Exiles seek to spotlight rights abuses in Iran
United Nations, N.Y.
``I can certainly write a book, if you want me to tell you every single torture I have witnessed.'' Behzad Naziri, an Iranian journalist, speaks matter-of-factly as he describes his experiences: arrest in June 1982 for cooperating with a French news agency (Agence France Presse) and for protesting the execution of his sister; five months of beatings and interrogation in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison; a five-minute trial during which he was blindfolded and not allowed to defend himself; transfer to another prison to serve an eight-year sentence; more floggings, combined with sleep deprivation.
Mr. Naziri says he escaped from his guards while being transferred back to Evin in June of 1985. Eventually he fled to Pakistan and on to Paris, where he now lives. ``I was intent on reaching the outside world and conveying the message of 140,000 political prisoners inside Iran ... that savagery and brutality go on on a daily basis inside Iran,'' Naziri says.
He and an Iranian woman, who claims she too was tortured, visited the UN recently with representatives of the People's Mojahedin, an Iranian exile group. A UN committee will vote Friday on a draft resolution on Iran's human rights record. The vote is expected to reflect how the UN's plenary will vote on the resolution next week. Mojahedin representatives came with data on alleged rights violations, including details of 64 forms of torture practiced in Iranian prisons, and a book of Iranians allegedly executed.
The Mojahedin are sometimes accused of exaggerating claims, but it is widely accepted that there are serious human rights violations in Iran. The issue has become all the more compelling with the revelations of US-Iran arms deals, human rights workers say.
In its annual report, the human rights group Amnesty International expressed concern about the ``continuing large-scale executions of prisoners for both political and nonpolitical offences, following summary trials with no defense counsel and no right of appeal.''
Iran's Constitution prohibits torture for extracting confessions, though Amnesty International believes this happens often. Amnesty and Tehran also disagree over the definition of torture. Under Iranian law, flogging and amputation are legal punishments; Amnesty calls them torture.
Human rights activists concede there isn't much they can do to improve the situation besides work to keep the glare of public opinion focused on Tehran and encourage governments and international groups to speak out.
The UN has so far received poor marks for its efforts. Its recently released report on human rights in Iran is widely faulted for containing no details of violations. The UN-appointed rapporteur spent the 10-page report describing his unsuccessful efforts to enter Iran. Last year's report, by a different rapporteur, was also criticized strongly, but, this year's critics point out, at least it said accusations of torture ``could not be dismissed.''
Some rights activists say this illustrates the debilitating politicization of the UN. Nations are afraid to insult Iran because of its strategic importance, they say. The new rapporteur, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, argues he only got the job in July and hopes to turn in a more complete report early next year. But Western diplomats, who doubt Mr. Galindo Pohl's abilities, aren't very optimistic.
Naziri and Azam Riahi, the other Iranian who claims she was tortured, stress the importance of expressions of world opinion - both to let Tehran know the world is watching and to encourage prisoners. ``I can assure you that in prisons we were very sensitive to the slightest amount of any initiative that was undertaken on our behalf,'' Naziri says, ``even if it meant only a single vote, or an article, or a simple expression of sympathy.''
One group of Iranians that has found an outside voice is doctors. A group of 163 US congressmen has taken up their cause, charging that Iran delays medical care for civilians to keep hospital beds open for soldiers fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.
In July Iranian doctors struck in protest against the government's policy; some were arrested. According to reports, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini then replaced the leadership of the Iranian Medical Association to bring it under his control. Doctors struck again, and about 400 were arrested. Some were reportedly tortured. In a letter to the UN Secretary-General, the congressmen urged the UN debate on Iran's human rights to include the doctors' plight.
One group that Iran has been charged with abusing in particular is the nation's Bahai religious minority. In a report to the UN, the Bahai International Community recites a litany of abuses: summary executions, torture, and imprisonment; denial of education and employment; and seizure of property. Iran's fundamentalist Shiite Muslim leaders consider the Bahai faith a heresy. ``Religious genocide'' is the leaders' aim, the Bahais say.
For Behzad Naziri, a year and a half after his escape, the memory of prison burns brightly. Muslim or non-Muslim, male or female, doctor or journalist, ``their suffering and their torment are very tangible,'' he says. ``I still hear them in my ears and I feel them in my heart.''