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With eyes on Iran, now’s the time for Magnitsky sanctions

This week marked 40 years since the Iranian Revolution. As Irwin Cotler and Yonah Diamond argue, the anniversary is an opportunity to renew efforts to hold the architects of the ongoing repression to account.

By: /
15 February, 2019
Iranian people carry umbrellas during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2019. Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

Since the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian people have suffered 40 years of mass imprisonment, forced exile, thousands of executions and even crimes against humanity by a largely unchanged leadership. Yet, the repression continues to intensify and shows no signs of abating.

As many around the world mark the anniversary this week, attention should be paid not only to the events in history but to the state of Iran today and how the international community can respond. Last year witnessed the largest protests in Iran since 2009, surfacing in nearly every province and resulting in thousands of arrests. What followed was an unprecedented crackdown on every civil society group throughout what Amnesty International has called Iran’s “year of shame.”

As human rights defenders in Iran are increasingly silenced, Canada should stand in solidarity with them by invoking the Magnitsky Act (named after Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky). The law authorizes the government to impose sanctions in the form of travel bans and asset freezes on individuals responsible for gross human rights violations. Similar legislation has been passed or is being considered the world over. In the case of Iran, Canadian parliamentarians from every major party have already called for Magnitsky sanctions against a list of the chief perpetrators of the ongoing crackdown as profiled in a report by our NGO, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. It is a novel, necessary and just foreign policy option that has not yet been exercised.

A more detailed review of recent events in the country helps to understand the urgency of a coordinated international effort to end the culture of impunity — with Magnitsky sanctions providing the clearest path forward. Following the countrywide protests last year, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, led by Mahmoud Alavi, arrested at least 150 student activists. Many were later issued heavy prison sentences under national security charges. In an effort to stifle their cause further, pollsters were arrested simply for gauging views about the protests.

Alavi has also led a systematic campaign to imprison dual nationals. Dual nationals are not recognized in Iran and are often labelled “infiltrators” and detained as political bargaining chips. Last year, two British-Iranians and an Iranian UK resident were arrested on security charges while visiting Iran, as was a dual national university academic who studied state policies. Another dual national was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years’ imprisonment for the “infiltration” of government bodies. The recent increase in these arrests prompted the US State Department and British Foreign Office to specifically warn dual citizens of the very high risk of arbitrary arrest and detention in Iran.

In another unprecedented development, authorities proactively targeted environmentalists for the most serious crimes. In 2018 alone, at least 63 environmental activists and researchers were arrested. In another shocking development, Tehran’s Prosecutor-General Abbas Dolatabadi manufactured national security charges against members of Iran’s most prominent environmental organization, some of whom are now facing the death penalty. The environmentalists were held in pre-trial detention for a year with severely limited access to counsel or family, forced to confess under torture, and subjected to prolonged periods of solitary confinement. During this time, the Intelligence Ministry and government’s investigative committee explicitly exonerated them and concluded that they be released. Nonetheless, their cases are now being heard by Judge Abolghassem Salavati, widely known as a “hanging judge,” notorious for his trials that often last minutes and draconian sentences.

In 2018 alone, at least 63 environmental activists and researchers were arrested.

Salavati is also presiding over the trial of a young satirist for national security charges based on rumours that he was working with US NGO Freedom House. At the same time, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, also known as a “hanging judge,” denied three members of the Iranian Writers Association their right to counsel during a trial for their peaceful protests against censorship policies, suggesting instead that they defend themselves against similar national security charges. Authorities continue to crack down on free artistic expression in a country that already closely regulates all cultural activity according to vague strictures under the direction of Minister of Culture Abbas Salehi.

Workers in other industries suffer similar fates for attempting to express their rights. Last year, authorities arrested representatives of a group of farmers, the heads of Iran’s teacher’s trade union, every labour representative of a sugar company, and scores of steelworkers. They also issued prison and lashing sentences to employees of a construction equipment company and a group of petrochemical workers — all for attempts at peaceful protest or negotiations.

Meanwhile, religious minorities continue to suffer widespread persecution. Authorities arbitrarily detained at least 95 members of the peaceful Baha’i faith and convicted some of national security crimes. Imprisoned Baha’is are left with little recourse as elected officials are punished for showing any solidarity. For instance, in September, a city council member was arrested and banned from his seat for merely tweeting about his efforts to free Baha’i detainees.

Moreover, there has been a marked increase in the arrests of Iranian Christians, including over 100 in a single week in December and close to 200 over the year for simply practicing their faith, some resulting in 15 years’ imprisonment.

Lastly, more than 300 Gonabadi dervishes of the Sufi Muslim community, viewed as heretics by the government, were arrested during largely peaceful street protests. Some were tortured and died in state custody and hundreds have received harsh sentences including up to 26 years’ imprisonment, floggings and other bans. One source has called these convictions “unprecedented in Iran’s judicial history.” In the aftermath, 13 journalists of the only news source covering the Gonabadi dervishes were badly beaten, tortured — some losing consciousness for several days — and detained.

As all media is banned from covering demonstrations and domestic search engines produce false and censored results, these independent sources, citizen-journalists and social media are crucial to protecting civil society. Nonetheless, journalists were arrested en masse in 2018, including managers and editors of news channels — sometimes for the posts of third parties to their forums. At least one faces the death penalty and many have already received sentences of lashes, bans on journalistic activity and international travel, and up to 26 years in prison. These disturbing arrests and imprisonments coincided with increasing measures by the government to curb the free flow of communication. In April, the judiciary banned Telegram, the country’s most-used messaging app, which was added to the list of already banned websites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Most recently, state officials, led by Dolatabi, have laid the groundwork for banning Instagram as well.

If last year was one of shame for Iran, it was one of principled leadership for Canada, defined by our commitment to human rights and the rules-based order.

Lawyers were also arbitrarily detained and imprisoned in significant numbers, with an escalation in this crackdown towards the end of the year, according to Human Rights Watch. The prospects of securing competent representation are now dimmer than ever. Starting last year, those accused of national security crimes in Tehran’s courts must choose from a list of 20 government-approved lawyers, out of the over 20,000 members of the Tehran Bar Association. Bereft of the right to choose a lawyer, civil society leaders who often face these serious charges are at an even greater risk of conviction.

Many of those lawyers targeted were the last line of defence for civil society leaders. Notably, Nasrin Sotoudeh, the iconic human rights lawyer, was re-arrested for defending women’s rights activists and for her support for the reduction of executions in Iran, which consistently ranks as the world’s top executioner per capita, including for allegations against children. She has been languishing in Evin Prison since, and her husband, Reza Khandan, was arrested after posting about her situation and sentenced to six years in prison. In 2018, authorities jailed women activists in record numbers, and men alike for simply wearing pins in support of their campaign against the compulsory hijab.

If last year was one of shame for Iran, it was one of principled leadership for Canada, defined by our commitment to human rights and the rules-based order. Canada should continue along this path by imposing Magnitsky sanctions on the architects of repression in Iran and leading a global campaign to expose their crimes and bring them to justice.

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