Human Rights,  Iran

Why Should We Care About Human Rights?

This is a Guest Post by Fariba Amini

Article five of the UN Human Rights Declaration states:No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  Yet, sixty- two years after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, many countries around the world still abuse their population, whether in full daylight or in dark prison cells.

From China and Iran to Somalia, human rights continue to be violated.  Christiane Amanpour, the former international correspondent for CNN, highlighted some of the worst abuses in a recent CNN special called: “Scream Bloody Murder.” From the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea to the Janjawid in Sudan, from Bosnia and Rwanda to Congo to other parts of the globe, we have seen the escalation of such violations in different forms and degrees.  Irene Khan of Amnesty International said in an article recently, that “it’s not just the economy, it’s a human rights crisis-the world is sitting on social, political and economic time bomb.”

The story of Neda Aqa Soltan, the young Iranian woman shot to death in front of the cameras in the aftermath of Iran’s elections, made the headlines of major newspapers and was watched around the world on YouTube.  Her bloodied face proved that oppressive regimes will do anything to stay in power, reminding us of another killing that took place 30 years ago in El Salvador, where Bishop Oscar Romero was shot to death for voicing his opposition to the rule of the junta.  Neda became the symbol of the struggle of the Iranian people for democracy and human rights, just as Father Romero has in El Salvador.

In Iran, long before and since the Revolution of 1979, human rights have never been fully observed. After the fall of the Shah and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), people hoped to see major shift in the observance of human rights but to the contrary, the IRI has been categorized as one of the worst offenders of human rights by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Throughout the 1980’s, in order to solidify its base, the IRI, rounded up hundreds of people and imprisoned them. The mass killings in Evin in 1988 represent one of the most heinous crimes committed by the IRI during its 32-year history.  Between 4,000 and 5,000 prisoners, many of them teenage girls and boys, were taken to the gallows and executed. Most of them had been tortured and brutalized severely.  Khomeini put his stamp of approval on these atrocities: “This class must be eradicated,” as he said.  The kangaroo courts of the IRI became infamous all over Iran, especially in the Kurdish area, where the local mullah became the judge, the jury and the executioner.

Iran’s solitary prisons and general wards have seen the coming and going of hundreds of men and women, some famous, many faceless.  Their accounts have been documented by various human rights organizations, in Iran and abroad.  These have included students, women activists, lawyers, men of the cloth, ethnic and religious minorities such as the Kurds and the Bahais. Abuse and torture have occurred in various degrees under different IRI administrations.  Only under President Khatami was the infamous Towhid prison (formerly called the Komite Mosthtarak under the Shah) closed down following horrific accounts of torture.  Nevertheless, such abuse never stopped at any time, before, during and after the Khatami administration. To be sure, some of the torture that took place in Iran’s prisons was similar to the methods adopted by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police. In fact, according to some prisoners who spent time in jail during the years 1981-1988, many of the torturers were former prison guards of the previous regime who had suddenly become “devout!”  Soudabeh Ardavan, a young woman student of architecture in Tabriz University, who spent some six years in Qezel Hesar and Evin prisons, wrote:  “From time to time, the head guards would come in. They were two women who were extremely rude. They were pros. I was told they were there from the Shah’s era. They would kick us real hard.  One of the women wore a soldier’s outfit and she would constantly curse us and beat us. Most of the time, in our cell, we did not have to wear our scarves or the chador, only when the male guards would come in.  I remember the prison warden, a man called Haji Rahmani.  He was huge, quite a character, and very vicious. We would be ordered to put on our hejab.  Then he would come in and beat us. I believe he now holds a post in the Ministry of Intelligence.”

In his book, “Tortured Confessions,” Dr. Ervand Abrahamian writes of the early days of the Iranian Revolution, recounting some of the prisoners’ accounts. Some were placed in small cubicles, blindfolded and in absolute silence, for seventeen hour stretches with two fifteen-minute breaks for eating and going to the toilet… Others were forced to join firing squads and removed dead bodies. When they returned to their cells with blood dripping from their hands, their roommates surmised what had transpired. In the summer, newcomers to Evin-including women-had to pass the main courtyard and view rows of hanged prisoners.”

I remember an incident which took place some 20 years ago during a visit to Iran.  In north Tehran, near Tajrish square, I saw a young woman in hejab talking in a telephone booth.  A revolutionary guard, in his early twenties, approached her, demanding that she finish her conversation. She refused and was defiant. In a matter of a few minutes, he fired at her. She fell to the ground.  Rushed to the hospital, she was declared dead a few hours later.  This was just one incident in the many cruel acts that have taken place in Iran.

Ten years later, on December 8, 1998, Mohammad Ja’afar Pouyandeh who had translated the text of the Declaration into Persian, was found dead in Tehran.  His death was part of what came to be known as the serial murders of fall 1998 by rogue agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.

Since the June 2009 elections, human rights abuses have taken a different turn.  Masses of ordinary citizens who were hoping to see their votes counted, marched peacefully in the streets of the capital, but were met with harsh and bloody reprisal by the Bassij militia and plainclothes men. They beat, shot, and used overwhelming force against the young and the old, against men and women, without discrepancy.

Mass arrest and imprisonment of students, University professors, women activists, and journalists took place. Over a hundred reformists were put on show trials, each receiving short and long sentences.  As one woman human rights activist and member of the Million Signature Campaign put it. “I believe that lashing sentences are a source of shame and constitute disparagement for all Iranians who believe in justice and equality. Further, these types of sentences are a sign of the violence which is perpetuated against women in our society.”

The IRI is a signatory to the UN human rights declaration, and continues to pay lip service to human rights. Nevertheless it has often been in violation. Its leaders have denied that torture or abuse takes place. The most brazen instance of such denial occurred when Saeid Mortazavi, Tehran’s former prosecutor who was allegedly involved in the torture and murder of photo journalist Zahra Kazemi, headed the Iranian human rights delegation to Geneva. As recently as February 2010, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the newly appointed Secretary General of the High Council for Human Rights, had the audacity to declare that “torture is against Iran’s policy.”  Eyewitness reports from Kahrizak prison (now closed) in the aftermath of the Presidential election gave ample evidence to the contrary.  In 2009, according to Amnesty International, in Iran, “at least 346 people [many on political grounds] were known to have been executed, but the actual number was probably higher.”

When we visited the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C. on June 23, 2006, as part of a delegation with spokespersons from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to protest the arrest and illegal imprisonment of the Iranian- Canadian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo, one of the Iranian officials—a Khatami supporter—thanked us for taking on the noble cause of defending political prisoners.  As I left the premises, I told him, “God forbid, if you end up in jail one day, we will defend you as well.”

He smiled.  I smiled too. But I meant it. In order to bring sanity to any society, the civil and legal rights of everyone including those who violated those rights must be safeguarded. Iran, while boasting about Cyrus the Great’s mark on history as the first monarch who believed and implemented Universal Human Rights, has done very little in this respect.  If ever a democratic regime is in place in Iran, it will be imperative to protect the rights of every citizen, regardless of gender, creed or ethnicity. Only a society based on the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights will guarantee a free, just and democratic Iran.