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Basic human dignity
Interview with Drewery Dyke: Amnesty International’s view on human rights violations in Iran



Soheila Vahdati
October 11, 2006

Drewery Dyke has been a researcher with Amnesty International's International Secretariat in London since 1999. He has worked on human rights issues in Kuwait, the UAE, Afghanistan and Iran. He has a particular interest in the challenges facing human rights defenders and in the problem of transitional justice ['edalat-e enteghali]. Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, Drewery Dyke lives in London with his partner and two girls.

First of all, let me thank you for your time. And as a human rights defender I appreciate the role AI is playing in promoting the culture of human rights in my country. AI has played an important role all over the world in not only saving people’s life from death and torture, but also educating the public and human rights defenders about how to emphasize on human rights issues without making it political. This type of social activism is new in Iran and fortunately is becoming a growing trend. However, systematic violation of human rights seems to be on the rise. How do you see the current situation with respect to human rights in Iran?

All those involved in the defense of human rights welcome the growth of such activism in Iran. Iranian human rights defenders (HRDs) are a courageous group of people; not least the women human rights defenders (WHRDs). Iran continues to experience grave human rights violations. Since the election of President Ahmadinejad, human rights violations have continued at an unabated pace and call into question the government's commitments to the international human rights standards to which Iran is a state party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The current situation is serious and the international community needs to take a closer look at the human rights situation in Iran and not be blinded by other issues, however pressing they may appear.

October 10 is the World Day Against the Death Penalty. While the world is moving towards abolition of death penalty, Iran is increasingly executing its citizens for various crimes where some of those crimes are defined as crimes only by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Do you have any statistics on the number of executions in Iran? How do you rank the Iranian regime in terms of the number of executions?

Globally, the use of the death penalty remains shockingly high. In the course of 2005, at least 2,148 people were executed in 22 countries and at least 5186 people were sentenced to death in 53 countries. These were only minimum figures; the true figures were certainly higher. That said, in the same year, 94 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA.

Based on its monitoring of reports available to the public, Amnesty International estimated that at least 1,770 people were executed in China during the year, although the true figures were believed to be much higher. A Chinese legal expert was recently quoted as stating the figure for executions is approximately 8,000 based on information from local officials and judges, but official national statistics on the application of the death penalty remained classified as a state secret. In 2005 there were at least 94 executions in Iran, 86 executions in Saudi Arabia and 60 in the USA.

At the time of this interview, Iran has executed at least 122 individuals this year, though the true figure may be considerably higher.

It is true that "crimes" attracting the death penalty in Iran do not exist in the vast majority of other countries, notably in respect to consensual sexual relations and, for example, the "crime" of being a mohareb, or being at enmity with God. Moreover, despite a so-called moratorium set out by the Head of the Judiciary in 2002, Iran has reportedly implemented executions by stoning. Execution by stoning is a grotesque and horrific practice: it aggravates the innate brutality of the death penalty, as it is expressly designed to increase the victim's suffering. It can be considered the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The abolition of this obscene practice is long overdue: it should be abolished immediately and totally.

It seems that Iran has a high rank on AI publications for executing the child offenders. Is Iran the only country that executes child offenders?

During the last decade, the judicial killing of children has all but stopped. Only a handful of countries now threaten to carry out such executions and in 2005 Iran was the only country to do so after it lost its main ‘ally’ on this issue: the United States of America. It was also the first country to execute a child offender in 2006 – and only Pakistan has joined it so far. Amnesty International believe that every country has a duty to bring to justice - through systems of administration of justice that adhere to international standards - those accused of breaking internationally recognizable criminal offenses. Iran, as a state party to the ICCPR, has committed itself to not executing child offenders. Nevertheless, the Iranian government has flouted international practice and international law by carrying out executions of those who were alleged to committed a crime while under the age of 18. As with the example of stoning, the execution of child offenders is a practice which must be abolished, and AI has repeatedly called on the authorities to do so, but without response and sadly without success.

As you mentioned, some consensual sexual relations are considered crimes, and there has been a rise in such executions including executions of two young men last year for sodomy, and stoning of women and men for adultery. Is Iran the only country that executes its citizens for the so called “sexual offenses”?

Around thirty countries retain the death penalty for sexual offences, mostly for rape and especially in connection with aggravated rape. Cases of adultery and sodomy are capital offences in the codified laws of a number of countries, including Yemen, most of the Gulf countries, Pakistan and Sudan. Over recent years some northern states of Nigeria have also introduced legislation providing for the same. Uncodified religious law in Saudi Arabia also provides for the death penalty for ‘sexual offenses’.
Amnesty International believes that consensual sexual relations cannot be considered internationally recognizable criminal offences. AI and its worldwide members, including those in countries such as Bahrain and Lebanon, call on the Iranian authorities to commute such death sentences and release those charged under these provisions unless they are to be charged with a recognizably criminal offense.

It seems Iran is the only country that has “stoning” as a punishment in penal code and practices it. Two people, a man and a woman, were stoned to death in Mashhad in May 2006 and currently, there are 11 people, 9 women and 2 men, who are sentenced to stoning. Why is it that we do not see an uproar in the west about such barbaric act of simultaneous torture and execution? AI had a “one million signature” campaign to save Amina Lawal’s life from stoning, how come we don’t see anything similar to that for the 11 people in danger of stoning in Iran?

Amnesty International has involved its worldwide membership in appeals to the Iranian authorities to halt stoning. The organization is considering a variety of other forms of campaigning, of which such a public appeal is one. AI is focused on bringing about a change - of saving lives - and will use methods that help bring about that change. That said, as I mentioned above, other political issues - relating to the recent conflict in the Lebanon and in connection with the nuclear issue - have served to deflect attention away from the grave human rights abuses in Iran. This is a mistake. AI members are working to have the international community - and the Iranian authorities - concentrate on the cost in terms of human suffering, of such practices.

Does AI have an inspector to provide first hand reports and visit the prisons in Iran?

Amnesty International has repeatedly met with Iranian officials and have repeatedly sought independent access to the country. While officials have been cordial, AI has been denied research access since shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The two visits to Iran, undertaken in the last five years, were in the context of events sponsored by multilateral bodies such as the UN or EU. It is saddening that the Iranian government has denied AI access to the country, since I believe that the organization has much offer Iranian citizens. We want to go to Iran to talk to students, to workers, to NGO activists and to officials about upholding citizens' legitimate rights. I believe that there are policemen, judges and prosecutors who want to uphold the law and do so vigorously, but who do not want to trample the rights of their fellow citizens; their neighbours; those whose children attend the same schools and who laugh at the same things. AI can offer training on policing, on administration of justice and on law-making; it can inform society about what human rights are. We want to promote human rights - in order to protect human rights. And it is for that reason why I am saddened and dismayed that the authorities have repeatedly denied AI access to the country.

AI will, again, soon be seeking access to the country, but we are not hopeful that such a request will be looked upon favourably. It is possible that a visit may be possible through a multilateral event, such as one sponsored by the UN or EU, but it remains to be seen whether even this will be achieved.

Does AI policy include lobbying the judicial and government authorities, and has it tried for direct contact with the Iranian officials?

In respect to its advocacy of human rights issues with the Iranian authorities, AI has approached officials of the country's foreign ministry, but also senior judicial officials. In 2000, AI met with the head of the Tehran judiciary, Abbas Ali Alizadeh, with whom we raised cases of torture and ill treatment. Appeals are made directly to the Head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi, and contacts with other members of the judiciary, former parliamentarians and others serve to ensure that AI's message is conveyed clearly to the authorities. AI has no agenda other than the promotion and protection of human rights: it takes no view relating to forms of government, only in respect to implementation of human rights standards. The organization seeks to be transparent in its contact with the authorities, with whom the organization seeks meaningful cooperation - at least in the field of human rights.

The ban that Ayatollah Shahroudi ordered on stoning executions in December 2002 was due to the pressure by the EU. Does AI attempt to lobby the European officials for exerting pressure on Iranian officials?

Amnesty International's advocacy relating to human rights in Iran is global. Drawing on the organization’s million-plus members, the organization seeks to draw attention to the human rights situation in Iran at strategic times, such as by AI's Venezuelan section appealing to that government during the visit of Iranian officials, by AI Germany campaigning on, for example, issues relating to the freedom of expression, during the visit by former president Khatami to the country, and to parliamentarians throughout the world, not least in the European Parliament. Collectively, the EU states have an important role in respect to bringing about a greater observance of human rights standards in Iran and we hope that they will act on expressions that reflect such concerns.

As you mentioned, the condition of human rights has drastically worsened since Ahmadinejad came to power. How do you evaluate the recent events in Iran?

Successive governments in Iran have pledged to govern in the name of all Iranians. Yet, in the course of 2006 we have seen a state-wide crackdown on a number of minorities in the country. Scores of Iranian Azeris have been detained in connection with the publication of a cartoon found by many to be offensive towards the Azeri community, and in connection with the advocacy of Azeri linguistic rights, a "right" set out in the Constitution. Following unrest in Khuzestan, scores of Iranian Arabs were detained and faced flagrant violations in terms of the administration of justice. Kurdish activists, too, have faced arbitrary arrest and torture. The Baha'i community has faced further strictures, with a high ranking military official ordering those under his command to gather information about the Baha'i community. Such acts, the threat and use of violence against one's own citizenry dismays human rights defenders (HRDs) the world over and calls into question the Iranian authorities' respect for even the most basic forms of human dignity.

It is astonishing that a country which experienced torture and a high use of the death penalty under the Pahlavi Shahs should consider itself above society when it comes to implementing justice. Many HRDs in Iran - lawyers, journalists, trades unionists, students and simply those who publicly advocate international human rights standards - have a great deal of experience and a wealth of knowledge. One of them, Shirin Ebadi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This remarkable achievement was testimony to the development of the human rights discourse in Iranian society. The Center for Human Rights Defenders, a group in which Shirin Ebadi is active, has recently faced a threat of closure, though that threat was, itself, issued by means which are illegal; while another one of its members, Abdolfattah Soltani is currently appealing against a five-year prison sentence related to his defense of clients in a court case and which appears to be intended to prevent or deter him from pursuing his legitimate peaceful activities as a human rights defender and also to discourage other lawyers and HRDs from pursuing cases of official impunity or representing political cases.

The Iranian authorities should implement the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and extend to those active in the field of human rights - not politics, but human rights - the measure of respect and protection that such activity merits. Detaining, torturing and imprisoning HRDs - and other members of Iranian society - makes one think of the Saadi poem, 'Bani Adam, 'ezaye yek peykarand...'

Last Saturday, Amnesty International facilitated the flight of a human rights defender from Kabul, Afghanistan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The defender, a university lecturer at Kabul University, had received scores, if not hundreds of death threats from the resurgent Taleban in Afghanistan. Given Iran's level of social development and HRD community, I would have liked to help him travel to Tehran, where he could develop his own skills and contribute to Iranian society. Yet current conditions - an absence of a culture of human rights; an environment in which defenders are, at best, disregarded, and at worst, ill treated, meant that he had to go to Dushanbe. Iran's potential to lead not only the Persian speaking countries but the region, in terms of upholding human rights standards, is certainly there, yet the failure by the leadership in Iran to value the essential qualities of respect and dignity that is woven through human rights standards is a continuing source of disappointment for all those who respect Iran's culture.

Do you have any statistics about the number of prisoners of conscience in Iran? And how is the issue of the two deaths in custody, Akbar Mohammadi and Valyollah Feyz Mahdavi, being followed?

In 2006, hundreds, if not thousands, of Iranians have been arrested in the context of demonstrations demanding their human rights, or protesting against human rights violations, such as the Sharekat-e Vahed workers in Tehran, the Sufis in Qom, the Iranian Azerbaijanis protesting against the Iran cartoon and the women’s rights protestors. Although most have been released, many may have been prisoners of conscience, and some prisoners of conscience remain detained, such as Sayed Ali Akbar Mousavi-Kho’ini. All prisoners of conscience should be released immediately and unconditionally. The rapidity of arrests and releases - usually on conditional bail of some sort - makes the process of collating and verifying such statistics difficult. In respect to the two cases of death in custody in 2006, AI has called for independent investigations and for the results to be made public. At the time of this interview, there appears to be no attempt by the authorities to carry out such an investigation in either case, whether in terms of the procedure or in terms of a forensic assessment of the causes of death. The organization is dismayed that in death, as in life, both Akbar Mohammadi and Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi will not be accorded the dignity and justice each man deserved in his life, irrespective of their alleged crimes.

Amnesty has objected to the recent arrest of Fereshteh Dibaj, daughter of Mehdi Dibaj the Christian priest that was murdered by the regime, and her husband. It seems the condition for religious minorities is getting worse under Ahmadinejad, too. Does AI closely follow the status of religious minorities? Is there any statistics on the number of Baha’is, jews, and Christians that have left the country after the revolution due to religious discriminations and pressures?

The environment, or space, for all minorities - religious, ethnic, gender and others - since the election of President Ahmadinejad, has appeared to narrow and a range of minorities appear to feel under threat and cornered. The social climate in which social diversity and respect for the human rights of minorities in Iran appears under attack. The flight from Iran by Jewish, Assyirian, Armenian and other communities has been underway for some years, despite official pronouncements that the authorities respect these communities. While AI does not have statistics on this issue, the organization has campaigned against the legalized discrimination of the 'gozinesh' laws that are found in a variety of walks of life, be it a parliamentarian or a secretary in a ministry.
The Iranian regime’s unwritten policy is to isolate the human rights defenders. Recently, a researcher at Imam Sadegh University wrote an article about NGOs and stated that having connections with foreigners is “haraam” (forbidden by Islam).

What is AI’s policy and plans to support and strengthen the network of human rights defenders? It seems that the traditional method of protesting and writing objection letters is not working as it should. Does AI have further plans to expand its action and make the IRI to have more respect for human rights and less pressure on HRDs?

AI is gravely concerned at the crackdown directed at HRDs in Iran. AI seeks to extend recognition to defenders by explaining what they are and what they do to the Iranian authorities, the international community and to other networks of defenders, such as those in Latin America. The organization seeks to raise the profile of defenders, including women defenders, by co-sponsoring events such as the global WHRD consultation and platform which took place last December in Sri Lanka. In addition, AI would take immediate action to mobilize its activists around the world to campaign in support of any HRD who was detained in Iran in connection with his or her human rights activities.

Mr. Dyke, thank you again your time.

For letters section
Soheila Vahdati

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