A chance to stand tall against Iran on human rights

During a February protest in Singapore, Iranian students call on Tehran to stop 
violence against demonstrators. (Wong Maye-e/associated Press)  
By Roxana Saberi
Thursday, May 13, 2010 

Shortly after Iran announced that it had executed five Kurdish political 
activists on Sunday, I received an e-mail from a human rights campaigner in 
Tehran who knew one of them, asking me to spread the word about the hangings. 

"We are truly helpless," she wrote, "and we feel lost." 

Iran labeled the five "terrorists," but human rights advocates have said the 
prisoners denied the charges against them, were subjected to torture and 
convicted in unfair trials. One of the five, Farzad Kamangar, was sentenced to 
death after a trial that his lawyer said lasted seven minutes. Another, Shirin 
Alam-houli, wrote in several letters from jail that she had made false 
confessions on camera after being tortured. The prisoners' families reportedly 
were not informed of the executions beforehand. 

If the international community fails to condemn such atrocities, Iran's regime 
will continue to trample on the basic rights of individuals, many of whom have 
been detained simply for peacefully standing up for universal human rights. It 
is common for Tehran's prisoners -- including journalists, bloggers, women's 
rights campaigners, student activists and adherents of the minority Baha'i 
faith -- to be held in prolonged solitary confinement without access to an 
attorney as they try to defend themselves against fabricated charges such as 
espionage and "propaganda against Islam" or the regime. 

When I was incarcerated in Iran's Evin prison last year on a trumped-up charge 
of espionage, I was fortunate that my case received a great deal of 
international attention. I was not aware of the extent of this attention until 
the day my interrogator allowed me to lift my blindfold to see a pile of news 
articles on a desk in front of me. As he read aloud the names of journalism and 
human rights organizations, Iranian-American groups and others that had been 
calling for my freedom, I realized he was trying to scare me into thinking that 
this outcry was bad for me. But suddenly I no longer felt so alone. Friends and 
strangers were standing with me, and I didn't have to face my captors by myself 
anymore. I believe the pressure from this international support eventually 
persuaded Iranian authorities to free me one year ago this week. 

Iranian officials sometimes claim that the regime is impervious to outside 
pressure over its treatment of prisoners or that it reacts negatively to such 
attention. Indeed, my captors ordered me early on to tell my parents that 
publicizing my case would jeopardize my freedom. But even though my parents 
remained silent during the first month of my captivity, Iranian authorities 
dragged their feet. I later learned that such threats are routine in Iran and 
that silence has usually harmed, rather than helped, political prisoners. 

Some Iranian decision-makers do care what outsiders say about the Islamic 
Republic. If they didn't, Iran would not have satellite television networks 
such as the English-language Press TV trying to spread state-sanctioned 
messages to international audiences. Nor would Tehran attempt to restrict 
journalists and censor images leaving the country. 

Why should those who are free to speak out voice support for Iranians 
struggling to make their voices heard? Because people everywhere -- even those 
who hold different ideas about what it means to be free -- share many basic 
values, such as the right to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of 
religion; because many ordinary Iranians want a more democratic government that 
respects human rights; and because what happens in Iran will affect the region 
and what happens in the region will affect the world. 

As the international community focuses on Iran's nuclear program, it should 
also make human rights a first-tier issue. When the U.N. Human Rights Council 
meets in Geneva next month, Washington and the European Union should lead calls 
for a resolution setting up a mechanism to investigate human rights atrocities 
in Iran during the past year. A bigger push should be made to send a U.N. 
special envoy on human rights to Iran and to aid Iranians, including the many 
journalists forced to flee their country out of fear of persecution. 

But perhaps even more important than government efforts is the outcry of 
ordinary people worldwide. When everyday citizens speak out against Iran's 
human rights violations, Tehran has a tougher time asserting that their calls 
have been masterminded by foreign governments. 

Time is of the essence: Several political prisoners are on death row, and a 
fresh crackdown on opposition supporters is likely as the first anniversary of 
Iran's controversial presidential election approaches. Regular citizens can 
demonstrate support for the Iranian people by participating in any of the 
rallies expected in several cities around the world on June 12. They can also 
contribute to human rights groups or take part in Internet and letter-writing 
campaigns to Iranian officials. Such steps, if done continuously by large 
numbers of people, can make a difference, making clear to Iran that it cannot 
get away with torture and wrongful imprisonment or stop people from exercising 
universal human rights. 

If these voices are loud enough, they will be heard by Iranians and maybe even 
by the detainees enduring injustices. Perhaps those prisoners will feel like I 
did when I learned of the efforts for my release: empowered. 

The writer was detained for 100 days in 2009 in Iran. Her book, "Between Two 
Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran," published by HarperCollins, chronicles 
her experiences and the stories of her fellow political prisoners in Evin prison

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