Casey Chairs Hearing on Iran Human Rights and Democratic Reform

WASHINGTON, DC — U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) today chaired a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs on Human Rights and Democratic Reform in Iran.  Senator Casey highlighted some of the abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime and efforts to combat human rights abuses.

“We are witnessing an historic period of change in the Middle East.  Earlier this year, few could have predicted that the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would soon spread to neighboring countries such as Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and most recently Syria,” said Senator Casey.  “The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has inspired pro-democracy movements across the region and activists around the world.  Given these momentous political changes, it is all the more important that we take a closer look at the status of democratic reform in Iran, where authoritarian regime forces continue to repress political opposition activists and commit deplorable human rights violations against their own citizens.”

The subcommittee heard testimony from Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Philo L. Dibble, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Kambiz Hosseini, Voice of America; Andrew Apostolou, Senior Program Manager at Freedom House; and Rudi Bakhtiar, Communications Director for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.


Senator Casey continued: “Let me be unequivocally clear: the U.S. must continue to engage our international partners to find ways to support the democratic movement in Iran and to hold the Iranian regime accountable to its international human rights obligations.  We must not be reluctant to support political activists who are courageous enough to demonstrate in the face of extreme government repression.  The U.S. has a moral obligation to stand in support of the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy.”

Last month, Senator Casey was joined by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) in sending a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for the Obama Administration to more aggressively target human rights abuses as part of the Iran sanctions framework.

Senator Casey’s full opening statement is below.

U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Affairs

 

SENATOR ROBERT P. CASEY, JR.

OPENING STATEMENT

HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRATIC REFORM IN IRAN

MAY 11, 2011

We are witnessing an historic period of change in the Middle East.  Earlier this year, few could have predicted that the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would soon spread to neighboring countries such as Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and most recently Syria.  The so-called “Arab Spring” has inspired pro-democracy movements across the region and activists around the world.  Given these momentous political changes, it is all the more important that we take a closer look at the status of democratic reform in Iran, where authoritarian regime forces continue to repress political opposition activists and commit deplorable human rights violations against their own citizens.

Iran’s opposition movement poses perhaps the most significant challenge to the Islamic regime since its founding in 1979.  The pro-democracy movement gained momentum in the wake of the 2009 disputed presidential election, as protestors filled the streets of Tehran demanding an end to government oppression and calling for democratic reforms such as freedom of speech and assembly – the same freedoms being demanded by scores of protestors across the Middle East today. 

While Iran’s deplorable human rights record predates the post-election crackdown, the human rights crisis has deepened significantly in recent years.  Since the demonstrations in 2009, security forces used live ammunition to suppress protestors, killed at least seven and arrested more than 600 individuals according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of us recall with outrage the horrific death of Neda Soltan, a young demonstrator shot to death in the streets of Tehran during the 2009 post-election crackdown.  Neda is just one of many innocent victims of the Iranian government’s relentless use of force and oppression against its own citizens.  As we sit here today, scores of activists are imprisoned for their efforts to bring political change to Iran.  I would like to describe just a few:

  • Nasrin Sotoudeh is a lawyer and women’s rights activist currently serving an eleven year sentence for her work defending juveniles and women in Iran.  She is a mother of two and has been held in Iran’s notorious Evin prison since September 2010.  Nasrin has been on hunger strikes three times to protest her mistreatment – which has increasingly diminished her health – and her husband has been pressured, threatened and detained for advocating for his wife.
  •  Navid Khanjani is a 23 year-old student activist and defender of the rights of the Bahai community, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority which has been the victim of state-sponsored persecution since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Navid faces a 12 year prison sentence - the longest that Iran has given to a human rights activist – for speaking out against the government’s ban on Bahais to attend universities.  Navid spent 65 days in Evin prison – the first 25 of which were in solitary confinement.  He was forced to record false confessions and experienced brutal beatings and torture. 

I should also mention that seven members of the Bahá'í group, the “Yaran-i-Iran,” meaning “Friends of Iran,” were also arrested and imprisoned three years ago. They are currently serving a 20-year sentence in Evin prison.  

  • Mahdieh Golroo, a 25 year-old women’s rights activist, was imprisoned along with her husband in November 2009 after security forces raided their home.  After being expelled from her university and denied her degree, Mahdieh received a 28-month prison sentence for “anti-state propaganda” and “assembly and conspiracy to disturb public order,” charges which she denies.  She is currently being held in the women’s ward of Evin prison and has been repeatedly denied visitation rights and the right to medical treatment for medical problems, which her family says pose serious danger to her health.  She too has gone on multiple hunger strikes to protest her treatment.

These are but a few of those suffering in Iranian prisons as we speak.  Now more than ever, the United States must stand in support of these brave activists, just as we supported the courageous political dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andre Sakharov who spoke out against the repressive Soviet regime.  It is our duty to bear witness to the plight of the Iranian opposition, and signal our unwavering support for their ongoing struggle against this regime.

The United States must also work with the international community to hold the Iranian regime accountable for human rights abuses.  I introduced a bipartisan resolution in February 2010 calling for a renewed focus on the Iranian government’s violations of internationally-recognized human rights, as found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The UN’s establishment in March of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran is a welcome step, but more needs to be done to address these serious concerns. 

In September 2010, the Administration sanctioned eight Iranian officials determined to have committed serious human rights abuses in the post-2009 crackdown – and I was pleased to see the addition of Tehran prosecutor Abbas Dowlatabadi and Basij commander Mohammed Reza Naqdi in February of this year. 

However, as I and Senators Menendez and Cardin wrote in a letter to Secretary Clinton last month, we must enhance our efforts to prioritize the humane treatment of the Iranian people through the framework of existing U.S. sanctions (CISADA) on Iran.  The European Union’s recent sanctioning of thirty-two regime officials involved in human rights abuses – which include asset freezes and travel bans – is a welcome development, and we should continue to work with our European partners to ratchet up the pressure on the regime. 

The United States can assist the opposition movement by enacting measures to prevent the Iranian government’s suppression of electronic communication.  International companies have reportedly provided goods and technologies – including cell phone monitoring equipment and web-spying capabilities – that help the regime repress Iranian citizens.  I firmly support current and future efforts to hold these companies accountable and to help pro-democracy forces in Iran circumvent the regime’s efforts to disrupt and prevent their communications with activists in Iran and around the world.

Let me be unequivocally clear: the U.S. must continue to engage our international partners to find ways to support the democratic movement in Iran and to hold the Iranian regime accountable to its international human rights obligations.  We must not be reluctant to support political activists who are courageous enough to demonstrate in the face of extreme government repression.  The U.S. has a moral obligation to stand in support of the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy.

Today’s first panel will include testimonies from two State Department officials who deal with these issues on a daily basis. 

Michael Posner is the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.  Mr. Posner leads the State Department’s comprehensive efforts to support internet freedom around the world, an initiative that I strongly supportive.  Before joining the Administration in 2009, Mr. Posner was the Executive Director and then President of Human Rights First. 

Mr. Philo Dibble is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and a career member of the Foreign Service.  He has served in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau since 2003. 

I look forward to hearing from Mr. Posner and Mr. Dibble on how they assess the political strength of the opposition movement in Iran, ways the Administration is working to highlight human rights abuses there, and steps that we can take to support democratic reform in the country.

Our second panel includes three individuals with intimate knowledge of the political environment inside Iran.  Mr. Kambiz Hosseini is a co-host Parazit, the popular Persian language satirical television show broadcast on Voice of America’s Persian service.  Launched prior to the 2009 election, Parazit is a reference to the Iranian government’s repeated attempts to jam foreign satellite programming. 

Mr. Andrew Apostolou is a senior program manager at Freedom House, where he co-chairs the Iran Strategy Task Force which seeks to formulate new approaches to U.S. foreign policy on Iran with a focus on human rights. 

Finally, Ms. Rudi Bakhtiar is Communications Director for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, an organization that seeks to gather support for human rights activists and defenders in Iran.  Ms. Bakhtiar is an Iranian-American journalist who has over ten years of experience working for major international news networks. 

I welcome all of our panelists and look forward to hearing their assessment of how the U.S. government can work to support democratic reform in Iran.

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