Canadian Senate raises awareness about the plight of Iranian political prisoners

This month, the Federal Conservatives in Canada held Iran Accountability Week 2016, which was organized by Senator Linda Frum and MP Tony Clement. Around the same period of time, the Canadian Senate held an Iran Inquiry that reported on the systematic human rights violations committed against political prisoners within the Islamic Republic of Iran. A number of Senators from across the political spectrum in Canada presented information about the dire plight of Iranian political prisoners.
Senator Lang, Shabnam Assadollahi, and Senator Frum Photo Credit: Shabnam Assadollahi

This month, the Federal Conservatives in Canada held Iran Accountability Week 2016, which was organized by Senator Linda Frum and MP Tony Clement. Around the same period of time, the Canadian Senate held an Iran Inquiry that reported on the systematic human rights violations committed against political prisoners within the Islamic Republic of Iran. A number of Senators from across the political spectrum within Canada presented information about the dire plight of Iranian political prisoners and at the end of the proceedings, recognized 4 Iranian human rights activists for their work promoting freedom within their country of origin. The four Iranian human rights activists that were honored are Shabnam Assadollahi, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Homa Arjomand, and Sayeh Hassan, all of whom were fortunate enough to escape from Iran in order to continue their human rights activism within Canada.

“Honorable gentlemen, in the three years since the Senate Chamber last launched an inquiry into the human rights abuses of political prisoners in Iran, the situation for political dissidents, gays and lesbians, journalists and bloggers, and members of minority groups has only become worse,” Senator Linda Frum stated.   “Between 2013 and 2016, there were at least 2,141 judicially ordered executions in Iran, the worst per capita record in the world. As of January 2016, 161 juvenile offenders sit on death row.  I would like to thank the senators who will join me in this inquiry into the grotesque human rights abuses that take place inside Iran every single day and especially inside Iran’s prisons, where prisoners routinely endure isolation, torture, rape, and mock executions.”

Senator James Cowan, who is the leader of the Canadian Senate Liberals, added: “I was alarmed to recently learn that 2015 was one of the darkest years in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Multiple sources, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, have reported more than 900 executions in Iran in 2015 alone. That's reportedly the highest number of executions in Iran since 1989. As horrifying as this may be, the Iranian government's death penalty record has not had an impact on its relations with the international community. I'm extremely saddened to observe that the Iranian authorities are increasing the rate of executions in Iran at the same time as the country is emerging from years of isolation.”

“Honorable senators, according to Amnesty International, Iran is not only home to the most executions per capita in the world but also home to the most juvenile executions,” he stated. “Iran is signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and therefore should not be sentencing juvenile offenders to death. There is no sign that the Iranian authorities are planning to slow down the rate of executions or begin respecting and following their international obligations.”

According to Iranian human rights activist Shabnam Assadollahi, who survived Evin Prison and then proceeded to flee to Canada: “There is only one experience worse than being tortured; having to listen to others beg and scream not for their life but for their death. At night, I would count around 60-70 bullets, which meant that 60-70 souls had been executed and I was hearing the last shot that they would give the victim in the head.”

Although the list of political dissidents languishing in Iran’s prisons is a long one, various Canadian Senators highlighted some of their stories that tear apart the heart. Senator Daniel Lang noted the plight of Ali Amir Amirgholi, a 33-year-old human rights activist presently being held in the infamous Evin Prison where Assadollahi was imprisoned: “Despite being a prisoner of conscious, he is reportedly being held in a cell with dangerous prisoners who suffer from life-threatening diseases rather than a cell for political prisoners. Colleagues, if the Iranian authorities have their way, Amir will be in prison for the next 20 years if he survives his confinement. The Revolutionary Court in Tehran, presided over by Judge Salavati, sentenced this non-violent activist to a 21-year prison term on the basis of outlandish charges, such as insulting religious sanctities, insulting the supreme leader and propaganda against the regime. In 2014, The Guardian in the U.K. identified Judge Salavati as one of Iran's most corrupt judges owing to his leading role in cracking down on free speech and pro-democracy activities.”

“In light of this torture and the unreasonable political sentence of 21 years in jail for standing up for democracy and human rights, and countless similar human rights abuses in Iran, I call upon the Senate to pay close attention to the human rights abuses in Iran and particularly the plight of imprisoned pro-democracy activists like Amir Amirgholi,” Senator Lang proclaimed. “Mr. Amirgholi is a courageous man, not a criminal, one who is willing to sacrifice his life to stand up for what is right and just.  Through his peaceful activism in 2014, Amir was defending the human rights of Iranians and participated in a peaceful protest outside the United Nations' office in Tehran in solidarity with the people of Kobane, Syria, who were then under siege. A couple of months later, Amir was arrested by Iranian authorities and transferred to a solitary confinement cell in Evin Prison, where he endured two months of interrogation and torture.”

Senator Frum highlighted the plight of Saeed Malekpour, a software engineer who immigrated to Canada in 2004 and was waiting to receive citizenship when he was forced to return to Iran in order to take care of his terminally ill father: “After arriving in Tehran, Saeed was kidnapped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, and thrown into prison. When Saeed's death sentence, awarded to him for so-called agitation against the regime and insulting the sanctity of Islam, was called off in late 2012, it was replaced by a life sentence. Whereas once Saeed and his family lived in fear of his imminent death, that terror has now been replaced by the despair of contemplating a life spent in prison. He is accused of committing a crime against the state, a crime for which there is absolutely no evidence other than a forced confession achieved by the use of torture.”

“Habib Latifi, a young Iranian Kurdish man, was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2007 in his hometown of Sanandaj,” Senator James Cowan related. “He was an industrial engineering student at the University of Ilam and was also engaged in civil, cultural, environmental and political activities with a number of NGOs and community groups. During the first four months of his detention, Habib was held in solitary confinement and had no access to the outside world, except for the time he was transferred to a hospital outside the prison for a kidney hemorrhage caused by violent interrogation. Habib suffered unimaginably during these four months in solitary confinement and was reportedly subjected to brutal psychological and physical torture. According to reports, Habib even suffered multiple fractures to his head and repeated kicks to his face.”

“In the summer of 2008, during a trial that lasted only a few minutes, Habib was sentenced to death for the vague and baseless charge of enmity against God,” Senator Cowan noted. “This is Habib's ninth year on death row in Sanandaj prison. He is reportedly not allowed to request any type of temporary prison leave and is not allowed visits with his family. Imagine for a second Habib's reality. He was 26 years old when he entered prison. He's now 35. He's lived every single day for the past nine years not knowing whether he will live to see another day.”

“Mohsen Daneshpour and his son Ahmad are on death row in Rajai Shahr Prison in the city of Karaj,” he stated. “Their other family members, including Ahmad's wife Motahareh Bahrami, are also imprisoned. The Daneshpour family was reportedly arrested in 2009 after participating in a mass pro-democracy street protest in Tehran. In an unfair court hearing that lasted only minutes, Mohsen and Ahmad were both sentenced to death and accused of supporting the Iranian exiled opposition group, the MEK. To date, they have not seen their verdicts, nor have they been allowed access to a lawyer or their case files.”

According to Senator Cowan, “I fear the Iranian authorities may be holding a grudge against the Daneshpour family and as a result are systematically harassing and abusing them. In the late 1980s, during a time of mass executions in Iran, two of Mohsen's brothers were reportedly executed. Mohsen is 70 years old and suffers from heart disease and osteoarthritis of the knee. Ahmad is 46 years old and suffers from ulcerative colitis and mental illness. Father and son have lived every day for the past seven years knowing that they may be executed at any moment.”

“Then there's juvenile offender Saman Naseem, who was only 17 in 2011 when he was arrested by Iranian authorities and accused of firing a gun at an IRGC agent,” the leader of the Liberal Canadian Senators emphasized. “Although Saman had initially confessed to this accusation, he later retracted his claim, stating that he had been forced and pressured to confess under torture. According to Saman, he was hung upside down from a ceiling blindfolded and had his toenails and fingernails pulled out. The only evidence reportedly used against Saman in court was his forced confessions. Saman was sentenced to death based on confessions he gave under torture. The young man is now 22 years old and is still languishing in prison. He has gone through hell and back in these five years living in the shadow of death but he is not the only juvenile offender on death row.”

Senator Salma Ataullahjan, who is of Pakistani origin, also stood in solidarity with Iranian students who have been oppressed by the regime: “Sakhi Reigi, an Iranian from the country's Baluch ethnic minority, was a blogger and university student majoring in software development when he was arrested by Iranian authorities in the summer of 2009. He was 31 years old at the time of his arrest and had only two more terms to complete before graduating.  Sakhi was also a student volunteer for the presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi and his arrest occurred only a few days after the results of the 2009 Iranian presidential election were announced. An Iranian court subsequently sentenced Sakhi to 20 years in prison for allegedly acting against national security and spreading propaganda against the regime.”

“Aside from the Kurdish political prisoner Habib Latifi, who has been sentenced to death, Sakhi arguably may have received the harshest prison sentence handed down by an Iranian court to a university student,” she noted. “Sakhi is currently being held in Karoun Prison, located in the Iranian southwestern city of Ahwaz. While in prison, it has been reported that he has endured long durations in solitary confinement and has been subjected to repeated physical and psychological torture. Sakhi is in his seventh year of imprisonment.”

“Another student imprisoned in Iran is Misagh Yazdan Nejad, who studied English and translation at Payame Noor University in Tehran,” Senator Salma Ataullahjan stated. “He was arrested in September of 2007 for participating in an event on the nineteenth anniversary of the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran in 1988 and was accused of having relations with exiled Iranian opposition group MEC. For this alleged offence, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Like Sakhi, it has been reported that Misagh has endured long durations in solitary confinement and has been both physically and psychologically tortured. He is currently in his ninth year of imprisonment.”

“Honorable senators, the situation for university students in Iran is dire,” she proclaimed. “Not only are the students regularly expelled or banned from pursuing post-secondary education, but they also face threats and harassment for daring to learn and speak up for justice and human rights. I stand in condemnation of the detention and abuse of Iranian students and call for the immediate release of student political prisoners Sakhi Reigi and Misagh Yazdan Nejad.”   Soon after Senator Salma Ataullahjan delivered her speech, Iran released Misagh.   However, Sakhi remains behind bars.

Senator Raynell Andreychuk raised awareness about the plight of 3 Kurdish journalists in honor of the Canadian Senate event: “Mohammed Sadiq Kaboudvand was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to serve nine years and ten months in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison. As founder of the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization and editor of a weekly publication called Payam-e Mardom — The Peoples' Message — he was accused of acting against national security, spreading propaganda, opposing Islamic penal laws, and advocating on behalf of political prisoners. Similarly, Adnan Hassanpour was arrested in 2007 on comparable charges. His death sentence was reduced to a 15-year prison term to be served in the Zahedan central prison. Finally, Kamal Sharifi was first arrested by Iranian authorities in 1989, accused of membership in Kurdish opposition groups. He is serving a 30-year sentence in the Minab Prison.”

“These journalists have reported cruel and degrading treatment, torture and periods of prolonged solitary confinement,” she declared. “They have reportedly been denied adequate medical treatment in addition to their right to furlough. Ranked 169 out of 180 countries by the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, such are the ongoing practices perpetrated against journalists and human rights defenders in Iran.”

Senator Andreychuk also noted the dire plight of religious and ethnic minorities within the Islamic Republic of Iran: “Also among them in prison, members of religious and ethnic minorities are the most persecuted and not only in prison. I want to note again the Baha'i community, which has been one of the most oppressed religious minorities in Iran.  Their faith is still unrecognized by the Iranian constitution. Numerous Baha'i community leaders have been arrested on charges relating to disturbing national security.”

“Honorable senators, it is Canada's responsibility to insist that Iran uphold its commitments to freedom of thought and expression under international human rights law,” she proclaimed. “I urge all senators to join in condemning the systematic persecution of religious and ethnic minorities and to call for the immediate release of the unjustly imprisoned activists and journalists in Iran.”

Senator Lynn Beyek was especially touched by the plight of Nahid Gorji, an ordinary Iranian mother who was arrested in 2014 merely for stating what she thought on Facebook, in chat groups and other social media outlets: “According to multiple confirmed sources, Nahid is being punished for something that many of us do every day — for simply going on to Facebook and chatting and other activities on social media. Nahid was held in prison for one full year without any charges before finally being released on bail in October 2015, the anniversary of her arrest. Honorable colleagues, close sources say Nahid's release was related to her deteriorating psychological well-being in prison, but even so, in March 2016, an Iranian court sentenced her to three more years in prison for exercising her right to freedom of speech.”

“Nahid was returned to prison on April 8, when authorities arrested her again,” she noted. “She is currently being held in Mashhad's Vakilabad Prison and like countless other prisoners of conscience in Iran, she is being deprived of her most basic human rights, such as access to a lawyer and regular visitation with her family. Honorable senators, this is not a partisan issue. It is an issue that goes to the very heart and soul of our values and beliefs. Let us join together to send a strong message to Iranian authorities that Canadians will not stand for the violation of the Iranian people's basic human rights.”

Senator Norman Doyle noted the plight of Kurdish women’s rights activist Zeynab Jalalian, who was 25 years old when she was arrested in 2008. She is now 36 and still in prison: “Zeynab, who is a Kurdish women's rights activist, spent the first two years of her imprisonment held without charge. During this time, she was subjected to constant threats to her life and endured long periods in solitary confinement. She was brutally interrogated and tortured, both psychologically and physically, to confess to the accusations against her, such as supporting Kurdish opposition groups through engaging in armed operations. According to sources close to Zeynab, she has denied the charges against her and has refused to cooperate with authorities by providing them with a confession. As a result, in 2009, an Iranian court unlawfully sentenced Zeynab to death for the baseless and vague charge of waging war against God.”

“Human rights groups have reported multiple cases of other civil rights activists in Iran who, like Zeynab, have been charged with waging war against God, merely for their peaceful activism,” Senator Doyle noted. “Although Zeynab has stated she supported some Kurdish opposition groups, she has also stated that she has never engaged in any type of armed operation, insisting her work consisted of raising non-violent awareness about the situation of Kurdish women in Iran. In other words, Zeynab's real crime is yearning to live a decent life of dignity for herself and her Kurdish community.”

According to Senator Doyle, “In 2009, following an international outcry, Zeynab's death sentence was commuted to life in prison. But nothing can repair the damage inflicted on this young woman for having to endure years in prison knowing she could be hanged at any moment. According to the UK human rights group Justice for Iran, Zeynab Jalalian is currently the only female political prisoner in Iran who is currently serving a life sentence. There is no denying that a life sentence is really a slow death sentence.”

“Honorable senators, we all have to be extremely saddened about the situation of Zeynab Jalalian,” he declared. “Throughout her imprisonment, she has not had access to her lawyer or adequate medical care or fair due process. And for the past few years, she has been suffering from multiple illnesses, including a severe eye condition, as a result of the confinement and medical neglect. Her family members and lawyer have warned that if she does not undergo surgery on her eye immediately, she could lose her eyesight altogether. Zeynab also reportedly suffers from an intestinal infection and gastrointestinal bleeding. Despite all this, Iranian authorities have stubbornly refused to release her until she agrees to confess on camera. As a member of the Senate of Canada, I call on the Iranian authorities to release Zeynab Jalalian immediately from prison and provide her with the medical care that she so desperately needs.”

Senator Joan Fraser, the Deputy Leader of the Canadian Senate Liberals, proclaimed: “I'm going to speak to you about the unlawful treatment that political prisoner Maryam Akbari Monfared and her family have endured at the hands of Iranian authorities. Ms. Monfared's family has been living in Iran under constant threats and harassment since the inception of the Islamic Republic regime. In the 1980s, during a decade of mass executions in Iran, four of Maryam's siblings — three brothers and one sister — were hanged by Iranian authorities for alleged membership in the exiled Iranian opposition group, the MEK, the Mujahedin-e- Khalq organization. In December 2009, in Tehran, Maryam participated in a mass pro-democracy street protest. As a result, she was arrested shortly afterward.”

“Like other political prisoners highlighted today, she was handed an outrageous conviction by an Iranian court: She was sentenced to 15 years in prison and accused of being a member of the MEK, a charge she has repeatedly denied,” the Deputy Leader of the Liberals in the Canadian Senate declared. “In an open letter Maryam wrote from prison, she reveals that Judge Salavati told her during the court hearing, ‘You are serving on behalf of your brothers and sister’ — the four siblings who had been hanged.”

According to Senator Joan Fraser, “Ms. Monfared is held in Evin Prison's women's ward. Poor prison conditions, physical and psychological torture and imprisonment for the past six years have led her to contract numerous illnesses. Today, she suffers from diseases of her thyroid and eye. In January of this year, she was briefly transferred to a medical clinic outside the prison for a health assessment, but only briefly. Ms. Monfared's family has reported to human rights groups that her case was recently sent to Iran's Supreme Court for review. Her family hopes that the charges against her will be dropped and that she will be released from prison. I urge the Iranian authorities to release her immediately.”

Senator Stephen Greene took the opportunity of the Canadian Senates’ Iran inquiry to raise awareness about the plight of Iran’s Baluch minority: “In particular, I would like to highlight the case of political prisoner Mohammad Saber Malek Raisi, a member of Iran's Baluch ethnic minority, who was arrested in 2009 at the age of 15. Now, one person's political prisoner can sometimes be another's terrorist, but by all accounts Mohammad is not a terrorist. According to Amnesty International, the sole reason that Mohammad was arrested was to force his older brother Abdol Rahman to return to Iran after fleeing in 2009.”

According to Senator Greene, “Iranian authorities have reportedly tried using torture unsuccessfully I might add to get Mohammad to confess to having ties with the armed opposition group Jundullah. Mohammad has steadfastly insisted that he is nothing more than a high school student and has no political affiliations at all. Despite this, the regime has sentenced Mohammad to 15 years in prison for alleged cooperation with opposition groups and has gone so far as to threaten execution should his older brother not return to Iran.”

“This young man is hardly a terrorist, but we all know that Iran is a supporter of terrorism,” Senator Greene declared. “Numerous human rights groups and NGOs have cited Iran for its sponsorship of terrorist groups that believe in the eradication of the democratic state of Israel. In 1984, the U.S. State Department designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that continues today, despite their recent treaty.”

“While Iran has traditionally sponsored terrorism in the Middle East in an effort to destabilize its rivals, it is expanding its efforts in Africa and even Latin America by supplying weapons and occasionally training to various groups,” Senator Greene concluded. “Ladies and gentlemen, these are just a few examples of why I think it is sadly ironic for a regime like Iran to call a kid a terrorist. But Mohammad is no longer a teenager; he is now 22, having spent the last seven years in prison with no access to his family or a lawyer. Iran, free Mohammad now.”

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