Mr. Chair, I would like to thank my colleagues from all parties who have risen to share their points of view.
A lot has been said in this evening's debate, but I think that the remarks can be summed up in one very simple principle: human rights are fundamentally important in a modern society and are an essential precondition to true democratic development.
I think that everybody here agrees with this principle, and our discussions have, to date, confirmed that.
My speaking time will be dedicated to three specific points: the fate of Iranian Canadians imprisoned in Iran, freedom of the press and the use of the death penalty in Iran.
In recent years we have witnessed cases of Iranian Canadians who have been detained, charged and, in some cases, threatened with the death penalty. Certain cases have received a lot of media attention, including the case of Hamid Ghassemi- Shall. There have also been cases such as that of journalist Zahra Kazemi, who was arrested and died in detention, as well as Maziar Bahari, who was repeatedly beaten and threatened with execution during his 118-day imprisonment in Iran.
Mr. Ghassemi-Shall was arrested in Iran when he went to visit his bereaved mother in 2008. He was then accused of spying and sentenced to death. Last year, he was told that his sentence would be commuted to life in prison. However, he was returned to death row last month. He was called to an interview at Evin prison and, according to his sister, he was told that he would soon be hanged.
Photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in an Iranian prison on July 11, 2003, almost three weeks after being arrested for taking photos outdoors during a student protest in Tehran. Two days later, the official Iranian news service stated that Ms. Kazemi died in hospital after suffering a stroke during her interrogation. On July 16, 2003, the authorities changed their tune. Iran's vice-president admitted that Ms. Kazemi had been beaten and had died of her injuries. After her death, her son Stephan Hashemi demanded that Iran return his mother's body to Canada for burial. Iran refused.
Mr. Bahari is a journalist who was arrested by Iranian intelligence officers in Tehran in June 2009 in the aftermath of the election demonstrations that swept across the city. He was held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison. Iranian interrogators accused him of being a spy for the CIA, Mossad and M16. He was never told why he was arrested. He was interrogated and tortured repeatedly during his incarceration. After 118 days, he was finally released.
While each of these cases is unique and has its own sets of human rights violations, they are all part of a greater pattern of disrespect for the very concept of human rights. In each of these cases and in its own way, the Government of Iran completely disregarded the very basic human rights of these Canadian citizens. These cases also show that many of the structures that we depend on to ensure our human rights are respected in Canada are simply not in place in Iran or, if they do exist, do not have the power to ensure those rights are protected.
The most recent United Nations human rights committee report on Iran, dated November 29, 2011, speaks directly to some of these weaknesses. For example, in this report the committee expresses its concern about “reports of the use of general and blanket arrest warrants which do not contain the names of the accused and are not based on a judge's review of evidence.” It also expressed concern that the “independence of the judiciary is not fully guaranteed and is compromised by undue pressure from the executive power.” In the cases I mentioned earlier, we saw the judicial system used as a tool to suppress the views of others, to punish those who disagree with the government and as a way to bypass the basic human rights of these individuals.
In any truly democratic society that respects human rights, a free press is an extremely important pillar. In the cases of Mrs. Kazemi and Mr. Bahari, we saw those basic human rights ignored.
We have seen throughout history that when human rights are being abused and ignored, freedom of the press is restricted and in some cases the press itself is co-opted and controlled by the state to suppress the human rights of minorities.
In Iran, the state control over the media and the absence of freedom of the press are certainly of great concern when it comes to human rights violations.
In the recent report of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on civil and political rights in Iran, these concerns are expressed very well:
The Committee further notes that the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern that: Many newspapers, magazines, as well as the Journalists Association, have been closed by the authorities since 2008, and that many journalists, newspaper editors, film-makers and media workers have been arrested and detained since the 2009 presidential elections. The Committee is also concerned about the monitoring of Internet use and contents, blocking of websites that carry political news and analysis, slowing down of Internet speeds and jamming of foreign satellite broadcasts, in particular since the 2009 presidential elections.
These are very concerning actions taken by the Government of Iran. These methods of controlling the media and access to information help the government keep its activities that suppress human rights in the dark.
In this age of high technology, the Internet and social media, these approaches are not as effective as they once were. We saw great examples of that during the Arab Spring last year when people organized and put their stories out through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Citizens go around these digital roadblocks put up by their governments to share their stories.
The last point I would like to raise this evening is Iran's death penalty. Many countries have stopped imposing the death penalty for serious crimes. Canada had the wisdom to do so in 1976, I believe.
However, not all countries have chosen to eliminate it. Some have even gone in the opposite direction. Iran is one of those countries. The United Nations Human Rights Committee report on Iran, which I just quoted, highlighted the following points with respect to the death penalty in Iran:
The Committee continues to be deeply concerned about the extremely high and increasing number of death sentences pronounced and carried out in the State party, the wide range and often vague definition of offences for which the death penalty is applied, and the large number of capital crimes and execution methods. The Committee is also concerned about the continued use of public executions, as well as stoning, as a method of execution. It also notes with concern the high rate of State executions in ethnic minority areas...
The Committee is gravely concerned about the continued execution of minors and the imposition of the death penalty for persons who were found to have committed a crime while under 18 years of age...
Finally, this is the context for use of the death penalty in Iran, according to the Canadian section of Amnesty International.
During this evening's debate, we have all raised examples of how human rights are being violated in Iran. Sadly, there are many such examples, and many other cases of people being punished and mistreated in that country. Still, by talking about them and calling the world's attention to them, we may be able to put pressure on that government to change its ways.
I want to say, in conclusion, that I was lucky to spend over 20 years at the United Nations during the negotiations leading up to the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I was able to see how activism by the international community can result in great progress.
Let us add our voices to all those calling for human rights all over the planet, and let us all be part of the solution.