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House of Commons Hansard #123 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was copyright.

Topics

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8:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I will stop the member there to allow the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington to respond.

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8:30 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think the hon. member is hoping I will respond as the government spokesman.

My intention was to try to talk about what the committee had put forward. I will try to do that as best I can.

As he was giving his remarks, I was going through the recommendations in the report. Recommendation number five was:

The Subcommittee recommends that the Government of Canada encourage Radio Canada International to consider programming in Farsi over its worldwide shortwave service, over conventional AM/FM broadcasting in the Gulf region, and over the Internet.

I also mentioned research. That was in recommendation number four:

The Subcommittee recommends that the Government of Canada consider funding a research chair at a Canadian university dedicated to the study of Canadian-Iranian relations, including the human rights situation in Iran.

I will talk about that one for a second. I understand the concern that we engage in endless study and nothing gets done. However, I think when there is an ongoing situation of human rights abuses, having an accurate catalogue of the kinds of abuses that are taking place, as well as realizing where there are opportunities to help out is something that requires study and review. Obviously, having a chair like this would assist in providing that in an informal way, that is, a non-governmental way.

With regard to the question of overall CBC funding, some people manage to turn every single Canadian issue into an issue about CBC funding. All I can say is it would be necessary for the CBC, if it were to follow the recommendation made in recommendation five, to draw some of that money out of some other part of its budget. How that would be done would be an internal CBC matter.

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8:35 p.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, two decades ago the Canadian government created an organization called Rights & Democracy, which was able to function at arm's length from the government and work with civil society in emerging democracies. We have heard from other speakers tonight about the importance of Rights & Democracy.

For us to provide support to Iranian civil society, we need organizations that are non-governmental. The important piece is that they have to be non-governmental, otherwise the partners in Iran would be tagged with their association to a western government and would face further isolation and punishment. However, the government, as we indicated before, is killing Rights & Democracy.

How do the member and his government suggest we reach out to Iranian civil society when we are undermining our capacity to do so?

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8:35 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I certainly agree it is very important to make sure we do not do anything that would cause the ever-paranoid Iranian regime to destroy the lives of individual citizens who are seen as somehow being the agents of a western government. That would be a genuine and preventable disaster.

I mentioned a couple of things that we proposed doing. I want to mention something else that I think is very important and relevant. I have talked a lot about things that are carrots, but there are also some sticks in this proposal.

There are some proposals that relate to restricting the travel privileges of people associated with the Iranian regime, with freezing assets associated with groups like the revolutionary guard and members of the regime.

It is not an insignificant consideration when we remember that Canada is very much a safe haven for many Iranians who are opposed to the regime. Therefore, because it is a spot where there are many Iranians, it is also a place where Iranians associated with the regime would like to shelter some of their funds and think they potentially have people on the ground who could assist them in this matter, simply because they are members of the same nationality. They are Iranians themselves.

Using that kind of negative influence from the point of view of the Iranian regime also would have an impact. It is an area where we could have some real force.

I notice that is an area where the government has taken some action over the past two years. There are four separate levels of increasing our restrictions on the ability of the Iranian regime and its members to use Canada.

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8:35 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, the remarks I am about to give are like an addendum to what the member for Ottawa Centre said earlier. He spoke to the overview of what is happening in Iran. He spoke about the decades of political instability and the human rights crisis in Iran, which has only deepened. My remarks are going to be a little more pointed to a particular area.

However, I want to be very clear about the NDP's position relative to Iran. We stand in solidarity with the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. We very clearly condemn the human rights violations that are being committed against the people of Iran by the Iranian regime, but we support the Iranian people. Sometimes the messages get mixed.

We also want to express our concerns about the ongoing targeting of particular groups, such as women, gays and lesbians, ethnic and religious minorities, and this takes me to a bit of a transition to speak about the Bahá'ís. The regime in Iran for a long period of time has singled out the Bahá'ís for especially bad treatment. It actually pains me to stand in this place once again to discuss that issue.

A number of colleagues and I have spoken extensively on the issue. We heard from the previous speaker about the subcommittee's study of Iran. We heard witness after witness. Shirin Ebadi was one of the witnesses and Dr. Akhavan was another. Sadly, we have to continue this discussion. The systematic terror that has been held over the Bahá'ís for years is sad.

The last time it was before this place was with respect to the fourth report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in March 2009. Other members have spoken to this, but from their beginning, the Bahá'ís have been persecuted. Iran is the birthplace of that particular religion. In Iran, they are not free to practise their religion. They are denied access to education, public sector employment, and pensions. They are systematically excluded from the country's economy. Everywhere they turn, there is a wall put up in front of them. In fact, the founder of the Bahá'í religion, known to the followers as Bahá'u'lláh, spent the last 40 years of his life either in prison or in exile.

Bahá'ís are routinely executed. Others are arrested arbitrarily with no clear reason for it. Worst of all, this is done with the full support of the country's judicial, administrative and law enforcement systems. The mullahs of Iran have long regarded the Bahá'í faith almost as an enemy of Islam. According to a report from Amnesty International, at the end of January 2012, over 80 Bahá'ís were held because of their beliefs.

I want to go back for a moment to the 1950s. At that time, there were organized anti-Bahá'í campaigns that resulted in mob violence and the destruction of religious sites. Nearly 30 years later, after the revolution, the anti-Bahá'í propaganda became increasingly systematic, creating stereotypes that still exist. Whenever the regime wants a distraction, the Bahá'ís are like the magician waving his hand while the regime resorts to other issues that it does not want its citizens to consider. The mullahs categorize the Bahá'í faith as a political threat to their regime. This group of people has been so marginalized, how in the world could the Bahá'ís possibly pose a legitimate threat to that regime?

According to a recent report from the UN office on the Bahá'í International Community, Bahá'ís are obsessively portrayed in official propaganda as the source of every conceivable evil. The report speaks about how the regime views the Bahá'ís. They are branded as social pariahs to be shunned by the regime.

The propaganda is shocking in its volume and vehemence. Its scope and sophistication is calculated to stir up and antagonize the whole population, to stir them in a way that has only happened one other time in history, which was very similar to this. It happened against the Jews in Germany.

After 30 years of hate propaganda, the Baha'is have become a kind of all purpose scapegoat, a smear of convenience, which the Iranian government uses against any individual or group it disapproves of as though the mere mention of the word Baha'i conjures up the most lurid forms of immorality that one can imagine.

Of course, with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the situation has only worsened.

A little over a month ago, Iranian authorities reimposed an already harsh sentence on seven Baha'i leaders who had been arrested in 2008 on charges of espionage against Israel for insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the system. The seven previously had their sentences cut from 20 years to 10 years by an Iranian appeal court only to have the regime, quite vindictively I must say, overturn it and restore that original sentence. This is the latest example of the entrenched discrimination faced by the Baha'i minorities in Iran. That was said by Malcolm Stuart of Amnesty International.

I was just about to note that Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, twice appeared before our subcommittee on human rights and spoke to us about the situation in Iran. Each time we wondered if we would see this woman again. She knew and we knew her life was at risk due to what she was doing. When she went back to her country to represent some of the people who had been detained, it became so bad that it is my understanding that she had to close her office and leave the country.

One of the things that happens is the terror that can be brought about by the unexpected. Our door gets kicked in in the middle of the night and the intruders say that they have to search our place. We wonder what they are searching for. We wonder what we have I done or whether we have done anything. We wonder if we need to do anything. No, these people are Baha'i and that is all they need to be for that kind of thing to happen to them in their country. At least 50 Baha'i-owned stores have recently been searched in order to find some excuse to threaten or, worse, to arrest the owners.

I have a summary of some of the persecutions. The harassment of the Baha'is is pervasive and includes incidents of arrest and detention with imprisonment lasting for days, months and, in many cases, years. In cases where Baha'is were released, substantial bail was required for them to even get out. It sounds like a bribe. Sounds like just one more way to marginalize the people as well. There is always direct intimidation. When people are being questioned by the Iranian authorities, they are intimidated. Just the fact that they come to people's door and kick it in is intimidating. Sometimes the questioning includes high intensity lights and physical mistreatment.

What also happens during these searches is that innocent materials are confiscated, materials that are unrelated to their faith. Those who have had their homes burglarized will tell us that the sense of invasion that happens to them when somebody breaks in leaves them in a state of terror sometimes for weeks, months and maybe years. One can just imagine when it is the authorities, those people who are supposed to protect us and work with us.

Children are not left aside in this. They are expelled from school, harassed and even prohibited from attending university.

In court proceedings where Baha'is are accused of promoting propaganda against the government for the benefit of the Baha'i sect is another area where all kinds of aggressive techniques are used against them and this is used as one of excuses. Their bank accounts, movements, activities and whatever they are doing daily are monitored. The other thing that happens is that they go to their neighbours and ask their neighbours to “watch these people”. If we can imagine 30 more years of that kind of propaganda and the neighbours are already suspicious.

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8:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I am going to stop the hon. member there as he has gone over his time. At this time we will open up the floor for questions and comments.

The hon. member for West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country.

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8:50 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston Conservative West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague opposite for his speech.

I had the honour of arranging for Dr. Ebadi to cross Canada in a national tour. As one of her engagements, she spoke before the committee where the member heard her and it was very moving. She was a judge in her courtroom in Iran and because of her gender she was asked to step down and act as a secretary in the same courtroom. Now she stoutly defends the rights of Iranian citizens whose human rights are violated from outside the country because, as the member indicated, her very life is threatened.

I would ask the member how far he feels the reach of this Ahmadinejad regime moves beyond its own borders. Could he name people like Dr. Ebadi who are outside the borders of Iran and o also feel the long cold hand of human rights violations from that regime?

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8:50 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is hard to put a definite frame on that kind of an accusation, and it is an accusation that the reach of the regime can go into a country like Canada, the United States or anywhere. The reality is that of the people who travel here, some have cover documentation and could very well come here to do harm to people in this country if they so chose. It is something that Canada has to be vigilant on.

In the case of Shirin Ebadi, she was quite clear that she was not expecting to live a full life. When one talks to a person and looks them in eye while the person says that, it really speaks to the terror that is created by this regime but it is also terror it follows up on.

As I indicated earlier today, that regime was hanging a person every eight hours. They are hanging women and youth under 16. If a country has the capacity to do that within its own border, and if there is opposition outside of that country, I would not be surprised if it had the reach to do Shirin Ebadi harm or others. That is a sad commentary but that is probably a reality of this world.

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8:50 p.m.

NDP

Ève Péclet NDP La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Mr. Chair, I would like my colleague to say a few words about the situation of ethnic minorities in Iran.

We know that the use of minority languages continues to be banned in schools and government offices. People who campaigned for increased involvement of minorities and for their economic and social rights to be recognized, were threatened or even thrown in prison.

Many Iranian activists think that federalism would be a solution to the ethnic divisions in Iran. I would like to know what the Canadian government is doing. Is my colleague aware of any resources that the government is giving to Iranian activists so that they can consider federalism?

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8:50 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have some difficulty speaking on behalf of the government as to what our government is doing. Although I know that in our committee government members have worked with us and when we had our witnesses we developed together the report on Iran that had 30 recommendations. Hopefully a good number of them will be followed through by the government.

Going back to minorities, if we look at the Baha'i faith, it was indicated by the member for Ottawa Centre that this happened after the time of Mohammed. So anything that came after was more at risk than those minorities in the country before. However, we also have a split in that part of the world between Sunni and Shi'a and the people in control of the regime are a minority in themselves but they have the power on their side. People know well that the revolution in 1979 was a student-led revolution that was basically hijacked by the Mullahs and distorted into what it became. However, when Ahmadinejad was elected there was a major change. He became the strong arm man. He became the person who travelled the world speaking about what horrors they would point toward Israel if they ever got atomic weapons. So there is a problem here because it is two stage. How much of it is rhetoric, how much is reality and how much can another government from this part of the world do about it?

In his testimony, Dr. Akhavan told us that the revolution had to happen by the people of Iran, that outside nations had to stand back and support it but not directly cause it. That is an important lesson we should learn from this Iranian who is in Canada.

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8:55 p.m.

NDP

Mike Sullivan NDP York South—Weston, ON

Mr. Speaker, in his questioning earlier of the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, the member mentioned that the demise of rights and democracy has left us with very little in the way of bringing democracy to the people of that country because we no longer have an independent agency on the ground to do that. One of his responses was that we could undertake Farsi language broadcasts. However, as part of the Conservative budget the broadcasting of Farsi languages or any other language for that matter from CBC, through Radio Canada International, is now gone. It has been cut. We cannot do it anymore. If anybody thinks we will be able to get information via the Internet into an oppressed country like that, they have another think coming.

Would the member like to comment further on that?

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8:55 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member is quite right when he says that Internet choking happens in that country. It is controlled, watched, monitored and it is another way of tracking people down. Yes, we were dismayed to learn that the cuts to CBC would lead to the ending of this kind of support. We broadcast for many years into many parts of the world where people aspired to democracy, where they learned about democracy and the freedoms of a place like Canada from our radio system or network. So it was very troubling.

In fairness to the member, he suggested that CBC could search within its budget for something else. The reality is, from my perspective, that it is the responsibility of our government to ensure that the CBC is funded to a level that it does not need to search anywhere, that it has the assigned dollars to deal with this type of issue, even if it is envelope funding where it is directed to apply it, but ensure the CBC has the revenue to continue that type of work, that essential work, that arm's-length work where the people of the country are able to proceed with their own revolution or their own change to democracy at their own pace.

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8:55 p.m.

NDP

Jinny Sims NDP Newton—North Delta, BC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for his very deliberative and thoughtful presentation.

One of the key elements he said today that has really kind of rung in my head over and over again is that, when we talk about democracy, it is a very fragile thing. We know the dangers to democracy all around the world. Sometimes I wonder if some of those dangers are in here, too, as we are seeing more and more debate being muzzled.

At the same time, what the member said is that, if we want to support Iran in the eradication of some of the human rights violations, which are there and documented, we have to support the Iranian people to come up with the kind of democratic institutions and structures they want.

Yet we have seen, by my colleagues across the way, that the changes they have brought about do exactly that. This is a question to my colleague. My fear is that sometimes with this threat of war, of invasion, sort of perceives it into almost an escalation, as if it were inevitable. This direct invasion of Iran kind of lies on the periphery of a lot of the international dialogue at some times.

What kind of fears would the member have if there were military intervention into Iran at this time?

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9 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Speaker, one of the things that can be said of the Arab people is that, when an invader comes from the outside, they band together. I think that would be one of the most detrimental things we could possibly do to democracy in Iran.

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9 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is my honour and privilege to stand here and talk about human rights in Iran. Although I welcome any time and any opportunity to warn the world about Iran's president, the ruling mullahs, the revolutionary guard, the viscous Basij and other operatives of this regime, I choose to focus the majority of my time on the people they are presently persecuting and imprisoning, namely, the seven Baha'i leaders who have been imprisoned since 2008.

One of the witnesses before our subcommittee, Professor Payam Akhavan, said he thought it important that we not reduce the issue to abstractions and statistics in order to understand the horrible brutality with which the Iranian government has confronted what is essentially a peaceful non-violent movement to call for basic human rights and democracy. He was speaking about the green movement, but I do not think his comments were any less poignant in regard to the Baha'i community.

Therefore, I want to introduce the seven leaders who have been incarcerated in Iran since 2008. The first is Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, arrested May 14, 2008, in her home in Tehran. This developmental psychologist and mother of three was denied the chance to study at a public university as a youth because of her Baha'i beliefs. Because of her volunteer work for the Baha'i community, she was arrested twice in recent years and held for periods of one and two months before her arrest and imprisonment in May 2008.

Mrs. Kamalabadi was born in Tehran on September 12, 1962. An excellent student, she graduated from high school with honours, but was nevertheless barred from attending university. Instead, in her mid-30s she embarked on an eight-year period of informal study and ultimately received an advanced degree in developmental psychology from the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education, an alternative institution established by the Baha'I community of Iran to provide higher education for its young people.

Mrs. Kamalabadi is married, with three children. Varqa, now about 28, received a doctorate in political science and international relations in the United Kingdom and is currently continuing his research in China. Alhan, now 27, is studying psychology and Taraneh, 14 at the time of her mother's arrest, was a junior high school student in Tehran.

Mrs. Kamalabadi's experience with persecution extends beyond her immediate situation. Her father was fired from his job as a physician in the government health service in the 1980s because he was a Baha'i, and he was later imprisoned and tortured.

The next is Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, arrested May 14, 2008, at his home in Tehran. He was once a successful factory owner but lost his business after the 1979 Islamic revolution because of his belief in the Baha'i faith and then spent most of the 1980s on the run under the threat of death from the Iranian authorities.

Born July 27, 1933, in the city of Sangsar, Mr. Khanjani grew up on a dairy farm. In his professional career he has worked as an employee of the Pepsi-Cola company in Iran, where he was a purchasing supervisor. He later started a charcoal production business. Later he established a brick-making factory, which was the first automated such factory in Iran, ultimately employing several hundred people. In the early 1980s he was forced to shut that factory and abandon it, putting most of his employees out of work, because of the persecution he faced as a Baha'i. The factory was later confiscated by the government.

In his career of voluntary service to his religious community, Mr. Khanjani was, in the early 1980s, a member of the so-called “third” National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Iran, a group that in 1984 saw four of its members executed by the government.

Mrs. Khanjani became ill sometime after her husband's latest imprisonment and passed away. Iranian authorities denied him the right to visit his wife's bedside or her graveside. Mr. and Mrs. Khanjani have four children and six grandchildren.

The next is Mr. Afif Naeimi, arrested May 14, 2008, at his home in Tehran. He is an industrialist who was unable to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor because, as a Baha'i, he was denied access to a university education. Instead, he diverted his attention to business, one of the few avenues of work open to Baha'is, taking over his father-in-law's blanket and textile factory.

Mr. Naeimi's father died when he was three and he was raised in part by his uncles. While still in elementary school, he was sent to live with his relatives in Jordan, and although he started with no knowledge of Arabic, he soon rose to the top of his class.

He has long been active in the volunteer Baha'i service. He has taught Baha'i children's classes, conducted classes for adults, taught at the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education and been a member of the auxiliary board, an appointed position that serves principally to inspire, encourage and promote learning among Baha'is.

He is married and has two sons, Fareed, now 31, who is married and a graduate of ABSI, and Sina, now 26, who has studied music.

The next is Mr. Saeid Rezaie, arrested May 14, 2008, at his home in Tehran. He is an agricultural engineer who ran a successful farming equipment business. Born in Abadan on September 27, 1957, Mr. Rezaie spent his childhood in Shiraz, where he completed high school with distinction. He then obtained a degree in agricultural engineering from Pahlavi University in Shiraz, attending with the help of a scholarship funded from outside the country. He is married with two daughters and a son. Martha, now 28, has studied library science. Ma'man, now 25, studied architecture. Payvand, 12 at the time of his father's arrest, was in his second year of middle school. Mr. Rezaie has actively served the Baha'i community since he was a young man. He taught Baha'i children's classes for many years and served at the Baha'i Education and Baha'i Life Institutes. He is a scholar and an author, and he has served as an academic adviser to Baha'i students. In 1985 he opened an agricultural equipment company with a Baha'i friend in Fars province. That company prospered and won wide respect among farmers in the region. He has experienced various forms of persecution for his Baha'i beliefs, including an arrest and detention in 2006 that led to 40 days in solitary confinement. His two daughters were among 54 Baha'i youth who were arrested in Shiraz in May 2006 while engaged in a humanitarian project aimed at helping underprivileged young people.

Mrs. Mahvash Sabet was arrested in Mashad on March 5, 2008. She is a teacher and school principal who was dismissed from public education for being a Baha'i. For 15 years up until her arrest she was director of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education. Born on February 4, 1953, in Ardestan, Mrs. Sabet moved to Tehran when she was in the fifth grade. In university she studied psychology, obtaining a bachelor's degree. In her professional role, she also collaborated with the National Literacy Committee of Iran. After the Islamic revolution, however, like thousands of other Iranian Baha'i educators, she was fired from her job and blocked from working in public education. It was after this that she became director of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education, where she also has taught psychology and management. She is married and has a son, Foroud, now 37, and a daughter, Negar, now 28.

Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, arrested May 14, 2008, at his home in Tehran, is a former social worker who lost his government job in the early 1980s because of his Baha'i beliefs. Prior to his current imprisonment, he has also experienced intermittent detainment and harassment. Mr. Tavakkoli studied psychology in university and then completed two years of service in the army, where he was a lieutenant. He later took additional training and then specialized in the care of the physically and mentally handicapped, working in a government position until his firing in 1981. Mr. Tavakkoli is married with two sons, Naeim and Nabil. Naeim, now 35, is living in Canada with his wife, who is taking graduate studies. Nabil, now 28, is currently studying architecture at the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education. Mr. Tavakkoli was elected to the local Baha'i governing council in Mashhad while a student at the university there, and he later served on another local Baha'i council in Sari before such institutions were banned in the early 1980s. To support himself and his family after he was fired from his government position, Mr. Tavakkoli established a small millwork carpentry shop in the city of Gonbad. There he also established a series of classes in Baha'i studies for adults and young people.

Mr. Vahid Tizfahm was arrested May 14, 2008, at his home in Tehran. He is an optometrist and was owner of an optical shop in Tabriz, where he lived until early 2008 when he moved to Tehran. He was born May 16, 1973, in the city of Urumiyyih. He spent his childhood and youth there and, after receiving his high school diploma in mathematics, he went to Tabriz at the age of 18 to study to become an optician. He later also studied sociology at the Advanced Baha'i Studies Institute. He is married and has a son, Samim, who was nine years old at the time of his father's arrest and in the fourth grade.

Since his youth, Mr. Tizfahm has served the Baha'i community in a variety of capacities. At one time he was a member of the Baha'i National Youth Committee and later he was appointed to the auxiliary board and advisory group that serves to uplift and inspire Baha'i communities at the regional level. He has also taught local Baha'i children's classes. These seven Baha'i leaders continue to be imprisoned in Iran.

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9:10 p.m.

Conservative

Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Mr. Chair, as my colleague and many members will know, one of the key priorities of our government that was announced in the throne speech back in June was our commitment to establish the office of religious freedom. That commitment was reiterated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in late September of this year, whom I will quote. He stated:

History has shown us that religious freedom and democratic freedom are inseparable.

He went on to quote Franklin Roosevelt, who stated:

Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy. Where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared. And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.

The foreign affairs minister went on to say:

Societies that protect religious freedom are more likely to protect all other fundamental freedoms. They are typically more stable and more prosperous societies.

My question to my colleague is this: how crucial does he think it is that this office of religious freedom be established, and does he agree that protecting religious freedom includes the protection of those who may choose to convert or change their religion?

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9:10 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Chair, I appreciate the question from the member for Kitchener—Conestoga regarding the office of religious freedom. It was one of my esteemed colleagues in the House, the Hon. Stockwell Day, who once, in a conversation in a government lobby, made the point that at the pinnacle of all rights is religious freedom, because if we have the freedom of religion, we have freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of congregation. When a country has religious freedom, then all of the other freedoms that we value, the democratic freedoms that we often talk about in the House, will be present. The office of religious freedom would be an additional institution to make sure we get the message out to the international community that we believe religious freedom is important. It is an essential element of our government's foreign policy.

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9:10 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, the report prepared by the Subcommittee on International Human Rights on which the hon. member sits and which I chair includes a discussion about, essentially, the proposals of the Iranian government to demonize and then to try to wipe out the state of Israel. It is a discussion of what I have referred to as the eight stages of genocide. What struck me in the course of this discussion and the previous member's discussion about the treatment of the Baha'is is that some of the eight stages of genocide seem to be elements of the treatment of the Baha'is in Iran.

I was interested in my colleague's comments on the stages. I will not go through all of the stages. Only the early ones are relevant at this point, and hopefully they will be the only ones that are ever relevant.

The first stage of genocide is classification; the second stage is symbolization, talking about this group being an us versus them group; the third stage is dehumanization; the fourth stage is organization for oppression. As we can imagine, things go downhill from there.

The hon. member can appreciate why I am expressing this concern. I would be interested in his thoughts as to how things are going in relation to this general rubric.

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9:15 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Chair, let me take this opportunity to say I appreciate our chair's work at the subcommittee for human rights and that of my colleague for Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, who is here.

We have done a lot of good work together, as has my colleague from Mount Royal, who really, to give credit where credit is due, was the engine and the provocation behind the fourfold threat of Iran and the study that came about because of that at our subcommittee, a study that then went up to the foreign affairs committee and was published. My colleague has spoken much about that and about how to obtain it from the website.

There were comments regarding the eight stages of genocide. We have heard a lot about the treatment of the Baha'i people. I read the biographies of people who were taken right from their homes, one who was actually seduced into thinking that she was going to help the Iranian regime clarify an issue in a cemetery. That is how she was lured away from her home. Then the authorities picked her up and took her to the Evin prison.

These people, since 2008, are now going into their fifth year of incarceration. Many of them were already incarcerated before that for periods of time, even in solitary confinement.

The treatment of the Baha'i people and all minorities in Iran is just absolutely appalling and shows much of the evidence of what my colleague mentioned about the stages toward genocide. It is very troublesome as we think about that notion.

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9:15 p.m.

NDP

Wayne Marston NDP Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, ON

Mr. Chair, I want the member to elaborate a bit more. He talked about the woman who wound up in a cemetery and then in the Evin prison.

Could the member talk about that prison—what the detention there is like, what people live through on a day-to-day basis and, more importantly, what techniques are used against them when it comes to interrogation?

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9:15 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Chair, I was actually just trying to get more details, because I only had 10 minutes. I am glad the member asked me for more details on Mahvash Sabet.

Unlike the others who were arrested in their homes. Mrs. Sabet was arrested in Mashhad in March 2008 after she was called by the authorities in Tehran. She had been summoned there by the ministry of intelligence, ostensibly on the grounds that she was required to answer questions related to the burial of an individual at that particular cemetery.

She was going there for humanitarian reasons to sort out what had happened regarding some burial. They used this as a ruse to arrest her, of course with absolutely no charges, with no basis at all. She, along with others, remains imprisoned. As I said earlier, this is going on to their fifth year.

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9:15 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston Conservative West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

Mr. Chair, my question relates to how our government is taking the message on human rights violations in Iran.

The Conservative government is renowned for promoting a prosperous economy in Canada and free trade around the world, but with that message I would like the member to give us some thoughts on how the government is also making sure the human rights message is loud and clear wherever it speaks.

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9:15 p.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Chair, there are a couple of important initiatives that the government has done to send a clear message that we are not going to tolerate human rights violations. They begin with sanctions against Iran from July 22, 2010, which were strengthened on October 17, 2011, strengthened again on November 17, 2011, and strengthened again on January 31, 2012.

My colleague from Kitchener—Conestoga has already asked the question regarding the office of religious freedom, which is another tool in our arsenal to get out the message that we will not tolerate religious persecution in other countries and will speak out boldly about it and do whatever we can to bring about change.

Also, in the United Nations, we have led the charge. The parliamentary secretary mentioned several hours ago that the Canadian government diplomats are championing a United Nations resolution to isolate Iran and to call for change as far as human rights violations are concerned.

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9:20 p.m.

NDP

Ève Péclet NDP La Pointe-de-l'Île, QC

Mr. Chair, thank you for recognizing me this evening.

Often a lot is said, but little is done. However, talking about inhumane situations is often the only way to make them known. This evening, we are giving a voice to those who have been silenced for standing up for their rights—rights that we take for granted here.

Freedom of religion is certainly a very important right, but there are so many others that we must not overlook. Let us talk about discrimination against women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered citizens. Let us talk about freedom of the press, the right to work and the right of association. We must remain vigilant and denounce these situations that have no place in a free and democratic society like ours.

This evening, we are talking about the human rights situation in Iran. According to the 2010 UN universal periodic review of human rights, 93 recommendations were made to Iran, from abolishing the death penalty for minors to eliminating obstacles to freedom of expression by simply allowing UN rapporteurs to enter the country.

There are so many issues that I would like to address, but there is not enough time to raise them all. Therefore, I have decided to focus on a few specific issues.

I am concerned about women's rights in Iran. According to Human Rights Watch, Iranian women are victims of discrimination based on personal status as it relates to marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody of children. They are victims of constant and direct discrimination under the law. A women needs her guardian's approval in order to marry, no matter what her age. An Iranian woman cannot pass on her nationality to her foreign spouse or her children. A woman cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad without the written consent of her husband. Women are reduced to silence.

According to reports by the UN Secretary General and the UN Human Rights Council, Iran's attitude towards women, especially professional women, is paradoxical. Although they have unimpeded access to secondary and university education, their career choices are limited. Thus, they cannot hold senior political positions. Direct discrimination against women also manifests itself in areas such as access to housing and the status of divorced women. The list is long.

I am painting a rather negative picture and I will not take the time to name all of the female activists who are still fighting today to assert their rights and denounce the atrocious discrimination they still face every day.

As we speak, several female activists are being detained or imprisoned because they tried to use peaceful activities to denounce this situation and defend women's rights.

Amnesty International, whose very serious work I would like to commend here today, gave some very compelling examples in its 2012 reports of women who are standing up to defend their rights. The vast majority of these women were part of the “change for equality campaign”, which aims to gather one million signatures to demand the end of discrimination against women in Iranian laws. Some of these activists are being detained or mistreated, some are being denied medical care, while others are being barred from travelling.

The UN special rapporteur on violence against women has condemned discrimination against women from ethnic minorities on several occasions. She has expressed her concerns to the Human Rights Council about the increase in human trafficking, especially the trafficking of women from eastern Iran. Their rights are also violated when it comes to access to housing, which is limited for single women and divorcees. The UN special rapporteur on violence against women also spoke about restrictions on ownership and discrimination in the labour force, where women cannot be magistrates or hold important political positions.

If the situation is problematic for women, it is equally problematic for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

In other words, any type of sexual activity, outside what is accepted by the state, is prohibited. The state denies the whole thing, which makes the problem even worse. When the Iranian president said in 2007 that there were no homosexuals in Iran, we have to wonder. I believe the situation is very worrisome.

The punishment system is even more repressive. It is practically the middle ages with lashes or worse, hangings.

It is not prohibited to be gay in Iran, but Amnesty International's 2012 report cites article 111 of the penal code, which states that sodomy is punishable by death so long as both the active and passive partners are adults, of sound mind, and consenting, the presumption being that, in the absence of these requirements, the individual would not be tried for sodomy.

LGBT rights activists believe that, in some cases, this has led one of the parties in the consenting sexual relationship to claim to have been raped in order to avoid execution. At least three men were executed in 2011, on conviction of sodomy. At least three other men suspected of having participated in homosexual acts between men were sentenced to death.

We have talked this evening about freedom and democracy, but I would like to raise another issue. Human rights also include workers' rights. People are mistreated far too often. When I was a member of the Standing Committee on International Trade, we even discussed human trafficking. I heard horror stories about people being literally exploited. The repression in Iran does not affect only the rights of women, nor gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people, but also affects workers' rights.

Union activity is dangerous in Iran. As an example, Reza Shahabi has been in prison since June 2010. Amnesty International has pointed out that his health is very poor and that in February, he began suffering from complications. And yet, it was not until April 30 that the prison authorities took him to the hospital. Even today, we cannot be sure he is receiving adequate treatment. He was condemned—on false charges—to six years imprisonment for a crime against national security.

In other words, demonstrating against poor working conditions attracts violent repression and arbitrary arrest. It is a fundamental right to be able to demonstrate, but Iran still prohibits independent unions.

My colleagues and I condemn the Iranian regime's human rights violations. We are very worried because the situation is getting worse. We support the Iranian people's desire for democracy and respect for basic rights and freedoms.

Respect for human rights is important not only in Iran. Too many countries require the international community's attention when it comes to human rights. This situation exists in so many countries; we could have a take-note debate on all of them.

The government's role is to make respect for human rights a priority in its negotiations, whether in foreign affairs or international trade policy. For example, some free trade agreements were negotiated even though witnesses made it clear that there are major human rights issues in their countries. Trade relationships should ensure and promote respect for human rights.

Official development assistance was reduced to 0.25% of our GDP. The government's policy should focus on promoting human rights, not helping mining companies. I do not understand why public funds are being used to cover social costs that mining companies should be paying for.

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9:30 p.m.

Calgary East Alberta

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Chair, first, let me take this opportunity to thank the hon. member for highlighting the abuses in Iran. The whole purpose of tonight's debate is to bring forward what is happening in Iran and she very eloquently stated that. I want to thank her very much for taking part in tonight's debate.

It is very important that all members of Parliament speak about the abuse of basic human rights. These are rights that we are guaranteed in Canada. The member has strongly highlighted the issues of women's rights, sexual rights, freedom of religion, and the executions that take place. The Iranian regime is not being held accountable. It has been flouting all international norms.

My good friend from Montreal is a very strong human rights advocate, especially on Iran, as is the member and everybody here. On behalf of the Government of Canada, I want to thank all members for taking part in the debate and for bringing these issues forward. It is a very difficult situation. What members are bringing forward tonight on this topic highlights the issues.

The government works with the international community and we need to put pressure on Iran. Iran is an independent country. As parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, I have been around the world, but I refuse to shake hands with the foreign minister of Iran as I do not want to be seen as supporting the regime.

Let me say to the hon. member and everyone taking part in this debate, job well done. Unless we highlight what is happening in Iran, the regime will keep doing these things until it is stopped. This is what Canada is trying to do at the UN.