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A Persian prison state

By Nazanin Afshin-Jam, National Post
July 22, 2009

International diplomacy has failed to end Iran's nuclear program, halt its support for terrorist groups, or force the regime to respect basic human rights. But a new strategy is at hand: In a four-part National Post series, presented in partnership with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, prominent writers explain how the world can apply pressure on Iran. In today's instalment, Canadian human-rights activist Nazanin Afshin- Jam explains how Iran's persecution of its own citizens is feeding the nation's appetite for reform.

The explosion of protesters on the streets of Iran following last month's fraudulent 2009 presidential election may not have been predicted by the world community. But to Iranian human rights activists, it came as no surprise.

Embers of discontent, frustration and anger have been smouldering in Iran for decades, due to a poor economy, lack of government transparency, and, most significantly, grave human rights violations. The elections merely added a sudden burst of fuel to the fire.

Iranian people demanded freedom in the 1979 Revolution, but instead a theocratic regime emerged that suffocated their rights more than ever before. During the past six weeks, the global community has seen a glimpse of the brutalities that the country's hard-line officials regularly inflict upon their own citizens.

Government-engineered disappearances and deaths are not new occurrences in Iran. Ethnic minorities have long faced violent discrimination. Christians, Sunnis, Sufis, Dervishes, Ale-Yasin, Zoroastrians and other Iranians who do not subscribe to the Shiite majority are persecuted. Baha'is, often denied university entrance and employment, soon may lose their top leaders to execution. Ayatollah Kazemeyni Boroujerdi --A Shiite cleric, no less --has been imprisoned for more than two years and tortured for advocating a separation between religion and state.

Women live under gender apartheid. For purposes of the law, each is valued as half of a man. And freedom of expression is severely curtailed: Journalists who criticize the regime risk imprisonment, torture and even execution. "Criminals" have been hanged for apostasy and homosexuality, stoned to death for adultery and dismembered for stealing. At least 160 alleged child offenders await execution, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iran is a state party.

More than ever, Iranian citizens urgently need help from the international community. If the death toll of Iran's 1979 revolution and 1988 political-prisoner massacre present any indication of what lies ahead, there is a real threat of mass executions.

The Islamic Republic of Iran maintains power through force and control. With its legitimacy now on the line, rifts among the ruling clerical elite, and significant civil resistance, the only way the leaders can hold power is to crack down harder on the citizens, imposing a strict police state to quell the threat of a velvet revolution.

On June 26, Ahmad Khatami, a member of the country's "Assembly of Experts," called on the judiciary to punish "severely and without mercy" those involved in demonstrations. In the absence of foreign journalists, many of whom have been expelled from the country, Twitter users have been reporting more home invasions, automated phone calls reminding citizens that they are being monitored and mass arrests. Demonstrators have been forced to make televised confessions implicating Britain, the United States and Israel as the instigators of the protests.

The current state of unrest is used as an excuse to detain those who have upset the status quo. According to Amnesty International, since June 12, at least 2,277 people have been detained, including opposition campaigners, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders.

No one knows how many have been killed, because the names of victims emerge slowly. The mother of 19-year-old Sohrab Arabi, for instance, learned her son was dead 26 days after he had been shot in a peaceful protest. The whereabouts of many others are unknown, with many claims of rape and torture. To avoid the spectacle of dead protesters being treated as martyrs, the state is asking families to forfeit proper Islamic funerals in exchange for the bodies of the deceased.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, controls the army, Revolutionary Guards, police and Basij paramilitary militia. He also has led the campaign to rubber-stamp the bogus re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The international community must stand in solidarity with the people of Iran in refusing to recognize Ahmadinejad as Iran's legitimate president.

Freedom-loving nations should press for an emergency UN Human Rights Council session and international commission of inquiry to investigate Iran's grave human rights abuses, and demand the immediate release of all political prisoners. Nations with strong trade relations should refrain from appeasing Iran for short-term economic gain. Travel bans and asset freezes should be imposed upon Iranian officials.

As noted by Mark Dubowitz in Tuesday's National Post, Iran imports 40% of its gasoline, and trade sanctions may provide an effective instrument of last resort, as they did against apartheid-era South Africa and Libya. At the very least, such sanctions would be less perilous than military intervention, which would only undermine the movement within Iran toward freedom and democracy.

The world cannot stand by and watch as Iran persecutes its own citizens. But our efforts must reflect the non-violent means that Iran's protesters themselves have adopted. It is only a matter of time before the country's dictators succumb to the forces of freedom.

-Nazanin Afshin-Jam is an Iranian-born Canadian who fled Iran in 1979 when her father escaped execution by the Revolutionary Guards. She is an international human rights activist, and president and co-founder of Stop Child Executions.

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