While the world is understandably preoccupied with the slaughter of innocents in Syria– and when addressing Iran, is concerned primarily with its nuclear threat — Iran’s massive domestic repression has been passing quietly under the international radar screen. In the wake of the recent Iranian parliamentary elections — marred by the imprisonment and silencing of all opposition –- the state-sanctioned assault on the human rights of the Iranian people continues unabated.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

Indeed, only two days after the March 2 elections, Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced prominent lawyer and co-founder of the recently shuttered Center for Human Rights Defenders, Abdolfattah Soltani, to an 18-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on his legal practice. The trumped-up charges include the crimes of establishing a human rights group, spreading anti-government propaganda, endangering national security and receiving “an illegal prize,” namely Germany’s Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. The Nuremberg Award is a powerful symbol of that city’s denunciation of its dark past and embrace of peace, reconciliation and respect for human rights. That it would criminalize such an award is a striking testament to the culture of repression that today reigns in Iran.

Mr. Soltani’s imprisonment is but the latest example of an ever-widening campaign to crush all forms of dissent in Iran. Recent reports by international human rights bodies describe the regime’s systematic use of arrests, beatings, torture, detentions, kidnappings, disappearances, and executions. Just last week, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran released a scathing report, documenting a “striking pattern of violations of fundamental human rights.” In a mocking and almost obscene retort, the Iranian leadership characterized itself as a pioneer in human rights. It might well have been characterized as a pioneer in human rights assaults.

Iran’s execution binge

For example, Iran, which already has the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world, is engaged in an execution binge, even by its own wanton standards, with more than 60 people executed in January 2012 alone, and a dramatic rise in the number of executions, from less than 100 cases in 2003 to at least 670 in 2011. Moreover, Iran’s religious and ethnic minorities – already victims of massive de facto and de jure discrimination – are disproportionately represented among the ranks of the imprisoned and condemned. As of this writing, 15 members of the Kurdish community had been sentenced to death on such trumped up charges as “corruption on earth” and “espionage,” while the announcement that Iran has upheld a death sentence against Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, convicted of apostasy for abandoning Islam, has stunned Christian groups, themselves increasingly targeted by the regime.

And more: We have been witness to the imprisonment of the entire Baha’i leadership, as well as the exclusion of, and discrimination against, religious and ethnic minorities generally; the imprisonment and silencing of more journalists, bloggers, and filmmakers than any other country; the persistent and pervasive assaults on the women’s rights movement and the imprisonment of its leaders; the criminalization of fundamental freedoms of speech, association, and assembly; assaults on filmmakers, artists, and culture generally; and the shutting down of all independent civic organizations.

In particular, in the last several months — and in the run-up to the recent parliamentary elections — we have seen the quarantine of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, civil society leadership, as well as the lawyers who would defend them. Indeed, the imprisonment of Abdolfattah Soltani came after he publicly called for a recount of Iran’s presidential elections.

Iran, which already has the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world, is engaged in an execution binge, even by its own wanton standards.

Moreover, since the June 2009 Green Revolution, the massive repression has included the systematic targeting of cyber dissidents. For example, Saeed Malekpour, a 36-year-old Web designer, was arrested on trumped-up charges related to the posting of pornographic material on the internet, was tortured in detention, was forced to make a televised “confession,” was sentenced to death, and is now under imminent threat of execution. According to Malekpour’s family, the death sentence was at the urging of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center at Yale University has noted is responsible for the murder of Iranian dissidents both inside and outside Iran.

Bloggers behind bars

Similarly, Vahid Asghari, a blogger who hosted websites critical of the government, was sentenced to death on January 6, 2012 after conviction for “corruption on earth” for allegedly organizing a “pornographic” network against Islam and the state. In October 2009, he said in a letter to a judge that he had been subjected to torture, also forced to make a televised “confession,” and forced to make spying allegations against another high-profile blogger, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall – who had been serving a sentence of 19.5 years for his role in helping Iranian dissidents create blogs – and whom we have just learned has also been sentenced to death.

Nor has the conventional media been spared from Iran’s state-sanctioned assault on human rights. Indeed, Iran had already imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world, before recently arresting reformist journalists Parastoo Dokouhaki, Marzieh Rassouli, and Sahamoddin Bouraghani, following similar arrests of journalists Fatemeh Kheradmand and Ehsan Houshmandzadeh, who were detained in January of this year — the whole designed to quarantine any freedom of information leading up to the recent presidential elections.

The past two months have also witnessed a massive assault on filmmakers, artists, and the leadership of major independent Iranian organizations. This has included the shutting down of the Iranian House of Cinema, the country’s leading independent film association; with over 5,000 members, the body is also behind this year’s Oscar-winning foreign film “A Separation.” The arrests have also included celebrated filmmaker Jafar Panahati and BBC filmmakers, and the house arrest of opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hussein Mousavi.

Many civil society organizations have been shut down, including the Association of Iranian Journalists; Daftar-e Tahkim, a leading pro-democracy student union; the Association for the Rights of Prisoners; Human Rights in Iran (HRA); the Committee for Human Rights Reporters (CHRR); and Soltani’s Center for Human Rights Defenders – an organization that he co-founded with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. Independent trade unions are still banned, and leading trade unionists are still in prison.

Numerous leaders of the women’s movement — and women journalists — have been deliberately targeted, arrested, persecuted, and even executed, while still others continue to disappear or to be threatened with execution, with no official record of their arrest or whereabouts even provided. For example, the prominent Iranian filmmaker and women’s rights activist Mahnaz Mohammadi — who directed the acclaimed documentary “Women Without Shadows” — has been arrested by the intelligence services of the IRGC for “unknown reasons.”

Numerous leaders of the women’s movement — and women journalists — have been deliberately targeted, arrested, persecuted, and even executed.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was to be stoned in 2006, had her sentence suspended last year after an international outcry. A senior judiciary official very recently announced that the punishment of stoning could be changed to hanging, and she remains under threat of execution. Maryam Majd, another women’s rights leader and photojournalist, has been arrested and is being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a celebrated defence attorney for activists and political detainees, was charged with “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime,” and sentenced to 11 years in prison, later reduced to six years after multiple hunger strikes and an international outcry.

Sotoudeh is a case study of the assaults on lawyers who would have represented prisoners of conscience — or who have publicly critiqued torture and detention or the absence of the rule of law — and have themselves become political prisoners for their outspoken advocacy of human rights and the rule of law in Iran, and which has now resulted in over 50 such lawyers being targeted, arrested, and imprisoned.

Moreover, Iran has sought to limit internet access and restrict the content that can be posted online. A new Iranian “cyber army” has been formed, and as the latest Amnesty International report explains, this force has blocked websites while initiating attacks on servers including those of Twitter and the Voice of America.

Remember the Iranian people

And so the question: What can, and must, we do?

Simply put, we must expose, unmask, and hold Iran accountable for its massive domestic repression, which has prompted the establishment of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights inIran, an international consortium of parliamentarians from all over the world that I co-chair with US Senator Mark Kirk.

Our group has initiated the Iranian Political Prisoner Advocacy Group, calling on parliamentarians internationally to “adopt” a political prisoner and create a critical mass of advocacy on behalf of these prisoners of conscience.

Indeed, we must call for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience — those detained for doing nothing other than exercising their internationally recognized rights under law, and including even under domestic Iranian law. Equally, we should call upon Iran to establish an immediate moratorium on executions, while working toward the complete abolition of the death penalty.

Also, we should call on the Iranian authorities to grant the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran access to the country, while implementing their undertakings to receive visits by UN human rights bodies to ensure Iranian compliance with international human rights treaties to which it is a state party. Indeed, in preparing his recent report, the Special Rapporteur was denied entry to Iran on the grounds that he is a “US agent.”

We must call for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience.

Moreover, all states can and should redouble their efforts to support dissidents directly by funding programs to help activists mobilize and circumvent electronic barriers. In addition, we must put pressure on satellite companies that carry Iranian state television, as the Iranian authorities use their airways not only for the spreading of propaganda, but for televising of coerced confessions and show trails. We must ensure that communications technology and service providers are not used for the advancement of the regime’s goals to the detriment of the Iranian people.

While the world is understandably focused on the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear weaponization program, we cannot abandon the people of Iran, who are themselves the targets and victims of the Iranian regime’s massive assault on human rights. We must champion their case and cause, let them know that the world is watching, that they are not alone, and that we stand in solidarity with them.

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Irwin Cotler is a Member of the Canadian Parliament, Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is Co-Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran.