Students push bill to support human rights in Iran

Ani Ajith

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) unveiled a bipartisan bill with two Democratic members of Congress on Wednesday that would boost U.S. support for human rights in Iran and increase economic sanctions on companies dealing with the regime.

The bill, the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Promotion Act of 2011, is also co-sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), and is being simultaneously introduced in each chamber. If passed, the act would establish a “Special Representative on Human Rights and Democracy in Iran,” who would work to create a “comprehensive strategy to promote Internet freedom in Iran” and coordinate and support pro-democracy activists and dissidents, according to news release.

At the Wednesday press briefing and webcast, Deutch and Dold, a Northwestern alumnus, said supporting human rights and the pro-democracy opposition in Iran is just as critical to U.S. strategic and moral interests as economic sanctions designed to halt the Iranian nuclear technology development program. Dold described the opposition movement in Iran as being at a “tipping point,” and said the special representative would “help the opposition by providing greater access to the media and the Internet” and by raising awareness for imprisoned dissidents.

However, the bill is not without additional sanctions on companies “that sell or service products that enable the Iranian regime to oppress its people,” as well as sanctions against members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are responsible for many of the crackdowns on pro-democracy activists.

‘Asinine and stupid’

Medill senior Aubrey Blanche, who is double-majoring in Asian and Middle East Studies, criticized the bill as an “asinine and stupid” political ploy. Blanche drew on her experiences studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, which began just as massive pro-democracy, anti-regime protests rocked Iran after presidential elections in 2009, to provide support for her position on how to engage with Iran.

“The very visual protests the world saw then is not what is actually happening day-to-day in Iran,” Blanche said. “There is general oppression, but Iran is not the only human rights problem.”

As such, Blanche feels this special attention from Kirk and other members of Congress on Iranian human rights abuses stem only from an oil- and nuclear power-driven agenda – namely, the U.S. seeks democracy in Iran simply because it could forestall the development of Iranian nuclear weapons and open up the country’s oil resources to greater foreign access.

“The U.S. has to be ready to accept that what they want from democracy may not be what we want them to have,” Blanche said. “Iranians democratically and clearly supported nuclear energy in the last presidential election.”

The Medill senior, an editor for Politics & Policy, also criticized the use of sanctions as particularly counter-productive and instead espoused opening up diplomatic relations with Iran, which Blanche said would allow the U.S. to support the democratic opposition more directly.

“Democracy is organic, and the easiest way to foster it is to give exposure,” Blanche said. “The U.S. should lead by example, not force in the form of sanctions – which have been ineffective so far, what does Kirk think this round is going to do?”

Defending the dissidents

Separately, Kirk also launched the Iranian Dissident Awareness Program, designed to spotlight several dissidents currently imprisoned in Iran and “help members of the House and Senate advocate on behalf of individual Iranian dissidents.”

Allie Metcalf, a Kirk staff member working on the program, said students and other members of the public could send letters of support to two jailed dissidents through an online form on Kirk’s Senate website, and encouraged “any sort of student-led event that would draw attention to any of our profiles” and urged NU student groups involved in human rights issues to contact Kirk’s office to coordinate efforts.

Kirk said congressional leaders aim to significantly reshape and update American policy regarding the Islamic republic by combining this bill with other Iran-related legislation towards the end of the month.

Imprisonment of innocents

As part of the unveiling of the bill, Kirk’s office arranged a relative of an imprisoned Iranian Baha’i leader to be available for interviews.

The persecution of members of the Baha’i faith has been one of the most prominent human rights abuses in Iran, with several top U.S. administration officials and Congressional representatives speaking out against the imprisonment and mistreatment of several leaders of the Baha’i in Iran. Members of the Baha’i faith in Iran, numbering around 300,000, are also denied many basic rights and freedoms, are not allowed to attend universities, and are widely discriminated against. A recent report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found at least 75 members of the Baha’i faith were in jail for their religious beliefs at the end of March, and over 300 Baha’is with active cases with the authorities for similar reasons.

The bill would apply greater pressure on the Iranian regime to stop persecution of the Baha’i through enhanced awareness and sanctions, its co-sponsors said. Dold’s district includes the Baha’i temple of North America, 100 Linden Ave., which is roughly a mile north of Northwestern’s Evanston campus. The representative sponsored a bill introduced in March that condemned the human rights violation in Iran against Baha’i minorities.

Iraj Kamalabadi, 58, is the older brother of Fariba Kamalabadi, one of the two women and among the seven Baha’i leaders jailed in Iran on trumped-up charges in 2008. Speaking from the offices of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the U.S. in Washington, D.C., Iraj narrated the history of persecution of the Baha’i in Iran – where it was founded and is the largest religious minority – at the hands of the dominant Muslim clerics, who saw the skyrocketing popularity of the Baha’i faith as a threat to their power when it emerged in the late 1800s.

Iraj said the treatment of the Baha’i has fluctuated between the massacres of more than 20,000 adherents in the early decades, to only sporadic persecution under certain shahs, to unprecedented systemic persecution under the current regime’s conservative interpretation of Islamic Sharia law since the 1979 revolution.

The Baha’i faith has a global presence, with seven major Houses of Worship and millions of Baha’is in countries around the world. Central tenets of the faith include recognizing the validity of all major world religions, belief in one god, total gender and societal equality, universal education and, as Kamalabadi repeatedly emphasized, disavowal of partisan politics and complete obedience to and respect of law and order.

Iraj said his Fariba was being held in “primitive conditions” in a large, barn-like prison southwest of Tehran, Iran’s capital. Iraj estimated some 300 to 400 people were “dumped like animals” into the structure with only one laundry room, four bathrooms, and not enough triple-bunked beds for everyone.

While Fariba is allowed regular calls to her family – the family cannot call in, she calls out – mistreatment at the hands of the Iranian theocracy has taken its toll on her health. Before being moved to the barn-like prison two days ago, Fariba had been held at a slightly better prison elsewhere in Iran, but even there, she was forced to shower only with cold water in the dead of winter and did not have sufficient warm clothing.

Fariba was arrested in 2008 with six other leaders of the Yaran, the now-disbanded national leadership of the Baha’i in Iran, and imprisoned under an ever-changing cast of fabricated charges. Iraj said the priorities of the Baha’i faithful and the lay leadership regarding their imprisoned brethren were simply to ensure the “continuous, constant monitorin
g of such events and bringing this to the attention of governments and people everywhere.” He urged students to write to their congressmen and women, asking them to co-sign or at least vote for the bill.

“Free the innocents,” Iraj said, referring to the jailed Baha’i leaders. “They are, as we say, the well-wishers of mankind.”

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