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Saddam+Taliban+Apartheid=Islamic Republic
This is why Iranians are calling for change -- a structural change in the regime

June 10, 2005

Text of the speech given at the “Human Rights and Democracy in Iran” Seminar hosted by the Liberal Party of Sweden at the Swedish Parliament, Friday, 3 June 2005.

Dear Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The record of the Islamic Republic of Iran on human rights is one of the worst in the contemporary world. The world today is full of states violating human rights in law or practice, or both. Some establish discriminatory laws to systematically violate the rights of minorities and some time a majority of the population. The apartheid system in the old South Africa was a prime example of this. Some use brutal and inhumane methods of physical punishments long abhorred by the civilised world. Beheadings and stoning to death practised by the Taliban in Afghanistan and in countries like Saudi Arabia are examples of this behaviour.

Yet a third group of countries such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein have been involved in brutal suppression of the opposition and killings on a large scale. These are the main patterns of violation of human rights around the world. Most countries accused of human rights violation are involved mainly in one form of these activities or another. However put all these together and you get the Islamic Republic of Iran over its 26 years of existence.

The Islamic Republic in Iran (IRI) created a double apartheid system based on both gender and beliefs. This has resulted in a multi-layer system in which male Shia clerics enjoy almost unlimited rights, including the right to kill (by issuing fatwa), while those at the bottom of the hierarchy, i.e. Bahais and atheists may even have to forgo the right to live. The civil and political rights of women are severely restricted in jobs, marriage and in courts. It is well publicised that women’s testimony in courts are valued as half of that of a man.

However, even that is not always the case. The penal code of the IRI stipulates that in murder cases testimonies of women alone (no matter how many) are never sufficient to convict a killer. Girls from age of 8 are considered as adults, and responsible for their actions (against the boys from age of 14) and are forced to wear the Islamic dress known as hejab. Married women suffer one of the most male-centred set of laws in travel, accommodation, divorce, inheritance, child custody and bigamy of their husbands. Women are at the receiving end of draconian sexual laws and have been disproportionately subjected to stoning and other brutal punishments. All in all, it is effectively a crime to be a woman in the IRI.

The belief apartheid works in a similar manner. The Islamic Republic is in effect a Shia republic, as even non-Shia Moslems are denied certain political and religious rights. Then in the apartheid pecking order are “people of the book”, namely Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who are given certain rights but are regarded as second-class citizens like women. Like that of women, their lives are valued as half of Moslem men in terms of retribution of blood money for injuries and murder. The barbaric law of retribution (an eye for an eye and a life for a life) stipulates that a Moslem male cannot be executed for killing a woman or a non-Moslem, unless the victim’s relatives pay half a man’s blood money to the murderer’s family. 

The double apartheid system based on gender and beliefs means that you are worse off if you happen to be both a woman and a non-believer. This has been illustrated best by a recent court case in Yazd a provincial city in central Iran. The case involved a Zoroastrian woman who had been killed in a road accident. The judge decreed that the culprit should pay compensation to the family of the victim. However, he stipulated that the amount should be a quarter of what is the norm in the circumstances -- on the grounds that the victim was both a woman and a non-Moslem!

The extent of brutal punishments introduced into the penal system of the Islamic Republic and practiced in the IRI is unprecedented and unrivalled in the modern world. Public floggings is routine in many towns and cities around the country, while other barbaric punishments from cutting of hands to inflicting injuries as a retribution, to various forms of executions ranging from beheading to stoning to death have been in practice since the foundation of the Islamic republic.

Many of these punishments are for sexual and other moral “offences” and carried out in public in the main squares in the presence of passer-bys including children. The culture of violence promoted by the Islamic republic and perpetuated by staging various forms of physical punishments in public has had a great effect on the psyche of the population and especially children and the young. The overall level of violent crimes in the society has increased many-fold since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

And then there is the horrifying record of the Islamic Republic of Iran in political suppression and killings. Over the last 26 years ten of thousands have been executed or otherwise killed for political reasons. In 1988 alone in the course of only a few months several thousand political prisoners were rounded up and systematically massacred on the direct order attributed to the then Supreme Leader of the IRI Ayatollah Khomeini. Scores of thousands more have gone through brutal torture and long imprisonment. Hundreds of political opponents have been assassinated by agents of the Islamic Republic both inside and outside Iran. All in all, the Islamic Republic has a record in mass killings rivalling notorious regimes like that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

So what we see in the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of human rights violation is a combination of mass killings as practiced in Iraq under Saddam, a brutal and barbaric penal system punishing citizen’s sexual behaviour with death and floggings like what went under the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a rigid hierarchical apartheid system, in some respects worse than what was practiced in old South Africa. In addition to women and non-Moslems, ethnic minorities are also subject to discrimination, in practice if not in law, and denied their rights to enjoy their language and culture. This is worse for many who are also non-Shia Moslems. 

True that in the last decade the scales of human rights abuses have been in decline. Mass killings as practiced in the 1980’s are no longer the norm, and since the reformists came to power in 1997 there has been some relaxation in the level of suppression of political and intellectual dissent. But there has been no fundamental change in the structural violation of human rights namely the discrimination against women and religious minorities: the double apartheid system is still in place. Also, the barbaric penal system is still in place. So the Saddam part of the regime may have gone, but its Taliban and apartheid characters are still operative.

It is noteworthy that even at the reduced scale of brutality of the Islamic regime in the last decade, it has continuously and consistently ranked amongst the top 5 state killers/executioners in the world, both in terms of numbers and per head of population. Another example is the fact that even though the Iranian regime has stopped the practice of stoning under pressure form the international community and especially the European Union, it has failed to remove that from the statutory books, and so from time to time we hear that a judge here or there has sentenced someone (usually a woman) to death by stoning.

Ladies and Gentlemen, in two weeks time an election is to be held in Iran for a new president -- an election that is void of any and all basic standards of a free and fair electoral system. A handful of loyal supporters of the regime, picked up by an un-representative body of hardliners, are competing to win the presidency.  The person who is tipped to win the election is a main pillar of the Islamic Republic responsible for the many atrocities of the regime over its entire life. Yet the west is warming up to him seeing him as someone who may deliver and alley the West’s concerns on questions of Iran’s atomic program and international terrorism.

There is a danger that the West and in particular the Europeans may bypass the question of human rights in Iran in exchange for some form of accommodation on the other two issues of international concern. This should be avoided by all means. Not only ignoring the human rights issue in Iran gives a signal to the present Iranian regime to continue with its policy of suppression, violence and gender and belief apartheid system, but it would also certainly fail to deliver on the two other issues. On the other hand, a democratic and free Iran is the best guarantee that it would not get involved in clandestine atomic program or terrorism.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic, including the supreme leader and the election favourite have been directly responsible for numerous crimes against humanity, and implicated directly in many terrorist activities overseas. They have been named as accomplices in a German court in the murder of four opposition leaders in Berlin over 10 years ago. They have been directly involved in setting up the double apartheid system against women and religious minorities. They have been responsible for instituting a most barbaric penal code system and for thousand of killings of the opposition figures and dissidents over the last quarter century.

The Iranian people have shown in recent years that they are no longer ready to tolerate the system or its rulers. They have realised that the Islamic Republic has no capacity for change into a democratic system based on values of human rights. The constitution of the IRI has taken away the right of people to govern themselves, and has put the government in the hands of the Shia clergy.

The constitution has also blocked any change towards democracy and human rights. Article 177 of the constitution is specific in that the anti-democratic nature of the system which subjects all legislation to approval by an un-elected body of the clergy can never be modified or otherwise reformed. The Iranian people experienced the reform movement for 8 years, and saw how it withered away not being able to affect the apartheid or brutal nature of the government.  This is why they are calling for change -- a structural change in the regime to get rid of its apartheid system, its barbaric laws, its violent nature, and its international terrorism.

They have called for a democratic change through democratic means -- a free and internationally supervised referendum for a constitutional assembly to draw a new constitution based on internationally recognised values of democracy and human rights. To achieve this change through peaceful means, they need international support and in particular the support of democratic forces around the world. They need your support. It is in the interest of all concerned, that this change takes place peacefully -- and soon.

The experience of Iraq has shown how dangerous and disastrous using force for democratic change could be, while any delay in such a change could lead to an atomic nightmare in the Middle East. Let’s hope that we can prevent such nightmare scenarios. Let’s hope that we see democracy flourish in the Middle East and the rule of law and values of human rights are established there. Let’s hope that the people of Iran can see these prospects and enjoy prosperity and their full human rights in the near future.

Thank you.

Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.

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