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For victims of the Iranian regime, it’s a long quest for justice

Ottawa Citizen

By Terry Glavin

In New York on Tuesday, for the 10th year in a row, the United Nations adopted a Canadian-drafted resolution demanding that the Iranian government live up to its human rights obligations as a UN member state. The resolution duly noted the regime’s increasing resort to arbitrary arrest and torture, its continuing execution of political prisoners, its ongoing persecution of minorities, its discrimination against women and its thuggish restrictions on freedom of expression. The resolution carried, with 83 countries in favour, 31 opposed and 68 abstentions.

Thus passed another day, another week and another year that the Khomeinist regime has got away with its crimes. But while the diplomatic rituals were being re-enacted at the UN on Tuesday, 48-year-old Shokoufeh Sakhi, studying for her PhD in political science at York University, was imagining how the nightmare might finally end. Sakhi is one of thousands of the regime’s survivors scattered throughout the Iranian diaspora who have struck on an idea: an end has to have a beginning.

This is the thinking behind the Iran Tribunal, a kind of people’s court run by jurists and international law specialists. The tribunal released its interim findings last month at the International Law Academy at The Hague. For five years, the tribunal initiative has been informally assembling a case for the prosecution of top Iranian officials on charges of crimes against humanity. Relying on the assembled evidence of more than 70 witnesses so far, the tribunal is zeroing in on a very specific Khomeinist atrocity.

During the counter-revolutionary terror of the 1980s, Ayatollah Khomeini’s increasingly deranged regime rounded up and murdered at least 20,000 Iranians — mostly leftists, liberals, the secularist vanguard of the 1979 revolution, Kurds, Baha’i leaders, Ahwazi Arabs and so on. The tribunal’s focus is on a very specific three-month period, in the summer of 1988, when roughly 5,000 of Iran’s political prisoners were systematically exterminated.

These were the days of the Death Commissions. At the time, Shokoufeh Sakhi was housed in Room One, Ward One of the women’s section of the Amoozesh-gah compound of Evin Prison. She’d been arrested six years earlier on charges of having distributed Marxist leaflets while she was a high-school student. She’d been given a five-year sentence, but was still in prison because of her refusal to renounce her young comrades and swear an oath of religious obedience to Khomeini.

That Sakhi survived at all is just short of miraculous. It was partly due to merely being a woman. While the women of the revolutionary Mujahadeen-e-Khalkh were summarily executed during those months, “leftist” women presented the Khomeinists with a doctrinal problem. You can’t execute a virgin, for instance, so sometimes unmarried leftist women, “apostates,” were forced to marry a prison guard and then raped before being executed.

By the time Sakhi’s number came up, regime officials were sometimes releasing young women to the temporary custody of their parents, on the parents’ promise that they would co-operate in forcing the young women to renounce their comrades and submit to Khomeinism. This is how Sakhi managed to escape to Canada, in 1992.

Sakhi’s evidence of the events of 1988 is a stomach-churning account of forced confessions, suicides, screams in the night and all the horrific sadism you would expect from the efficient management of a human abattoir. “I guess I’m lucky,” Sakhi told me. “I survived.”

Sakhi’s great hope is that her evidence will someday see that justice will come to the 1988 Death Commission overseers who now infest the upper echelons of the Iranian regime. Just one of those officials is Mustafa Pour Mohammadi, who is currently Iran’s minister of the interior and a close confidante of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But among the many obscenities the Iran Tribunal has had to inquire into, the “crime of silence” particularly defies easy explanation. The way Sakhi explains it, it is at least partly owing to the “complication” Khomeinism’s crimes present to the cartoonishly simplistic politics of human rights activism in the West. “Those of us who survived, we have been given no space,” Sakhi said. “Nobody wanted to pay attention to us, and we still have this problem.”

Kaveh Shahrooz, a 32-year-old Toronto lawyer who serves in the role of prosecutor to the Iran Tribunal, has noticed this too. When he was conducting his research into the 1988 exterminations for his degree at Harvard’s law school in 2006, Shahrooz could find no more than about a dozen English-language articles about the 1988 atrocity. Human Rights Watch, for instance, had produced only one thin report on the subject.

“I get called a neo-con all the time, just because I raise these human rights issues,” Shahrooz told me the other day. “The support we need has not been forthcoming. Whenever you bring up something like the government of Iran, people will say these governments do the things they do because of some kind of grievance they have with the United States or Israel. But that is just not true.”

Shahrooz says he’s thankful that Canada is taking a forceful stance against Tehran at the UN, but it’s high time that Canada showed greater leadership by working with other UN member states to marshal the Iran Tribunal’s evidence to begin formal proceedings against the Iranian regime’s officials. And this week, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, whose department already gives priority to Iranian gay refugees, Baha’is, journalists, Christians and dissidents, is holding out some hope that Canada may do just that.

“We support the effort at The Hague to bring Iranian officials complicit in serious crimes to account,” Kenney told me this week.

It’s a start.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist whose most recent book is Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan.