Mr. Chair, we are blessed to live in a country with freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Debates in this very chamber often swirl around the sacredness of those values and what we must do to protect them.
People who serve in uniform commit their lives to defend those values. I know this well as a son of a father who ended up as a prisoner of war, committed to those freedoms.
History suggests that the people of Iran share Canadians' high regard for democracy. Cyrus the Great was one of the first law givers of ancient times, a king who liberated the Jewish people from captivity under the Babylonians. In the early 1950s, then prime minister Mossadegh led a democratically elected government at a time and in a region where the right to elect one's leaders was fragile at best.
As the first ever government liaison to the Canadian Iranian people, I have come to appreciate contributions of people of Iranian background to the cultural fabric of our Canada, people like Davood Ghavami, president of the Iranian Canadian Congress, who has worked so hard to introduce Persian culture here in Canada.
People of Iranian background appreciate hard work, good education, art, music, and close families. Women of Iranian background in Canada have demonstrated great leadership. I think of Nassreen Filsoof, head of the Canadian Iranian Foundation, and the human rights advocate Nazanin Afshin-Jam Mackay, for instance.
There is tension today between the governments of Canada and Iran, tension that is at odds when judged against the natural affinity between the people of the two countries. Canada rightly holds the Iranian regime to account for breaching international nuclear proliferation guidelines, for supporting terrorist organizations, for destabilizing the region, and for human rights abuses against its own people. Tonight it is Iran's human rights record that is the main subject of our deliberations in this great chamber.
Despite President Rouhani's diplomatic engagement and the ongoing nuclear negotiations, there has been no indication of any transformative shift in Iran's policies and activities. The president and members of his administration continue to make public statements inside Iran and to international audiences in support of rights and freedoms. However, there has been no evidence of improvements, and the state continues to undertake serious and systemic human rights abuses.
As Canadians, we believe Iran should be judged by its actions, not by its words. The Iranian regime continues to flout due process and the rule of law, and seriously restrict freedom of expression, assembly, and association, consistently attacking human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and bloggers.
I thank the many colleagues of all parties in this chamber tonight with whom we stand together against those abuses against the oppressed people of Iran.
I would like to make special mention of my colleague, the member for Westmount—Ville-Marie, who has been a driving force in recognizing Iran Accountability Week. He and others have pointed out that the death penalty is used frequently in Iran. In a three-day period last month, 43 people were executed. Persecution of the Baha'i people in Iran, a religious minority, has gotten worse. We know of more than 900 political prisoners in Iranian jails, which means there are probably many more.
To be perfectly blunt, the situation of human rights in Iran has not improved since the election of President Rouhani in June 2013 and has shown clear signs of deterioration on several fronts.
The discussion of liberties can be very theoretical, and so it is important to bring it down to ground level. To speak of 900 prisoners makes our minds reel and stretches our imaginations. Therefore, the genius of Iran Accountability Week is that each of us participating parliamentarians pairs up with one Iranian political prisoner to highlight that person's plight and to personalize the situation better, for the world to see.
It is always difficult to put theory into practice when it comes to human rights. It is too easy for us here in Canada, where we enjoy freedom and equality, to forget the suffering of people who are oppressed by a dictatorship. To avoid an overly theoretical discussion, I suggest that we put ourselves in the position of someone jailed for their political convictions.
Based on information provided to me by Ms. Afshin-Jam MacKay, I am going to share the story of Behnam Ebrahimzadeh who was in prison for five years for being a workers' rights activist, as well as defending children and human rights in Iran.
As Behnam's family recounts, this Nowruz, or Persian New Year, was the fifth for the family without Behnam by their side. He is in ward 2 of Rajai Shahr prison, known as Dar Al Quran. Originally he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but after a huge public outcry, his sentence was reduced.
However, as his sentence was coming to a close, Judge Salavati, at branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, resentenced him to nine years and four months on brand new charges of colluding with the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, a banned opposition group, and spreading propaganda against the regime by contacting Mr. Ahmad Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Iran.
Behnam categorically denies any and all connection with the Mojahedin. It is impossible to prove the negative absolutely. Although he is not a murderer or a thief, he is housed alongside dangerous common criminals in this ward, and as a result his safety is threatened regularly. He suffers from arthritis in his neck, and further due to the continuous pressure put on him inside prison and long periods of solitary confinement, he suffers from intestinal and kidney bleeding, for which he is denied medical help by prison authorities. He is denied even a painkiller.
Sadly, Behnam's only child, Nima, is suffering from leukemia. Behnam is denied any visitation with his family and child. His family thanks all the peace-loving human rights advocates in Canada, Iran, and around the world for our support. Together, we believe that continued pressure on the Iranian authorities increases the likelihood of the release of Behnam and many like him.
It is our duty to inform the public and human rights bodies about his imprisonment and torture for simply defending workers, children, and human rights.
In Canada, our heroes are mainly hockey players, musicians and leaders of civil society. Iranians count many poets—such as Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and Omar Khayyam—among their national heroes.
I greatly admire Saadi, who lived in the 13th century and whose words are inscribed on the wall of the United Nations building in New York. The poem is called Bani Adam or Children of Adam. It tells us that men and women around the world are one, and says that if one person suffers, all of humanity suffers with them.
Saadi's poem, famous among Persian people, relates so poignantly to why we are here today. As he put it:
The children of Adam are limbs to each other,
Having been created of one essence and soul,
If one member is afflicted with pain,
The other members uneasy remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The title 'human' you cannot claim.
These are strong words, and they communicate a universal truth of our moral responsibility to champion the cause of those who suffer, as we now champion those in prison in Iran.
Given that we know of hundreds of political prisoners there, we can assume there are many more about whom we do not know, and others living daily in fear for their freedom and their very lives.
Saadi points out the significance of even one political prisoner. In my case, I have chosen Behnam, suggesting that he represents all those who suffer in oppression, in Iran and elsewhere. My colleagues in this House tonight and my friends who fight for freedom in Iran and elsewhere can all agree with this sentiment. We ask President Rouhani and other members of the Iranian government to let Behnam and other prisoners of conscience free. Saadi would cheer us on.
In my role as government liaison to the Canadian Iranian community, I have come to love Persian poets. I have written a poem each Nowruz, and one especially for this evening. It is called A Poem for a Prisoner.
Eight hundred years ago, the poet Saadi said it best;
He said that feeling others' pain can oddly make us blessed.
He sensed that in our souls a link unites us all as one,
That we are all one family beneath a common sun.
Saadi's words in Bani Adam reach us all today—
People here in Canada; people far away.
It's a foreign government whose abuses we despise.
Those who suffer its abuse are brothers, in our eyes.
Canada seeks justice, and we'll shout it from the heights;
Our Government opposes those who menace human rights.
But while we challenge tyranny wherever it may reign
We sing with Saadi soulfully his powerful refrain.
It's the bully government that we summon to account.
It's not a quarrel with Irani citizens we mount.
Our quarrel with the foe relates to government, it's clear;
Our bond with Persian people is healthy and sincere.
Mossadegh and Cyrus stood for freedom at the base;
Iran will learn to smile again, extend aazaadi's face.
Oppose the government we will—but Saadi said it best;
We share with Persians eshgh, uniting East and West.