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Iranian actress lashed for Australian movie appearance: there are more where she came from

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The Australian Government has rightly condemned the Iranian decision to punish Iranian actress Marzieh Vafamehr with 90 lashes for participating in an Australian-made film that was critical of the Iranian regime. In a sense, however, Vafamehr is lucky that her "crime" had an Australian connection - this was enough to muster international support for her situation and will hopefully lead to her receiving better treatment. Unfortunately, the reprehensible abuse in Vafamehr's case is just another episode in the Islamic Republic's constant suppression of any dissent or criticism.

As noted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal by American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in 2009 but freed under international pressure, while foreigners with international backing tend to be quickly released by the Iranians, Iran's hundreds of domestic political prisoners are rarely as lucky.

Just after my release from a Tehran prison in May 2009, an Iranian prisoner wrote an open letter entitled, "I wish I were a Roxana." Haleh Rouhi, a follower of Iran's minority Baha'i faith, was serving a four-year sentence for antiregime propaganda, although she said she was simply "teaching the alphabet and numbers" to underserved children.

She was happy I was released but wondered how her case differed from mine and why she had to remain in prison. "What kind of justice system condemned [Roxana] to such punishment," Ms. Rouhi asked, "and which justice freed her at such speed?"

... Last month, two American men incarcerated in Iran on accusations of espionage and crossing the border illegally-charges they contested-were freed after being sentenced to eight years in prison. Their release is welcome news and cause for relief.

 


At the same time, ordinary Iranians are suffering mounting abuses and prolonged imprisonment for exercising their basic human rights, making Haleh Rouhi's question as valid today as it was two years ago. Officials from several countries have called for the release of a handful of Iran's wrongfully imprisoned men and women, but this pressure is rarely consistent-and most of Iran's hundreds of prisoners of conscience have never gained the attention of foreign governments or mainstream news media. The international community needs to apply the same pressure on Tehran to release these prisoners as it has for high-profile Western citizens.

Saberi then goes on to describe the shocking situation that confronts these prisoners.

Many of Iran's prisoners of conscience have suffered torture-both physical and psychological. It is common for them to be held in solitary confinement for months, even years. They often lack adequate access to their families and attorneys and go through sham trials. Some are coerced to give false confessions and inform on their friends.

If detainees are lucky, their captors offer them release on bail, but the amount is typically exorbitant, and prisoners who can post it tend to live in fear that they could be sent back to jail any day. At the same time, a rising number of executions has made Iran the world's largest executioner on a per capita basis. According to Amnesty International, in 2010, at least 23 Iranian prisoners convicted of politically motivated offenses were executed.

For some recently emerged images allegedly of tortured political prisoners in Iran, click here (warning: these are extremely graphic).

One example of an Iranian who has been punished for dubious reasons and is only now gaining international attention is Youcef Naderkhani, an Iranian pastor recently condemned to execution for "apostasy" as a result of his conversion to Christianity. Writing on the ABC's Religion and Ethics page, Phillip Jensen describes his situation.

According to international media reports, Pastor Nadarkhani, was imprisoned in 2009 and in late 2010 was condemned to death for apostasy. He is accused of evangelizing and baptizing people.

On appeal he has been given three chances to renounce his apostasy and return to Islam. On each occasion, he has resolutely refused to renounce Christ or to acknowledge Muhammad as the prophet of God... The charges have suddenly changed and though the court records only mention apostasy, he is now accused of being a Zionist traitor, a rapist, an extortionist and a brothel owner.

As Jensen notes, the media in Australia has almost entirely failed to report the story. He contrasts this with the media's ostensible eagerness to report on Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who last year threatened to burn a Qoran in order to make some kind of point about free speech.

As yet, I cannot find any reference to Pastor Nadarkhani's plight in the Australian public media. Searching the ABC and SMH websites gives no results. Even the SBS website, supposedly concerned not just for Australian but world news, has no reference to this case.

...Why is this story not being told? It's a story of the land from which many of our refugees and boat people are fleeing. It's a story of great interest to the Australian public - not the least to Australian Christians. It's a story of enormous drama as a man, standing by his principles, fights for his life. It's a human interest story of personal pathos as a man is called to put his principles before the safety of his wife and young children. It's a tale of great courage where a man repeatedly refuses to recant in the face of imminent execution. It's an example of a man of principle all too rare in our world today. So why is it not being told in the Australian media?

... The media was quick to tell the tale of the lunatic fringe, of an American backwoods Christian pastor burning a Qur'an. It caused a stir all around the world - in part because the media went to such lengths to report it.
But somehow, in Australia, they don't tell of the Christian pastor who refuses to recant his beliefs on pain of death, in front of one of the most tyrannical and oppressive regimes of the world - surely that is a story worth telling. Does this illustrate our media's incompetence, or bias, or political correctness or just plain censorship?

Another dissident who's wrongful imprisonment has yet to grab headlines is Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, jailed for the  "crime" of defending her clients, but very low on the list of international priorities as she has the misfortune of being Iranian and not American or Australian. It took an Australian movie to bring the situation of Iranian political prisoners to the attention of the Australian press, but what will it take to hold it there? If recent precedents are anything to go by, Vafamehr will have her sentence reduced as the Iranian regime caves in to international pressure. The question is whether the world will continue to press the Ayatollah regime to end its despotic suppression of dissenting voices or whether, as usual, the issue will slip off the radar once high profile cases like Vafamehr's leave the news headlines.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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