(As published in the National Post)
Last June, people around the world wished Canadian permanent resident Saeed Malekpour a happy birthday. The hashtag #HBDSaeed went viral.
Saeed Malekpour is a software engineer – a techie. If he had been able to see the online wave of well-wishers, I am sure he would have been pleased. But Saeed doesn’t have access to basic rights, much less Twitter. For nearly seven years, Saeed has passed every birthday, and every other day, in a cell in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
In 2008, Saeed was a permanent resident of Canada, with a home in Richmond Hill, Ont. He wrote a blog, and was preparing to begin graduate studies at the University of Victoria. But during a trip to Iran to visit his terminally ill father in 2008, Saeed was arrested. He was charged with blasphemy, and accused of developing software subsequently used by a pornographic network. According to a letter he was able to smuggle out of the prison, he was tortured physically and psychologically – whipped with cables, paralyzed with electrical shocks, and thrown for nearly a year in solitary confinement without medical attention. When Saeed’s abusers finally extracted a forced confession, he was sentenced to death.
After four years of heavy pressure from governments and civil society worldwide, Saeed’s sentence was commuted in 2012 to life imprisonment. This progress is proof of the real power of international opinion, even on an authoritarian regime like Iran’s. It is testimony to the importance of naming and shaming individuals and states that violate human rights, democratic freedoms, due process and the rule of law.
Yet this commutation is small consolation to Saeed’s sister Maryam, who now lives in Edmonton, and other members of his family. And it does nothing to remedy the greater problem of a continued pattern of horrific and unacceptable human rights abuses in Iran, and particularly in the Iranian prison and justice systems. Tragically, Saeed’s arrest, sham trial, and illegitimate conviction on charges of blasphemy are far from unique.
Freedom of religion and expression are not just essential elements of democracy: they are non-negotiable and non-partisan principles that Canadians support and expect their elected representatives to defend.
The criminalization and punishment of expression contrary to certain religious interpretations is arbitrary and reprehensible. The imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment in such cases is especially egregious and abhorrent.
In Saeed’s case, this already illegitimate law was stretched to preposterous limits. If pornography is a crime, Saeed did not commit it. He designed and developed software that was then sold on for further use – he did not determine and is not responsible for how that software was used. His conviction would be farcical, perhaps even laughable, were it not so appalling. Yet if we are to hold Saeed responsible, it should be to thank him. Saeed’s work made it easier for everyday people in Iran and around the world to express and share their thoughts and beliefs quickly, creatively and effectively. He made the world a bit more free. In doing so, he ran up against those who seek to curtail that freedom, and to couple repressive practices with regressive policies.
President Rouhani has spoken of the need for “constructive engagement,” and the Iranian people have given him a clear mandate for reform. Yet his administration persists in violating and ignoring its own international legal and human rights obligations. So long as Iran prevents and prohibits the free exercise of free speech, its government cannot and will not be accepted or welcomed in the international community.
Two years ago, I was proud to receive unanimous support from all parties for my parliamentary motion marking the 25th anniversary of the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran. This motion made Canada the first country in the world to officially recognize this mass atrocity for what it was: a crime against humanity. Just as we must remember the crimes of the past, we must speak out and stand up against the crimes of the present.
Saeed Malekpour moved to Canada because he loves this country and what it represents. All Canadians can be proud of what Saeed represents. We must not rest until he is home.
Paul Dewar is the NDP foreign affairs critic and MP for Ottawa Centre.