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June 3, 2013 1:57 am

Why I’m ‘Adopting’ an Iranian Prisoner

avatar by Irwin Cotler

Execution of prisoners in Iran. Photo: DPGI.

This week, parliamentarians in Canada and the United States have been focusing attention on the dangers posed by the Iranian government, sounding the alarm on massive Iranian domestic repression and the Iranian threat to international peace and security. In Ottawa, the events of Iran Accountability Week include hearings of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights, public events involving Iranian human rights experts and international experts on the Iranian threat, and a take-note Parliamentary debate.

The week coincides with the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Baha’i leadership in Iran, known as the Yaran; the 25th anniversary of the 1988 massacre of thousands of Iranian political dissidents; and a recent report of 2,600 political prisoners in Iran, including women, ethnic and religious leaders, journalists, bloggers, students, artists, and trade union leaders — simply put, the leadership of Iranian civil society. Indeed, the regime has only been ramping up its crackdown on dissent in advance of presidential elections next month, and many of those detained are under threat of execution.

Central to this week’s events is the launch of the Iranian Political Prisoners Global Advocacy Project, through which Canadian parliamentarians of all political stripes will “adopt” Iranian prisoners of conscience and advocate on their behalf. Indeed, while the Iranian government seeks to silence dissenters, we are determined to make their voices heard. Each victim of repression in Iran must be recognized as a real person enduring physical and mental anguish in a society where human rights and democracy itself have been imprisoned. To that end, each parliamentarian participating in this project will endeavour to make known the story of his or her adopted prisoner as part of the struggle to set them free.

I will be advocating on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh, as well the seven imprisoned leaders of the Iranian Baha’i community. As a lawyer, Ms. Sotoudeh represented political prisoners — including women, lawyers, journalists, and children sentenced to death — until, while visiting one of her clients in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison in 2010, she was arrested and became one of Evin’s inmates herself.

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In the years since her arrest and conviction on vague and trumped-up charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “acting against national security,” Nasrin has engaged in two hunger strikes to protest her conditions and those of her husband and two children. She resumed eating earlier this year when a travel ban on her 12-year old daughter was lifted. Nasrin has spent much of her incarceration in solitary confinement, and she has been denied medical care, notably for deteriorating eyesight.

On May 30, this extraordinary woman – who embodies the struggle for human rights in Iran and symbolizes the Iranian regime’s massive domestic repression – will spend her 50th birthday in one of the bleakest places on earth. Her 11-year sentence has already been reduced to six as a result of advocacy on her behalf, and that advocacy must continue until she can celebrate future birthdays with her family in freedom.

The Baha’i leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – were arrested in 2008. At a trial that violated every international legal norm, they were convicted of “espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and sentenced to 20 years in prison. This is a virtual death sentence for Mr. Khanjani and others, given their advanced age.

Baha’i institutions have been outlawed in Iran since 1983, and the human rights of the Baha’i are systematically violated from cradle to grave. They are barred from many jobs, they are not allowed to attend university, and hundreds of Baha’is have been imprisoned over the last decade. Moreover, the regime’s campaign of hate has created an environment in which community members increasingly face arson attacks, anti-Baha’i graffiti, hate speech, the desecration of Baha’i cemeteries, and assaults on school children, with the victims of these attacks denied legal recourse.

The seven leaders, or Yaran, had been ministering to the needs of their community with the tacit assent of the regime until their arrest five years ago. Now, in prison, they minister to the needs of their fellow inmates, even while suffering unimaginable treatment themselves.

To secure the release of these and other human rights heroes, Iranian political prisoners must become household names, and their cause must become our cause. The government of Iran sponsors terrorism, seeks nuclear weapons, spews hateful rhetoric, and tramples the human rights of its own people. The regime is afraid of the power of its citizens, and has created a culture of fear whereby everyone who speaks out is targeted. For the remarkable and courageous individuals who dare to challenge the regime, telling their stories is the very least we can do.

Irwin Cotler co-chairs Canadian Parliamentarians for Human Rights and Democracy in Iran with MP James Bezan, and the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran with U.S. Senator Mark Kirk.

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