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Iran Accountability Week – Paul Dewar – A land where ‘blasphemy’ is still a crime

Posted on May 15, 2014

(As published in the National Post)

Last September, I joined with many other Canadians in celebrating the news of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall’s release from Iran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Hamid had spent five years in jail after being arrested on espionage charges and sentenced to death in 2009. He was reportedly abused in prison, and despite being a Canadian citizen he was denied consular visits by Canadian officials. His execution had been considered imminent.

Hamid’s freedom was the result of a concerted campaign of activism by Hamid’s wife, Antonella, his friends and neighbours, and human rights advocacy groups such as Amnesty International.

They worked long and hard to secure Hamid’s safe return. They pressured Canadian and international officials to call for his release. They never gave up hope.

Hamid Ghassemi-Shall’s release was a rare and belated victory for human rights in Iran. Yet many people remain behind Iranian bars on unfounded and illegitimate charges.

Among them is Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian permanent resident.

In 2008, Saeed visited his terminally ill father in Iran. While in the country, he was charged with blasphemy, allegedly tortured in custody to extract a confession, and sentenced to death.

The criminalization of blasphemy is antithetical to freedoms of speech, religion and conscience. It has no place in a contemporary society. The continued existence and punishment of this contrived offence is a barrier, among many unfortunate others, to the integration and acceptance of Iran in the international community.

What’s more, Saeed’s supposed crime was not even of his doing. Software he developed was used by pornographers; the Iranian police may as well have charged any number of people responsible for the invention of the computer, modern operating systems, or the Internet.

Saeed’s conviction is based on an illegitimate conviction for an imaginary crime. There is no justification for this retrograde mockery of a judicial process. As long as Saeed and people like him remain imprisoned in Iran, Canadians will continue to hold the government of Iran responsible for these deplorable transgressions and abuses of human rights.

We must never forget that this pressure can have an impact. Just as domestic and international activism contributed to the release of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, the political and media attention focused on Saeed’s case forced Iranian authorities to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. Slowly but surely, the government of Iran is hearing and responding to the united chorus of condemnation from the international community – and from within Iran.

The Iranian people have made clear, first in the protests of 2009 and then at the ballot box in 2013, that continued repression by the ruling regime will not be tolerated. President Rouhani has been given a mandate to change course. He will not be given a second chance.

Last June, I was proud to receive unanimous support from all parties in the House of Commons for my motion commemorating the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran. The successful adoption of my motion made Canada the first country in the world to officially recognize this mass atrocity as a crime against humanity.

Yet a quarter-century later, unacceptable abuses are still being committed in Iran. Iranians are still being imprisoned, abused and executed for their beliefs, identities and orientations. And despite the limited progress that has been seen on certain issues and specific cases, Iranians are still prevented from exercising their democratic freedoms and enjoying their human rights as required by international law.

These victims of intolerance and oppression are not alone. Canadians stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran in their aspirations for democracy and the rule of a just law. We will continue to stand with them, and speak for them when their voices are unfairly silenced. Our solidarity is based not on shared politics or ideology, but on our shared humanity.

We will not rest until Saeed, and all political prisoners in Iran, are at long last able to go home.

Paul Dewar is the New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for the riding of Ottawa Centre.

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