Last week attorney and human rights activist Shadi Sadr accepted the Alexander Law Prize, given by California's Santa Clara University "to lawyers who have used their legal careers to help alleviate injustice and inequity". Her acceptance speech:
Choosing a topic for my speech tonight was both easy and difficult. It was easy because I knew I will be speaking to a crowd well aware of the violations of human rights in Iran. And it was difficult because I was not sure what comes to your minds when I say “violation of human rights in Iran.” Would it be the violent crushing of the demonstrators after the 2009 election? Would the torture and violation of the rights of the prisoners be what comes to your minds? Will you be reminded of the stoning sentences carried out? Would you remember the legal and executive discriminations against women? What about the details? How many names come to your minds? How many faces have been burned on your mind? How many victims? How many human rights violators? Do you remember any names at all or just an overall picture; somewhere in the world that we can find on the map, with difficulty at times, human rights in general are being violated and in general, we oppose violations of human rights.
In truth, what are we speaking of when we talk about violations of human rights in Iran? Here it is exactly: we speak of a lengthy list of examples of violations of human rights in Iran that take place, that are widespread and systematic, in an increasing manner in all the areas, from women’s rights to ethnic minority rights, from children’s rights to religious minority rights, from freedom of expression and association to homosexual rights. However, today I do not wish to speak of this lengthy yet general list. Instead, I wish to express what human rights means for me, what I am speaking of when I talk about violations of human rights in Iran. Today, I wish to speak of those details that usually don’t come to mind, of the names, the faces, the people.
When I started working with women who were sentenced to stoning, I was well aware of the laws pertaining to them in my legal capacity as an attorney. In my journalistic capacity, I had read the news about them in the journals aplenty. The news that spoke of a woman who was condemned for having extramarital affairs or of another who had killed the man who wanted to rape her and so on. Even so, those laws were merely a collection of dry words in books of law and those women, a few short sentences in the morning paper.
When I met those women in prisons, when I agreed to represent them as their attorney and read their thick case files, when I shook their hands and kissed their cheeks in greetings, when I saw the fear of death fill their eyes and saw their children cry bitter tears of separations, I gave them hope and optimism and yet, my own heart was weary and devoid of all hope to be able to really do anything for them. Those women walked out of the case files and the newspapers and entered my life. Their names and faces became a recurring part of my dreams.
In this manner and through the “Stop Stoning Forever Campaign”, my colleagues and I were able to rescue these women from the dusty archives of their case files and newspapers and tell their stories. They became names and acquired faces. They got attention as human beings and were no longer regarded as mere statistics in the discourse of human rights. Without a doubt, this was the most important reasons why they escaped execution and stoning and why the Iranian government was hard pressed through international pressures to insert amendments in the Penal Code, although unfortunately these amendments have not become finalized yet.
In truth, publicizing real stories and giving names and identities to every single part of what was previously a shapeless mass of stoning victims, revitalized the desire to seek justice for those names within the society. Our stories about these women’s lives, the legal discriminations they suffered, their poverty and illiteracy, not only highlighted their past, but also their future and that of all other nameless, faceless women like them. We gave these women names and faces, after which many of them got released. Perhaps it was not real justice in exchange for the years they spent in prison battling the nightmare of stoning every night and day, but we were able to slow the process of carrying out the punishment of stoning for women.
With what I learned from that experience, these days I am researching the instances of sexual torture in Iranian prisons within the last 30 years. Many friends ask me, “when the Iranian women presently have a horde of necessary and vital problems, why are you spending your time and energy on a topic that everyone, even the family members of the victims, are trying hard to forget?” In truth, why must so much time and energy be spent on researching the past while in the present, violations of human rights is occurring in a widespread and systematic way in Iran?
I was arrested in June of 2009 en route to join a post-election protest. During my first interrogation in prison, while blindfolded and facing the wall, the interrogator who was asking me about political issues and my activities in the women’s rights movement suddenly asked a very personal question about my marital relationship. I asked him what the question had to do with the case file. He firmly stated the question again and demanded an answer. The pain imposed by him, the supreme authority, by entering the private domain of my life, a powerless prisoner, was a new experience for me.
After that interrogation, I spent hours in my solitary cell thinking of his question. I wondered, if the interrogator’s entry into my private life through posing a question was so painful, then imagine the pain suffered by those prisoners who were subjected to sexual torture and rape throughout the years. However, this personal experience alone is not enough to justify my present focus on sexual torture in prisons. To justify this focus, I have to start elsewhere. I have to start from the beginning, the beginning of the Islamists gaining power in Iran, the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There is little documented information available about sexual torture and harassment in prison during the first decade after the Islamists gained power in Iran. To this day, no one knows the exact number of prisoners executed between 1981 and 1988 merely for their political beliefs. There are no correct statistics available about the Prison Massacre of 1988. I promised to speak today, not of statistics and numbers, not in the general sense, but of the specifics, of people and faces. I want to speak of three lasting cases, three resonating questions.
The first name and face is that of Niloufar Tashayod, a 15-year-old high school student. She was arrested at her school for having participated in an anti-governmental demonstration and having distributed flyers of the leftist organization she was a supporter of. She was sentenced to execution. The organization she supported condemned armed conflict and stood for political struggle. She was tried, without an attorney, in a court hearing that lasted less than 5 minutes and within three months of her arrest, without even a chance to see her family, she was executed. Years later, one of her cell mates wrote about her and said, “I lay down next to Niloufar. She held my hand and said, “I am afraid of dying.” I looked at her, not knowing what to say. My heart was trembling. Like her, I lacked experience in this field. I held her head in my arms and, slowly so as not to wake up the other girls, said, “Niloufar Jan, who says we are going to die?” She held me tight like an abandoned child and said, “They won’t let me out of here.” Then slowly she started to cry.” She was executed by a firing squad in September of 1981.
Family members of virgin girls who were executed in the 1980s for their political activities testified to international investigators that the girls were raped before execution. They believe that, based on a religious belief stating that an executed virgin will go to heaven, the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran would marry and then rape the girls the night before the execution so as to prevent these oppositionists from going to heaven. Researching this matter almost three decades later, to me the violent rape of virgin prisoner girls prior to execution is not a mere statement that has lost its effect due to excess usage. Today, my specific question is, was Niloufar Tashayyod who was barely fifteen at the time of her execution, raped before she was executed?
The second name and face is that of Zahra Kazemi, a photojournalist who was arrested on 23 June 2003, while photographing the gathering of family members of the political prisoners in front of Evin prison in Tehran. 18 days later, her lifeless body was handed over to her family. Government authorities announced cause of death to be “hitting of the head with a blunt object.” The only person charged in this case was later acquitted. However, the doctor who was employed by the ministry of defense of Iran and worked at the military hospital where she was taken from prison, left Iran in 2004 and sought asylum in Canada. He claims that after examining Zahra Kazemi’s body, four days after her arrest, signs of severe beating, torture and rape were present. She then suffered a brain hemorrhage due to an impact to her head while resisting and died in the hospital. Today, my specific question is, by which person or people and how was Zahra Kazemi sexually tortured and raped?
Third and final name and face that I wish to speak about today is that of Taraneh Mousavi. Like the other two, she is also an omnipresent question whose mere existence has been denied by the Iranian authorities. It is said that she was arrested in one of the gatherings in Tehran after the 2009 election. According to this narrative, an eye witness has said, “The riot police put me and a group of other detainees in vans and took us to detention centers in the north of Tehran where they physically and psychologically tortured us. Taraneh was amongst us. She had a beautiful face and figure and was dressed fashionably. Her interrogation lasted the longest. She had green eyes. That night, I was released along with a bunch of the detainees. Before our release they sent another bunch to other places. However, the plain clothed forces kept Taraneh at that place and did not even allow her to contact her mother.”
After three weeks during which her family had no news of her, an unknown person tells Taraneh’s mother through a phone conversation that her daughter is hospitalized somewhere. They announce the reason for her hospitalization to be a car accident through which she sustained the injuries of tearing of her uterus and rectum. In the end, Taraneh’s lifeless body was handed over to her family but due to threats by security authorities, Taraneh’s family have not yet released their version of the events.
My question today is: what must be done for Taraneh’s family to have the opportunity to tell their version of their sorrow-filled story out loud?
In my opinion, today we must know what did exactly happened to Niloufar, Zahra and Taraneh in their final hours of life? Who are responsible for their harassment and death? What did their family and friends go through amidst their fear and sorrow and humiliation? Not only the Iranians, but in my opinion the whole world has to hear these narratives that are so worthy of being told and retold and so deserving of being heard. Not only because they open a window into an untold chapter of human suffering, but also and more importantly, so that they won’t be repeated ever again.
My generation, a generation that came of age and went to school and college during the government of the Islamic Republic, has little information about the widespread violations of prisoner’s rights in the 1980s. Even worse, complete and utter censorship about the news and information pertaining to that period has caused my generation to believe the official narrative which mainly was that those who were executed in prisons were terrorists who killed innocent pedestrians in the streets. For this reason, even those who possess minimal information about what transpired during those dark years hardly sympathize with the victims and their families. We internalized the government propaganda and believed that people like Niloufar Tashayyod were terrorists who staged bombing and therefore were deserving of torture and execution.
Until last June we believed that such widespread crushing of opposition by the government that occurred in the 1980s would never repeat itself. But what occurred during the crushing of the post-election protests clearly showed that what we thought was wrong. Violations of human rights occurred on such a widespread scale that it was only comparable to the events of the first decade after the revolution. Although such events, beatings and imprisonments and even killing of the protestors in the streets caused the younger generation to become more sensitive to the violations of human rights in Iran, our history did not merge with theirs. Our pains and suffering did not tie itself to theirs, as if we were the first of our kind to experience such maladies and whatever came before us had passed and was no longer relevant to our work of today. Or at their best, they were numbers in books and narratives of the previous generations: 3000, 5000, 7000 and 20000 people. No names, no faces.
We repeatedly spoke of the necessities of clarifying the facts surrounding the death of Taraneh Mousavi, the urgency of trying those responsible for that grave injustice, and the right of her family and friends to narrate her story, mourn her death and demand the punishment of actors and instigators of such event. Yet we never spoke of Niloufar Tashayyod and other women like her. However, if a correct narrative about Niloufar Tashayyod’s life was published, the violators of human rights would cease to enjoy impunity so that they could continue in their ways and sexually assault Zahra Kazemi and kill her during interrogation. Perhaps if the actors and instigators of Zahra Kazemi’s death were introduced to public and subjected to a fair trial, there would no longer exists a security force that would dare to single out Taraneh Mousavi from the crowd and lead her to her death. Today, we sympathize more with the new faces and names. We sympathize with Taraneh Mousavi more than with Zahra Kazemi and with Zahra Kazemi more than with Niloufar Tashayyod. Regretfully, the rest of the world is also more familiar and sympathizes more with the new names than the old ones.
Historically speaking, Taraneh Mousavi is a continuation of Zahra Kazemi who herself is a continuation of Niloufar Tashayyod. However, in Iran we are facing segmented historical experiences. With over a century's experience of combating democracy and freedom, we are still at the starting point on a lot of fronts. Last year, we witnessed how the government unjustly and unfairly labeled many people who, like myself, participated in the peaceful post election demonstrations with the charge of 'Moharebeh' which means taking arms against the government and is punishable by execution. However, we were unable to make the connection between this systematic distortion of the facts in the Iranian judicial system and what had transpired in the past. We could not fully comprehend that, if rape and sexual torture took place in Iran after the election, this was not merely a new and unprecedented occurrence. In fact, this occurrence, although commonplace, was never narrated, the facts surrounding it never clarified and the actors and participants never justly punished and therefore, it occurred again. In the public’s opinion, all the prisoners who were executed post election were victims of violations of human rights. We restored their respect and that of all those who were charged with baseless accusations, yet we did not extend this restoration to the victims of such violations of human rights in the past history of our country. It seems that the previous generation was not successful in narrating their history and transferring it to our generation and in turn our generation, under the yoke of heavy censorship, was not put in contact with valid narratives of that time.
Therefore, now is the time to, once and for all, stitch together these various narratives and create from them a uniform, or at least uniformly acceptable, narrative. If not, my fear is that my daughter’s generation, the third generation since the revolution, will not remember Taraneh Mousavi because no justice was served in her case, in much the same way that we do not remember Niloufar Tashayyod and thousands like her and do not demand justice to be served for her and her family. Worse than that, today that our wounds are fresh and bleeding, if we do not honor the old wounds of others, then the next generation will likewise not respect our wounds that are bound to become old with age. Searching for justice, without dividing it into time periods and dividing history and prioritizing it, is the historic duty of my generation.
Now you must be asking, what does your long-winded story of your generation and its connection with the past, have to do with us American citizens who do not share your history or face your current challenges?
In an international world, we all know that in many cases, individual courage has changed the course of history. History cannot deny or forget the instrumental role that the individual courage of Rosa Parks played in the American Civil Rights Movement. Today, as we stand in the battlefield of citizen’s rights, we need to learn from the individual and collective experiences of others in order to achieve human rights. At the same time, we need the individual courage and ingenuity of each and every one of you that will be incredibly important and effective in an international world. I consider the awarding of the Katherine and George Alexander law prize to myself a lasting measure in making possible the narration of the story of every Iranian who fought and still fights to achieve equality and freedom.
These days everyone speaks of “Democracy in Iran,” and “Democracy for Iran,”. Although a world of meaning and difference lies within those “conjunctions and prepositions,” but for me, it is clear that without justice, and I mean right at this moment, democracy will not be achieved in Iran. On this path, although Iranian civil society plays an important role, the international community can also offer significant help such as educational programs to transfer similar experiences of other countries, support for plans to research and document violations of human rights, support for the preparation of blacklists containing the names of those who have participated in widespread violations of human rights, and efforts to convince governments as well as the United Nations of the necessity of taking effective steps against these violators. Each one of you who agrees with me should start thinking right now about ways to make the names and faces of the Niloufars and Zahras and Taranehs more prominent each day and subsequently make the world increasingly less safe for the violators.
In hopes that Justice prevails for Iran, many thanks.