Mr. Chair, in my earlier remarks this evening, I was summarizing the categories or areas of major human rights violations in Iran, reflective and representative of the state-sanctioned massive domestic repression.
I was discussing three categories: the wanton execution binge, the widespread and systematic torture, and the culture of impunity that underpins it. I will continue where I left off, which was with my discussion of a fourth category of human rights violations, namely the plight and pain of political prisoners. Iran continues to imprison human rights defenders, leaders of religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, artists, trade unionists, students, and leaders of civil society generally, let alone leaders of the political opposition, where the house arrest of 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have entered their fifth year.
Indeed, as Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House, testified today before our foreign affairs subcommittee on international human rights:
Iran holds at least 1,150 political prisoners, with likely far more, given many Iranian families' fear of government reprisal if they come forward.
Indeed, as he reported, a prominent human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, was charged just last Friday with crimes against the state, the punishment for peaceful advocacy in favour of the abolition of the death penalty, a courageous challenge to the wanton executions in Iran.
Accordingly, as I mentioned earlier, as part of the Iranian political prisoner global advocacy project, I am continuing my advocacy on behalf of the seven imprisoned leaders of the Baha'i community, known as the Yaran, and have also taken up the case of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, an imprisoned senior Shiite cleric and long-time advocate for religious freedom in Iran.
These prisoners are representative of the criminalization of religious freedom in Iran and are also case studies of Iranian injustice, generally speaking.
It is important to name the Baha'i leaders. Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm were all sentenced, as I mentioned earlier, to 20 years' imprisonment in 2008, a virtual death sentence given the advanced age of many.
Their convictions and sentences were based on such trumped-up charges as “propaganda against the system”, reminiscent of the old Soviet tactic of “give us the people and we will find the crime”.
Indeed, the Iranian regime has made the very membership in and practice of the Baha'i religion a crime in itself. In effect, the persecution and prosecution of the Yaran is in standing violation of both Iranian law and international treaties to which Iran is a state party. These violations include arbitrary, illegal, and prolonged detention; torture and ill treatment; false charges, such as spreading corruption on earth, a capital crime; denial of the right to an effective trial; and hearings devoid of any semblance of due process before a politicized judiciary.
Like the Yaran, Ayatollah Boroujerdi is languishing in prison for crimes of conscience, including advocating for religious freedom where he has led benediction ceremonies in the presence of Shiites and Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Baha'i. He has advocated for adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling for the abolition of capital punishment and for an end to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment such as torture, stoning, and whipping.
He has advocated for the separation of religion and state, and for the cause of universal justice, condemning thereby the abuse of radical and theocratic rule and terror, while establishing social welfare centres for helping the poor and disadvantaged.
Yet the price of his advocacy, as for so many of the other political prisoners, has been his own cruel and inhumane treatment during his imprisonment in solitary confinement, and more recently threats of execution.
As we have heard this evening, the Government of Iran seeks nuclear weapons, sponsors terrorism, spews hateful rhetoric, and tramples the human rights of its own people. For the remarkable and courageous individuals who dare to challenge the regime, telling their stories and taking up their case and cause is the very least we can do.
I will move now to a fifth category, which is the criminalization of freedom of expression, a mocking and criminal rejoinder to the just celebrated World Press Freedom Day.
While the Iranian regime continues to espouse principles of free speech and free press, and while the Iranian foreign minister, in the course of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, said just last month that nobody is imprisoned in Iran for expressing their opinion, any rhetorical commitment is mocked by the reality of the criminalization of speech. Indeed, Amnesty International reported a sharp rise in arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment of independent journalists in Iran that signals the authority's utter determination to crush hopes for increased freedom.
Indeed, as described in the recent report “Internet in Chains: The Front Line of State Repression in Iran”, released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the Iranian national police force includes a designated cybercrime unit which is tasked with monitoring the online activities of civil and political activists and were responsible for the investigation and ultimately the arrest of Sattar Beheshti, who was tortured and died in custody. According to the report, cyberpolice continue to pressure Internet providers to provide them with evidence of online political activism.
In a word, and indeed as Mark Lagon testified today, Iran's media and online environment are among the most repressive in the world. Among the 65 countries studied for the Freedom on the Net report, Iran is ranked at the very bottom. Simply put, authorities restrict online access to information through control of Internet infrastructure, extensive website filtering, rampant surveillance, and systematic arrests. Millions of websites, including Facebook and Twitter, remain blocked for Iranian citizens while the president, cabinet officials, and the supreme leader use social media to connect to the world.
Last fall, Iran's supreme court upheld the death sentence of 30-year-old blogger Soheil Arabi for a Facebook post deemed insulting to religious sanctity. Other online offenders were sentenced to between 7 and 20 years for blogging for a technology website contributing to a Sufi website and Facebook post deemed blasphemous to the regime.
That brings me, very quickly, to a sixth category, and that is the continued repression of workers and trade unionists.
Simply put, independent labour unions continue to be banned and those who participate in protests are fired or summoned to court and subject to arrest. At least 230 people were arrested in peaceful labour protests over the past year, and nearly 1,000 were fired in February 2015 for participating in peaceful labour protests. As well, five labour leaders were arrested on the eve of International Workers Day.
Finally, reference has been made to this in the discussion this evening and so I will not elaborate, but I am referring here to an important and compelling category of human rights violations, and that is the ongoing repression of women.
Despite article 20 of the Iranian constitution purporting to protect gender equality and despite affirmations for human rights for women by Iranian leaders, Iranian women face widespread and systematic discrimination in many areas of life.
For example, under the Iranian civil code, women are unable to leave the country without their husband's consent. They can be forced into non-consensual sexual relations in marriage. As well, we are witnessing an increasing incidence of child, early and forced marriage. Vicious acid attacks against women continue to go unpunished. Pending legislation restricts the hours during which women are allowed to work, creating a hierarchy for public sector hiring that further marginalizes women.
Pending legislation would empower employers and members of religious militia to enforce the government's conservative dress code for women, curb the use of modern contraceptives, outlaw voluntary sterilization, and dismantle state-funded family planning programs.
Since 2013, authorities have banned women from 77 fields of study, effectively reversing hard-line educational achievement. Regrettably, rather than sanctioning Iran, UN members elected Iran to the UN women agency board, effectively promoting a culture of impunity and gender discrimination.
I will close by saying that I would hope that the take note debate this evening will not only further the case and cause of those imprisoned and heroic persons in Iran, but at the same time, will advance the case and cause of human rights in Iran, of democracy and liberty, and thereby, we in Canada will have made a modest contribution to the struggle for human rights as a whole.