Yesterday, I went to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on “The Current Status of Human Rights and Religious Freedom in Iran” where panelists and Congressmen discussed the incorporation of the human rights issue into sanctions and nuclear talks. There were a lot of Iranians in the audience as well as representatives from the DC Baha’i community.
Leonard Leo of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, Andrew Apostolou of Freedom House, Ali Afshari, an Iranian political activst, and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Coalition testified in front of Congressmen James McGovern, Frank Wolf, Chris Smith and Keith Ellison.
Wolf began by addressing the continued persecution of protesters and dissenters in Iran since the election. He said Obama was initially muted on the issue but has recently condemned the human rights violations against protesters. McGovern quoted Obama saying “the US stands with those who seek their universal rights.”
Wolf emphasizes, however, that these acts of intolerance are nothing new to Iran’s history since the 1979 Revolution. Members of the Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish and Evangelical Christian community have been jailed, abused and accused of outrageous crimes because of their faiths.
200 leaders of the Baha’i community of over 300,000 in Iran have been jailed since the revolution and 7 right now face trial.
Smith pointed out that Baha’is in particular face persecution because they were declared “heretics” and are unprotected by law.
Leo said the government declares that they do NOT imprison based on faith, but rather, on those who insult Islam or defame God. In turn, false accusations are created like espionage, cult-like activity, and crimes against God.
Andrew Apostolou went into detail about the democracy movement in Iran and the need for more cohesion and unification of ideas within the group. He said we can do our part to help by raising the issue of human rights in policy and allowing people to get involved with Iranian NGOs. He said as it stands now, it’s against the law to contribute to Iranian organizations, so if someone wanted to donate money to them, they can’t. They all agreed that these limitations need to be lifted.
Afshari shared a moving account of his experience in prison for three years where he suffered torture from lashings, solitary confinement, electrocution, beating etc. He said over 250 students are in prison now. Some people are afraid to report the murder of their family members because it could have repercussions on their other family members. For example, Parsi cited that Shirin Ebadi’s sister was essentially taken hostage because of Ebadi’s involvement in women’s rights.
Wolf made a reference to the Cold War and how the U.S. supported the opposition in communist regimes. He said we should acknowledge our support of them and do everything we can to help their movements. He referred to Russia and Romania. “This regime is closer to collapse than we think,” he said.
The important thing to remember, McGovern said, is to be sure Iranians know our efforts are to support the wants of the people of Iran, not necessarily America’s desires.
NOTE: When initially published I had written a paragraph in such a way that it seemed like Afshari went into detail about the government threatening families, when in fact Parsi brought this serious issue into the conversation. I have made appropriate edits to better reflect it.