By Irwin Cotler and Sen. Mark Kirk
In the run-up to the Iranian presidential election, Canadian parliamentarians and their American counterparts have been focusing attention on the Tehran government, sounding the alarm on massive domestic repression and the Iranian nuclear and terrorist threat to international peace and security.
We are witness to state-sanctioned assaults that are tantamount to crimes against humanity, including the highest per capita rate of executions in the world; the imprisonment and silencing of more journalists and bloggers than any other country; the persistent and pervasive assault on women's rights; the targeting of religious and ethnic minorities, particularly the Baha'i and the Kurds; the criminalization of fundamental freedoms of speech, association and assembly; and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and the lawyers who would defend them.
As it happens, the Iranian election -- fraught with fraud and fear -- is taking place against the backdrop of dark moments of remembrance -- the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of the Baha'i leadership in Iran, known as the Yaran; the 25th anniversary of the supreme leader's fatwa-ordered 1988 massacre of thousands of political dissidents; and the recent report of 2,600 political prisoners in Iran. The regime has only been ramping up its crackdown on dissent in advance of the presidential election.
Accordingly, we have launched the Iranian Political Prisoners Global Advocacy Project, where parliamentarians "adopt" Iranian political prisoners and advocate on their behalf. While the Iranian government seeks to silence dissenters, we are determined to make their voices heard. Each victim of repression must be recognized as a real person enduring mental and often physical anguish in a society where human rights and democracy itself have been imprisoned.
To that end, each parliamentarian participating in this project will endeavor to make known the story of his or her adopted prisoner as part of the struggle to set them free.
We will be advocating on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh, as well as 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 on trumped-up charges of "propaganda against the regime" and became one of Evin's inmates herself.
On May 30, this extraordinary woman -- who embodies the struggle for human rights in Iran and symbolizes the regime's massive domestic repression -- spent 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.
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 and are not allowed to attend university. Hundreds have been imprisoned over the past decade, while the regime's state-sanctioned culture of hate has resulted in arson attacks, the desecration of Baha'i cemeteries and assaults on school children.
We will also be advocating on behalf of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born US citizen who converted to Christianity as a teenager. During a visit to Iran last September to see his family and build an orphanage in the city of Rasht, he was arrested for undermining national security through Christian evangelical activities and sentenced to eight years in prison. He has been denied medical treatment for several serious health problems -- including internal bleeding due to abuse in prison.
Earlier this month, Abedini was placed in solitary confinement for one week where he spent his 33rd birthday. While he was in what the American Center for Law and Justice has called "a small, dark hole," more than 50,000 birthday messages were sent to his prison. Pastor Saeed has a wife and two young children.
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.
Canadian MP Irwin Cotler is co-chairman with Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran, and of the Iranian Political Prisoners Global Advocacy Project.