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Irwin Cotler, MP



Iran Accountability Week – Take-note Debate on Human Rights in Iran

Posted on May 5, 2015

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Mr. Chair, I am delighted to join in this take note debate on the situation in Iran.

I want to commend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and for International Human Rights on his remarks this evening, as well as my colleague, the member for Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, with whom I have the pleasure of serving on the foreign affairs subcommittee.

Indeed, this take note debate is a central feature of the fourth annual Iran Accountability Week where Canadian parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have come together to sound the alarm on the toxic convergence of threats posed by the Iranian regime, the nuclear threat, state-sanctioned terrorism, incitement to hatred, and particularly the widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Iran, which will form the basis of my remarks this evening.

Iran Accountability Week this year includes witness testimony before the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights, a public forum on Parliament Hill with former political prisoners Marina Nemat and Shakib Nasrullah, press briefings, political prisoner advocacy, and will conclude with a call to action.

Among the participants are Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran; Iranian Canadian journalist, filmmaker and former political prisoner Maziar Bahari; and experts, some of whom testified today before our foreign affairs subcommittee, such as Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House, and the leaders of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mark Dubowitz and Ali Alfoneh.

This year’s Iran Accountability Week and our take note debate this evening may be said to occur at a most propitious if not precarious moment, as there are the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, which we hope might yet conclude in an effective agreement to prevent a nuclear Iran. These nuclear negotiations thus far have overshadowed, if not sanitized, the Iranian regime’s massive domestic repression, a repression which has not only gone unabated under the leadership of President Rouhani, held out to be the newly elected moderate president of Iran some two years ago but where in fact the massive violations of human rights have in fact intensified.

Indeed, this massive repression, I suggest, should also inform and engage the nuclear negotiations for two reasons: first, the prospect of a rights-violating regime becoming a nuclear break-out state should itself be cause for concern; and second, the ongoing reality of Iran’s repression and its breaches of its international commitments should cause us to question not only the validity but the veracity of any commitments made by the Iranian regime within the framework of the nuclear negotiations.

At this point I will briefly summarize some of those major human rights violations to which I have referred, the corresponding defiance of Iran’s international legal obligations, and the ongoing culture of impunity which underpins these violations.

I will begin at this point with what might be called a dramatic increase, and reference has been made to this by the parliamentary secretary, in the wanton executions in Iran. In fact, we have been witnessing an unprecedented execution binge. Iran not only executes more people per capita than any other country in the world and also leads the world in juvenile executions, but the execution rate, and this has gone unnoticed, has actually escalated under President Rouhani.

In 2014, executions reached their highest level in the last 12 years with some 753 people put to death in 2014 alone, while in 2015 there has been a 20% increase in this wanton rate of execution, where already more than 300 have been executed in the first four months of 2015 alone.


This brings me to the second category of human rights violations. That is the culture of impunity. Time only permits me to give one example, but this example itself is expressive of this culture of impunity. That is the appointment as justice minister of one Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who played a leading role in the 1988 prison massacre which resulted in the execution at the time of thousands of dissidents. Mostafa Pourmohammadi was then presiding over the Evin prison death committee. The appointment of him as justice minister by Rouhani is a scandalous example of the prevailing culture of impunity.

This leads me to the third concern. This is documented by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who will be the guest before our foreign affairs subcommittee this Thursday. It is the widespread and systematic use of both physical and psychological torture, which continues for coercing confessions to justify trumped-up charges and with horrific methods of torture, including whipping, assault, sexual torture including rape, and psychological torture such as prolonged solitary confinement and the like.

This leads me to my fourth category, and time will not permit me to do any more than this one. It is the plight and the pain of political prisoners in Iraq. Indeed, a centrepiece of Iran Accountability Week is the Iranian political prisoners global advocacy project, where members of Parliament adopt, as it were, an Iranian political prisoner and advocate on the prisoner’s behalf.

This year I am continuing my advocacy on behalf of the seven Baha’i leaders. They are now in their seventh year of imprisonment of a 20-year sentence, which with their advanced age is a virtual death sentence. These seven religious leaders have been punished for practising their faith, a right guaranteed under international and Iranian law. Imprisoning the Baha’i leadership is tantamount to putting the Baha’i community as a whole on trial.

The second person on whose behalf I am advocating is the senior Iranian cleric, Dr. Boroujerdi. He is now in his ninth year of imprisonment. At the moment he is at risk of passive execution through the withdrawal of necessary and emergency medical care. He was imprisoned on trumped up charges for doing nothing other than advocating religious freedom in Iran, for advocating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for advocating on behalf of other political prisoners in Iran. For that, he has not only been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced, but he continues to be persecuted in prison for doing nothing other than exercising fundamental freedoms protected under the Iranian constitution and protected under international law.

In conclusion, our Iranian political prisoners global advocacy project seeks to put us in a situation where we not only take up the case and cause of these political prisoners, but by telling their stories, we seek to make it clear internationally to the people of Iran that we stand in solidarity with them, that they are not alone, that we will continue to advocate on their behalf, and that we will not relent in our advocacy until their freedom is secured and Iran itself becomes free.


Hon. Deepak Obhrai (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and for International Human Rights, CPC):

Mr. Chair, I want to thank the hon. member, who is one of the most respected parliamentarians, for fighting for human rights around the world. His work is indeed very valuable. Today he very eloquently gave a very good insight into the situation of human rights abuses in Iran. He spoke about one of the areas which is of major concern to us which is the political prisoners in Iran.

As he knows, only last year, in 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran came to Canada after he released his report. We had an opportunity to meet with him and listen to him about the situation in Iran. I want to inform the member that the UN Special Rapporteur will be coming later this month to Canada and I will be hosting a lunch for him. We will carry on with our conversation in reference to human rights in Iran.

As in his report, the UN Special Rapporteur mentioned that at least 895 prisoners of conscience and political prisoners were reportedly imprisoned in Iran. This includes political activists, religious practitioners, human rights defenders, civic activists, journalists, bloggers and student activists.

I agree with the member that we need to stand up and speak about political prisoners to ensure that they are freed, as he said in his remarks.

About a year ago, at the beginning of 2014, I was in Mongolia at a conference where I met with dissidents from Iran. We talked about how we can use social media to highlight many of the abuses that are taking place inside Iran. As mentioned, the Iranians are imprisoning journalists and have tight control over any kind of dissidence in Iran. However, we feel that through social media and so on, it is possible to get messages to the people in Iran on the situation of human rights and what the international community is doing.

I was wondering whether my good friend knows anything about this area and whether we can co-operate and work together to ensure that this is one of the areas where we can get information to the people inside Iran on what the regime is doing.

Hon. Irwin Cotler:

Mr. Chair, I want to thank the parliamentary secretary for his remarks. Indeed, the whole purpose of our Iranian political prisoners global advocacy project is to get the message out not only in terms of our international global advocacy on their behalf, but also within Iran.

I might add parenthetically that two prisoners who were part of our political prisoners advocacy project taken up by members of Parliament in the House have in fact been freed. One of them is Nasrin Sotoudeh, and the other is Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, who is an Iranian Canadian political prisoner.

Perhaps as a result of this Iran Accountability Week and our advocacy, this may result in the freeing of more political prisoners, but mainly the importance is to put a face, put an identity on this, make their cause our cause, as I said, ensure that they are not alone. Working together as we do across party lines with the government’s initiative and commitment in this regard, we trust we will be able to bring about the freeing of political prisoners, the lessening of their conditions of imprisonment which include at this point torture and the risk of execution, and improve the human condition for political prisoners and others in Iran.


Ms. Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, GP):

Mr. Chair, I also want to thank my friend from Mount Royal for his leadership on this issue.

As part of Iran Accountability Week, I am very proud to be trying to raise awareness about the case of Atena Farghadani. She is a 28-year-old woman, an activist and an artist. She was initially jailed for political cartoons, for relatively mild satire. She has been on a hunger strike. She has been relocated from prison and hospitalized. We are not sure of her status right now. We need to raise awareness of the risks to her health. We do not know if she is alive now. We are championing her cause and calling on all Iranian leadership to ensure that she is safe and to release her.

My question for my hon. friend is, what more should we do? We are having an Iran Accountability Week. We are trying to raise awareness. What concrete steps would he advocate Canada should be taking?

Hon. Irwin Cotler:

Mr. Chair, one of the things that we have been advocating, and that we should be trying to implement, is supporting targeted sanctions against the major Iranian human rights violators who are responsible for, for example, the ordering of complicity in the wanton executions of which I spoke and the massive assaults on human rights, and those responsible for the imprisoning of political prisoners. Put them on notice that they will be held accountable before the law, including sanctions under section 4(1) of the Special Economic Measures Act, for their role in violating the human rights of the Iranian people.

I have a private member’s bill, called the global Sergei Magnitsky justice legislation, which would seek to further bring about the capacity to bring these major Iranian human rights violators to justice. I am working with the government on this, and I hope that it will become government legislation so that we can sanction those in Iran who are responsible for these major criminal human rights violations.

Hon. Judy Sgro (York West, Lib.):

Mr. Chair, again, I want to congratulate my colleague for the tremendous leadership that he has shown on so many files and different cases around the world, but particularly for coming together with other members of the House to start Iranian Accountability Week and to really put the flashlight and be able to showcase some of the violations that continue to happen there.

Many of us on this side of the House are advocating for a variety of individuals. Some of them were involved in the issue of the freedom of press, which does not exist in many of these countries, particularly in Iran. People are jailed quickly for nothing more than trying to send out a message on social media if it is in existence.

One of the other concerns that I would like my colleague to comment on is what happens with these nuclear discussions that are ongoing. The people of Iran are suffering tremendously as a result of the current sanctions that are there. If they are unable to reach a comprehensive agreement, is there anything else that we can do to try to ensure that the agreement is solid one? More importantly, what would we be able to do to help the people of Iran, should these agreement talks fail?

Hon. Irwin Cotler:

Mr. Chair, we need to establish and should have established a linkage between the ongoing nuclear negotiations and the ongoing massive repression. We should not be conducting the nuclear negotiations in terms of business as usual while ignoring, if not thereby sanitizing, the massive domestic repression.

We should make it a priority of Canadian foreign policy and a matter of principle and priority for us, as parliamentarians, to ensure that the human rights situation in Iran remains at the forefront of our national and international human rights agenda. Whether this agreement succeeds, and even more so if does not, whenever we speak of nuclear negotiations, we need to ensure that the human rights situation in Iran remains at the forefront of our concerns as a government, as parliamentarians and as citizens of this country.


Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Mr. Chair, in my earlier remarks this evening, I was summarizing the categories or areas of major human rights violations in Iran, reflective and representative of the state-sanctioned massive domestic repression.

I was discussing three categories: the wanton execution binge, the widespread and systematic torture, and the culture of impunity that underpins it. I will continue where I left off, which was with my discussion of a fourth category of human rights violations, namely the plight and pain of political prisoners. Iran continues to imprison human rights defenders, leaders of religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, artists, trade unionists, students, and leaders of civil society generally, let alone leaders of the political opposition, where the house arrest of 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have entered their fifth year.

Indeed, as Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House, testified today before our foreign affairs subcommittee on international human rights:

    Iran holds at least 1,150 political prisoners, with likely far more, given many Iranian families’ fear of government reprisal if they come forward.

Indeed, as he reported, a prominent human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, was charged just last Friday with crimes against the state, the punishment for peaceful advocacy in favour of the abolition of the death penalty, a courageous challenge to the wanton executions in Iran.

Accordingly, as I mentioned earlier, as part of the Iranian political prisoner global advocacy project, I am continuing my advocacy on behalf of the seven imprisoned leaders of the Baha’i community, known as the Yaran, and have also taken up the case of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, an imprisoned senior Shiite cleric and long-time advocate for religious freedom in Iran.

These prisoners are representative of the criminalization of religious freedom in Iran and are also case studies of Iranian injustice, generally speaking.

It is important to name the Baha’i leaders. Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm were all sentenced, as I mentioned earlier, to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2008, a virtual death sentence given the advanced age of many.

Their convictions and sentences 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 ill treatment; 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 where he has led benediction ceremonies in the presence of Shiites and Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and 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.

He has advocated for the separation of religion and state, and for the cause of universal justice, condemning thereby 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, as for so many of the other political prisoners, has been his own cruel and inhumane treatment during his imprisonment in solitary confinement, and more recently threats of execution.


As we have heard this evening, 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 and taking up their case and cause is the very least we can do.

I will move now to a fifth category, which is the criminalization of freedom of expression, a mocking and criminal rejoinder to the just celebrated World Press Freedom Day.

While the Iranian regime continues to espouse principles of free speech and free press, and while the Iranian foreign minister, in the course of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, said just last month that nobody is imprisoned in Iran for expressing their opinion, any rhetorical commitment is mocked by the reality of the criminalization of speech. Indeed, Amnesty International reported a sharp rise in arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment of independent journalists in Iran that signals the authority’s utter determination to crush hopes for increased freedom.

Indeed, as described in the recent report “Internet in Chains: The Front Line of State Repression in Iran”, released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the Iranian national police force includes a designated cybercrime unit which is tasked with monitoring the online activities of civil and political activists and were responsible for the investigation and ultimately the arrest of Sattar Beheshti, who was tortured and died in custody. According to the report, cyberpolice continue to pressure Internet providers to provide them with evidence of online political activism.

In a word, and indeed as Mark Lagon testified today, Iran’s media and online environment are among the most repressive in the world. Among the 65 countries studied for the Freedom on the Net report, Iran is ranked at the very bottom. Simply put, authorities restrict online access to information through control of Internet infrastructure, extensive website filtering, rampant surveillance, and systematic arrests. Millions of websites, including Facebook and Twitter, remain blocked for Iranian citizens while the president, cabinet officials, and the supreme leader use social media to connect to the world.

Last fall, Iran’s supreme court upheld the death sentence of 30-year-old blogger Soheil Arabi for a Facebook post deemed insulting to religious sanctity. Other online offenders were sentenced to between 7 and 20 years for blogging for a technology website contributing to a Sufi website and Facebook post deemed blasphemous to the regime.

That brings me, very quickly, to a sixth category, and that is the continued repression of workers and trade unionists.

Simply put, independent labour unions continue to be banned and those who participate in protests are fired or summoned to court and subject to arrest. At least 230 people were arrested in peaceful labour protests over the past year, and nearly 1,000 were fired in February 2015 for participating in peaceful labour protests. As well, five labour leaders were arrested on the eve of International Workers Day.

Finally, reference has been made to this in the discussion this evening and so I will not elaborate, but I am referring here to an important and compelling category of human rights violations, and that is the ongoing repression of women.

Despite article 20 of the Iranian constitution purporting to protect gender equality and despite affirmations for human rights for women by Iranian leaders, Iranian women face widespread and systematic discrimination in many areas of life.

For example, under the Iranian civil code, women are unable to leave the country without their husband’s consent. They can be forced into non-consensual sexual relations in marriage. As well, we are witnessing an increasing incidence of child, early and forced marriage. Vicious acid attacks against women continue to go unpunished. Pending legislation restricts the hours during which women are allowed to work, creating a hierarchy for public sector hiring that further marginalizes women.

Pending legislation would empower employers and members of religious militia to enforce the government’s conservative dress code for women, curb the use of modern contraceptives, outlaw voluntary sterilization, and dismantle state-funded family planning programs.


Since 2013, authorities have banned women from 77 fields of study, effectively reversing hard-line educational achievement. Regrettably, rather than sanctioning Iran, UN members elected Iran to the UN women agency board, effectively promoting a culture of impunity and gender discrimination.

I will close by saying that I would hope that the take note debate this evening will not only further the case and cause of those imprisoned and heroic persons in Iran, but at the same time, will advance the case and cause of human rights in Iran, of democracy and liberty, and thereby, we in Canada will have made a modest contribution to the struggle for human rights as a whole.


Mrs. Anne-Marie Day (Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, NDP):

Mr. Chair, I really appreciated some aspects of of my colleague’s speech. I would like to hear what he has to say about the labour movement, which is an indicator of change, regulation and influence among populations.

In his opinion, could the labour movement in Iraq help advance human rights and democracy?

Hon. Irwin Cotler:

Mr. Chair, yes, but the massive repression in Iran also includes repression of workers.

As I said, over the past year in particular, workers have suffered serious repression. That is another form of state repression that is taking place as we speak.

Ms. Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet (Hochelaga, NDP):

Mr. Chair, how does my wise colleague perceive the diplomatic role Canada should play in encouraging more reforms in Iran?

Hon. Irwin Cotler:

Mr. Chair, that should be one of our priorities and part of our foreign policy regarding human rights and international justice.

For us, as parliamentarians, the issue of human rights in Iran should be more than just a principle; it should also be a priority in our foreign policy.


Mrs. Carol Hughes (Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, NDP):

Mr. Chair, I want to elaborate a little more on the comments of my colleague who asked a question about the labour movement. It is important to reiterate a comment that was made by Mansour Osanloo. He is a well-known Iranian labour activist. He stated:

    The labor movement has a deep impact on the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran, and as the labor movement grows, it benefits the struggle for democracy and freedom…. The movement of workers as the builders of society, will inevitably push that society towards democracy.

I really appreciate the fact that the member has indicated that the Government of Canada also needs to engage somehow and work toward having the Government of Iran ensure that it has democracy. The people of Iran have not given up, nor should they, and we should not give up on them either. That is really important.

I am wondering if the member could indicate the important role that a government, especially the Government of Canada, has in working to ensure that there is some work being done to encourage more reforms in Iran.


Hon. Irwin Cotler:

Mr. Chair, as I indicated, the Government of Canada needs to make the question of combatting human rights violations in Iran a major human rights priority. We have across both Liberal and Conservative governments taken the lead in passing an annual resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning human rights violations in Iran and in proposing actionable approaches in that regard.

As I said earlier, I think we need to go further to expressly sanction the major human rights violators in Iran and to do so through our SEMA legislation. We need to pass global emergency Magnitsky legislation, such as that now before the American Congress and European parliaments, and put Iranian human rights violators on notice that they will be held to account, that there will be travel bans and asset seizures, that there will be punitive sanctions taken, and that this will be mainstreamed as part of our foreign policy, which we will affirm and assert internationally as we do here domestically this evening.