Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Internat

Speech of Fakhteh Zamani

On March 24, 2009, Mrs. Fakhteh Zamani, President of the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran and Mr. Ahmad Batebi, a spokesperson for Human Rights Activists in Iran gave a presentation to the Canadian parliament regarding the current status of human rights in Iran.

Mrs. Zamani opened the discussion with a brief presentation on treatment of Azerbaijanis as an ethnically marginalized minority that is barred from linguistic and cultural expression. Mrs. Zamani, who is herself of Iranian Azerbaijani descent, cited examples of the oppressive treatment by the Islamic Republic of Iran on ethnic Azerbaijanis simply for promoting linguistic rights. She mentioned the case of Reza Avaz-Pour, 17, who was sentenced to 15 months in a political prison for stating that his mother tongue would never die; 5 university activists in February 2009 who were charged with establishing illegal groups and disturbing national security after they campaigned to promote linguistic rights; and Mr. Farhad Mohseni, 25, who was tortured and killed in June 2008 for similar activities. 

She goes further to describe her own experience in Iran as a member of a marginalized minority group. Mrs. Zamani remembers the Iranian media’s discriminatory nature toward Azerbaijanis and her inability to speak her native tongue openly. Upon immigrating to Canada, she became well aware that these discriminatory actions were not covered in the Western media outlets. Three years ago she set out to increase awareness for her cause, which has intensified since the May 2006 Azerbaijani uprising. She has continued her work despite attacks from opposition groups. She currently speaks with the families of Azerbaijani victims to make sure their stories are heard.

Mr. Batebi followed this presentation by giving statistical information on human rights violations in Iran. He started off mentioning censorship as the principal problem. He described that within the past year, 29 cases of newspapers shutting down and 26 reporters who had been tried for spreading propaganda, 21 of whom were found guilty. He goes further to explain human rights violations committed on students, student groups, women’s rights groups and religious groups. His figures showed the following data on political arrests, totaling 278: 42 arrests of Baha’i activists and 11 execution verdicts, 51 Christians arrested, 131 Sunnis arrested of which 19 received execution verdicts.

After Mrs. Zamani and Mr. Batebi’s presentations, Canadian MPs were allotted some time for questions. Mr. Mario Silvia asked Mrs. Zamani what concrete steps the Canadian parliament could take for their cause. Mrs. Zamani’s response was that allowing her to present her case and raising awareness were the first and most important eps. Following up, MP Mr. Bernard Bigrsas asked what measures the Canadian Parliament could do in response to the violations. Mrs. Zamani’s response was to increase the importance of oppressed minorities in UN resolutions against Iran. She also stated that she would like to see more resolutions to bring awareness of the issue within the Canadian Parliament. Mr. Birgras then asked if Mrs. Zamani would like to see the cases brought up before an International Tribunal. Mrs. Zamani’s response was that while this would be “fantastic”, for now she just wants to see more awareness of the issue.

MP Wayne Marston began by noting the use of the internet as a powerful tool of raising dissent within Iran. He then asked if there had been any impact from the UN. Mrs. Zamani explained that her experience with the UN had been limited to special support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

MP David Sweet began his commentary by noting that these human rights abuses in some way mirror the events that precluded the Holocaust. He went on to ask Mrs. Zamani who had been attacking her. Mrs. Zamani responded by saying opposition groups surprisingly more than the Iranian government.

Fakhteh Zamani’s Presentation to the Canadian Parliament’s Subcomittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development
Distinguished members of the House of Commons, Ladies and Gentlemen.

As most teenagers in Canada are getting ready for their summer break, Azerbaijani Iranian, Mohammad Reza Evezpour who is just 17 will soon start serving yet another 15 months prison sentence. This young activist is no stranger to detention, imprisonment and torture. Since age 13, he has been arrested and tortured repeatedly for the simple non-violent act of stating that his mother tongue will not die.

Five university activists, Hossein Hosseini, Asghar Akberzadeh, Ardashir Karimi, Behruz Alizadeh, and journalist Rahim Gholami were sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment by the Iranian revolutionary court on Feb 02, 2009 for the simple act of promoting their linguistic rights. Their trials were not public and without a lawyer present. They were charged with "establishing illegal groups with the intention of disturbing the national security". These activists will be sent far away from their homes to dangerous prisons all over the country. These exiles will prevent family visits, will stop the flow of information about their conditions and basic welfare, and will disconnect them from the outside world. It may sound ironic to say that their families are lucky. At least they will know where their loved ones are.

On June 11, 2008 the worst fear of one family came true. Twenty days after Farhad Mohseni’s arrest by officers of the Iranian ministry of Intelligence, his tortured body was handed over to his family for immediate burial. He was 25 years old.

As Iran’s uranium enrichment program continues to be a focus of international attention, the human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate. While the activities of various student and women’s rights movements, as well as individual cases of journalists, writers, scholars, and human rights defenders, are somewhat known to the outside world, regrettably this is not the case with minoritized non-Persian communities. The Azerbaijanis and other non-Persian ethnic groups are Iran’s invisible population.

For over 80 years, all non-Persian minorities in Iran have been victims of serious human rights violations. They have endured racial discrimination, forced assimilation, suppression of their language and culture under both the Pahlavi and Islamic governments. However, as a person of Azerbaijani background, I am here to speak about this particular community: the minority group which well might be a numerical majority but is kept in a minority situation in terms of access to power and resources.Since early childhood, I have been exposed to the racial discrimination against the ethnic group into which I was born. As a school girl, I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue, Azerbaijani Turkic. I never saw text books written in my language. I was not taught to read and write my language or learn about my culture and history. As Iran’s only official language Farsi, the Persian language was imposed on us. We were forced to learn Persian language, Persian history, and Persian culture as the common identity of all Iranians.

I have experienced my ethnic group routinely and openly insulted on radio, television and in the state run national press. Even now, my people are depicted as intellectually challenged and are dehumanized as “donkeys” and cockroaches”. Racial discrimination is still with us. Banning of all non-Farsi languages continues, ethnic groups, particularly Turks and Semites are dehumanized.
Iranian regimes have been the biggest threat to the realization of human rights for Azerbaijanis in Iran. Paralleling the internal repression by the government, the Azerbaijani struggle is ignored by the international community and remains invisible to western media such as the BBC, and European broadcasts in Persian. Even Iranian human rights activists, often fail to mention Azerbaijanis and other minorities when they speak of human right violations in Iran.

About two years ago, after hearing of wide spread arrests in the Azerbaijani region ofIran and sensing a total indifference on the part of Iranian Human rights groups towards all Azerbaijani cases, I came to the realization that I must take up the cause.Straightaway I could see the effects of repression and forced assimilation to which the Azerbaijanis were subjected in the course of last century. I and others, who have spoken about Azerbaijani rights, have been regularly denounced as traitors and separatists, and have faced insults and threats not only by members of the dominant Persian group but also by some assimilated and Persianized members of the minority communities.

Since May 2006 uprising in the Azerbaijani region of Iran, Azerbaijani activists have been hit hard. Many are in prison, some are missing, and as I mentioned before some were killed. Those of us fortunate enough to live in societies where we are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help the less fortunate. We are asking the international community to be aware of the situation in Iran and to take action on behalf of those who have no voice.

When I ask activists or family members who have lost a loved one, or have someone in prison, if they have a message, they ask me to speak about their struggle for freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights. But for them as Azerbaijanis the struggle is also about eliminating racial discrimination and having a right to their own language and culture. Their message can be summarized in these words by Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned Burmese leader: “please use your liberty to promote ours.”