Saturday 19th September 2009 Inner Temple Hall, Inns of Court, London
PoC and the Association of Iranian Political Prisoners held a seminar in London’s Inner Temple Hall. By holding this event in the same year Iranian presidential elections took place we hoped not only to examine the Islamic Republic’s track record on human rights but to discuss how it may be possible to encourage future reform and progress in this field. Twenty one years ago, in the summer of 1988, thousands of Iranian political prisoners were taken from their cells and shot or hung. None were granted anything resembling a fair trial – they were brought before what became known as the ‘death commissions’, asked a few questions about their political and religious beliefs and then condemned to execution. The mass killings of ’88 were a low point in what was a decade of savage oppression. The long Iran-Iraq war had just finished and Ayatollah Khomeini’s government were seeking to root out and destroy any dissenters who might try to challenge the regime. The methods used exactly reflected a phrase coined by an exiled Iranian psychologist – this was “discipline hacked on the body of the people”. Many of those who attended the seminar were veterans of torture and imprisonment in Iran. Their insights and experiences were given vivid expression by Masoud Raouf and Shokoufeh Sakhi. Both exiled in Canada, Masoud and Shokoufeh were brought together by The Tree That Remembers, a film produced and directed by Masoud which explores the lives of a group of ex-political prisoners. Speaking to us just before his film was shown Masoud explained that reading about the suicide of a young Iranian political exile drove him to make it. He said, “I began to think about breaking the silence that often surrounds political prisoners. People need help to tell their stories, it seems to me that people often worry about the loss of artefacts but when a story is lost we don’t care. So this documentary is about what we went through, trying to materialise our experience. I also think this is our responsibility. If we do not tell the world, the same things will happen again.” Masoud’s film drew us into a world where arrest, imprisonment and torture were widespread and arbitrary. Mary, whose journalist son was killed aged 22, heard of his death on a radio programme when a list of those recently executed was read out. Shokoufeh recalled how, when she was arrested, her mother was told that her daughter would just have to answer a few questions and would probably be free in a few days. She was released from prison eight years later. Having watched The Tree That Remembers it was a great privilege to then hear Shokoufeh speak to the seminar. Her experience of severe psychological torture and the way she managed to resist it and hold onto her beliefs and personality lies at the heart of the film. Shokoufeh was 18 when she was arrested; her young son was one year old. For nine months Shokoufeh was kept in a ‘coffin’, a wooden box that did not allow her to stand up or lie down. She had to sit upright, never touching the sides of the box. She was not allowed to speak, cough or sneeze – in short she was “chained with invisible chains” and not permitted to show any signs of life. In the film Shokoufeh describes how she managed to survive her time in the ‘coffins’ and hold on to her sanity. She made a conscious decision not to close her mind and drift but to resist, “restating” her beliefs constantly and keeping images of those she loved clear in her head. Any sign of life and the outside world was precious, even the sight of a fly or a mosquito sucking her blood. To anyone who has not suffered as she has it was astounding to see Shokoufeh stand before the seminar audience, calm, composed and even humorous as she related her experiences to the current situation in Iran. Her chief concern now is to offer support to those who are campaigning for change inside Iran by helping to publicise their work and keep their struggles visible to the wider world. The advent of new technology such as Twitter, blogging and Facebook has opened up possibilities in this field which simply did not exist in the 1980s. When asked how she managed to hold onto her determination and optimism over the years Shokoufeh simply said, “What’s the point of being bitter, miserable and resentful? If I lived like that I should have given a victory to those who tormented me.” The importance of free speech, an active civil society and an accountable judiciary in preventing – or at least mitigating – the sort of persecution suffered by Masoud and Shokoufeh were emphasised by the next three speakers. Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, has a long track record not only of campaigning to promote freedom of speech but of trying to get all of us to think about why this is important and why it can so often become a contentious and confusing issue. Relating free speech to Iran’s particular historical experience Jonathan referred to the huge range of opinions and voices which burst onto the scene immediately after the Shah’s fall. He believes this curiosity and liveliness had and continues to have a profound impact on the country, despite all the efforts made to neuter and extinguish it. Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses Jonathan has been kept busy pointing out the danger of western liberals agreeing to limits being placed on free speech. Such controls may be presented as a way of protecting religious minorities but their effect is to reinforce the most conservative and inflexible forms of belief. As Jonathan pointed out, “Censorship does not benefit voiceless minorities; it benefits the people who have power, regardless of who they are.” Nazanin Afshin-Jam is an international human rights activist and co-founder of Stop Child Executions (SCE). SCE has documented over 140 children who are threatened with execution in Iran, despite the fact that Iran is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which bans the execution of those who committed a crime whilst aged under 18. Just before the elections this year Nazanin lent her support to a coalition of women’s groups calling for a ‘bill of rights’ for Iranian women. Nazanin spoke very movingly about those who are now defying the Iranian government and suffering for their beliefs – the Masouds and Shokoufehs of today. She stressed the savagery often inflicted on women and the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities like the Arabs and the Baha’is. The Baha’is whose guiding prophet, Baha’ullah, was a nineteenth century nobleman from Tehran, face multiple restrictions. Their businesses are often confiscated and their children prevented from attending university. Nazanin called for the appointment of a UN special rapporteur with the power to visit Iran and investigate human rights abuses. She pointed out that the majority of Iranians are aged under 30 – these young people have a tremendous thirst for new knowledge and experiences. It is up to people who have the freedom they crave to support them in their struggle for a more open society. Nazanin’s speech can be viewed here. Our final speaker was Professor Payam Akhavan. Professor Akhavan teaches international law at McGill University, Montreal. He served on the International Criminal Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and advises the UN on the reconstruction of civil society in post-conflict states. Professor Akhavan’s wide-ranging speech brought together many of the seminar’s themes whilst suggesting future strategies for promoting democracy and human rights in Iran. By referring to the careers of some of Iran’s senior clerics and politicians he demonstrated very clearly how brutality and disregard for the law has been built into the Islamic Republic’s very identity. The careers of men like Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, who served on the Tehran ‘death commission’ during the 1988 massacres and is now National Security Advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, show how participating in human rights abuses could almost be seen as a wise career move in Iran. This pattern of abusers being rewarded for their actions is repeated again and again, confirming Professor Akhavan’s statement that the 1988 massacres were not an aberration but “an integral part of a process of terror”. In an interesting echo of Jonathan’s speech Professor Akhavan criticised the sometimes confused western liberal response to abuses committed by the Iranian government. He said, “I’m amazed by how some on the political left in the west look at the Islamic Republic and defend it as an authentic expression of Islamic identity, not understanding that many more religious people have been murdered, imprisoned and tortured by the Islamic republic than ever was under the monarchy. In this case we are talking about the profane application of absolute power and not about the sublime crimes of identity and religious belief.” If there is ever to be accountability for abuses committed by the Islamic Republic accurate documentation of the repression that has taken place is essential. Professor Akhavan is co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), a US based organisation which painstakingly researches and publishes reports, many of them based on testimony from ex-political prisoners. Professor Akhavan believes initiatives like IHRDC have a dual purpose. As well as compiling historical records they help to create a sensibility which values respect for human rights and the rule of law. These values are crucial if Iran is to build a successful and happy future after decades of “lies, deceit and hatred”. Professor Akhavan also gave a comprehensive explanation of the possibility of staging an international tribunal akin to that of the “Russell Tribunal” of the American Government for its crimes during the Vietnam War. As the first UN war crimes prosecutor at the Hague, he shared his valuable experience and explained how it would be possible to call for an inquest in tandem with a tribunal in order to expose and condemn the Islamic Republic of Iran for its crimes not only during the 1980s, but during 30 years of suppressive and inhumane rule in Iran. To watch Professor Akhavan’s speech please click here. To conclude the seminar, Gissoo Shakeri, a progressive exiled artist, performed a few ballads which were enthusiastically received by the audience. This seminar gave a glimpse of what the Iranian people have endured over the past three decades. It was harrowing and humbling to hear how people like Shokoufeh survived a regime that was determined to crush them, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Yet listening to such inspiring speakers and connecting their words of hope and resistance to current events in Iran produced a strong feeling that change for the better will come to this remarkable country. We should like to thank all our speakers for making this such an interesting and memorable event. Thanks too to Sir Henry Brooke, Chairman of PoC’s board of trustees, for moderating the event with such efficiency and sympathy and an impeccable sense of timing which was totally unfazed by complications resulting from London Transport’s weekend repair programme and road closures on the Embankment.