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U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom Roundtable on Iran

TUESDAY, MAY 3, 2005 2:00 – 3:00 P.M. WASHINGTON , D.C.
Transcript by: Federal News Service, Washington, D.C

JOSEPH R. CRAPA: Okay, why don’t we begin? First of all, I’m Joe Crapa, the Executive Director of the Commission. And I want to welcome all of you on behalf of our Commissioners and on behalf of our staff for joining us this afternoon with the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. I will give a brief overview and then Dwight will take over, and then we can get to our guests. So I’ll keep it short. The Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act to promote religious freedom internationally and to monitor violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief abroad as defined in the act and under the universal UN charter of 1948. That’s our gold standard – Article 18 of the UN charter of 1948 that’s embedded in the Act that created the Commission. And our role is to make independent policy judgments and recommendations to the United States government. So, we act as advisors to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress on abuses of religious freedom internationally and also ways of promoting religious freedom internationally as part of American foreign policy. Over the past year, the Iranian government’s poor religious freedom record has deteriorated as you are well aware, particularly for Christians, Baha’is, Jews, and Muslim dissidents, all of whom have faced intensified harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment. Sunni Muslims, the largest religious minority in Iran, also face discrimination by the government. Since 1999, the State Department has designated Iran as a country of particular concern – a CPC. This is not good when you are designated a country of particular concern. In the United States that means a country that is a severe, egregious, and systemic violator of human rights and religious freedom. And so since it’s actually – since the founding of the Act, Iran has been listed as a CPC. The Commission continues to recommend Iran remain a CPC even up to its new report, which will be published next week – made public next week.

In recent years, dozens of prominent Shi’a Muslim activists and dissidents advocating political reform have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the revolutionary court, ostensibly on charges of seeking to overthrow the Islamic system of Iran. Others have been arrested and detained for alleged blasphemy and criticizing the nature of the Islamic regime. While the Constitution of Iran formally recognizes Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected religious minorities, the Baha’i faith and its community, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, are not protected and are viewed as heretics or infidels who face repression on the grounds of apostasy, an offense which carries with you, which you all know, the death penalty. As recently as last month and particularly over the last several months, members of the Baha’i community have been harassed, physically attacked, arrested, and detained, and Baha’i property including historic holy sites have been confiscated or destroyed. As mentioned earlier, Christians in Iran increasingly have been subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance, and imprisonment. Over the past year, there have been several incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services and detaining worshipers and church leaders. As a result of one of these raids last year, an evangelical pastor, Hamid Pourmand, is facing trial before an Islamic court on charges of apostasy. He has already been sentenced to three-years imprisonment by a military court for allegedly not informing military officers that he had converted from Islam some 25 years ago. His case, as you again know, is ongoing. Furthermore, several independent reports indicate that anti-Semitism and Iran’s governmentcontrolled media is also on the rise. The Commission will be releasing its Annual Report next week on the 11 th, which will include our latest findings on Iran with new policy recommendations for the United States government and the international community. At this point, I’d like to again thank you for all being here, and I’d like to turn over the program to Dwight Bashir. Many of you know my trusted and dear colleague is also the head of our Middle East section, deals with Iran and other countries in the Middle East. Dwight?

DWIGHT BASHIR: Thank you, Joe. I’d like to thank our three presenters today, the three co-founders of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. As many of you know, in the fall of 2004, the State Department, through its human rights and democracy fund, provided a two-year, 1 million dollar grant to the Documentation Center, with the stated goal of helping promote respect for human rights and democracy in Iran. Just last month, the State Department announced it would provide grants in 2005 totaling up to 3 million dollars for educational institutions, humanitarian groups, NGOs, and individuals inside Iran to support the advancement of democracy and human rights. The Documentation Center was initiated in 2003 by a group of international human rights advocates, scholars, and lawyers, and is a strictly non-partisan organization that seeks to remedy a deficit in the systematic objective and analytical documentation of human rights violations committed in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Based on the obligations of Iran and its officials under international law and human rights instruments, the Center hopes to develop an authoritative and accessible record of abuses and identification of responsible officials to help facilitate a peaceful, democratic rule and national reconciliation. Again, we’re glad to have the three co-founders here today. First, we’re going to hear from Ramin Ahmadi, who is a clinical professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine and founder of the Griffin Center for Health and Human Rights in New Haven, Connecticut. And I’m going to be brief on each of the introductions so that we can get right to the presentations. In the packet of information, you’ll find more detailed biographies on each of the three cofounders. He’ll begin this discussion today by talking about the overall situation of human rights in Iran and the need for new strategies confronting these violations. Next we’ll hear from Payam Akhavan, an international human rights lawyer and a senior fellow at the Yale Law School and the Yale University Genocide Studies Program. He’ll speak about the roles and objectives of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the importance of accountability for an effective democratic transition in Iran. And finally, Roya Hakakian, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, and the author of the critically acclaimed “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran." She will conclude by talking about the importance of documenting a historical record of violations and highlighting the situation of religious minorities. After we hear from each of the three speakers, we’ll have a question-and-answer period for the balance of the time that we have, and with that, I’d like to turn it over to Ramin Ahmadi.

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