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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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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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A scathing UN report, backlash and the urgent need to tackle rampant torture in Mexico

By Guillermo Farias

A recent report on Mexico by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, paints a bleak picture of the country’s human rights record and its generalized use of torture. Practiced by a wide range of actors, from doctors to ministerial agents, torture usually starts as soon as someone is detained and tends to be used with the goal of getting confessions related to organized crime. Its victims often belong to marginalized groups.

The modus operandi portrayed in the report is disturbing. Arresting officers arrive in civilian clothes, sometimes with their faces covered by ski masks, drive unmarked cars, lack proper warrants and don’t explain the motives for an arrest. Those arrested are “blindfolded and driven to unknown locations, including military bases, where the torture continues, consisting of a combination of: punches, kicks and beatings with sticks; electric shocks through the application of electrical devices such as cattle prods to their bodies, usually their genitals; asphyxiation with plastic bags; waterboarding; forced nudity; suspension by their limbs; threats and insults.” Victims of torture are often presented to the media as criminals without having been convicted, itself a form of degrading treatment, the report notes.

Moreover, this torture takes place in a context of almost complete impunity, according to the report. Between 2005 and 2013, there were only five convictions for torture. Even recommendations from the National Human Rights Commission have failed to lead to accountability: not one of its 223 recommendations has resulted in a criminal conviction, the Special Rapporteur critically noted. The panorama is similar at the state level. In Mexico City, officially known as the Federal District, 388 preliminary investigations into allegations of torture have been opened since 2008. Criminal proceedings have been brought in only two cases and 121 cases are still pending. Since 2005, there have been only been three convictions, and the penalties imposed, according to the Special Rapporteur, were not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. In Chiapas, the state that forms the border with Guatemala, the four torture cases that reached the verdict stage from 2007 to 2013 resulted in acquittals.

To improve the situation, the Special Rapporteur recommended two controversial changes to Mexico’s security strategy and legislative framework. First, ending the use of the military in security operations. The Mexican military has been deployed to combat organized crime groups since the administration of President Felipe Calderon, who was in office from 2006 to 2012. At its apex, in 2012, the military-centric offensive against organized crime groups called for the deployment of 50,000 soldiers, the report said. The deployment of the military, the Special Rapporteur’s report points out, correlates with a massive increase in the numbers of complaints of torture and ill-treatment. From 2001 to 2006, the National Human Rights Commission registered 320 such complaints per year on average. Between December 2012 and July 2014, the Commission received 1,148 complaints related to the armed forces alone.

Second, the Special Rapporteur recommended the elimination of a controversial form of pre-charge detention known in Spanish as arraigo. The measure allows the authorities to detain someone for up to 40 days, with the possibility of an extension, in the course of an organized crime investigation. In the course of those 40 days, authorities are supposed to determine whether to bring formal charges against the detained suspect. In practice, however, arraigo violates the presumption of innocence and creates perverse incentives for torture. There is a marked tendency to use arraigo to “detain in order to investigate, rather than investigate in order to detain,” the report said. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur pointed out that the practice is ineffective: only 3.2% of the more than 8,000 people that have been subject to the measure since 2008 have been convicted.

As if the reports findings were not enough to send chills down one’s spine, the government of Mexico responded to the report by going on the offensive, attempting to discredit the report rather than face its findings.

Government officials were quick to accuse the Special Rapporteur of being unethical and unprofessional.  Mexico’s Foreign Minister, José Antonio Meade, went as far as saying that Mexico would no longer cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, undersecretary of foreign affairs, argued that generalized torture would be considered a crime against humanity and require the intervention of the International Criminal Court, thus putting the accusation outside the scope of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. The government was also critical of the report’s methodology, specially its reliance on a small number of cases. As tensions grew and broke standard diplomatic protocol, the Special Rapporteur made clear that he was not accusing the Mexican government of crimes against humanity. However, he made clear that he had gathered enough evidence to sustain the report’s conclusion that torture is generalized.

The government’s strongly defensive reaction makes sense only in the context of a country that lacks a cohesive human rights strategy. Rather than admit that there are serious human rights problems, the government tries to minimize and dismiss criticism in the hopes of avoiding the spotlight of international mechanisms. Given the magnitude of the problem, this strategy is untenable. Instead of attempting to discredit the Special Rapporteur’s scathing report, the government should seize the moment as an opportunity to address the human rights consequences of a security strategy centered on the use of military force and call on the international community for support.

Over a week ago, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said it considered its disagreement with the Special Rapporteur to be “concluded.” While the government said it stood by its criticisms of the report, it made clear that the country is open to “international scrutiny,” thus walking back some of its more inflammatory remarks. The Special Rapporteur, while standing firmly behind the findings contained in the report, has offered a follow-up visit to Mexico in 2015 or 2016. This is a good first step. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail going forward.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Eneas De Troya/Creative Commons