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An emotional second day: hearing on Americans detained in Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

By Zahava Moerdler

On June 2, 2015, my second day as an intern on Capitol Hill, I attended an incredibly powerful and emotional hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The families of four Americans detained in Iran came before the committee to tell their stories and request assistance in bringing their loved ones home.

In May, Congressman Dan Kildee introduced a resolution that would call on the Iranian government to release the four Americans currently detained in Iran. The resolution had bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by Ranking Member Eliot L. Engel and Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It was brought before the committee on June 2, when four family-members gave written and oral testimony about their loved ones. For three of the witnesses, their relatives are currently detained in Iranian prisons; one witness’ father is missing in Iran. Iranian prisons are plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation and sub-standard medical care. Prisoners face violence and abuse, with political prisoners or prisoners of conscience often targeted. The detained Americans have been tortured, are malnourished and have faced or are currently facing “show trials.” One witness detailed how his brother was not allowed to meet his lawyer until a few hours before the trial against him commenced. Another witness described how her husband was tortured and imprisoned because he had organized a Christian prayer group.

Each family member presented his or her emotional and heart-wrenching remarks. Each one hoped to increase pressure on both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to return their loved ones. “There is not a day that goes by when we don’t think of him, how much he must be suffering, and what we can do next to bring him home,” Daniel Levinson, son of missing former FBI agent Robert Levinson, said at the hearing. “We need – in fact, we implore – negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking Iran’s help in locating him. … America should not rest until one of its own is returned home to the family that loves him more than life itself.” Robert Levinson went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, and it is unclear who is holding him or how he is faring. He has missed his 40th wedding anniversary, the birth of grandchildren and numerous other milestones. The Levinson family just wants to know how he is doing, where he is and when he can be returned home to them.

Another panelist, Sarah Hekmati, began to cry as she described how her father, suffering from brain cancer and now wheelchair-bound, may never get to see his son returned home. Amir Hekmati, a former Marine, traveled to Iran in 2011 to visit his grandmother and other relatives. There, he was detained by police, questioned and accused and tried for espionage. He was sentenced to death. On appeal, the court reversed and issued a sentence of 10 year in prison. He is the only American to ever be sentenced to death in Iran. During his time in prison, he has been tortured and beaten. Sarah, like the other panelists, requested that the United States government make their families’ plights a priority, especially as the nuclear negotiations come to a close.

Nagameh Abedini, another speaker, has traveled around the world in a valiant attempt to bring her husband, Saeed Abedini, home. She has spent the past three years traveling around the world asking foreign leaders and dignitaries for their assistance. As immigrants to the United States, both Nagameh and Saeed cherished the freedom of religion afforded to them here. In 2012, while working to set up churches in Iran, her husband was arrested. During her testimony, Nagameh pleaded with Congress to take action so that perhaps after this trip, she would finally be able to tell her children that their father was coming home. Nagameh also discussed her worries and fears about her husband’s psychological and emotional well-being. Saeed was sent to Rajai Shahr Prison, a notorious jail for murderers and rapists, where he was told that he would not be released, and likely killed, unless he denounced his faith. Like others, Saeed has been tortured and beaten. He is currently residing in solitary confinement, a placement that Nagameh fears will have long-term deleterious effects on his mental well-being.

Finally, Ali Rezaian spoke on behalf of his brother, Jason Rezaian, a journalist with the Washington Post who was imprisoned and accused of espionage last year. Jason has spent half his marriage in jail and away from his wife, Ali stressed. Building on the other testimonies, Ali reiterated his fear of what would happen to his brother after his upcoming trial, and whether or not he would be able to see his brother again.

Although Democrats and Republicans do not agree on all issues, on this they were unanimous: the detention of American citizens and their treatment in Iran is outrageous and unacceptable. Christopher Smith, a Republican Representative from New Jersey, said, “This is something that should be talked about not on the fringes and the sidelines of the negotiations, but as a mainstay issue.” Elliot Engel, Democratic Minority Leader, said, “It would just be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include the bring home of our hostages.”

Each representative in attendance voiced the same concerns and anger. All promised that this issue would be a priority and that the status of these detainees would not fall by the wayside. As the hearing adjourned I thought, “How long before these Americans are returned home and at what cost?” I still wonder if this will have any bearing on the on-going nuclear negotiations. I wonder if the Iranian government will use these Americans as leverage in order to further their nuclear ambitions. And I also wonder, in light of the other human rights concerns within Iran, how the rest of the world will respond both to the plight of the Iranian people and to these four innocent individuals detained in a hostile country.

It was clear to me, as I sat in the packed room full of interns, press, staff and the public (including men and women in orange jumpsuits calling for the release of Saeed Abedini), that the individualized testimony had a profound influence on the Committee members and the public. Something I have seen time and again—like when two of the girls freed from Boko Haram testified to Congress in support of #BringBackOurGirls—is that individuals’ stories make human rights concerns real. It is easy to feel removed and distanced from the experiences of those suffering abroad. But one person’s story can give substance, meaning, emotion and humanity to human rights issues.

Zahava Moerdler is a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She is currently interning with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Democratic Staff.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo Credit: jmiller291/Creative Commons


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The nuclear obsession and human rights: how human rights abuses are swept under the rug during peace talks with Iran

By Zahava Moerdler

Iran. Nuclear weapons. Diplomacy. Sanctions. Peace. These words have been in the news almost every day for the past two months. With a potential nuclear accord is on the table and President Obama working on finding a consensus with Congress, the lifting of sanctions and a “sort-of” peace with Iran is finally within reach. Yet as these words circle in the air and press, it seems that policymakers and diplomats are consistently sweeping Iranian human rights infringements under the rug, with negotiations failing to factor in human rights at all.

Iran executed 544 people in 2012, second only to China, according to Amnesty International. At least 63 of the executions were carried out in public. Most of the individuals were executed for drug-related crimes following “flawed trials in revolutionary courts,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. Additionally, Iran executes children for various criminal offenses, allowing capital punishment for those who have reached puberty, meaning age nine for girls and age fifteen for boys. Many believed that under President Hassan Rouhani, who assumed office in August 2013, the executions would relax, but the contrary has proved true. 773 individuals were executed during Rouhani’s first year in office, which was a marked increase from President Ahmadinejad’s administration, according to statistics from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. In 2013, Iran had the highest execution rate per capita. While Iranian media sources report 200 executions in 2014, opposition leaders claim the number is closer to 400 people, HRW said. These numbers alone are staggering. When placed in context, they are even more disturbing. For example, sixteen people were executed in 2013 for crimes of “enmity against God” because of connections to opposition groups. In 2014, at least nine people were executed for this crime. How can the contrasting images of Iranian Ministers shaking hands with Western Diplomats in Geneva and bodies hanging in public squares in Tehran be reconciled? With a nuclear deal on the horizon, the world cannot continue to keep silent about Iranian human rights abuses.

Another major human rights issue is gender discrimination in Iran. According to a report published by Amnesty International, women in Iran face increased restrictions on their use of contraceptives and exclusions from the labor force unless they have a child, if two proposed laws will be passed. The bill also reinforces discriminatory stereotypes about women. Other bills that will be discussed in Parliament in the coming months could further isolate and discriminate against women in Iran, the report said. For example, the Bill to Increase Fertility Rates and Prevent Population Decline (Bill 446) outlaws voluntary sterilization and the Comprehensive Population and Exaltation of Family Bill (Bill 315), discriminates against women who choose not to marry or are unable to have children.

Though some human rights organizations have launched campaigns to stop or counter these bills, these groups face incredible pushback from the Iranian government. Amnesty International has a global campaign, My Body My Rights, that aims to stop governmental “control and criminalization of sexuality and reproduction rights.” Additionally, grassroots organizations like the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to work within the law to collect signatures to support the repeal of laws that discriminate against women, are targeted by security officials in Iran and individuals from these groups are detained on “national security” grounds. Anyone who does not heed these warnings faces severe reprisals.

Critics of the Iran deal also accuse President Obama of turning a “blind eye” to Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East and its motives for providing funds and arms for these wars. These critics believe that President Obama is too focused on a “legacy-enhancing push” that could “lift his presidency’s historic potential” after years of tension between Washington and Tehran. Unfortunately, regional conflicts and tensions have created an environment that promotes radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who threaten both American and Iranian interests. Yet, Iran continues to foster breeding grounds for these radical groups. In Syria, Iran continues to support President Assad, even when the U.S. has supported the opposition. In Iraq, Iran’s support of Shiite proxy groups continues to stir up trouble for the U.S., even while both countries fight the Sunni ISIS. Iran also has connections to Hezbollah in Lebanon and rebels in Yemen and Bahrain. Although these examples do not point to direct Iranian human right infringements, Iran’s continued support of rebel groups, militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East is destabilizing the region and fostering human rights abuses. Thus, Iran’s abuses extend beyond homegrown discrimination, persecution and rampant executions and into regional abuses by proxy.

By contrast, many Iranian dissidents fear that a breakdown in the nuclear talks could bring about a wave of repression. So although human rights might be a rallying point for why the Iranian nuclear discussions are problematic, the deal could potentially promote increased human rights within the country. Some believe that the lifting of sanctions would combat economic suffering and thus take away one of the major arguments hardliners in Iran use when infringing on the population’s basic rights. Thus, a nuclear deal could lead to more opportunities for activists in Iran to push for increased human rights, while those who oppose such rights will no longer be able to respond with cries against the evils of the West.

The important nuance is that while there is a clear need to promote an end to sanctions and democracy, and all that it entails, there is also a need to address the clear human rights violations in Iran. According to Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most prominent dissident, imposing sanctions and threats of war rarely promote more human rights in developing countries for a number of reasons. First, dictators often use the threat of war as a way to delegitimize their opponent’s arguments and ideals, Ganji argues. Second, sanctions hurt the entire country, including the rising middle class and thus affect all socioeconomic strata. And third, he pointed out that American wars often threaten human rights on their own. These points clearly articulate the need for peace, for on its heels trail the seeds of democracy and human rights.

Today, however, at a governmental level, there is no accountability for human rights abuses. Despite a number of organizations working to promote human rights in Iran, the nuclear peace talks have not had a rights-based approach. The American government should encourage reform in Iran as an important component of the agreement. At the very least, a conversation about ongoing abuses must occur. If local human rights groups in Iran see global support for their movements, it could help promote their work and push for more discourse between the organizations and the government. Furthermore, with human rights on the agenda, the American government will be more conscious of how a breakdown in negotiations and continuing sanctions will directly impact the Iranian people. Human rights are not an excuse for bullying; they are important and fundamental to human freedom, liberty and happiness. With a heightened focus on human rights, perhaps real change can finally come in Iran.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State/Creative Commons