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Monday, 30 November 1998
Page: 917

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (3:17 PM) —I have pleasure in being part of this debate today, as I was on a previous occasion when I sponsored a motion with the member for North Sydney. The essential thrust and problem remain the same. I have to say at the outset that my electorate, being one which accepts a significant number of new arrivals because of the nature of the community and its housing content, has accepted a very significant number of Iraqi Shi'ite who have come to this country because of our protection of refugee claimants. I think we are all aware of the degree of suffering that they and the Kurdish minority have suffered in Iraq. I would hope they would be in agreement with me as to the universality of the matters we raise today. The plight of their religious confreres in Iraq is very similar to the plight of Baha'is in Iran.

Some 300,000 Baha'is have come under sustained attack. The point I want to stress very strongly is that, despite endeavours by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to claim that these are outbreaks by uncontrollable elements and that they are individual initiatives, there is strong evidence that this is state orchestrated. In 1993 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights gained access to detailed government documentation which indicated that there is a wholesale government policy to essentially marginalise the 300,000 Baha'is in Iran, to ensure that they are deprived of education, that they are expelled from employment and that they are deprived of their rights to support their families. It is important to note that we have a concrete problem here because of the government's own participation in this discrimination and its attempt to destroy the Baha'i faith and their presence in Iran.

The previous speaker, the honourable member for Hindmarsh, referred to the way in which a member of this parliament, Senator Brown, amongst others, has been misled in regard to events there. On 27 July last year the Iranian embassy said of Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani:

The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran represented by this Embassy totally rejects this allegation, and I can further inform you that no such person, as named in your letter, has been executed as you claim.

That is typical of the attitude of the government. Both houses of this parliament have passed resolutions on these matters, and they are attempting to mislead people by saying that people are not dead or that they are in court facing charges that are very different to the reality. They are essentially facing charges because of their religious beliefs. These are sometimes covered up with wild allegations that, because the Baha'is have headquarters in Israel, this is essentially something to do with Iran's Middle Eastern attitudes on Palestine and other matters.

The situation in Iran has certainly not improved between now and when this parliament last heard of matters. As I understand it, at least 18 people have been detained in Iranian prisons for their religious beliefs, six of whom are on death row. In the period since 1980, 200 have been killed and thousands have suffered arbitrary detention. I must stress that in a number of cases the people involved have family in this country. More particularly, residents in my electorate have had members of their family killed, detained, tortured and persecuted.

A matter that the Baha'i community particularly raises at this stage is that of education. There have been enhanced efforts by the Iranian government to ensure that members of the Baha'i religion are faced with two alternatives: either they do not get educated or they change their religious beliefs. As a result, the Baha'i community—and I put on record my commendation of their endeavours—have established a Baha'i Institute for Higher Education in an attempt to ensure that their children have the opportunity to advance in life. From the records that I have been provided with, the alternative institutions of Baha'i have had such credibility that people have passed from there into Western tertiary institutions on occasion.

But in the last few months the government of Iran has attempted essentially to wipe out their efforts to provide education for their children. That has entailed the arrest of 36 faculty members and the raiding of their premises. It followed earlier activity whereby they essentially used the government postal system to disrupt the transfer of educational material. More recently they have seized, in their looting of Baha'i properties, photocopying equipment which was very crucial to the distribution of this educational material. They have also sought to persecute people who have acted as conduits for this educational material. They have persecuted people who used their houses, their premises, to enhance this activity. As I said, there is a general policy to attack this effort.

It interesting to note the attempt in a series of court decisions of the Iranian authorities to say that people are guilty of a variety of other offences. When they actually throw these people in gaol, when they actually order their murder by the state authority, in a number of the court decisions we see very clearly what it is all about. Mr Mansur Haddadan was arrested on 29 February 1996. The offence he committed was to conduct a `children's class'. He has been sentenced to three years impris onment. He was guilty of the crime of `being active in the Baha'i community and being involved in gatherings for Baha'i meetings in a private house'. In November 1997, Mr Nasir Qadiri was arrested and charged with the heinous activity of `persistence in continuing to hold a monthly gathering of a few Baha'i families'. And for that dreadful offence he received three years in gaol! Mr Arman Damishqi and Mr Kurush Dhabihi were arrested for misconduct in early 1996, along with several Muslims. That was an instance where we saw a clear distinction for religious reasons between the sentences people received. As detailed in previous debates, these attacks also go to property rights, the rights of burial, et cetera.

In conclusion, I very strongly support the motion brought here today by the member for Hindmarsh. It goes to a very important matter of human rights. No-one is in any way confused or misled by the Iranian authorities' attempt to pretend that these charges are anything but religious persecution.