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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 935

Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (20:51): I move—

That this House:

(1) expresses deep concern to our inter-parliamentary colleagues in the Iranian Parliament regarding serious and systematic human rights violations occurring in the Islamic Republic of Iran;

(2) notes the following from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's report on The situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran released in September 2011, that:

(a) Iran has stepped up its crackdown on human rights workers, women's rights activists, journalists and government opponents;

(b) since the beginning of 2011, Iran has seen a notable increase in the use of capital punishment for political and juvenile prisoners;

(c) Iran has increased discrimination, in some cases amounting to persecution, against a number of religious and ethnic minority groups;

(d) the United Nations continues to hold long-standing concerns in respect of the treatment of the Baha'i community and the trial and sentencing of seven Baha'i community leaders, which did not meet due process and fair trial requirements;

(e) there is limited enjoyment of political, economic, social and cultural rights by, inter alia, Arabs, Azeri, Baloch and Kurdish communities, and some communities of non-citizens; and

(f) since May 2011, security forces conducted raids on the home of individuals involved in the activities of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education and arrested 15 of its members in various cities;

(3) notes that in recent months there have been:

(a) further reports of the denial of access to Iranian universities for young people on the basis of their political or religious beliefs; and

(b) prison terms of between four and five years imposed on seven Iranian Baha'is in relation to their association with the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education; and

(4) calls on the National Consultative Assembly of Iran as fellow members of the inter parliamentary union and as the parliamentary body of a member state of the United Nations, to:

(a) promote and protect fundamental human rights irrespective of origin, ethnicity, sex, religion, opinion, or other status;

(b) investigate the denial of access to universities for student activists, Baha'is, and others barred from universities for reasons other than academic capability; and

(c) seeks a judicial review of the trials of prisoners of conscience, including the seven former Baha'i leaders, lawyer Ms Nasrin Sotoudeh, and other human rights defenders and lawyers.

The subject of human rights in Iran was last debated in this place on 15 November 2010 after a notice of motion was introduced by the member for Blair, Shane Neumann. Since that time the number, range and frequency of serious human rights violations has increased. In 2011, Iran was cited repeatedly, including by the UN Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and major international human rights NGOs for violating international human rights law. In September last year, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, released an updated report, Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The report outlines eight areas in which the Iranian government is committing serious and systematic violations against the human rights of its own people. These are: instances of torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and corporal punishment; the application of the death penalty, including by public executions; the execution of juvenile offenders; the use of stoning as a method of execution; the abnegation of women's rights; the serious abuse of the rights of minorities; the failure to protect freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedoms of opinion, expression and religion; and the lack of due process rights.

This motion calls upon the National Consultative Assembly of Iran, as fellow members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and as the parliamentary body of a member state of the United Nations, to promote and protect human rights and to seek judicial review of the trials of prisoners of conscience. Before going into detail on some of those matters, I simply wish to note that Iran, with its impressive history as an integral part of the cradle of civilisation which has produced poets like Khayyam, Saadi and Rumi, brought us Persian rugs and gardens, and made an incredible contribution to international cultural heritage, and traditionally honoured teachers with the highest status in society, has much to offer the world if it is able to change course and correct its actions.

I would like to pay tribute to the current generation of courageous Iranians, including Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi and lawyers Abolfattah Soltani and Nasrin Sotoudeh, who have advocated the upholding of fundamental human rights and peaceful democratic change at enormous personal cost. I think it is also important to note that I do not make these criticisms as part of an Iran bashing exercise while ignoring the misdeeds of other countries. I believe I have been even-handed, including with respect to my own country and our allies in pointing out human rights violations where they have occurred.

The UN Secretary-General's 2011 report on Iran found that the application of the death penalty, including on juveniles, has continued and dramatically increased. At the time of Amnesty's 2011 report, at least 600 executions had occurred, reportedly 80 per cent of them for alleged drug offences. Some executions are carried out in public. Iranians authorities claim that public executions are a deterrent to crime. However, international human rights organisations have always maintained that executions in public add to the already cruel, inhuman and degrading nature of the death penalty, and have a dehumanising effect on the victim and a brutalising effect on those who witness the execution.

In January last year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed grave concerns in a letter to the Iranian government about the death sentences handed down to two young men following their conviction on sodomy offences, allegedly committed when they were minors. It is sobering to note that at a time when this country and this parliament are debating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, which I fully support, gay people in Iran and in a number of other countries are still fighting for the right to life. So, too, women in Iran who speak out for human rights and the right to live without violence, to make their own choices on marriage and employment and to control their own bodies—they continue to face intimidation and harassment. The UN Secretary-General's 2011 report found that there have been persistent arrests of women involved in campaigning for rights, as well as the arrests of journalists and lawyers who speak out on their behalf.

I would now like to turn to the prosecution of religious and ethnic minority groups in Iran. I represented the Australian parliament at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in late 2010 at which an Iranian parliamentarian extolled the virtue of Iran's freedom of religion as expressed in its 1979 constitution. It is true that Iran's constitution contains a list of recognised religions—those that existed before the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Notwithstanding the apparent tolerance towards those religions in the constitution, Human Rights Watch in its 2012 world report on Iran has documented cases of severe discrimination and persecution of Iran's religious and ethnic minorities, including Sunni Muslims, converts to Christianity and Arabs.

But the Iranian state has perhaps been most savage in its oppression of the Baha'is, who are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran and who are not recognised in the constitution because Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Bah'ai faith, came after the Prophet Mohammed. As I have noted previously in this place, there are many people of the Bah'ai faith living in Australia, including in my electorate of Fremantle and surrounding areas. I would like to acknowledge the presence of Natalie Mobini and other Baha'is in the Speaker's gallery tonight.

Baha'is believe in the unity of religion and humankind, and in harmony between science and religion. They have an elected leadership and promote equality between men and women. In my experience, they are gentle and peace loving people, so it is difficult to understand the degree of hostility by the authorities in Iran towards them. During debate on the previous motion, the member for Blair noted there were at that time 50 Baha'is being held in prisons across Iran due to their faith. That number has doubled over the past year. These prisoners include the seven Baha'i leaders who were arrested in 2008 and have been held in appalling conditions ever since. They have each received sentences of 20 years after brief court sessions, characterised by a lack of due process, as noted by the UN Secretary-General. Several of these prisoners have immediate family members who are Australian citizens—brother, sister, aunts, nephews and nieces, who wonder if they will ever see their loved ones again. Indeed, the oldest of the prisoners, Mr Khanjani, has already suffered the loss of his beloved wife, who has passed away since he was imprisoned.

Among the Baha'i prisoners are a group of educators, referred to in the motion, who have been sentenced to prison terms of four and five years for the purported crime of providing education to young people who are barred from accessing Iran's universities on the basis of their religion. The Baha'i faith highly values education and when it became clear, following the early years of the Islamic revolution, that the regime was determined to prevent Baha'i students from accessing tertiary education, the Baha'i community in Iran took the remarkable and creative step of establishing its own informal mechanism to enable them to study. They used the services of Baha'i lecturers, who had all been sacked from public universities, first providing study programs by correspondence and later through small classes conducted in homes around the country and even through on-line courses.

In May 2011, the Iranian authorities launched a concerted attack against the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, conducting coordinated raids on 39 homes across the country, confiscating property and arresting 16 individuals. Seven of those people were sentenced in October 2011 for 'membership in the deviant Baha'ist sect, with the goal of taking action against the security of the country'. One of these prisoners has a brother who is an Australian citizen, a longstanding resident of Dubbo, who is desperately worried for him. The member for Parkes spoke about his case in this place in June 2011. These cases represent only a handful of the 100 Baha'is currently held in Iranian prison. The prisoners themselves represent only some of the more than 500 Baha'is arrested since August 2004 and those arrested, in turn, only represent a tiny portion of the many thousands of Baha'is who have been subjected to physical assaults, intimidation and questioning, property searches and confiscation, monitoring of their bank accounts, movement and activities, denial of work and education and even the desecration and destruction of graves and cemeteries.

Last November Canadian senator Romeo Dallaire, the former UN peacekeeping force commander who defied orders to leave Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, told a Canadian Senate inquiry that Iran's current actions against Baha'is reminded him of what he witnessed in Africa:

The similarities with what I saw in Rwanda are absolutely unquestionable, equal … and in fact applied with seemingly the same verve … The alarming increase in incarceration among the Baha'is and, most particularly, among their leadership; the disproportionate sentences and unreasonable bail and the vile propaganda that paints Baha'is as cultish and part of a Zionist conspiracy to undermine the Islamic state of Iran is all … false. It is all an instrument to excuse the deliberate actions by that government to destroy that religion within their boundaries.

He also said:

Make no mistake these are not only indices of past and present persecution; they are warning signs of mass atrocities, of genocide. Let us not witness another one, fully conscious of what the consequences are.

I conclude by simply noting that the abuse of human rights in Iran today is utterly unacceptable and unworthy of a once great nation. I urge Iranian parliamentarians to look to their hearts and consciences to remedy this situation and to support their own people's efforts for change. I thank all members who are making a contribution to this debate tonight.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr KJ Thomson ): Is the motion seconded?

Ms Saffin: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.