By Tala Dowlatshahi
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) is meeting this month at its annual session to grade governments on their treatment of their civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said at the opening in Geneva: "While the past twenty years have seen extraordinary progress, we should never forget that there have been those who have been left behind." She underscored that while significant milestones have been achieved in regards to women's rights, women all across the globe continue to suffer deeply from violence and persecution.
The HRC is guided by the principles underscored in the Vienna Declaration. Adopted in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, it required States to commit to promoting human rights for all in their countries.
The Islamic Republic of Iran remains high on the radar of the HRC and other international human rights organizations concerned with the poor treatment of the country's citizens who speak out against repression and corrupt laws. Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, emphasized this week to HRC members that the country maintains a system of "widespread and systemic" torture as well as a policy of harassment, arrests, and attacks against human rights activists.
The Iranian government has barred Shaheed from the country since 2011, claiming he was a spy for western governments. The Iranian representative to the HRC, Mohammad Javad Larijani said Shaheed's recent report was totally biased. The government has also reiterated that Iran has always been transparent when filing its reports to the HRC. And yet the Special Rapporteur has repeatedly been denied access to the country. Nevertheless, he has succeeded in investigating over 200 reported cases of abuse in particular against women via Skype, interviews and other documentation. According to his report, "Iran has prohibited women's access to a number of fields of study, further restricted women's freedom of movement, and current polices that continue to impede women's ability to hold certain decision-making positions in government remain problematic." He added that people who defend the rights of women, children and other minorities continue to be subjected to harassment, arrest and interrogation and are "frequently charged with vaguely-defined national security crimes, which is seemingly meant to erode the frontline of human rights defence in the country."
Abuses in Iran include severe restrictions on the freedom of speech, a continued crackdown on human rights defenders and activists, a high level of executions (topping the list worldwide), and mass torture of political prisoners and same sex couples. Iranian women continue to be discriminated against by the Iranian laws which impose severe punishments for wives who commit adultery, limit the possibility of divorce, and automatically grant custody to the father. Several universities have also banned female enrollment.
Appearing at a recent summit on human rights and democracy held in Geneva, Marina Nemat, an Iranian author, human rights activist and former political prisoner, highlighted the history of torture in her country for over 33 years. "The point of torture is to break the human soul."
During an interview via skype Ms. Nemat told me she was issued a death sentence for participating in political protests. Born in 1965, Marina and her family practiced Christianity and were not a political family. "We were not concerned with the internal political arguments of the Muslim groups. We had personal freedoms and I went to a wonderful school for girls. Women at that time could be anything they wanted. Even the Prime Minister. I had very high hopes."
During the Islamic Revolution in the early 80's, Nemat said, "we didn't gain any political freedoms like Khomeini promised. We also lost our personal freedoms. As early as 1981 there were thousands of teenage political prisoners inside prisons. At the beginning they attacked us with baseball bats, then tear gas, then live bullets."
When she was 16 years old, she was arrested at a demonstration against Khomeini's new Islamic Republic.
"They took me into a small room in Evin Prison. Two men tried to handcuff me and realized my wrists were too small so they put both of my wrists together into one cuff and as it clicked I heard my right wrist crack. They tied me to the bed and they struck me on the soles of feet so many times with a cable wire that my feet looked like balloons with toes on them."
She acknowledged that there was political torture during the Shah's reign, "where some 5 or 6 prisoners were in each cell." But she added, "During my time, there were 50, 60 or 70. There was no room to move, at night we slept like sardines."
Nemat said she saw many girls leave the cell block, and return the next morning having been raped overnight. "I was called to the interrogation room six months after my arrest. My interrogator, Ali, looked me straight in the eye. He said listen to me carefully, you will be here forever and the world does not give a damn. And it was true." She was forced to marry Ali, and to convert to Islam. He raped her repeatedly in a solitary confinement cell. And, Nemat added, "the women never spoke to each other about the rapes."
Nemat remained in the prison for over two years. Ali, her interrogator was assassinated in the prison a year after they were married.
"There is one thing I have learned, they can take away your freedoms, but not who you really are. It is worse today than it was in the eighties. Have things gotten any better? No. Iran is still governed under Sharia law. The testimony of a woman is worth half of a man. How could a country who has this system ever have a system that upholds justice and democracy? I carry the memories of every single girl who stood in bathroom lines in Evin prison with me. Many of them are buried. I am the lucky one." Nemat was released in 1984.
The problem in Iran, she contends, is not the nuclear issue. "How many people have died as a result of the Iran nuclear program in the last 33 years? Over 40,000 political prisoners have died. It is mind boggling to me."
She questioned whether the UN is actually capable of solving the human rights problems that it was supposedly designed to address. "Your silence is a weapon of mass destruction."
Last month, the Special Rappateur also joined the international community in calling upon the Iranian government to immediately stop the arrests of journalists and to release those already detained, the majority of whom work for independent news outlets. Many critics of the arrests believe the government is trying to muzzle dissent before the upcoming June Presidential elections. "We underscored our fear that the arrests carried out were part of a broader campaign to crack down on independent journalists and media outlets, under the accusation that they have collaborated with 'anti-revolutionary' foreign media outlets and human rights organizations," Shaheed said.
On March 21 or 22 2013 (just after Noruz, the Iranian New Year) the HRC will vote on the renewal of the mandate of Mr. Shaheed. The mandate is expected to be unanimously adopted and extended.