Canadian citizens or otherwise; you cannot torture and murder people with impunity. And that goes back to the role that Canada can play in promoting individual accountability for human rights abuses, rather than mere condemnation in the UN Human Rights Council, which is important but, like newspaper headlines, is something that is quickly forgotten.
The value of an indictment, we have learned from hunting Nazi war criminals, war criminals from the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, is that it stigmatizes people in positions of authority; it sends the message that even if they're in power today, one day they will not be in power and one day they will have to face justice.
By way of my final remark, I would also like to speak about the importance of investing in the future leaders of Iran rather than being too preoccupied about appeasement or good relations with the present regime. Obviously, certain political realities have to be taken into account. But at the end of the day, the democratic tide in Iran, the burgeoning of civil society, clearly signals the coming end of an unfortunate era of authoritarianism in Iran. In that respect, I believe we need the imagination, the foresight, and the political vision in Canada, whether through track two diplomacy or other means, to empower and speak to civil society in Iran, rather than being preoccupied with those who happen to be in power today but who may not necessarily be there tomorrow.
I will end simply by mentioning that judicial measures can have significant impact. I'm aware that others have spoken also about the prospect of indicting President Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide and other crimes, but I just want to give you one last instructive example of what is known as the Mykonos judgment.
Mykonos was a Greek restaurant in Berlin where Iranian agents killed four Kurdish leaders in 1992. The German judiciary investigated, arrested some of the perpetrators, and implicated the highest-ranking Iranian leaders, including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, including the president at the time, Rafsanjani, including the interior minister, Fallahian--names that emerge again in relation to the bombing of the Jewish cultural centre in Argentina, in relation to the assassination of Professor Rajavi in Geneva in 1989, and so on.
The significance is that once the Mykonos judgment came out in 1997, because of the resulting international outcry, there were no more political assassinations in Europe. Until that date, 300 Iranian dissidents had been murdered in Europe, often with the complicity of European governments. I think the Mykonos judgment should be a source of inspiration as we consider rising to the challenge and indicting Saeed Mortazavi for the murder of Zahra Kazemi.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your patience.
Mr. Jared Genser (President, Freedom Now):
Thanks so much.
It is a pleasure, Mr. Chairman, to be here, and also to be appearing before this distinguished committee. I spend a lot of time in Canada. My wife is Canadian, from Toronto, originally, so Canada is literally my second home. So it's a pleasure to be up here in Ottawa testifying on the question of human rights in Iran.
I think Professor Akhavan's introductory remarks really set the stage for a more detailed discussion of the specific abuses of the regime, although obviously in the case studies he discussed, he got into several of the examples in some detail.
In sum, the human rights situation in Iran is abysmal and has been condemned more than 50 times by the United Nations. In essence, the rule of law in Iran is based on an extremist view of Islam and severely punishes any deviation and interpretation of the Quran from that of the ruling clerics. Any acts incompatible with their extremist version of Islam are treated harshly, which includes inhumane treatment such as public beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death, and typically death without any due process.
As a result, there are numerous killings and disappearances of political dissidents to eliminate any threat they pose to the totalitarian rule of the regime, and despite international outcry, the situation continues to deteriorate. Iran has increased its oppression and violence against political dissidents, journalists, women, and minorities.
In my testimony today I want to walk through, at a very high level, a range of abuses by the current Iranian regime, specifically Iran's exploitation of Islam, repression of speech and association, violations of religious freedom, denial of women's rights, murder, torture and inhumane treatment, and recent threats and incitement to genocide against the State of Israel.
First, let me begin by talking about the exploitation of Islam, because it really provides the fundamental nature of this regime in Tehran. The majority of the abuses committed by Iran's leaders are based on exploitation of Islam. Article 4 of their Constitution strictly provides that all laws and regulations shall be based on Islamic principles, but of course this is the interpretation presented by the ruling clerical regime.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands as the enforcer of Islamic law and is the unelected absolute ruler of Iran; indeed, there is a principle in the Constitution of Velayat-E Faqih, which is the supremacy of clerical rule. There is no branch of government that's not controlled directly or indirectly by the Ayatollah or the Council of Guardians, and any legislative attempts at liberalization are typically rejected by the council and are often replaced with more restrictive laws.
As if that isn't sufficient, there is a morality police force, the Basij, that was created to seek out those who are acting “un-Islamic”. The morality police have a wide degree of authority to carry out extrajudicial punishments, such as beatings in the street, arrests, and torture. They exist along with other groups that are independent vigilantes, which also seek out and punish those who are believed to be acting un-Islamic. Indeed, the victimization by these independent vigilantes often goes unquestioned by government officials, and their behaviour is supported by many within the regime.
Second, let me talk about speech and association, because Iranians have few, if any, political rights. At the most fundamental level, of course, they have no ability to change their government. The mullahs proclaim to have a democracy, with elections for the presidency and the legislature, but this is a mere facade. In practice, voting is without meaning and the clerics control the slate of candidates as well as the election process, and indeed they've been accused on numerous occasions of tampering with the ballots themselves.
Speech is heavily suppressed, and freedom of speech is not protected by the Constitution. Public demonstrations are generally banned, and when they occur spontaneously, particularly if they attract a degree of enthusiasm from Iranian people, they are often brutally suppressed.
Although freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, it exists only where speech does not offend Islam and the ruling clerics, and of course this is also based on their own interpretation of Islam. Prohibited from publication are statements criticizing Ayatollah Khamenei, direct criticism of the Supreme Leader, criticisms of the rule of religious leaders, and statements promoting the views of dissident clerics or advocating for the rights of minorities. For example, three newspapers in Iran were shut down by the government just before President Ahmadinejad's election after one newspaper published a letter criticizing the government for rigging the election. As a result, the press, although it's not all state-controlled, often practises self-censorship for fear of political reprisal.
The regime is cracking down even harder these days on journalists and bloggers who are putting forth statements that are incompatible with the views of the regime.
Let me talk about violations of religious freedom, again at a high level. Freedom to practice religions exists but is limited to the practice of Shiite Islam, the official religion of Iran. The Sunni population is generally not targeted with violence, but there are a lot of claims of discrimination against Sunni members of the population, and religious activities of Christians and Jews are also restricted. Members of those faiths often suffer substantial discrimination. Indeed, for example, they are not able to access government employment, which constitutes a substantial plurality of employment in Iran.
Evidence suggests that more and more frequently religious minorities are subject to arrest under accusation of un-Islamic activities, and the Baha'i fair even worse. Members of the Baha'i faith are not afforded any protections, and their religion has been deemed un-Islamic under Iranian law, and indeed actually illegal.
There is a lot of religious discrimination in the Irani penal code. For example, if a Muslim is murdered, the perpetrator is subject to the crime of retaliation, but if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, the killer may simply pay blood money to the victim's family to cure the “debt”. As is the case in a number of fundamentalist Islamic countries, an attempt to convert from Islam is punishable by death.
Let me now talk about women's rights, because women, as a minority, are heavily suppressed, and as a result of high expectations placed on them by the Islamic code, they are targeted more heavily. While there are a number of women serving in the legislature, this does not accurately reflect the status of women. In addition, the application of Iranian laws to women is a violation of international human rights law.
Women are actually afforded few rights independent of their husbands. They can't travel without permission. The testimony of two women in a court equates to that of one man. The blood money paid to the family of a female victim of a crime is half the sum of a man. The morality police often beat women in the streets for acts such as dressing immodestly, wearing cosmetics, or associating with unmarried men.
Women receive far more severe punishments than men convicted of the same crime. For example, men who commit rape may not receive any punishment at all, yet women who are accused of being impure, or even worse in the event of rape, can be indeed sentenced to death. Even worse is the treatment of women while imprisoned, where rape, and particularly the rape of virgins, is a widely practised set of activities by prison guards.
In addition, female and male human rights activists are persecuted for the greater pursuit of freedom for women in Iran. Most recently, earlier this month, security forces in Iran attacked and broke up a gathering of hundreds of people marking International Women's Day.
Let me now talk about murder, torture, and inhumane treatment by Iranian officials.
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, it's estimated that more than 120,000 political executions have been committed by the regime. The number of prisoners in Iran is alarming and on the rise, and the number of people in Iranian custody is appalling and consequently widely condemned. For example, in December 2004, when a group of journalists publicly testified about their torture and warrantless arrests, they were threatened by the country's chief prosecutor with bodily harm to both them and their families.
There is also little justice for victims of torture and for subsequent “accidental deaths” that often occur during interrogations. Iran ranks, according to a major human rights group, at the top of the list “with respect to the number of executions in the country”.
More distressing, however, is the inhumane methods of execution, such as hanging, crucifixion, and stoning. Stoning is often a punishment for a crime being compatible with chastity and it is governed by the very specific guidelines under the Iranian penal code. For example, under article 104, the stones are supposedly supposed to be “not large enough to kill a person by one or two strikes”. The intention of this specification is to ensure that a person does not die immediately, but instead suffers a long and painful death.
Despite numerous complaints and charges by the United Nations and from around the world, Iran continues to commit these gross violations of human rights.
Lastly, let me talk about threats and incitement to genocide, before coming to some concluding recommendations.
Over the last several years, senior Iranian government officials have publicly and repeatedly called for the destruction of the State of Israel, which I believe is a violation of Iran's obligation under the genocide convention, to which they are a party. Specifically, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly called for the destruction of Israel. The quote was, “As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map.” If there's any doubt as to his intentions, President Ahmadinejad has presided over a parade through the streets with a Shahab-3 missile draped with a banner saying Israel should be wiped off the map. Ahmadinejad has repeated this statement on more than ten occasions between 2005 and 2007. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei said, “There is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Jewish state.” There are a number of other examples that I provide in my testimony.
Based on the repeated and public statements from the most senior Iranian government officials inciting genocide against the Jews in Israel, there's been a public call by many people, including members of this committee, for a case to be filed against Iran in the International Court of Justice under the state-to-state complaint procedure for its violations of the genocide convention, and here in Canada the major Jewish human rights organization, B'nai Brith Canada, has called on the Government of Canada to file this case.
I've only really briefly described in the context of this short testimony the range of abuses taking place by the Iranian regime. What I think is most unfortunate is the fact that while the world focuses on the nuclear question, the people of Iran continue to suffer substantially under their own leaders. Given the impunity with which they operate, it is very difficult to influence their behaviour, but as Professor Akhavan noted, their behaviour can be influenced. I agree as well with Professor Akhavan that Canada is well positioned to keep pressure on the Government of Iran. Specifically, I would recommend that Canada consider taking the following actions.
One, use its membership in the Human Rights Council to raise the issue of Iran to fight efforts by countries in the council to eliminate country-specific resolutions and rapporteurs. To date, the Human Rights Council has sadly had a virtually exclusive focus on Israel. I was in Geneva just last week at the Human Rights Council and was very heartened to see the representative of Canada actively participating in the discussions, standing up on behalf of the State of Israel, as well as raising deep concerns about the human rights abuses in a number of other countries that were being discussed during my visit.
Second, call on members of the Security Council to broaden their discussion on the situation in Iran to not focus just on the nuclear weapons but to look at their incitement to genocide as a potential threat to international peace and security. They could even consider referring the case to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. While that likely would not happen, given the ability of a number of members of the council to veto, I do believe that having Canada raise this question to members of the Security Council would be very helpful.
Canada could also initiate a state-to-state complaint under the genocide convention, as I mentioned, and should continue to speak out publicly about the ongoing abuses of human rights in Iran, which it has done and should continue to do.
Lastly, continue to cooperate with UN agencies in the international community to apply further pressure on Iran.
I don't think there are many Iranians who are particularly pleased with being ruled by the mullahs in power in the country. Indeed, when I talked to many Iranians who have recently visited Iran or who have emigrated to the United States or Canada, most people say they actually despise the mullahs. Ultimately, I think we do need to look at alternative ways to embrace democratic forces within Iran and among exile communities to keep the pressure on the Government of Iran. Ultimately, I think the foundation of their entire system is based on a perversion of Islam, and I think in the long run it is only by supporting those who are capable of speaking to the Iranian people in a language they understand and appreciate that we will see a change in their government and, ultimately, greater freedom and democracy in human rights for all the Iranian people.
Thanks a lot.
Ms. Nazanin Afshin-Jam (Human Rights Activist - Stop Child Executions Campaign, As an Individual):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you members of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
I'm going to put more of a human face on the examples that were given today to illustrate the brutality of the human rights violations that are committed in Iran.
Last March I received an e-mail from a complete stranger in Paris telling me the story of Nazanin Fatehi in Iran. Nazanin Fatehi is a 17-year-old girl who was in a park with her 15-year-old niece last year when three men attempted to attack and rape them. Out of self-defence, Nazanin stabbed one of these men. Instead of being treated as a victim of attempted rape, she was tried as a criminal and sentenced to death by hanging by the courts of the Islamic Republic.
I was appalled by the story when I first heard about this and by the fact that no news agencies were really picking up the story because they said it wasn't newsworthy, that it was too commonplace. I decided to start a campaign, first with a petition that now has over 350,000 signatures. Then I lobbied different international bodies like the Canadian Parliament, the European Union, the United Nations, and finally the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour. She reminded Iran of their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran itself signed. It states that Iran is obliged to not execute anyone under the age of 18.
The combined efforts of the international community, these international bodies, and the pressure forced the Islamic courts to speak. Back in June, the head of the judiciary in Iran, Ayatollah Shahrudi, granted a stay of execution for Nazanin and ordered a complete new retrial.
The retrial just happened this January, where five judges who were presiding over the case recognized this as a case of self-defence. They exonerated Nazanin of all murder charges, and on January 31, Nazanin was released from prison.
I'm highlighting this case because on the one hand I want it to act as a symbol of the far greater human rights violations that exist in Iran in the plight of women. On the other hand, I want to show before the subcommittee here today that when there is international pressure and action by governments of countries like Canada, these efforts really do make a difference and force the Islamic Republic to speak and answer to their own people.
I am only one person and I was able to rally many people, so I can only imagine what the Canadian government could do toward saving thousands of lives and “rescuing” the people of Iran who are imprisoned by a system they don't agree with.
I'm not here as a political analyst; I'm here as a sort of unofficial representative of the Iranian people. Since this campaign I have received thousands of e-mails from Iranians, both within Iran and in the diaspora, letting me know about their pain and suffering and their specific examples of different brutalities they've experienced under the regime. I'm trying to be their voice today to bring their messages to you and hopefully to offer some of their solutions.
One of these examples I'm talking to you about is the case of a young couple, Azita Shafaghat and her husband, who escaped Iran. They were imprisoned in the student uprisings in 1999. They left the country via Iraq and went to Turkey. They were trying to get to Greece where Azita's family lives. The Greek authorities caught them, because they were there illegally, and deported them back to Turkey where they spent nine months in prison. They have just been released, and the UNHCR is going to be giving them a third country to enter.
I want to highlight this case because Azita and her husband have converted to Christianity, so if they were to be deported back to Iran they would suffer grave consequences--potentially the death sentence. That's one example.
Another example is the case of Zahra Kamalfar and her two children. I must commend the Canadian government for recently offering asylum to Zahra Kamalfar and her children. They were living in a hallway in the airport in Moscow for over a year because they didn't want to get deported back to Iran. When the Russian authorities tried to deport them back, Zahra Kamalfar and her daughter tried to commit suicide. For them to take such measures shows you how brutal the regime back home must be.
Another case is Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who's now living in Washington, D.C. He was subjected to white torture. He was confined in a white room, a cell, for about eight months. The lights were always on. He was served white rice on a white piece of paper, and the guards who would bring him this food would wear silent-proof shoes; it's just to act on the sensibilities of the person and to disorient them. It's a form of torture. These are just some of the examples.
Just a few days ago I learned of another woman, who is actually Canadian. I won't say her name right now because it hasn't been broadcast in the media and nobody knows about it. These are official documents, so I want to keep it quite private. She's a documentary filmmaker. She went to Iran, and they've imprisoned her. She's now out on bail of $120,000 until the Persian new year passes, and then she's going to have to return. I presented this to DFAIT yesterday, and they're going to be looking into the case.
This doesn't just involve Iranians within Iran; it affects Canadians as well. That gave me kind of a chilling reminder of the case of Zahra Kazemi, which Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out.
It is mostly only in the last 27 years, since the Iranian revolution happened, that we're seeing such brutality and such violations of human rights. Only a small minority of fundamentalist Islamic rulers control the 70 million population. I want to again reiterate the fact that President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are not the representatives of the people; the people themselves do not agree with the principles of these rulers.
I'm here today to encourage Canada to be a leader in paving a way for a new Iran and a new solution. Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out that Canada should not take either of the extremes. Canada should not take the extreme of some of the recommendations that our U.S. neighbours have been proposing for military intervention, because ultimately that would rally the Iranian people around Ahmadinejad--despite the fact that they don't want to--because they'll feel their territorial sovereignty is being attacked and they'll want to retaliate.
On the other hand, we don't want to practise appeasement, as the Europeans have. The Europeans have been for years offering dialogue with the Iranian officials, and that basically legitimizes the Iranian officials. It's saying that they do represent the people, and they do not.
The middle ground is the way I feel Canada should be directed. I'm not just saying it out of my own personal belief; many Iranian scholars from around the world have been saying the same thing, which is that the only solution is to support the Iranian people from within, to support the civil rights movements and in particular the women's movements and the youth movement, by encouraging them to act in non-violent civil disobedience, trying to bring change for a new democratic Iran.
We've seen similar cases, like the coloured revolutions of eastern Europe and South Africa and Latin America. This is the new way. I think Canada can really be a leader in this field.
The question is, are Iranians ready? What do they want? I say absolutely yes; they are ready and they've been wanting this for years. They want democracy. They want freedom. They want rule of law. They want a constitution based on human rights. They want economic opportunity, and they want the separation between religion and the state.
Again, who will rise up to the occasion? I say it's going to be the youth and the women's rights movement and the labour movement.
I say youth because, as Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out, 70% of the population is under the age of 30, and they yearn for nothing more than their democracy and freedom. At 70,000, there are more Persian blogs than any others besides English. They're constantly chatting back and forth with the west. They want modernity. They want to be free.
An example of their courage occurred back in 1999, as I said, in the student protests of July 9. Thousands of youth gathered and demanded their freedoms, and thousands were imprisoned and tortured. There are still some of those political prisoners in prison today from seven or eight years ago.
Not too long ago, a group of students held a picture of Ahmadinejad upside down. They were burning the picture and chanting, “Down with the dictator”. This represents what they're really feeling. Despite the fact that they may face these consequences of torture and imprisonment, they're still rising up.
It's the same with the women. Women have always played a strong role in civil society in Iran. They're a very strong movement. They're very highly educated. About 65% or 70% of university students in Iran are women, unlike in some of their neighbouring countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, where women have been repressed for hundreds of years, and they're used to a subservient lifestyle.
Again, it's only in the last 27 years that women's rights have been taken away. In 1935 women had their emancipation laws, and they were practising equality. But this equality has been taken away. Their human rights have been taken away. Under sharia law, the life of a woman is worth half that of a man in blood money. In terms of custody cases, the father gets custody of the children. In divorce cases and under inheritance laws, men and women not treated equally.
What else can I say?
Women are not afraid to step up to this gender apartheid. Just last June, hundreds of women gathered to protest and to demand equal rights. There's a huge campaign that was started by 50 of the most prominent women's rights activists in Iran. It's a campaign in Iran called “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws”. They've played a significant part in expanding the ideas of democracy. These women go outside of the city centre of Tehran and train other women in the villages and other cities to become empowered, to voice their concerns, and to want equality.
In March of this year, a few days before International Women's Day, about 50 women gathered in solidarity for the four women who were arrested in last year's women's gathering. They were holding up placards that read, “We have the right to assembly”. Thirty of these women were arrested. In about a week's time, they were let out of prison, but two of them remained in solitary confinement up until a couple of days ago. One of these women was Shadi Sadr, who was Nazani Fatehi's lawyer, who I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation. They were released on $200,000 bail. They will have to return, and they may face consequences of two to five years' imprisonment for breaching national security, or they may even be sentenced to death. That's how serious these condemnations are.
My point is that the youth and the women are willing and ready to stand up. They simply need the support of the international community. They need the support of the Canadian government. They need the support of international bodies. That is the only way we will be able to change the system from within and bring peace and security not only to the people of Iran but to the neighbouring regions and to Canadians as well.
So what can Canada do specifically? I don't know if you've received a page I sent you, with some of the things Canada can do specifically. I won't read all of them, but I'll highlight a few.
Other than supporting the dissidents, I strongly suggest that Canada condemn the brutal ongoing human rights atrocities committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and specifically call for the immediate release of political prisoners and a moratorium on the executions of child offenders. As an aside, Iran is the only country in the world that continues to execute minors, and there are about 25 minors right now on death row in Iran. Canada should call for an end to the practice of stoning and call for fair trials and rights to lawyers.
Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out the need for targeted sanctions against Iran, with a specific note not to harm the people within.
We should monitor Canadian-Iranian trade relations and Iranian investments in Canada. I have received complaints from people in my own community in Vancouver that Canada is letting in a lot of dirty money from these mullahs, who are buying mansions in Vancouver and throughout Canada. I've heard that Rafsanjani has invested quite a bit of his money here in Canada. So, specifically, Canada should freeze the assets and personal accounts of these corrupt Iranian officials who have invested abroad.
High-level Iranian officials associated with human rights violations should be prosecuted in an international tribunal. Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out the need to arrest Saeed Mortazavi.
We should also give a voice to Iranian dissidents in Iran; invite them to your subcommittee to hear some of their voices, including lawyers or labour union leaders, or some of the youth leaders and other experts on Iranian issues.
Then we should engage in track two diplomacy, providing funding for political dissidents, labour unions and human rights activists, and grants to different NGOs here in Canada, to work alongside with NGOs in Iran. It would be great to provide funding to those in Iran, but again, I add the side note that we need to be careful, because if they receive money from abroad, they could be deemed spies and be imprisoned. It has to be very, very carefully done.
Also Canada should provide educational scholarships, fellowships, exchanges, and offers of workshops to Iranian people to come here to Canada. Another complaint I've received is that Canada oftentimes doesn't allow the spouses of people who come here for educational purposes to come here too; these people want their spouses to be able to come here.
We should allow more refugees from Iran into the country, and we should orchestrate a team of observers with other UN members to investigate and inspect prisons and the treatment of prisoners in Iran.
We should demand that the RCMP start a file on the prosecution of Zahra Kazemi.
Lastly, Canada should encourage a UN-regulated referendum in Iran, in which people can decide how they want to be ruled.
Canada should not invest in the current regime because its collapse is inevitable. By promoting democracy in Iran, we are investing in peace and stability in the entire region, which again inevitably affects Canadians.
I'm just going to end by reading the testimony of a political prisoner in Iran named Valiollah, summarizing what I've been talking about:
||I truly believe that freedom, democracy and justice are as vital to human life as the air one breathes. I thus permit myself to ask you not to abandon our just fight against the oppressive regime of the mullahs. I also have a few words for the leaders and minions of the regime: we will never resign ourselves to the ignominy of surrendering to your repressive dictatorship, even if it will cost us our lives.
Prof. Payam Akhavan:
Yes. The question, if I may say, from Professor Cotler is very intriguing. I will try to be as succinct as possible.
In terms of targeted sanctions, I think the nuclear sanctions are already beginning to focus, for instance, on travel bans and asset freezes.
My distinguished colleague, Ms. Afshin-Jam, spoke about repeated allegations in the Iranian community that Canada is the destination of choice for money laundering, laundering of vast amounts of wealth that are the proceeds of corruption, the proceeds of crime. We now have a UN convention against corruption, and we should understand that we actually have considerable leverage because Canada is a destination of choice for Iranian immigrants. We need to send the message that while we welcome Iranian immigrants, we will not allow Canada to become a haven for the proceeds of crime and for those who have been implicated in human rights violations.
I think we should begin first by setting our own house in order by enhancing intelligence-gathering about movement of funds and movement of individuals. Then, having set that precedent, perhaps we can encourage the discussions in the United Nations, including my colleague Mr. Genser's recommendation that in the Security Council we begin to link the nuclear issue to the human rights situation within Iran and encourage the extension of targeted sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes to also include elements of the leadership implicated in crimes against humanity.
I want to add that Human Rights Watch recently issued a report called “Cabinet of Murder”, which implicated at least two ministers within the cabinet of President Ahmadinejad in crimes against humanity, including the mass execution in 1988 of some 4,000 leftist prisoners in Iran.
In terms of track two diplomacy, one of the problems is that the United States has monopolized this issue. This has become a sort of kiss of death for civil society in Iran, as personified in the arrest of Ramin Jahanbegloo this summer. The regime simply points to anyone calling for non-violent resistance as some sort of agent of U.S. espionage.
I think we need to think not only in terms of criticizing the U.S. but of looking critically at why the Canadians and Europeans have also not stepped forward in order to have a multilateral approach that supports and empowers civil society in Iran. I think we need to think creatively and understand, for instance, that women's organizations in Canada, as Ms. Afshin-Jam said, can do a lot to empower women's organizations in Iran. Labour unions in Canada can do a lot in terms of solidarity technical support with labour unions in Iran.
I'm former war crimes prosecutor for Yugoslavia. Let us not forget, NATO bombs did not bring down Slobodan Miloševic. It was a massive display of people power. The Velvet Revolution, one million people, largely labour unions and students, made it impossible for Slobodan Miloševic to continue to reign, and it was the war crimes tribunal in The Hague that made it impossible for him to recycle himself and to make a political comeback.
So track two diplomacy I think has to perhaps avoid the tensions that exist at the governmental level by allowing civil society within Canada to partner with civil society in Iran. I just want to note that a significant development was when the bus drivers in Tehran recently went on strike and the AFL-CIO in the United States expressed its support of that movement. That was a very significant endorsement.
Finally, there is the question of what I understand to be exceptions to sovereign immunity before Canadian courts. It's a well-established principle of international law that sovereign immunity does not apply to commercial activities. The question is why, having accepted that in our law in Canada, we cannot now extend that to human rights violations and acts of terrorism.
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in the United States--and my colleague Mr. Genser will be in a better position to address that--expressly contains human rights exceptions to the point that if a state has been engaged in torture, in certain serious human rights violations, foreign sovereign immunity no longer applies. I see no reason why we in Canada cannot adopt a similar legislation that gives effect to fundamental norms of human rights, rather than making sovereign immunity a kind of taboo that somehow should trump every other norm.
The argument that this will somehow create a Pandora's box, some sort of uncontrollable situation, I think, is unreasonable. We see in the United States that the judicial system has very adequately been able to deal with these situations, and that it has had significant effect by sending the message once again that you cannot hide behind the shield of sovereignty if you've engaged in terrorism, if you've engaged in serious human rights abuses.
Prof. Payam Akhavan:
If I may briefly interject, we need to appreciate that the Islamic Middle East is a highly diverse society. The parallels between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with due respect, are quite inapposite. They are completely different societies. Saudi Arabia has a conservative brand of Islam. It's a society that was largely Bedouin some generations ago.
As Ms. Afshin-Jam explained, until the 1979 revolution, Iranian women included among themselves nuclear physicists, judges, politicians, and ministers. There was a 1967 Family Protection Act in Iran that essentially liberalized sharia law in terms of child custody and divorce. If you speak with Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize laureate, you will see that what Iranian women have done since 1979 is try to go back piece by piece to where the law stood in 1967.
We should also understand the reality that Iranian women are at the forefront of the democratic movement. Of course, we all know about Shirin Ebadi, but there are many other women one can speak about. The fact that the government went out of its way to put all of these women in prison on International Women's Day is a sign of the ominous threat they represent to the patriarchal, autocratic structures they are putting in place.
The other mistake, I believe, is to look at Islam or any other culture as an artifact in a museum, something we study as if it is static or never changing. Islam, like any other religious or cultural system, is evolving. It's going through the dislocations of the transition from tradition to modernity.
In Europe in the 18th century, people were punished in the streets of Paris by being quartered by horses and by being impaled. Are we to say that is the authentic European tradition that we must preserve at all costs? That's absolute nonsense. In the same way, there is a doctrine of severability in constitutional law. We can sever parts of Islam that may have been appropriate a thousand years ago but which clearly are not appropriate today. There is a transcendent universal message that is more important in terms of understanding the core of those teachings.
In that respect, there is not a single immutable, incontestable interpretation of Islam. There are Islamic feminists who believe patriarchy is a completely man-made invention that has been imported into Islamic traditions, and then there are secular feminists who believe one shouldn't have to worry about Islam at all. So here is the multiplicity of voices, and we need to engage all of them.
On the Velvet Revolution question and whether it can be suppressed, yes, perhaps it can be, but only temporarily. The situation in China, of course, is considerably different. It has a population of 1.3 billion, and the question of control and stability understandably gives rise to a very different reality. In Iran, you don't have a population that is overwhelmingly rural. You have a very different reality.
The point is that at the end of the day, even if you can suppress political freedoms, the economic wants of the people cannot be suppressed, because most revolutions are ultimately about bread-and-butter issues. The government bureaucrat who wakes up in the morning in Tehran says, “I have to drive a taxi, work in a bakery, and sell things on the street to be able to afford my rent, while Mr. Rafsanjani lives in a magnificent palace and mansion in a revolution that was supposed to be about the poor people.”
At the end of the day, the fourth-largest exporter of oil in the world cannot provide a basic standard of living for its people. Increasing numbers of people are sinking into abject poverty, with some of the highest rates of drug abuse and prostitution. There are incredible social woes in Iran. It is a time bomb that is going to explode sooner or later, and it may not be because of lofty principles of human rights, but because you cannot govern a modern society based on some kind of incompetent and corrupt mullocracy.
There's one final point relating to what Mr. Sorenson said about worsening the situation through international attention. On the whole, I would say that is not the case. The case of the rescue of Nazanin from impending execution is a perfect case in point. Many other women in the position of Nazanin Fatehi were executed in Iran. The fact that she was not executed is solely because of the incredible international attention that was drawn to her cause.
For Ramin Jahanbegloo, initially there was concern that we should try quiet diplomacy in order not to exacerbate the situation. It became very clear, including to immediate members of his family, after quiet diplomacy did not work, that you have to publicize the situation. If the Canadian government had not publicized the situation, if the media had not publicized the situation, he could have had the fate of Zahra Kazemi. The fact that he was only subjected to psychological torture through prolonged solitary confinement, relatively speaking, is a success, because otherwise they would have broken his bones and extracted his fingernails, if I may be so gruesome. That is a reminder that international attention does work. It needs to be applied studiously with great forethought, but at the end of the day, silence is the worst possible option.