Human rights activist Dr. Widad Akreyi: “The Iranian regime is like ISIS”

Dr. Widad Akreyi, Co-Founder and President of Defend International, spoke about the plight of the Kurdish nation in general and Kurdish women in particular within Iranian Kurdistan, a region that the Kurds themselves call Rojhelat: “In many ways, the regime shares the same core religious beliefs as ISIS.”
Iran executes people en masse Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News

Dr. Widad Akreyi, Co-Founder and President of Defend International, stated in an exclusive interview with JerusalemOnline that in Iranian Kurdistan, a region that the Kurds themselves call Rojhelat, Kurdish women face systematic mistreatment by the Iranian regime: “The plight of Kurdish women in Rojhelat (Kurdistan’s Eastern part, which is occupied by Iran) involves chronic societal and political problems. Women and children suffer daily from discrimination, gender inequality, economic inequality, police abuse, domestic violence, lack of political voice and healthcare and other barriers that influence their lives. They face these challenges because of their ethnicity, outgoing nature and their cultural heritage and identity.” 

“To give an idea of how bad it is, if a Kurdish woman believes in women’s rights or has secular views or is passionate about the essence of her Kurdish identity, she will most likely be convicted of being a mohareb, i.e. an ‘enemy of God’ and risk spending her life in prison or be sentenced to death,” Dr. Akreyi noted. “Shirin Alam Hoolo and Zeynab Jalaliyan are only two examples of many others who confronted the death penalty for daring to think freely.”  

Shirin Alam Hoolo was a 28-year-old Kurdish woman who was sentenced to death for allegedly supporting PJAK and she was convicted of “waging enmity against God.” The second that she entered into Iranian custody, she was tortured.   When she decided to go on hunger strike, the torture intensified.  The Iranian authorities spoke to her only in Farsi and she did not understand Farsi until she was imprisoned for an extended period of time yet they would beat her when she could not answer their questions properly.   In the end, they dosed her with drugs in order to make her talk. She spent two years in prison without legal representation and none of her questions were answered until she was given the death penalty. She was executed on May 9, 2010.

Before she was executed, Holoo wrote: “My language is Kurdish, the language that I use to communicate with my family, friends and community, and the language that I grew up with. But I am not allowed to speak my language or read it. I am not allowed to go to school in my own language and I am not allowed to write it. They are telling me to deny my Kurdishness, but if I do, that means I have to deny who I am. Mr. Judge and Interrogator: When you were interrogating me, I couldn’t speak your language and couldn’t understand you. I learned Farsi in the past two years in the Women’s section of the prison from my friends. But you interrogated me, tried me and sentenced me in your own language even though I couldn’t understand it and couldn’t defend myself. The torture that you subjected me to has become my nightmare. I am in constant pain because of the torture I was subjected to. When I entered this prison, my hair was black; now after three (3) years of imprisonment, my hair has started to turn white.”

Zeynab Jalaliyan is a Kurdish Iranian political activist who was also convicted of “waging enmity against God” and given the death penalty for alleged ties to PJAK. Like Holoo, she was also tortured and did not have legal representation at her trial. The judge told her: “You are God’s enemy and you have to be hanged very soon.” But the Iranian Supreme Court did eventually overturn her death sentence and reduced it to life imprisonment. At this time, Jalaliyan is now the oldest political prisoner in Iran and is on the verge of becoming blind thanks to the torture. She is presently not receiving medical treatment.

“The number of Kurdish political activists affected by violations of human rights in Iran are enormous,” Dr. Akreyi noted. “There are severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Prisoners of conscience continue to live behind bars and serve prison sentences for peacefully exercising their legitimate right to express their opinions. In comparison to other political prisoners, Kurdish prisoners are serving unreasonably long sentences designed to keep them in prison for as long as possible. The Iranian criminal justice system discriminates systematically against Kurdish victims and critics of the regime. Capital punishment is the regime’s answer to Kurdish activists' calls for change. Unfortunately, this has become the norm.”

“The challenges involved in defending and supporting the victims are also enormous,” Dr. Akreyi emphasized. “There are risks associated with campaigning for the release of detainees. To name only a few, Rojhelatian human rights organizations are often unable to mobilize due to intimidation, imprisonment, torture or executions. The safety of their families is at stake too. We at Defend International have launched the campaign ‘Towards Abolition of Death Sentence and Enhanced Protection of Human Rights in Iran’ to call on the authorities to review hanging and the human rights situation in light of International Human Rights Law. The campaign has several objectives, including raising awareness about the harassment, imprisonment and persecution of political opponents, defenders of human rights and other civil society activities. We have observed the effects of inequality, repression, torture and public hangings under President Rouhani’s and Ahmadinejad’s leaderships. And therefore, we have called on all UN member States, irrespective of whether they consider executions to be lawful or not, to urge the Iranian authorities to adopt a complete ban on public hangings, stoning and all forms of violence against citizens.”

Aside from the threat of capital punishment, Kurdish political prisoners are also systemically tortured until they confess, can have body parts amputated, are arbitrarily detained, and face having evidence used against them that was collected via illegal methods: “We are greatly worried about the reports that are coming out of Iran, indicating that there is no moderation during Rouhani’s Presidency. On the contrary, floggings and executions are widespread and there is a significant rise in the number of acid attacks and the use of indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment of journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and other civil society actors. Police and security forces are creative in finding excuses to arrest or punish Kurds. The excuses may vary from having another religion than Islam to publicly breaking fast during Ramadan. If accused of the latter, the person may be looking at a death sentence on charges of insulting Islamic sanctities. Civil society and human rights activists have little trust in the judicial system, with its courts and penal institutions being routinely accused of political bias, political influence, incompetence, misconduct, corruption and bribery.”

“Another problem is limited or no access to medical care in prisons,” Dr. Akreyi stressed. “Our local partners note instances where prisoners are denied admission to hospitals or deprived of necessary medication therapy as a means of punishment or for the convenience of the staff. A focus on medical care is important in light of the fact that the prevalence of serious and life-threatening diseases among prisoners is much higher than among the general population. Most prisons are dangerously overcrowded, poorly ventilated and unhygienic, which compromise the health and safety of prisoners. Under these poor conditions, many Kurds may end up contracting chronic, contagious diseases while behind the bars.” 

However, Kurdish female political prisoners are not the only Kurdish women to be discriminated against by Iran’s legal system: “The promotion of gender equality in Rojhelat is problematic because the protection of women’s rights in most cases comes into conflict with the outdated Islamic traditions and laws applied by the central government in Tehran. As women in the Islamic Iranian society, Kurdish women are obliged by Sharia to be inferior to men - an obligation in a stark contrast to their Kurdish culture, which has survived against all odds. Time and time again, we have heard Iranian officials saying that men and women are treated equally in the Iranian society but facts on the ground seem to speak of another reality. For example, Sharia gives men the right to marry up to four permanent wives and to have an unlimited number of temporary wives in Mut’a marriages. Thus, various forms of inequalities are prevalent and poisoning the society. In many ways, the regime shares the same core religious beliefs as ISIS.”

According to Dr. Akreyi, “Although women play a major role in the economic and social development, their impacts remain invisible and overshadowed by a visible political agenda shaped by the government’s lawmakers. For instance, the Iranian Parliament has passed a new draft law, which aims to treat domestic violence as a private matter, restrict women’s divorce and reproductive rights and disadvantage childless women in the labor market. This is a discriminatory bill against females and it is not supposed to exist in the 21st century. It underlines that women in the Iranian society are not seen as human beings with equal value, free will and inherent human rights. Such discriminatory practices can never be justified because they further reinforce the marginalization of women through the masculinization of rules.”

Dr. Akreyi highlighted that following the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers, the plight of Kurdish women in Iran has only gotten worse: “We might be witnessing the starting point of an alarming cycle, characterized by all sorts of harmful policies that are based on an even more pronounced concentration of an ultra-religious culture in laws that could lead to the disintegration of society. That the Iranian authorities are encouraging, fostering and facilitating this culture is totally unacceptable.  Keeping in mind that affordable modern contraception is no longer available in Iran, it is likely that the number of unplanned pregnancies will rise, putting more women at risk of going through with unsafe abortions. In a country that plans to double its population, the daily pressures on women are expected to increase, especially on those who have progressive views and value the supremacy of individual rights.”

According to Dr. Akreyi, the Iranian authorities do everything in their power in order to prevent the Kurds from preserving their cultural heritage: “The main goal of the Kurdish movement, not only in Rojhelat, but in all parts of Kurdistan, has been to protect their culture and identity. The Iranian authorities discriminate systematically against the Kurds in the exercise of their cultural, civil, economic and social rights. For example, Kurds are not allowed to use their own language in education or broadcasts. It is extremely challenging, if not almost impossible, for a Kurd to have a fulfilling career in most fields or to be treated fairly and paid a fair wage. During peaceful demonstrations, the police and security forces particularly target those wearing traditional Kurdish clothing, using unnecessary or excessive force, which is troubling.” 

This Iranian policy is especially harmful for young Kurdish girls: “Under the Iranian Civil Law, the age of criminal responsibility for girls is nine. This means that a Kurdish girl as young as 9-years-old can be whipped or detained for not wearing the hijab. It is forbidden for Kurdish women to wear their own Kurdish clothes or European-style dresses. The level of debate in the country is so low that we heard Iranian clerics saying that women's clothing is causing rivers to run dry, encouraging the Morality Police to crack down on women who fail to follow the Islamic dress code. To say that women’s choice of dress was adversely impacting the environment is not only ignorant, but can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of those women. These statements are incredibly misleading and constitute an insult to the intelligence of the citizens. When the Kurds demand respect for their cultural and social rights, they are called the ‘enemies of Allah.’”

Given the horrendous conditions that the Kurds are forced to live under, the Kurdish nation has committed itself to fighting against the Iranian regime: “By and large, the Kurdish Rojhelatian communities have been at the forefront in protesting against injustice and discrimination. They have responded to historical occupation and oppression with public protests and strikes, as well as by establishing their own social and cultural movements and joining Kurdish political parties. Despite the problems they encounter each day, they manage to keep their spirit strong. They have committed themselves to making their lives and families better by making their communities fairer, safer, healthier and more inclusive places to live, work and invest. In all parts of Kurdistan, the Kurds are literally fighting for their right to exist as a nation with a distinct culture, language, history and geography. Today, both men and women are fighting on different fronts against tyranny, extremism and occupation.”

“Undoubtedly, the vast majority of Kurds wants an independent Kurdistan,” Dr. Akreyi stated. “Some statistics indicate that if a referendum was to take place in the last 6 months in Bashor (Iraqi Kurdistan), almost 98% of Kurds would have chosen to live in a free and independent Kurdistan. It unlikely that Rojhelat would be much different from Bashor. The citizens have had it with the hardships, fears and traumas they have endured for so many decades. However, it is true that the Kurdish political parties may appear to be divided between those who support an independent Kurdistan and those who support having autonomy under democratic central governments. When it comes to those who claim that they want autonomy, their statements should be considered in the context of the current political landscape. Deep down, almost all Kurdish parties have been fighting for an independent Kurdistan. They may, for the time being, put emphasis on political correctness, but if the circumstances change, they would be among the loudest voices calling for what their members wish for the future generations.”

In conclusion, JerusalemOnline asked Dr. Akreyi what Israel can do to help the Iranian Kurds in their struggle. She replied: “Israel as a country can use its well-respected voice in national, regional and international arenas to advance positive change in the lives of Kurds in Rojhelat and other parts of Kurdistan. Israel and the West can support the Kurds politically, technologically and otherwise. The Jewish communities around the world and in particular their lobby networks can play a key and pivotal role in putting the Kurdish question on the agenda of the Western countries in order to ultimately demand recognition of the catastrophic and devastating impacts the Sykes-Picot agreement had on Kurds and the series of genocides that followed it. Being a Kurd means living with the painful memories of previous genocides and feeling that pain as an endless inner suppression.”

“We would be grateful if Israel and the West committed themselves more broadly to the emergence of a free Kurdish State that encompasses Bashor (Iraqi Kurdistan), Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) and Rojhelat (Iranian Kurdistan),” she emphasized. “It is time for the international community to work for the creation of an independent Kurdistan as they did once for the Jews after the Holocaust. The current war against ISIS, which is perceived by many as World War 3, can be compared to World War 2. After horrible wars, great changes can be brought about for those who have suffered extreme injustice.”

Dr. Widad Akreyi, Co-Founder and President of Defend International Photo Credit: Dr. Widad Akreyi

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