Ms. Nazanin Afshin-Jam (Human Rights Activist – Stop Child Executions Campaign, As an Individual):
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you members of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
I’m going to put more of a human face on the examples that were given today to illustrate the brutality of the human rights violations that are committed in Iran.
Last March I received an e-mail from a complete stranger in Paris telling me the story of Nazanin Fatehi in Iran. Nazanin Fatehi is a 17-year-old girl who was in a park with her 15-year-old niece last year when three men attempted to attack and rape them. Out of self-defence, Nazanin stabbed one of these men. Instead of being treated as a victim of attempted rape, she was tried as a criminal and sentenced to death by hanging by the courts of the Islamic Republic.
I was appalled by the story when I first heard about this and by the fact that no news agencies were really picking up the story because they said it wasn’t newsworthy, that it was too commonplace. I decided to start a campaign, first with a petition that now has over 350,000 signatures. Then I lobbied different international bodies like the Canadian Parliament, the European Union, the United Nations, and finally the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour. She reminded Iran of their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran itself signed. It states that Iran is obliged to not execute anyone under the age of 18.
The combined efforts of the international community, these international bodies, and the pressure forced the Islamic courts to speak. Back in June, the head of the judiciary in Iran, Ayatollah Shahrudi, granted a stay of execution for Nazanin and ordered a complete new retrial.
The retrial just happened this January, where five judges who were presiding over the case recognized this as a case of self-defence. They exonerated Nazanin of all murder charges, and on January 31, Nazanin was released from prison.
I’m highlighting this case because on the one hand I want it to act as a symbol of the far greater human rights violations that exist in Iran in the plight of women. On the other hand, I want to show before the subcommittee here today that when there is international pressure and action by governments of countries like Canada, these efforts really do make a difference and force the Islamic Republic to speak and answer to their own people.
I am only one person and I was able to rally many people, so I can only imagine what the Canadian government could do toward saving thousands of lives and “rescuing” the people of Iran who are imprisoned by a system they don’t agree with.
I’m not here as a political analyst; I’m here as a sort of unofficial representative of the Iranian people. Since this campaign I have received thousands of e-mails from Iranians, both within Iran and in the diaspora, letting me know about their pain and suffering and their specific examples of different brutalities they’ve experienced under the regime. I’m trying to be their voice today to bring their messages to you and hopefully to offer some of their solutions.
One of these examples I’m talking to you about is the case of a young couple, Azita Shafaghat and her husband, who escaped Iran. They were imprisoned in the student uprisings in 1999. They left the country via Iraq and went to Turkey. They were trying to get to Greece where Azita’s family lives. The Greek authorities caught them, because they were there illegally, and deported them back to Turkey where they spent nine months in prison. They have just been released, and the UNHCR is going to be giving them a third country to enter.
I want to highlight this case because Azita and her husband have converted to Christianity, so if they were to be deported back to Iran they would suffer grave consequences–potentially the death sentence. That’s one example.
Another example is the case of Zahra Kamalfar and her two children. I must commend the Canadian government for recently offering asylum to Zahra Kamalfar and her children. They were living in a hallway in the airport in Moscow for over a year because they didn’t want to get deported back to Iran. When the Russian authorities tried to deport them back, Zahra Kamalfar and her daughter tried to commit suicide. For them to take such measures shows you how brutal the regime back home must be.
Another case is Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who’s now living in Washington, D.C. He was subjected to white torture. He was confined in a white room, a cell, for about eight months. The lights were always on. He was served white rice on a white piece of paper, and the guards who would bring him this food would wear silent-proof shoes; it’s just to act on the sensibilities of the person and to disorient them. It’s a form of torture. These are just some of the examples.
Just a few days ago I learned of another woman, who is actually Canadian. I won’t say her name right now because it hasn’t been broadcast in the media and nobody knows about it. These are official documents, so I want to keep it quite private. She’s a documentary filmmaker. She went to Iran, and they’ve imprisoned her. She’s now out on bail of $120,000 until the Persian new year passes, and then she’s going to have to return. I presented this to DFAIT yesterday, and they’re going to be looking into the case.
This doesn’t just involve Iranians within Iran; it affects Canadians as well. That gave me kind of a chilling reminder of the case of Zahra Kazemi, which Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out.
It is mostly only in the last 27 years, since the Iranian revolution happened, that we’re seeing such brutality and such violations of human rights. Only a small minority of fundamentalist Islamic rulers control the 70 million population. I want to again reiterate the fact that President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are not the representatives of the people; the people themselves do not agree with the principles of these rulers.
I’m here today to encourage Canada to be a leader in paving a way for a new Iran and a new solution. Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out that Canada should not take either of the extremes. Canada should not take the extreme of some of the recommendations that our U.S. neighbours have been proposing for military intervention, because ultimately that would rally the Iranian people around Ahmadinejad–despite the fact that they don’t want to–because they’ll feel their territorial sovereignty is being attacked and they’ll want to retaliate.
On the other hand, we don’t want to practise appeasement, as the Europeans have. The Europeans have been for years offering dialogue with the Iranian officials, and that basically legitimizes the Iranian officials. It’s saying that they do represent the people, and they do not.
The middle ground is the way I feel Canada should be directed. I’m not just saying it out of my own personal belief; many Iranian scholars from around the world have been saying the same thing, which is that the only solution is to support the Iranian people from within, to support the civil rights movements and in particular the women’s movements and the youth movement, by encouraging them to act in non-violent civil disobedience, trying to bring change for a new democratic Iran.
We’ve seen similar cases, like the coloured revolutions of eastern Europe and South Africa and Latin America. This is the new way. I think Canada can really be a leader in this field.
The question is, are Iranians ready? What do they want? I say absolutely yes; they are ready and they’ve been wanting this for years. They want democracy. They want freedom. They want rule of law. They want a constitution based on human rights. They want economic opportunity, and they want the separation between religion and the state.
Again, who will rise up to the occasion? I say it’s going to be the youth and the women’s rights movement and the labour movement.
I say youth because, as Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out, 70% of the population is under the age of 30, and they yearn for nothing more than their democracy and freedom. At 70,000, there are more Persian blogs than any others besides English. They’re constantly chatting back and forth with the west. They want modernity. They want to be free.
An example of their courage occurred back in 1999, as I said, in the student protests of July 9. Thousands of youth gathered and demanded their freedoms, and thousands were imprisoned and tortured. There are still some of those political prisoners in prison today from seven or eight years ago.
Not too long ago, a group of students held a picture of Ahmadinejad upside down. They were burning the picture and chanting, “Down with the dictator”. This represents what they’re really feeling. Despite the fact that they may face these consequences of torture and imprisonment, they’re still rising up.
It’s the same with the women. Women have always played a strong role in civil society in Iran. They’re a very strong movement. They’re very highly educated. About 65% or 70% of university students in Iran are women, unlike in some of their neighbouring countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, where women have been repressed for hundreds of years, and they’re used to a subservient lifestyle.
Again, it’s only in the last 27 years that women’s rights have been taken away. In 1935 women had their emancipation laws, and they were practising equality. But this equality has been taken away. Their human rights have been taken away. Under sharia law, the life of a woman is worth half that of a man in blood money. In terms of custody cases, the father gets custody of the children. In divorce cases and under inheritance laws, men and women not treated equally.
Women are not afraid to step up to this gender apartheid. Just last June, hundreds of women gathered to protest and to demand equal rights. There’s a huge campaign that was started by 50 of the most prominent women’s rights activists in Iran. It’s a campaign in Iran called “One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws”. They’ve played a significant part in expanding the ideas of democracy. These women go outside of the city centre of Tehran and train other women in the villages and other cities to become empowered, to voice their concerns, and to want equality.
In March of this year, a few days before International Women’s Day, about 50 women gathered in solidarity for the four women who were arrested in last year’s women’s gathering. They were holding up placards that read, “We have the right to assembly”. Thirty of these women were arrested. In about a week’s time, they were let out of prison, but two of them remained in solitary confinement up until a couple of days ago. One of these women was Shadi Sadr, who was Nazani Fatehi’s lawyer, who I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation. They were released on $200,000 bail. They will have to return, and they may face consequences of two to five years’ imprisonment for breaching national security, or they may even be sentenced to death. That’s how serious these condemnations are.
My point is that the youth and the women are willing and ready to stand up. They simply need the support of the international community. They need the support of the Canadian government. They need the support of international bodies. That is the only way we will be able to change the system from within and bring peace and security not only to the people of Iran but to the neighbouring regions and to Canadians as well.
So what can Canada do specifically? I don’t know if you’ve received a page I sent you, with some of the things Canada can do specifically. I won’t read all of them, but I’ll highlight a few.
Other than supporting the dissidents, I strongly suggest that Canada condemn the brutal ongoing human rights atrocities committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and specifically call for the immediate release of political prisoners and a moratorium on the executions of child offenders. As an aside, Iran is the only country in the world that continues to execute minors, and there are about 25 minors right now on death row in Iran. Canada should call for an end to the practice of stoning and call for fair trials and rights to lawyers.
Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out the need for targeted sanctions against Iran, with a specific note not to harm the people within.
We should monitor Canadian-Iranian trade relations and Iranian investments in Canada. I have received complaints from people in my own community in Vancouver that Canada is letting in a lot of dirty money from these mullahs, who are buying mansions in Vancouver and throughout Canada. I’ve heard that Rafsanjani has invested quite a bit of his money here in Canada. So, specifically, Canada should freeze the assets and personal accounts of these corrupt Iranian officials who have invested abroad.
High-level Iranian officials associated with human rights violations should be prosecuted in an international tribunal. Dr. Akhavan has already pointed out the need to arrest Saeed Mortazavi.
We should also give a voice to Iranian dissidents in Iran; invite them to your subcommittee to hear some of their voices, including lawyers or labour union leaders, or some of the youth leaders and other experts on Iranian issues.
Then we should engage in track two diplomacy, providing funding for political dissidents, labour unions and human rights activists, and grants to different NGOs here in Canada, to work alongside with NGOs in Iran. It would be great to provide funding to those in Iran, but again, I add the side note that we need to be careful, because if they receive money from abroad, they could be deemed spies and be imprisoned. It has to be very, very carefully done.
Also Canada should provide educational scholarships, fellowships, exchanges, and offers of workshops to Iranian people to come here to Canada. Another complaint I’ve received is that Canada oftentimes doesn’t allow the spouses of people who come here for educational purposes to come here too; these people want their spouses to be able to come here.
We should allow more refugees from Iran into the country, and we should orchestrate a team of observers with other UN members to investigate and inspect prisons and the treatment of prisoners in Iran.
We should demand that the RCMP start a file on the prosecution of Zahra Kazemi.
Lastly, Canada should encourage a UN-regulated referendum in Iran, in which people can decide how they want to be ruled.
Canada should not invest in the current regime because its collapse is inevitable. By promoting democracy in Iran, we are investing
in peace and stability in the entire region, which again inevitably affects Canadians.
I’m just going to end by reading the testimony of a political prisoner in Iran named Valiollah, summarizing what I’ve been talking about:
||I truly believe that freedom, democracy and justice are as vital to human life as the air one breathes. I thus permit myself to ask you not to abandon our just fight against the oppressive regime of the mullahs. I also have a few words for the leaders and minions of the regime: we will never resign ourselves to the ignominy of surrendering to your repressive dictatorship, even if it will cost us our lives.
Thank you very much, Ms. Afshin-Jam, for that compelling presentation. I think members of the committee should know that people in the diaspora even pay a price. Ms. Afshin-Jam, I understand, has been unable to visit her country of birth, and will be unable to do so, given the current regime, because of her activism. We salute you and those like you who have paid such a price.
We’ll turn now to questions, beginning with Mr. Cotler.
Additional comments by Nazanin Afshin_Jam during the Question and answer period:
”I would like to clarify what I said about refugees coming to Canada. I think that there are a large number of Iranians who would like to come to Canada. For some years now, the Canadian government has been allowing fewer refugees into the country. Minister Kenney told me that a committee was studying the possibility of accepting a larger number of refugees. The refugees are people who have been victims of abuse in Iran. They are not the ones who come in with millions of dollars, dirty money, as I have already said. Those people are high-level government officials, mullahs, who control the money. I don’t know how Canada will control that money. The refugees are different from those who arrive carrying large amounts of cash.”
” I would also like to add that Canada can get the ball rolling. Then, the Americans, the Europeans and others will follow suit. Canada can really play an active role. If we are successful, other countries will take notice. The fact that Iranians around the world will support Canada’s position will force other countries to act, because their citizens will begin to ask questions and urge their government to follow Canada’s lead. ”
“Well, the elections (in Iran) are a complete writeoff, because although it’s called the Islamic republic, it’s not a republic and it’s not a democracy. When people are electing officials, they only have a certain group of people they can vote for, and it’s mostly fundamentalist right wing clerics who are in power. They only have a number of people who they can vote for. It’s kind of a writeoff, and it’s not going to happen through an election.”
”The thing is that you can’t keep negotiating, as we’ve seen in Europe. They’ve been negotiating for years, and it only buys time. On the fact that there is a nuclear program and there is the aggrandizement of this, we don’t know for what reason, but we have to act quickly, and we can’t leave it on the side. The people are again suffering under these human rights violations, and we have to act fast. Personally speaking, if the governments of the world were to support a change for democracy, for example, students would rise up, as we saw in the October Revolution, the Velvet Revolution, the Rose Revolution, or the Orange Revolution. If all governments chose one day to say to the students of Iran, this is the one day—and we planned it and we helped them plan it—then they would get their freedom. I know this one hundred percent. I know it probably sounds very juvenile to talk to government officials about this, and the way I’m speaking about it is not very diplomatic, but in a lot of the blogs the youth are almost waiting for this one day of uprising and taking over the regime. It would probably be the easiest solution for me, but I’m sure Dr. Akhavan will have a lot to say about this. ”
“Can we expect equality for men and women afterward? Definitely, one hundred per cent, because already the popular feeling is that there’s equality between men and women. It is just that Iran right now is under sharia law, which spells out that there is no equality and that women can’t become presidents or judges and…all the other facts I’ve mentioned. The people want this, although it’s not everybody; obviously some of the more fundamentalist religious people who live in the villages still think that men are greater than women. But they’ve already lived this. They’ve already lived with equality between men and women. It is just in the last 27 years that it has been taken away from them. It is not a part of their being. As I was saying, in Saudi Arabia women have been repressed for hundreds of years, but men and women perceive themselves as equal, I think, in Iran. “