(As published in the National Post)
In September 2010, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in Iran’s infamous Evin prison. She was charged with “spreading propaganda” and “conspiring to harm state security.”
A 50-year-old mother of two, Ms. Sotoudeh’s real crime appears to have been her life’s dedication to defending the rights of women, opposition activists, politicians and children sentenced to death.
Continuing her protest while incarcerated, Ms. Sotoudeh staged several hunger strikes, apparently prompting a rapid decline in her eyesight. Still, she was repeatedly denied access to adequate health care, barred from family visits, and subjected to solitary confinement. Outside the prison walls, her family was subjected to harassment and travel bans.
Quite unexpectedly, on September 18, 2013, Ms. Sotoudeh and 11 other prominent political prisoners were granted an early release. The move came just days before the first appearance of Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, before the UN General Assembly. Ms. Sotoudeh credited her release to the international pressure generated by a global campaign on her behalf.
For a brief moment, the release of a handful of Iran’s most prominent political prisoners distracted the world’s attention from the thousands of others activists, lawyers, students and journalists who remain behind bars – not to mention the millions of ordinary Iranians who struggle daily under an oppressive and autocratic regime.
As Ms. Sotoudeh reminded us at the time, “I may be free, I may be out of this small prison, but we are all limited and still being circumvented by the big prison, which is the entire country.”
One initiative drawing attention to the estimated 2,600 political prisoners that remain behind bars in Iran is the Iranian Political Prisoner Global Advocacy Project (IPPGAP). Launched by Canadian MP and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk in May 2013, the IPPGAP represents a sustained effort by parliamentarians to advocate on behalf of Iranian political prisoners. By pairing parliamentarians with individual Iranian political prisoners, IPPGAP creates a channel through which the moving and inspirational stories of these brave individuals can be shared – not only during the annual Iran Accountability Week, but throughout the entire year.
As a participant in the IPPGAP since its inception, last year I committed to speaking out and raising awareness about Nasrin Sotoudeh. I spoke about her struggle in the senate and at a press event on Parliament Hill.
This year, I have agreed to highlight the plight of 32-year-old student activist Bahareh Hedayat.
Ms. Hedayat is presently serving a nine-and-a-half year sentence on charges of promoting “propaganda against the regime” and “acting against national security.” This follows the latest in a series of arrests related to Ms. Hedayat’s political activism. The charges stem from her participation in the Green Movement protests that followed Iran’s 2009 presidential elections.
A long-time leader in the Daftar-e Tahkim (“the Office for Strengthening Unity”) student organization and the “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Law” campaign, Ms. Hedayat has exhibited courage and tenacity in the promotion of gender equality and student rights in Iran.
In 2012, Ms. Hedayat was awarded Sweden’s Herald Edelstam Prize. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran also has taken up Ms. Hedayat’s cause. It argues that Article 134 of Iran’s new Islamic Penal Code provides grounds for Ms. Hedayat’s release. Article 134 requires that prisoners charged with multiple crimes serve the sentence attributed to only their most serious offence; in Ms. Hedayat’s case, this was a five year sentence for “acting against national security and publishing falsehoods.”
Instead, Ms. Hedayat, like many other fellow political prisoners, repeatedly has been denied adequate medical treatment – in her case, for gallstones and severe kidney problems developed during her sentence. When Ms. Hedayat staged a hunger strike in December 2010, the authorities responded by limiting visits from her husband. Many common threads connect the stories and experiences of Iran’s political prisoners: neglect of medical needs, limited visitation rights, harassment of family members, unequal application of the law. But the one overarching element is the systemic manner by which Iran’s authorities seek to break the will of their political opponents.
As a parliamentarian committed to the universal principles of human rights, I am proud to use my freedoms and privileges to speak out about those in Iran who, like Ms. Bahareh Hedayat, continue to sacrifice their liberty in the name of human rights, the rule of law and democracy for their fellow Iranians.
Raynell Andreychuk is a Canadian Senator, and a former judge and diplomat.