Testing Hassan Rouhani's Commitment to Human Rights

By Irwin Cotler

The latest round of negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program resume in Geneva against the backdrop of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's "charm offensive" and raised expectations of a prospective agreement. Indeed, one US official went so far as to claim enthusiastically that he had "never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before."

However, while negotiations will clearly focus on Iran's nuclear program - and on economic sanctions that may be relaxed in exchange for Iranian concessions on the nuclear front - the United States and its allies must ensure that nuclear negotiations do not overshadow - let alone sanitize - the massive domestic repression in Iran.

Indeed, when the US negotiated an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, it did not turn a blind eye to the USSR's human rights abuses; instead, the Helsinki Final Act linked the security, economics, and human rights "baskets," with human rights emerging as the most transformative of the three. Negotiations with Iran should replicate this approach.

What follows is an inventory of serious human rights abuses in Iran, and a corresponding set of queries that will serve as a litmus test for the authenticity of Rouhani's commitment to justice and human rights for the Iranian people.

1. Executions

Prior to Rouhani's rise to power, Iran had the highest per capita execution rate in the world. Yet, under the new "moderate" President, the rate of executions has actually increased, with some 100 Iranians executed in the first month after Rouhani's election, 30 executed during the week of his "charm offensive" at the United Nations - a fact that was largely ignored - and a recent wave of executions that, shockingly enough, has seen more than 45 prisoners executed since October 26. Moreover, many prisoners are killed by the regime in secret, such that the true number of executions is almost certainly higher.

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Query: Will Rouhani declare a moratorium on executions?

2. Torture

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed - with whom I met recently - has documented the horrific treatment that Iranian prisoners endure.

Shaheed has found that physical torture, including beating, whipping, and assault, occurs in 100% of cases; sexual torture, including rape, molestation, and violence to genitals, occurs in 60% of cases; and psychological and environmental torture, such as solitary confinement, are also "highly prevalent."

Query: Will Rouhani put an end to the widespread use of torture by Iranian officials?

3. Political prisoners

According to reports, there are hundreds of political prisoners currently detained in Iran. Among them are the leadership of ethnic and religious minorities, human rights defenders, students, journalists, bloggers, artists, trade unionists, members of the political opposition and various other leaders of Iranian civil society. As Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi put it, "Nearly all of the opposition activists in prison before Rouhani was elected are still in prison." In the leadup to Rouhani's appearance at the UN, nearly 100 political prisoners were freed, including iconic human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. However, while their release is a welcome development, it is not enough to free individual prisoners; the system that criminalizes innocence must be reformed, and those that prosecute and persecute the innocent must be held to account. It is therefore outrageous that Rouhani's appointee as Justice Minister is Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a man implicated in a litany of major human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners. Indeed, the families of these victims - with whom I recently met - were stunned not only by his appointment, but by the international silence with which it was received.

Query: Will Rouhani release the remaining political prisoners, and will he stop detaining new ones?

4. Persecution of the Baha'i

International observers have repeatedly recognized the systematic and widespread persecution of Iran's Baha'i religious minority. Earlier this year, UNESCO found that the Baha'i "face widespread and entrenched discrimination, including denial of access to employment in the public sector, institutions of higher education, as well as to benefits of the pension system." Indeed, the Baha'i are routinely imprisoned for practicing their faith, and seven Baha'i leaders recently began their sixth year of a twenty-year sentence, which for some amounts to a death sentence, given their advanced age. Moreover, despite President Rouhani's rhetorical overtures for greater tolerance, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini issued a fatwa last month calling on Iranians to avoid any interactions with members of the Baha'i faith, whom he described as "deviant and misleading".

Query: Will Rouhani end the persecution of the Baha'i? Will he accept them as full members of Iranian society and allow them to openly practice their faith?

5. Persecution of other religious and ethnic minorities

The Iranian state incites hatred and violence against many minorities, violating their political, social, religious, economic, cultural, linguistic and educational rights. Among other abuses, minority schools and houses of worship have been closed or destroyed, restrictions have been imposed on both the public and private use of minority languages, and members of minority groups - such as the Baloch, Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, and Christians - have been imprisoned on spurious charges such as "spreading corruption on earth."

The Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini - sentenced on trumped-up charges to eight years in jail - has just been transferred to a more dangerous prison where he faces life-threatening conditions.

Query:Will Rouhani end the oppression of minorities?

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Irwin Cotler is co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and Liberal Vice-Chair of Parliament's Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

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