Analysis: Six questions for Iran's President Rouhani

The absence of Ahmadinejad-like incendiary rhetoric should not be cause for celebration.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani address UN 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani address UN 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
In both his preelection pronouncements and post-election promises, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has spoken encouragingly of “moderation,” “reform” and upholding “the rights of the people... in a free Iran.”
In the run-up to his speech this week at the UN General Assembly, Rouhani engaged in what The Economist characterized as a “remarkable” and “unprecedented” charm offensive, including the release of political prisoners.
Yet, this charm offensive is belied by ongoing human rights violations as documented by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. His report describes these violations as “widespread, systemic and systematic,” characterization that he recently reaffirmed in discussions with me.
What follows is a human rights index – an inventory of serious human rights abuses and the corresponding actions required to turn Iran from a republic of fear to what Rouhani called a free Iran. The queries serve as a litmus test for the authenticity of Rouhani’s commitment to justice and human rights.
1. Executions
Prior to Rouhani’s election, Iran had the highest per capita execution rate in the world, with Dr. Shaheed expressing his alarm at “the rate of executions in the country.”
Executions have not only continued unabated since Rouhani’s election but have escalated, with some 100 Iranians executed in the first month alone following his election. Moreover, a large number of prisoners are killed by the regime in secret, such that the number of executions is almost certainly higher.
Query: Will President Rouhani declare a moratorium on executions?
2. Torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment
Dr. Shaheed’s report describes the horrific reality of torture deployed to coerce confessions – which are then used to justify trumped-up charges – while a culture of impunity prevails.
The report, based on witness testimony, documents the methods of physical torture, which include beating, whipping and assault in 100 percent of the cases; sexual torture including rape, molestation and violence to genitals in 60 percent of the cases; and, psychological and environmental torture such as solitary confinement as “highly prevalent.”
Query: Will President Rouhani undertake to investigate and put an end to this widespread use of torture and related impunity?
3. Repression and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities
The plight of the Baha’i – the largest religious minority in Iran – is a looking glass into the plight of religious and ethnic minorities in general and the criminalization of innocence in particular.
The persecution and prosecution of the Baha’i is a case study of the systematic, if not systemic, character of Iranian injustice, including: arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; false charges such as “spreading corruption on Earth” and “espionage for foreign elements”; torture in detention; and show trials devoid of any due process. More than 200 Baha’i have been executed – the entire Baha’i leadership is now imprisoned – and the Iranian leadership has sought to disenfranchise the Baha’i from participation in all aspects of Iranian life.
In contrast to President Rouhani’s musings of greater tolerance for religious minorities, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s fatwa issued last month calls for Iranians to avoid any interactions with members of the Baha’i faith, whom he described as “deviant and misleading.”
Query: Will President Rouhani end the social, cultural and political exclusion of the Baha’i and other persecuted and repressed religious minorities?
4. Political prisoners and the assault on civil society
Despite the release of 11 political prisoners last week – including the iconic human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – and the report that Tehran has released an additional 80 political prisoners, there are still some 2,000 political prisoners in Iran. Among them are the leadership of ethnic and religious minorities, human rights defenders, students, journalists, bloggers, artists, trade unionists, members of the political opposition and civil society leaders generally speaking.
Query: Will President Rouhani honor his promise to release Iranian political prisoners? Will he grant them – including Nasrin Sotoudeh – the freedom to champion the cases and causes of those imprisoned?
5. Persistent and pervasive assault on women
While Rouhani has spoken eloquently of gender equality – and Article 20 of the Iranian Constitution purports to protect it – women face widespread and systematic discrimination in education, employment, state benefits, family relations and access to justice. As Dr. Shaheed noted, there is a dearth of female representation in decision-making roles.
Query: Will President Rouhani implement his promise to improve women’s rights, ensure gender equality and establish the country’s first Ministry of Women?
6. The 25th anniversary of the ’88 massacre and the culture of impunity
At a time when we mark the 25th anniversary of the Iranian regime’s 1988 massacre of some 5,000 political prisoners, President Rouhani’s appointment of Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as minister of justice is a dramatic and scandalous example of the culture of impunity under Rouhani. As the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has reported, Pour-Mohammadi – the deputy intelligence minister from 1987 until 1999 – was directly involved in the ’88 prison massacre – which a recent unanimous Canadian parliamentary resolution characterized as crimes against humanity; was involved in the extra-judicial assassination of political opponents; and was responsible for the unlawful killings of dissidents within Iran.
Query: Will Rouhani end the culture of impunity in Iran, remove Pour-Mohammadi from office, and provide appropriate redress to his victims – the whole in the pursuit of truth, justice and accountability?
As Rouhani addresses the General Assembly and meets with world leaders this week, the absence of Ahmadinejad-like incendiary rhetoric – while welcome – should not be cause for celebration. It is Rouhani’s deeds – not just his words – that will be the test of his commitment to a free Iran.
The writer is a Canadian member of Parliament and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. He is emeritus professor of law at McGill University in Montreal.