Editor's Note: As world leaders gather at the United Nations this week, Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading political dissident, sent this open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. As Iranians face the threat of military attack from the United States and economic sanctions from the UN Security Council because of Iran's nuclear activities, they also suffer severe repression from their own government. Ganji's plea for Ban to reprimand the Iranian government for its human rights abuses and provide moral support for its citizens has been endorsed by more than 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel laureates from around the world. Read their names here.
To His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations,
The people of Iran are experiencing difficult times both internationally and domestically. Internationally, they face the threat of a military attack from the US and the imposition of extensive sanctions by the UN Security Council. Domestically, a despotic state has--through constant and organized repression--imprisoned them in a life-and-death situation.
Far from helping the development of democracy, US policy over the past fifty years has consistently been to the detriment of the proponents of freedom and democracy in Iran. The 1953 coup against the nationalist government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and the unwavering support for the despotic regime of the Shah, who acted as America's gendarme in the Persian Gulf, are just two examples of these flawed policies. More recently the confrontation between various US administrations and the Iranian state over the past three decades has made internal conditions very difficult for the proponents of freedom and human rights in Iran.
Exploiting the danger posed by the US, the Iranian regime has put military-security forces in charge of the government, shut down all independent domestic media and is imprisoning human rights activists on the pretext that they are all agents of a foreign enemy. The Bush Administration, for its part, by approving a fund for democracy assistance in Iran, which has in fact been largely spent on official institutions and media affiliated with the US government, has made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the US and to crush them with impunity.
At the same time, even speaking about "the possibility" of a military attack on Iran makes things extremely difficult for human rights and pro-democracy activists in Iran. No Iranian wants to see what happened to Iraq or Afghanistan repeated in Iran. Iranian democrats also watch with deep concern the support in some American circles for separatist movements in Iran.
Preserving Iran's territorial integrity is important to all those who struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. We want democracy for Iran and for all Iranians. We also believe that the dismemberment of Middle Eastern countries will fuel widespread and prolonged conflict in the region. In order to help the process of democratization in the Middle East, the US can best help by promoting a just peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, and pave the way for the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.
A just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state would inflict the heaviest blow on the forces of fundamentalism and terrorism in the Middle East.
Iran's dangerous international situation and the consequences of Iran's dispute with the West have totally deflected the world's attention and especially the attention of the United Nations from the intolerable conditions that the Iranian regime has created for the Iranian people. The dispute over the enrichment of uranium should not make the world forget that, although the 1979 revolution of Iran was a popular revolution, it did not lead to the formation of a democratic system that protects human rights.
The Islamic Republic is a fundamentalist state that does not afford official recognition to the private sphere. It represses civil society and violates human rights. Thousands of political prisoners were executed during the first decade after the revolution without fair trials or due process of the law, and dozens of dissidents and activists were assassinated during the second decade.
Independent newspapers are constantly being banned and journalists are sent to prison. All news websites are filtered and books are either refused publication permits or are slashed with the blade of censorship before publication. Women are totally deprived of equality with men and, when they demand equal rights, they are accused of acting against national security, subjected to various types of intimidation and have to endure various penalties, including long prison terms. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, stoning (the worst form of torture leading to death) is one of the sentences that Iranians face on the basis of existing laws.
A number of Iranian teachers, who took part in peaceful civil protests over their pay and conditions, have been dismissed from their jobs, and some have even been sent into internal exile in farflung regions or jailed. Iranian workers are deprived of the right to establish independent unions. Workers who ask to be allowed to form unions in order to struggle for their corporate rights are beaten and imprisoned. Iranian university students have paid the highest costs in recent years in defense of liberty, human rights and democracy. Security organizations prevent young people who are critical of the official state orthodoxy from gaining admission into university, and those who do make it through the rigorous ideological and political vetting process have no right to engage in peaceful protest against government policies.
If students' activities displease the governing elites, they are summarily expelled from university and in many instances jailed. The Islamic Republic has also been expelling dissident professors from universities for about a quarter of a century. In the meantime, in the Islamic Republic's prisons, opponents are forced to confess to crimes that they have not committed and to express remorse. These confessions, which have been extracted by force, are then broadcast on the state media in a manner reminiscent of Stalinist show trials.
There are no fair, competitive elections in Iran; instead, elections are stage-managed and rigged. And even people who find their way into Parliament and into the executive branch of government have no powers or resources to alter the status quo. All the legal and extra-legal powers are in the hands of the Iran's top leader, who rules like a despotic sultan.
Are you aware that in Iran political dissidents, human rights activists and pro-democracy campaigners are legally deprived of "the right to life"? On the basis of Article 226 of the Islamic Penal Law and Note 2 of Paragraph E of Section B of Article 295 of the same law, any person can unilaterally decide that another human being has forfeited the right to life and kill them in the name of performing one's religious duty to rid society of vice. Over the past few decades, many dissidents and activists have been killed on the basis of this article, and the killers have been acquitted in court.
In such circumstances, no dissident or activist has a right to life in Iran, because, on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence and the laws of the Islamic Republic, the definition of those who have forfeited the right to life (mahduroldam) is very broad.
Are you aware that in Iran, writers are lawfully banned from writing? On the basis of Note 2 of Paragraph 8 of Article 9 of the Press Law, writers who are convicted of "propaganda against the ruling system" are deprived for life of "the right to all press activity." In recent years, many writers and journalists have been convicted of propaganda against the ruling system. The court's verdicts make it clear that any criticism of state bodies is deemed to be propaganda against the ruling system.
A Plea for Intervention
The people of Iran and Iranian advocates for freedom and democracy are experiencing difficult days. They need the moral support of the proponents of freedom throughout the world and effective intervention by the United Nations. We categorically reject a military attack on Iran. At the same time, we ask you and all of the world's intellectuals and proponents of liberty and democracy to condemn the human rights violations of the Iranian state. We expect from Your Excellency, in your capacity as the Secretary General of the United Nations, to reprimand the Iranian government--in keeping with your legal duties--for its extensive violation of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights covenants and treaties.
Above all, we hope that with Your Excellency's immediate intervention, all of Iran's political prisoners, who are facing more deplorable conditions with every passing day, will soon be released. The people of Iran are asking themselves whether the UN Security Council is only decisive and effective when it comes to the suspension of the enrichment of uranium, and whether the lives of the Iranian people are unimportant as far as the Security Council is concerned. The people of Iran are entitled to freedom, democracy and human rights. We Iranians hope that the United Nations and all the forums that defend democracy and human rights will be unflinching in their support for Iran's quest for freedom and democracy.
Akbar Ganji is an Iranian journalist and dissident who spent six years in prison for exposing rights abuses committed by Iran's fundamentalist regime. His work has appeared in pro-democracy newspapers across Iran, most of which the government has since shut down. He is also the winner of the 2007 John Humphrey Freedom Award for his fearless commitment to human rights, democratic development and nonviolence.
© 2007 The Nation