Roxana Saberi and Activists in D.C. Stress Human Rights as June 12 Approaches

I had the opportunity to meet and interview journalist Roxana Saberi, who spent time reporting from Iran before she was arrested and put in jail for 100 days in Evin Prison. Since her release, she has been advocating human rights in Iran and speaking out for her fellow inmates who have been persecuted for speaking against the government, practicing their faith and affiliating with the West. I also had the great opportunity of meeting many other human rights activists who are supporting international human rights, like Hadi Ghaemi and Rudi Bakhtiar. Below is my story

As the anniversary of the June 12, 2009 disputed presidential election nears, human rights activists in Washington are pushing Congress to support stronger action against the human rights violations that have occurred in Iran within the past year.

In the 2010 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report, the Commission called for the identification of key human rights violators in Iran followed by imposing travel bans and freezing assets on those individuals. The list includes the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Minister of Interior, Minister of Intelligence, the head of the judiciary, the Prosecutor General and the head of the Basij militia.

During Congress’s June session, USCIRF hopes the U.S. government will move forward to impose human rights sanctions on Iran. In addition, it calls for the use of funds to promote the free flow of information from Iran to the international community, including support of Radio Farda.

But human rights activists say it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen this year in terms of opposition protests. Iranian security forces were met by continued protests in May from university students, and they are gearing up for more protests in the coming weeks. Leila Milani of Human Rights Activists in Iran said on Tuesday at the National Press Club that the government has plans to empty gymnasiums and other structures to make room for new prisoners.

According to Rudi Bakhtiar, communications director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and a former CNN correspondent, Iran has become the number one executor in the world in proportion to its population. At a special ceremony in the Northern Virginia Baha’i Center on Sunday, she and journalist Roxana Saberi urged people to continue speaking out for their loved ones in Iran who face persecution.

“The human rights situation in Iran is as dire as it has ever been,” said Bakhtiar, “We cannot be silent about what’s going on.”

According to Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and cofounder of United4Iran, Iran houses over 500 prisoners of consciousness, mostly in Tehran, but there’s no telling how many may be sitting behind bars in the provinces. Iran is to this day the leading jailer of journalists with over 35 behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Furthermore, only three judges have been presiding over the prosecution of these hundreds of dissidents. Most human rights organizations have been shut down and their members put in jail.

Prominent figures like Shirin Ebadi have had their assets frozen and their families banned from leaving the country. The USCIRF report details the significant increase in legal and human rights violations that ethnic and religious minorities face in Iran since the 2009 election. View the full report here.

As for June 12, Bakhtiar says even if Iranians fear taking to the streets, activity on the web will remain vibrant.

“The fear is very palpable inside of Iran,” she said. “But one thing they haven’t been able to do is out-maneuver technology.”

At the Northern Virginia Baha’i Center and at a discussion at the National Press Club this week, Saberi recounted her 100 days of imprisonment in Evin Prison. While in prison, she became close to a number of prisoners of consciousness including the two female Baha’i leaders who have been in jail for over two years–Fariba Kamalabadi and Mrs. Mahvash Sabet.

She describes the day of her release as bittersweet because while she received enough outcry to lead to her freedom, others still await their fate.

“As they drove me away, I remember turning my head to the side and seeing the prison disappear behind me.  And finally, I cried. I realized however that my tears were not just tears of joy, but they were also tears of sorrow for the many innocent prisoners I was leaving behind. Why was I freed while all these others are still there?” she said.

Saberi said that the amount of media attention and support she received internationally led to her release.

“Do media attention and attention on these human rights violations matter? I think they do because if there weren’t this kind of attention, the repression would be much worse,” she said.

Journalist Maziar Bahari, a reporter for Newsweek who was detained just after the election for four months, said international attention on these violations could help get prisoners out of jail. Iran, he said, needs the help of the international community to survive and will therefore care about its image in the world.

“The fact that I was finally freed, albeit on bail, shows that the Iranian government is not as indifferent to negative publicity as it pretends to be,” he said.

Ghaemi said the international community needs to see the nuclear and human rights issues as complementary goals.

“The Obama administration is making a huge mistake by not supporting the minimum action at the international level through multilateral forums such as the Human Rights Council,” he said. When the UN Human Rights Council meets in the next month, he said Washington should lead the way in passing a resolution that would set up a mechanism to investigate the human rights violations in Iran and hold key violators accountable.

Saberi also recommended that the U.S. should not only condemn human rights violations in Iran, but also violations that take place in ally countries. She said her interrogators liked to bring up prisoner abuses in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to justify their actions.

“When America doesn’t stand up for those principles that is expected of it then this can be taken advantage of by the government and officials instead of addressing their shortcomings,” she said.

Ghaemi clarified, however, that groups supporting those persecuted in Iran should focus on the advocacy of basic human rights rather than support of political opposition.

“We’re not calling for the Obama Administration to support any political opposition in Iran. We’re calling about holding the Iranian government accountable for its human rights violations under the treaties it has signed. We are talking about supporting universal rights to freedom of assembly and expression,” he said.

On the eve of June 12, groups around the world are preparing demonstrations in solidarity with those who will take to the streets in Iran. Visit www.12June.org to learn more about local demonstrations and ways to get involved.

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