(As published in the National Post)
Canadian parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have joined together to launch the fourth annual Iran Accountability Week in order to sound the alarm on the toxic convergence of threats posed by the Iranian regime: the nuclear threat, terrorism, incitement to hatred, and particularly, the widespread and systematic violation of human rights.
Our program this year includes hearings of the House of Commons’ Subcommittee on International Human Rights, a public forum on Parliament Hill, press briefings, political prisoner advocacy, and a concluding call to action. Among the participants are Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran; Iranian-Canadian journalist, filmmaker, and former political prisoner Maziar Bahari; and Marina Nemat and Shakib Nasrullah, both former prisoners of conscience at Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.
This year’s Iran Accountability Week occurs at a most propitious time, as the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran have overshadowed – if not sanitized – the Iranian regime’s massive domestic repression.
Indeed, in the shadow of the nuclear negotiations, Iran has been engaged in a horrific execution binge. For example, 43 people were executed in a three-day period in April alone. Moreover, the persecution and prosecution of the Baha’i religious minority have intensified; the criminalization of dissent continues unabated, mocking the recent World Press Freedom Day; and some 900 prisoners of conscience and political prisoners continue to languish in Iranian prisons, many subject to torture and under threat of execution.
Accordingly, a centrepiece of Iran Accountability Week is the Global Iranian Political Prisoner Advocacy Project, whereby MPs and Senators “adopt” political prisoners and engage in sustained public advocacy on their behalf.
This year, I am continuing my advocacy on behalf of the seven imprisoned leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community – known as the “Yaran” – and I have also taken up the case and cause of Ayatollah Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, an imprisoned senior Shiite cleric and long-time advocate for religious freedom in Iran. These prisoners are all representative of the criminalization of religious and ethnic minorities in Iran, and their cases are case studies of Iranian injustice generally speaking.
The Baha’i leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezai, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm – were all sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2008, a virtual death sentence for some given their advanced age. Their conviction and sentence were based on such trumped-up charges as “propaganda against the system,” reminiscent of the old Soviet tactic of “give us the people and we will find the crime.” Indeed, the Iranian regime has made the very membership in and practice of the Baha’i religion a crime in itself.
In effect, the persecution and prosecution of the Yaran is in standing violation of both Iranian law and international treaties to which Iran is a State Party. These violations include: arbitrary, illegal and prolonged detention; torture and illtreatment; false charges such as “spreading corruption on earth” (a capital crime); denial of the right to an effective trial; and hearings devoid of any semblance of due process before a politicized judiciary. Like the Yaran, Ayatollah Boroujerdi is languishing in prison for crimes of conscience, including advocating for religious freedom. He is now in the ninth year of an 11-year prison sentence and is being denied urgent medical care, which is a form of passive execution.
He has advocated for religious freedom, leading benediction ceremonies in the presence of Shiites and Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and the Baha’i. He has advocated for adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling for the abolition of capital punishment and for an end to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment such as torture, stoning and whipping.
And he has advocated for the separation of religion and state and for the cause of universal justice, condemning the abuse of radical and theocratic rule and terror while establishing social welfare centres for helping the poor and disadvantaged. Yet the price of his advocacy has been his own cruel and inhumane treatment during his imprisonment and solitary confinement, and more recently, threats of execution.
The Global Iranian Political Prisoner Advocacy Project seeks to make the case and cause of Iranian political prisoners and prisoners of conscience like the Yaran and Ayatollah Boroujerdi the case and cause of us all. This week, MPs and Senators – and the Canadians we represent – stand in solidarity with them to let them know that they are not alone and that we will not relent until their freedom is secured.
The government of Iran seeks nuclear weapons, sponsors terrorism, spews hateful rhetoric, and tramples the human rights of its own people. For the remarkable and courageous individuals who dare to challenge the regime, telling their stories is the very least we can do.
MP Irwin Cotler is the Liberal Critic for Rights and Freedoms and International Justice, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and emeritus professor of law at McGill University. He co-chairs the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and the Global Iranian Political Prisoner Advocacy Project.