Evidence of meeting #32 for Subcommittee on International Human Rights in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was iran.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Susanne Tamás  Director, Office of Governmental Relations, Bahá'í Community of Canada
  • Payam Akhavan  Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University, As an Individual

April 24th, 2012 / 1:10 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Let me gavel us into session.

This is the International Human Rights Subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. Today's date is April 24, 2012 and this is our 32nd meeting.

We are continuing to look at the human rights situation in Iran. We are engaged in a process of updating some hearings we did a few years ago on the subject.

With us today are two witnesses: Susanne Tamás, from the Bahá'í Community of Canada; and Payam Akhavan, a professor from McGill University, who is joining us today from New York.

Given the noise and confusion going on, it will be easier for the witness who is present in the room to start, rather than Professor Akhavan.

Ms. Tamás, can you begin your testimony first? We'll go to Professor Akhavan after you. Then we'll go to questions.

Ms. Tamás, please feel free to begin.

1:10 p.m.

Susanne Tamás Director, Office of Governmental Relations, Bahá'í Community of Canada

Mr. Chair and distinguished members, thank you for the invitation to comment on developments in the religious persecution of the Bahá'ís of Iran since our testimony on the subject on February 26, 2009.

As anticipated in your report, “Ahmadinejad's Iran”, and as documented by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other civil society organizations, the general human rights situation in Iran and that of the Bahá'ís in particular has deteriorated markedly over the interim.

Three developments illustrate this trend: the trial and treatment of the Bahá'í leadership; the coordinated attacks on the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education, the BIHE; and the increasing rate of arrests and arbitrary detention.

First I have a few words about the context within which these developments have occurred. In its 2012 report on the expanding repression of dissent in Iran, Amnesty International noted that, “Non-Muslims, especially the Baha'i community, have been increasingly demonized by Iranian officials and in the Iranian state-controlled media”, and that, “repeated calls by the Supreme Leader and other authorities to combat 'false beliefs'—apparently an allusion to evangelical Christianity, Baha'ism and Sufism—appear to have led to an increase in religious persecution”.

This document, published by the Bahá'í International Community, catalogues 360 articles in print and online media and 58 seminars, conferences, and workshops that incited hatred against the Bahá'ís of Iran between January 2010 and May 2011. It also describes the inclusion of allocations for educational programs to confront the Bahá'í faith in national and provincial budgets, and the establishment of official organs for this purpose. The Iranian government has, in effect, institutionalized incitement to hatred against the members of this religious community, allowing it to persecute Bahá'ís with impunity.

Let us now turn to the trial and treatment of the seven Bahá'ís who served on an ad hoc group that looked after the spiritual and social needs of the community at the national level. Following their arrest on May 14, 2008, Iranian authorities declared the ad hoc group illegal, in an effort to leave the community leaderless. After months of solitary confinement and periods of intense interrogation, without access to legal counsel, the former Bahá'í leaders were brought to trial in January 2010. They were all found guilty and given the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

An appeals court ruling rejected three of the six charges against them—those alleging espionage, collaboration with the State of Israel, and the provision of classified documents to foreign nationals with the intention of undermining state security—and reduced their sentences to 10 years. However, following an intervention by the prosecutor general, their sentences to 20 years' imprisonment were reinstated.

According to Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the head of their legal team:

There is not a shred of evidence for the charges levelled against them. Charges such as espionage for Israel, propaganda against the national security and others, are all excuses. Any just and impartial judge would, without a doubt, issue a complete acquittal and release them immediately.

The second development is the Iranian government's most recent coordinated attack on the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education, an initiative started in 1987 in response to the needs of Bahá'í youth, who, as a matter of explicit government policy, have been denied access to universities because of their religion since 1979.

During the week beginning May 22, 2011, Iranian authorities raided 40 homes in six cities across the country and arrested 19 people associated with the BIHE. Seven were tried and convicted of charges of membership in the deviant Bahá'íst sect, with the goal of taking action against the security of the country in order to further the aims of the deviant sect and those of organizations outside the country. They were sentenced to prison terms of four or five years' duration, and their efforts to provide higher education to Bahá'í youth were declared illegal.

Among those imprisoned is a permanent resident of Canada, Nooshin Khadem, who completed her MBA at Carleton University in 2003. When she graduated, Nooshin's professors urged her to stay here for her own safety, but she returned to Iran to help other Bahá'í youth denied access to higher education. Two other Bahá'ís who completed masters degrees at the University of Ottawa in 2003 and were teaching at the BIHE were arrested in Tehran in September 2011 and have been sentenced to four-year prison terms.

This brings us to the third development, the unprecedented surge in arrests and arbitrary detention. In 2004, two Bahá'ís were arrested in Iran. During 2009, when I last addressed you, 74 Bahá'ís were arrested. That number grew to 125 arrests in 2010, and in 2011, 164 Bahá'ís were arrested, more than doubling the number arrested in 2009. The trend is clear and deeply troubling.

Most of the detentions follow a familiar pattern. Government agents show up at a Bahá'í home, conduct lengthy searches, confiscate personal items such as computers and books, and then arrest the residents. The officials' behaviour is becoming increasingly disrespectful and violent. During a raid in Kurdistan Province, 14 Bahá'ís were questioned regarding Bahá'í meetings, those attending them, and how they are organized. In a recent raid in Shiraz, an 18-month-old child was among those taken into custody. These three developments—the imprisonment of the former leadership, attacks on those associated with the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education, and the dramatically increased rate of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment—are elements of the Iranian government's campaign to eradicate the Bahá'í community as a viable entity. It's a campaign that has been escalating widely, sharply, and rapidly.

Canada has demonstrated consistent international leadership in defence of human rights in Iran and its actions are critical to supporting the development of democracy and the rule of law in that country. While recognizing the threat posed by Iran's military and nuclear capability to the region, the committee has drawn attention to the great threat the Iranian government poses to its own people.

We commend the committee for its timely action in updating and resubmitting its report and recommendations. True progress in Iran can only be measured by the emancipation of its own citizens, including its Bahá'í citizens, from the continued state-sponsored human rights violations.

More specifically, and as yet another expression of its concern, we would ask that the committee mark May 14, the four-year anniversary of the arrest of the Bahá'í leaders, by supporting the adoption of an all-party motion in the House of Commons calling upon Iran to release the seven Bahá'í leaders and the imprisoned Bahá'í teachers, and to end its persecution of members of the Bahá'í faith and all others whose freedom of religion, belief, and conscience is routinely denied by that government.

I will stop there, Mr. Chairman, and would welcome questions.

1:15 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Thank you very much.

We'll go now to Professor Akhavan. Please feel free to begin.

1:15 p.m.

Payam Akhavan Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University, As an Individual

Mr. Chairman, distinguished committee members, thank you for your invitation. I am very pleased to have this opportunity to share with you my ideas on human rights in Iran.

I would like to begin by commending the committee for holding a hearing on the human rights situation in Iran at a time when, unfortunately, the exclusive focus of the international community has fallen on the nuclear issue. Many of us in the Iranian human rights movement have argued for a long time that the real issue in Iran is not the question of nuclear capability; it's the nature of the regime.

It is a regime that, because it lacks legitimacy, rules through a systematic campaign of intimidation, violence, and hate propaganda. The international community must appreciate that the human rights situation in Iran is not merely a moral issue but an issue of far-reaching consequence for the broader transformation of the region and the solution to problems pertaining to peace and security.

As Ms. Tamás explained, the Iranian people are perceived by their own government as the enemy. The biggest threat to the power of the Islamic Republic is not the United States. It is not Israel. It is not the cast of enemies that the Islamic Republic demonizes in its official propaganda. It is the mere expression of people's human rights. We have to consider, when a regime criminalizes entire religious communities, be it the Bahá'í community, be it the Christian community, and when a regime expends significant resources to arrest 16-year-old bloggers and to regulate all interactions on the Internet, it is not a sign of its strength but a sign of its own weakness.

In that regard, I wish to speak briefly today about steps Canada can take to help the progressive transformation of Iran into a democratic society while isolating those who stand in the way of the majority of Iranians who want to put an end to human rights abuses.

I would like to begin with the question of Internet access. While the Government of Canada, together with other governments, has recently imposed very significant sanctions against Iran, we also have to appreciate that it is important to help the Iranian human rights movement and civil society by provision of technological assistance that will help them evade all the filters the government has created to prevent the use of cyberspace as a forum in which civil society can gather, organize, and exchange ideas.

The Iranian government has understood the lesson of the Arab Spring. It has understood the lesson of the Green Movement from June 2009, and it has taken steps, through a council on cyberspace established by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, to effectively create what is called a halal Internet, which means there would be a national Internet system that will be able to impose tight control on all uses of cyberspace by Iranian citizens.

In that regard, it's estimated that more than 17 million Iranians use the Internet. This is a very youthful generation that is Internet savvy, that has access to satellite television. The control and suppression of information is a key ingredient in the government's ability to maintain its repression.

In that regard, some five million sites have been blocked by the intelligence ministry of the Islamic Republic, and the Canadian government and others should consider how they can help provide technology to Iranian civil society so it can continue to use this vital medium as part of its resistance to this oppression.

I would also like to add that while the Islamic Republic is blocking access to satellite transmissions for BBC Persian television, for Voice of America, and for other channels that they deem a threat to their own power, the Islamic Republic continues to use the services of Eutelsat, a French-based company, in order to broadcast five out of its six official channels within Iran itself and abroad.

Press TV, the so-called CNN of the Islamic Republic, recently was harshly criticized for televising confessions of prisoners who apparently had been subjected to torture. Once again, if the Islamic Republic is going to deny its own citizens the right to have free access to information, then the international community must deny the same rights to the Islamic Republic of Iran to freely broadcast its propaganda and misinformation.

I would also like to speak once again about the question of targeted sanctions, an issue that has been brought before this committee on previous occasions. We must ensure that the sanctions that are imposed do not punish the average Iranian, but rather they punish those elements of the leadership that are responsible for massive human rights abuses.

Canada, unlike the United States and the European Union, remains the only country in the west that has still failed to adopt travel bans and asset freezes against Iranian officials implicated in human rights abuses. I believe it would be of great significance, in particular because Canada is a destination of choice for the elite of the Islamic Republic, as we know from recent revelations. For example, the head of the Iranian national bank has been living happily in Canada, and even obtained citizenship some years ago.

It would send a very strong message if Canada indicated that beyond sanctions, which very often indiscriminately punish the average Iranian—who already suffers from terrible economic circumstances—the Canadian government will blacklist, through travel bans and asset freezes, all individuals and their families who have been implicated in human rights abuses. In that regard, it's not becoming, on the one hand, to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly condemning the human rights situation in Iran and then discover sometime later that the head of the bank that is the financial linchpin for the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and Hamas is sitting happily in a multi-million dollar mansion in Toronto.

I would like to end with one further remark that relates to the question of deportations of individuals in Canada who have made refugee claims. We have a situation once again where, on the one hand, the Canadian government is condemning the human rights situation in Iran, but we have the case of a Mr. Kavoos Soofi in Toronto, who has been fighting deportation to Iran. Organizations such as Amnesty International have submitted formal statements indicating that he's at substantial risk of torture and possibly even the imposition of the death penalty, insofar as he has converted from Islam to another religion and has been critical of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini.

Once again, we cannot condemn human rights abuses in Iran and at the same time be deporting individuals when they face substantial risk of torture and even death.

I would like to end by explaining once again that a regime that has to criminalize freedom of belief, target religious communities such as the Bahá'í, impose the death sentence on a Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, simply for preaching Christianity, and a regime that expends millions of dollars spying on its own citizens and controlling their thoughts and beliefs is one that is not powerful but suffers from the want of power.

It is for the international community and Canada to adopt policies that punish the perpetrators of human rights abuses, not merely by condemning their actions but by affecting their interests, while at the same time helping empower the majority of Iranians who want to see a democratic transformation of their country.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. That concludes my remarks.

1:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

Thank you, Professor.

It's exactly 1:30, which means that with six members we have five minutes for each question, including answers. I'm going to suggest that questioners decide who they want to ask their question to. I doubt there'll be enough time for both witnesses to provide answers to questions. You don't have to do that, but I may have to cut people off in order to keep things moving.

We have to wrap up in a timely fashion because we're two blocks away from Parliament and it's difficult to get back in time for question period. We also have at least one item of committee business before we leave. All of that puts some constraints on our time.

We'll start with Mr. Sweet, as usual.

1:30 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Professor Akhavan, thank you for taking the time to testify before the committee once more. I also commend you for your good work on The Green Wave. It's on the Green Movement that I want to ask my first question.

Ms. Tamás mentioned her observations from 2004 on this continuing acceleration of repression of the Bahá'í movement. Has that same severity on the general public continued after the Green Movement? I know you were talking about the nature of the regime already being darker than any regime we can imagine, but has the repression become more severe since the put-down of the Green Movement?

1:30 p.m.

Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University, As an Individual

Dr. Payam Akhavan

Thank you, Mr. Sweet, for your question.

The simple answer is yes, and dramatically so. First of all, the Green Movement itself was met with violent repression—the murder, torture, and rape of countless peaceful protestors. It was followed by a consolidation of the regime's grip of power. That is why I explained that the regime has taken extraordinary measures to block popular access to information, whether through satellite television or the Internet. They fear yet another uprising.

So the situation has deteriorated dramatically. There has been an intensification of hate propaganda, at least at the Bahá'í community, and the creation of all sorts of supposed conspiracies that link all...[Technical difficulty—Editor] All of this is a measure of the regime's desperation to hold on to power at any cost. Frankly, things may deteriorate yet further.

1:30 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Thank you, Professor Akhavan. We're having some technical issues with the signal. I think I'll go to Madam Tamás now for a question.

Thank you very much for your testimony. You've had some reports from your community about the sophistication of what Professor Akhavan was talking about—this intrusion into the Internet and mobile communications, and what has been happening as far as this new electronic sophistication of Ahmadinejad's regime.

1:30 p.m.

Director, Office of Governmental Relations, Bahá'í Community of Canada

Susanne Tamás

I referred in my testimony to the Bahá'í Institute For Higher Education, which was established to provide university education to Bahá'í youth routinely denied access to Iranian universities. Much of that education has been put on the Internet. Much of it is through online courses.

There has been a marked effort by the Iranian government to make that impracticable. So download and upload speeds have been really cut back. That makes it a lot harder for young people who can't go to university to even study online. But I don't have any direct knowledge of other aspects.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

What about the sanctions Professor Akhavan was mentioning? Are these sanctions working? World consciousness is more on the nuclear threat Iran poses to the global community. But do you see any kind of capitulation in the regime at all since the sanctions by the general global community were ramped up over the last year?

1:35 p.m.

Director, Office of Governmental Relations, Bahá'í Community of Canada

Susanne Tamás

If my measure were what's happening to the people in the Bahá'í community in Iran, I would have to say that their situation continues to deteriorate. But I don't know if that necessarily translates into the sanctions not working, because we don't know what the situation would be like if there weren't sanctions.

I will leave more expert comment on that question to Dr. Akhavan.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

If I have a moment, could Professor Akhavan reply to that?

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Scott Reid

You have 30 seconds.

1:35 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Professor Akhavan, on the sanctions, are they working?

1:35 p.m.

Professor, Faculty of Law, McGill University, As an Individual

Dr. Payam Akhavan

There is evidence that the sanctions are hurting the regime. Unfortunately, in certain respects, they're also hurting ordinary Iranians.

The regime today is as much a theocracy as it is a kleptocracy. Basically, the scale of corruption is extensive, and it's one of the ways the regime buys the loyalty, let's say, of the top elements of the Revolutionary Guard. And it's the way it finances its considerable apparatus of repression. It takes money to have thousands and thousands of people spying and monitoring, engaging in propaganda, and beating and torturing.

The point, though, is that the only thing being incentivized is Iran's cooperation on the nuclear issue. So it is the understanding of the Republic of Iran that if it makes concessions in relation to the nuclear issue, the international community is not going to make much of its repression of its own citizens. And that is where the international community is making a mistake. It should be understood that there is a cost attached to human rights violations, and I believe the regime does engage in a cost-benefit calculus. Despite its extremist rhetoric, I believe it's quite a calculating regime.