Mr. Chair, I rise today to join the debate that we have had in past years during Iran Accountability Week. I want to talk about a couple of aspects in my speech.
Before I begin, I want to say that we have a responsibility here in Parliament to shine the light on human rights. Whether it be in Iran or elsewhere, it is imperative. I have raised this in the formal committee on foreign affairs, of which I am the co-chair, but I want to just underline that I would like to see Parliament actually have a separate committee for human rights that is independent, and the importance of having that. As members know, the human rights committee is a subcommittee of the foreign affairs committee. Frankly, I think we should have a separate committee. It deserves to be an independent committee. I have nothing against the committee right now. It does terrific work. As has already been mentioned, it does work by consensus and it has raised important issues. However, the fact that it is a subcommittee is unfortunate, and I just wanted to make sure that the point is made.
I also want to bring to the attention of the House some recent information that has come to light. One of the leading human rights defenders has just been arrested in Iran. Narges Mohammadi is the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, and she has just been arrested. She has been an extremely important human rights defender in Iran. She has been arrested before, but she has just been arrested again as of today. This news is just coming out.
She is the mother of two, and she has been steadfast in standing up against the whole issue of the death sentence, which we have talked about already tonight. She wants to have that abolished. I think it is pretty obvious why we should abolish the death sentence in Iran. She has been speaking out on behalf of those who are not able to speak, and she has just been arrested. I wanted to bring that to the attention of the House, to call for her release, and to support her cause to end the death penalty in Iran. In fact, it is something that we should be promoting around the world as part of our foreign policy.
As I mentioned to the last person who spoke, I was asked to support Iran Accountability Week by taking on a political prisoner, and I have done for the last couple of years. His name has already been mentioned, but I am going to focus my comments on Saeed Malekpour. Last June, people around the world got involved in his case through social media. We have talked about the importance of social media and how it can help in these cases. It was a very basic thing, to wish him a happy birthday last June to bring attention to his plight. There was a hashtag, #HBDSaeed, which went viral. It was very creative, and it brought attention to his plight.
To give some background on Saeed, who he is and how he ended up in prison, he is a software engineer, or a techie, if we will. If he had been able to see the online wave of well-wishers, I am sure he would be pleased with this whole hashtag campaign. Unfortunately, though, he does not have access to basic rights such as computers right now, much less Twitter. For nearly seven years, Saeed has spent every birthday and every other day in a cell in Iran's notorious Evin prison.
In 2008, Saeed was a permanent resident in Canada, with a home in Richmond Hill, as has already been mentioned, and he wrote a blog. He was preparing to begin his graduate studies at the University of Victoria. However, during a trip to Iran to visit his terminally ill father in 2008, Saeed was arrested. He was charged with blasphemy and accused of developing software that was subsequently used by a pornographic network. According to a letter that he was able to smuggle out of prison, he was tortured physically and psychologically, whipped with cables, paralyzed with electrical shocks, and thrown for nearly a year in solitary confinement without medical attention.
When Saeed's abusers finally extracted a forced confession, he was sentenced to death. After four years of heavy pressure from governments and civil society worldwide, Saeed's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2012. This progress is proof of the real power of international opinion and pressure, even within an authoritarian regime like Iran's display of trumped up charges and treatment. We know we can have an effect when we speak out.
It is testimony to the importance of naming and shaming individuals and states that violate human rights, democratic freedoms, due process and the rule of law. It shows it can work, in fact. That is why we are doing what we are doing this week.
Yet this commutation is small consolation to Saeed's sister Maryam, who now lives in Edmonton, and other members of his family, because he has a life sentence. It does nothing to remedy the greater problem of a continued pattern of horrific and unacceptable human rights abuses in Iran, particularly in the Iranian prison and justice systems.
Tragically, Saeed's arrest, sham trial and illegitimate conviction on charges of blasphemy are far from unique. We have heard some of the stories tonight. Freedom of religion and expression are not just essential elements of democracy, they are non-negotiable and non-partisan principles that Canadians support and expect their elected representatives to defend.
The criminalization and punishment of expression, contrary to certain religious interpretations, is totally arbitrary and reprehensible. The imposition of the death penalty or even life imprisonment in such cases is especially egregious and abhorrent.
In Saeed's case, this already illegitimate law was stretched to preposterous limits. If pornography is a crime, Saeed did not commit it. He designed and developed software that was then sold on for further use. He did not determine and was not responsible for how that software was used.
His conviction would be farcical, perhaps even laughable, were it not so appalling. Yet if we are to hold Saeed responsible, it should be to thank him. Saeed's work made it easier for everyday people in Iran and around the world to express and share their thoughts and beliefs quickly, creatively and effectively. His software was all about that. He made the world a bit more free. In doing so, he ran up against those who seek to curtail that freedom, and to couple repressive practices with regressive policies.
President Rouhani has spoken of the need for “constructive engagement,” and the Iranian people have given him a clear mandate for reform. Yet his administration persists in violating and ignoring its own international legal and human rights obligations. So long as Iran prevents and prohibits the free exercise of free speech, its government cannot and will not be accepted or welcomed in the international community.
Two years ago, I was proud to receive unanimous support from all parties for my parliamentary motion marking the 25th anniversary of the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran, which has already been referenced by the member for Westmount—Ville-Marie. I thank him for his work and his support.
This motion made Canada the first country in the world to officially recognize this mass atrocity in 1988 for what it was, a crime against humanity. Just as we must remember the crimes of the past, we must speak out and stand up against the crimes of the present.
Saeed Malekpour moved to Canada because he loved our country and what it represented. All Canadians can be proud of what Saeed represents. We must not rest until he is home. That is my cause. That is the cause of what we are discussing tonight. That is the importance of human rights protection and those who are human rights defenders.