When Iranian president Hassan Rouhani assumed office last summer, the world watched with anticipation. Rouhani had talked a great game. He spoke of moderation, reform, gender equality and greater tolerance for Iran’s religious minorities. “The rights of the people … in a free Iran” were to reign supreme.
Unfortunately, the great hopes of the international community were dashed. The anticipation was shortlived. Abuses against religious and ethnic minorities have continued. Executions have continued. The arbitrary detention of political prisoners continues unabated.
Iran’s leaders present a new facade to the world. But it has not changed the punishing reality for thousands of political prisoners in Iran. How can a country that sentences Christians to lashes for drinking wine during communion purport to be moderate and tolerant? For Pastor Saeed Abedini, whom I wrote about on these pages last year during Iran Accountability Week, the outlook has only worsened.
A 33-year old Christian pastor, Pastor Abedini was arrested in September 2012, beaten and later sentenced to eight years in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. An American and Iranian dual citizen, Pastor Abedini was deemed “a national security threat” for peacefully observing his Christian faith.
Early in his sentence, following weeks in solitary confinement, the guards at Evin released Pastor Abedini into the general prison population. That allowed Al-Qaeda thugs to beat him regularly while guards turned a blind eye. After little more than a year of his sentence, Pastor Abedini’s health has deteriorated so much from the recurring beatings that he has now been hospitalized.
Last month, Pastor Abedini released an Easter letter to the world from his hospital bed – through his wife, Naghmeh. She bravely continues to speak out for the Christians, Jews and Baha’i people who are being imprisoned in Iran because of their beliefs.
Sadly, Pastor Abedini and his family are not alone. Thousands of Iranian minorities continue to be persecuted. This was documented in a report issued in March 2014 by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed.
In his report, Shaheed cited many concerns, including at least 895 prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Iranian jails – noting that these prisoners are regularly beaten and subjected to psychological torment. His report also noted the high rate of execution in Iran and the frequent intimidation of lawyers acting in defence of wrongly imprisoned clients.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, expressed grave concern upon reading Shaheed’s report. Minister Baird noted the long list of human rights concerns listed – from arbitrary detention, to torture and lack of judicial independence. In particular, the ongoing persecution of the Baha’i people in Iran was a cause for great concern. The entire Baha’i leadership is now imprisoned, and more than 200 Baha’i have been executed.
Pastor Abedini’s Easter message was a message of Christian hope and reflection. We must be inspired by his courage. We must continue to call on Iran’s leaders to make real, concrete and lasting reforms.
David Sweet is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale and a member of the House of Commons Sub-committee on International Human Rights. He is among a group of Canadian Parliamentarians participating in Iran Accountability Week (May 8 to 15) to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses in Iran.