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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.