Tolerating Suffering in Tehran

By Ari Fridman and Maxine Kaye

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
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Four years ago Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” her account of secretly teaching Western literature to seven female students from the University of Tehran, enthralled people around the world.

What made Nafisi’s book so appealing was its unflinching portrayal of the harsh reality that ordinary Iranians face. Today, that reality continues to deteriorate. And, tragically, international institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council are ignoring it.

While the most infamous cases of the Iranian government’s cruelty, such as the 2003 murder of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, are widely known, there are many other crimes that go largely unnoticed by the world community.

The plight of countless innocent Iranians demands our attention now. Writing recently in The New Republic, Nafisi urged nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, activists and journalists in the West to “take up the cause of the Iranian people.”

Unlike the 15 British sailors kidnapped and held by Iran earlier this year, thousands of ordinary Iranians lack a robust support network to bring an end to their physical and emotional anguish. Women, journalists, opposition figures, homosexuals, and religious and ethnic minorities are among the most besieged.

Women’s rights activists face a particularly intense state-orchestrated crackdown. This assault persists despite the human rights protections in the Iranian Constitution and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified.

As Iranian women have stood up for equal protection under the law, the government has pushed back. Seeking to put an end to laws, for example, that allow women to face the death penalty for adultery, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi launched a campaign in 2006 to collect one million signatures on a petition demanding equal rights for women. Instead of a change in the laws, however, peaceful demonstrators have faced arrests — in June 2006, and again in March and April of this year.

Also in April, Iranian police stepped up a crackdown on women’s dress, issuing more than 1,300 warnings over two days for women to conform to the head-to-toe chador required by the state’s Islamic dress code. And the Guardian Council, an unelected body of six clerics and six jurists who exert broad control over candidates’ eligibility, disqualified all women candidates from the December 2006 election for the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for selecting the country’s “supreme leader.”

While treatment of women is especially egregious, other groups considered a threat to the Iranian leadership’s theocratic worldview and grip on power also face regular oppression. Since 2000, the government has shut down more than 100 reformist newspapers and magazines. In 2004, the Guardian Council, acting on behalf of government allies to ensure that officeholders are friendly to the regime, disqualified thousands of candidates from running for municipal councils or the Assembly of Experts. Iranian courts have sentenced as many as 4,000 homosexuals to death since 1979. Practitioners of the Bahai faith are considered “unprotected infidels” by the government, which has arbitrarily detained thousands of Bahais since the 1980s. And, in recent years, the government has used mass arrests to infringe upon the cultural expression of Azeris, an ethnic minority that comprises nearly a quarter of the country’s 65 million citizens.

Iranian government officials, the security system and the judiciary all bear responsibility for human rights abuses.

The current ministers of interior and information are among the leading known abusers who fill the ranks of government. These hardliners are considered complicit in security authorities’ crackdowns on “dangerous” groups, such as women’s rights activists.

Inside the prisons, detainees, often held either without charge or on dubious charges, endure cruel and unusual punishments. Torture is reported to be routine.

The judiciary operates on two planes: Some courts are part of the normal governance structures, while others are independent. Government courts operate in accordance with the constitution’s mandate for statutory compliance with Islamic law. Revolutionary courts, with no constitutional legitimacy, try cases of national security, including offenses considered “un-Islamic.”

Government courts try defendants in closed sessions, accept coerced confessions and deny access to legal counsel. Revolutionary courts hold summary trials, issuing rulings that are final, without appeal.

Both court systems demonstrate unyielding fidelity to extreme interpretations of Islamic law. In April, for example, the Supreme Court acquitted a group of vigilantes who committed a series of murders in 2002 on the grounds that the victims were engaged in activities inconsistent with Islam. The zealots carried out some of the deaths by stoning, suffocation and burying victims alive.

Although the U.N. Human Rights Council voted in March to end scrutiny of human rights abuses in Iran, concerned parties in the international community must decry the Iranian government’s repression of its own people. Our silence only encourages more suffering.

Ari Fridman is a Legacy Heritage Fellow at the American Jewish Committee. Maxine Kaye is the senior assistant to the executive director at the American Jewish Committee. They are the authors of the new study “Human Rights in Iran, 2007.”

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