Human Rights Situation in Iran
Mr. Scott Reid (Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, CPC):
Mr. Chair, I am here in my capacity today as the chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. I want to take members through the history of the hearings we have had and some of the very extensive evidence we heard at committee in the course of hearings that started under a different chairman in 2007 and continued on under my chairmanship in 2008-09. We thought we could wrap the committee up and then realized that we had to continue on in the wake of the repression following the rigged Iranian elections and the subsequent crackdown. We produced a report and just recently have had hearings again into further abuses in Iran. Just yesterday we heard some testimony.
When we are dealing with human rights violations on a vast scale we become numb to them. As I was preparing my remarks, I was put in mind of a saying that is attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Joseph Stalin that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.
To make the point about just how awful the human rights situation is in Iran, I thought I might draw upon a piece of testimony.
I should mention as I begin that when I was in university I studied Russian literature. Russian literature is rich in prison diaries of people who describe what happened to them, the horrible situation in the gulag, Dostoevsky describing the situation to the czars.
Nothing can surpass the testimony which we heard at committee from Ahmad Batebi:
I was kept for 17 months in a small room by myself, and that room was no more than a washroom. This situation caused health problems. They took me twice for execution. In one case, I was taken for execution with a group of others. Of course, I was not executed. I was in the middle, with one man on the left and another on the right. They blindfolded us and forced us to stand on top of a chair, as if to hang us. They pulled my blindfold aside a bit so I could see what was happening to the other two. These were people who were imprisoned next to me in small cells. I saw their execution.
He goes on to describe some specific tortures to which he was also subjected, but that gives us an idea. That story has been repeated in other versions many thousands of times in Iran over the course of the past three decades.
There have been periods in the past three decades under the current regime that have been worse. There have been periods that have been better. There have been times when one group has been singled out and times when another group has been singled out. At the moment dissidents, those who are calling out for democracy, are a particular target as the government seeks to crush dissent.
The government has a long record of going after groups of all description. For example, there is religious repression in Iran, which includes, as others have noted, the murderous oppression of the Bahá’í minority, the largest religious minority in Iran.
But it also includes the repression of Iran’s Christian and Jewish populations. It also includes, perhaps to a lesser degree but nonetheless significant, repression of Iran’s Sufi and Sunni populations, and it includes the repression of dissident Shia clerics, including the imprisonment for over 20 years of a prominent Shia cleric who issued a fatwa against the murderous behaviour of the regime toward the Bahá’í. It was religious repression on a massive scale.
Iran is a country of many nationalities. Under the current Iranian regime it has become a prison house of nationalities. The oppression of, for example, the sizeable Azeri population. The population of Azeri in Iran is perhaps as large or even larger than the population of Azeri in Azerbaijan. They are significantly oppressed.
There is a very large population of Baluchis. They are very significantly oppressed. Arabs face similar oppression. Kurds face oppression.
To give a sense of what that is like, I thought I would quote from some testimony relating to the Baluchi minority. Fakteh Zamani, when testifying before our committee on March 24, 2009, said the following:
What I have heard from Baluchis is that there is a special judge appointed by the government to try these cases. Confessions have been obtained under severe torture, and these people are tried in 10 to 15 minutes in their cells, without a prosecutor or a defence lawyer present. Just because of the special Baluchi situation, a judge shows up and asks a few questions of this tortured individual and sentences them to death. There are hundreds of Baluchis on death row.
That is ethnic oppression.
Iran has a large and quite well-educated population. It has a cosmopolitan past. Tehran is a very cosmopolitan city.
Women acquired, prior to the current regime, a relatively significant role in society. The repression and the stripping away of those women’s rights is a prominent feature of the human rights oppression of the current regime.
Trade unionists are repressed. We have heard testimony to that effect.
Sexual minorities are oppressed in a particularly grotesque way. Male homosexuals, gay men, are executed. Being a gay man is a terminal offence in Iran.
However, for peculiar reasons, it is acceptable to get a sex change operation. Sometimes Iranian gays have effectively been forced to undergo unwanted sex change operations to escape the death penalty. Many Iranian gays who do escape are currently in a situation of being effectively unrecognized refugees trapped in Turkey.
Young people are similarly subject to peculiar and extraordinary persecution, unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The majority of the executions of minors in the world takes place in Iran.
If one treats all forms of the death penalty as being a kind of persecution, then Iran is a world leader. In terms of per capita executions it leads every other country in the world. There is some evidence to suggest that with the current increase in executions, it may now be the leader in an absolute number context. Remember that this is a country with 70 million people, which is large but not as large as China with 1.2 billion people. At this point there may actually be more executions in Iran than there are even in China, making it tragically a world leader in a very sad way.
The question arises, could the situation in Iran get worse? We are talking about the worsening human rights situation in Iran. The answer is yes, it could, and it has been worse at certain points in the past. Such a rise of oppression into an outright reign of terror is entirely possible.
To make that point, I will conclude by turning once again to our testimony. Dr. Abbas Milani, who testified before us in October 2009, said that in the past 30 years in Iran, “there have been moments of respite and moments of true revolutionary terror”. He pointed out to us that in 1988 there was the “execution of an estimated 4,000 prisoners, who were serving time for other crimes, in order to cleanse the prisons of potential opponents”. This could happen again on just as massive a scale.
The prisons were cleared in 1988, according to a witness from Amnesty International, largely to make space for more prisoners. It was effectively a form of housecleaning.
A regime that can do that kind of thing is obviously one that we must speak openly about. I am glad that all members were willing to do so today and it has been a privilege to speak to this matter.
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Mr. Wayne Marston (Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, NDP):
Mr. Chair, I want to note that the member is the chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights and it has been a pleasure to work with him over the last number of years.
One of the recommendations that came from the subcommittee was to do with the broadcast of Farsi into Iran. Young people are using Twitter and other forms of communication on the Internet, which could very well be shut down or controlled, or could lead to their capture. I would like the member’s comments on the recommendation of the committee. Has he heard any reaction from our government on that suggestion?
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Mr. Scott Reid:
Mr. Chair, to answer the second question first, I have not heard a reaction.
On that recommendation, I have to confess that when the committee was hearing testimony, I remember thinking to myself that a chair is not supposed to express any opinion on matters that do not strictly relate to the rules. I remember thinking at the time that shortwave transmissions are an out-of-date technology and we hear broadcasts on the Internet, and given the fact that Iran has a well-connected, well-wired population and quite a bit of Internet and technical savvy, there was really no need for the old-fashioned broadcasting over the airwaves.
Having watched events in Tunisia and Egypt and the shutting down of the Internet as an attempt to control the population, I have realized that the thoughts I had privately were incorrect. I am only now expressing them to say that I realize that I had been incorrect about them and I did not express them at the time when I might have had some impact on the committee.
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Mr. Jim Maloway (Elmwood—Transcona, NDP):
Mr. Chair, I know the member sits on the subcommittee and I am aware of its report. It contains 24 recommendations and I have read them. I realize the report was finished in December 2010, not that long ago, but events are unfolding rather quickly. Could he give me a rundown as to how many of the recommendations have been dealt with specifically?
I also had a question about consular services, but I will ask that later.
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Mr. Scott Reid:
Mr. Chair, normally after a report is issued, at some point the government issues a response, but if it is a report of the House, there is a requirement that the government respond to it.
It is important to get concurrence in the report from the House. At this point, that has not happened. That is not to say the government should not be looking at it and responding to it, but that would ensure that point by point, all 24 recommendations would be dealt with, perhaps not in the manner the committee or the House would most want but, nonetheless, there is a requirement that it be done.
That being said, I cannot point to my knowing anything specific as an insider. Although I am on the government side, I am not actually a member of the government in the sense of knowing government secrets. I suppose if I were, I would not be able to share them extemporaneously, so I am going to be of less help than I wish I could be.
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Mr. Mario Silva (Davenport, Lib.):
Mr. Chair, I want to commend my hon. colleague on his excellent speech and the work he does in the committee.
The member stated very clearly what is faced by a lot of the minority groups in Iran, whether it be the Baluchis, the Baha’is, or some of the minority Christian and Jewish communities, and how they are being persecuted by the Iranian government.
One community the member knows very well is the Baha’is which appeared before our committee. They documented the incredible persecution they face on a daily basis by that regime, without any access to the media, without any access to any type of state protection.
In fact, the minister of intelligence of Iran, the prosecutor general, said:
The administration of this miscarried Baha’i sect at all levels is unlawful and banned and their ties to Israel and their opposition to Islam and the Islamic regime are clear. The danger they pose to national security is documented and proven and therefore it is necessary that any substitute administration that acts as a replacement for the original be confronted through the law.
In other words, he is making it very clear that this is a group to be targeted. Just as they targeted Israel and the Jewish people, they want to target the Baha’is. They almost put a target on their foreheads and say that it is okay to shoot them, that it is okay to kill them, because it is a sect that they want nothing to do with.
That dehumanization of Iran’s own people continually goes on. The Baha’is are peaceful people who originated in that part of the world, in Iran. They are just as much Iranians as are other Iranians. I am struck by the sheer violation of human rights against such a targeted group.
He also mentioned the gay community, which is also targeted by the regime. It continues to target its own people.
It is a country that has an incredible wealth of history. It is a country that has many incredibly intelligent people. Luckily for Canada, many of them are here in Canada because many of them have left that regime. There still is a very young, vibrant population there. They want to see change. They see what is happening around the world. They want to know what we can do, how we can act in solidarity with them.
Does my hon. colleague want to add anything further about the human rights abuses taking place against those communities?
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Mr. Scott Reid:
Mr. Chair, the Baha’is face particularly severe persecution. There are probably three reasons for that.
The first is that they are relatively numerous and therefore a bigger target in a sense. The second is that they are a post-Koranic religion; that is to say, they recognize the authority of a prophet after the prophet Muhammad which is seen as being particularly unacceptable by the regime. The third is that the holiest site of the Baha’is is in Israel. I think it is in Haifa, but I stand to be corrected.
It should be mentioned though, and this is an important point regarding the third point, that it is purely an accident of history that Haifa is in the state of Israel. The events that led to its becoming a sacred site had to do with the imprisonment by the Ottoman Turks of the founder of the Baha’i faith in, I think it was the 1840s or the 1850s, obviously in years pre-dating the creation of the state of Israel, which resulted in its being there.
That does not imply in any way that Baha’is are incapable of being loyal citizens of Iran. It does not imply any particular point of view on behalf of the Baha’is, whether they are in Iran or anywhere else in the world, any opinion regarding the state of Israel. The use of that fact by those who would persecute the Baha’is is a terrible wrong against the peaceful people of the Baha’i faith who historically have been very good and loyal citizens of Iran.