Want to support victims of torture? Put the squeeze on Iran

Want to support victims of torture? Put the squeeze on Iran
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June 26 marked the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, commemorated on the anniversary of the implementation of the United Nations Convention against Torture. For many imprisoned Iranians, it was yet another day of torture by the country’s repressive regime, which has never signed the Convention. If free democracies want to walk the walk in opposing torture, they should increase economic and political pressure on Tehran to stop this barbaric practice.

The Iranian authorities employ a grotesque menagerie of physical and psychological torture methods. They inflict bodily harm through beating; burning; cutting; electrocution; placement into stress positions; sleep deprivation; denial of medical care; and rape, including “virginity” and “sodomy” tests. And they torment victims’ minds through prolonged solitary confinement, mock executions, threats of rape, and claims that family members are being tortured nearby.

Torture, which pervades the judicial process from beginning to end, serves many purposes for the Iranian regime. It deters Iranians from protesting for their rights in the first place. As one student who feared attending demonstrations remarked, “Before, you might be afraid that they would take you to jail for the day. Now, you are afraid that they will beat you and cut you.”

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Additionally, Iranian courts routinely accept coerced confessions, incentivizing torture to secure convictions — and sometimes death sentences — for crimes real or imagined. Last September, the regime executed three young Kurdish Iranians. UN human rights monitors claimed the three were compelled to “confess” after being beaten, put in stress positions, and threatened with rape. Just two months ago, Tehran executed two 17-year-old boys after reportedly flogging them until they “confessed.”

Not content with using torture to aid prosecutions, the regime employs it to punish the convicted, including by executing them. Capital-punishment methods include stoning, throwing them from a height to their deaths, and even hanging from cranes — a punishment in which, as Vice reports, “the condemned is slowly lifted from the ground by his neck and left to dangle in the noose” and consequently “[i]t can take more than 20 minutes to die.” Punishments for lesser crimes include blinding, amputation, and flogging.

The U.S. and other Western countries should act against Iran’s use of torture not only out of commitment to human rights, but because the regime is using this tactic against Americans and other Westerners. Tehran held American journalist Jason Rezaian hostage for two-and-a-half years, subjecting him to solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, and a lack of medical care. Former U.S. marine Amir Hekmati was whipped, tasered, hit with batons, put in stress positions, sleep deprived, and force-fed and then deprived of addictive medication so that he would suffer the effects of withdrawal.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British aid worker held hostage since 2016, is serving a five-year sentence on spurious charges of seeking to overthrow the regime. She spent months in solitary confinement — and the authorities extorted 6,000 British pounds from her family by threatening to send her back into solitary. Her husband said that her treatment amounts to “psychological torture.” She and her husband recently engaged in a hunger strike to demand her release.

Unfortunately, however, while the U.S. and European Union issued routine annual statements on June 26 condemning the use of torture, both have failed to follow up on their words with action.

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In practice, the EU has chosen money over human lives. The 2015 nuclear deal paved the way for European companies to do business with Iran. European governments are so desperate not to rock the boat that they have not sanctioned even one new Iranian official for human rights abuses since the pact was finalized — even after the imprisonment of European citizens like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe — including 40 individuals and entities already sanctioned by the U.S.

Instead, they are sprinting to grease trade with Iran by injecting a credit line of several million euros into a new mechanism, known as INSTEX, designed to facilitate transactions while avoiding U.S. sanctions. Such trade could generate billions of dollars for the regime, including its torture-happy judicial system.

The U.S., to its credit, has increased economic pressure on the regime, restoring and increasing sanctions to deter European trade. Yet while the Trump administration touts its “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, it hasn’t sanctioned many of the regime’s human rights abusers — including more than 60 officials sanctioned years ago by the EU. And it hasn’t included an end to all violations of human rights in its 12 requirements for a new deal.

The Europeans and Americans can still reverse their ignominious course and do more to stand up for victims of Iranian torture. The Europeans should terminate Instex and work with the U.S. to harmonize and expand their human-rights sanctions lists. They should also join the U.S. in demanding a new deal with Iran that would lift sanctions only in exchange for Tehran ceasing the totality of its malign behavior, including torture and other violations of the Iranian people’s human rights.

No amount of money justifies inaction in the face of torture. As innocent people languish in solitary confinement in Iranian prisons, those blessed with freedom must show them that they are not alone — and that help is on the way.

Alan Goldsmith works for United Against Nuclear Iran and the Counter Extremism Project. He formerly served as a professional staff member for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @AlanGoldsmith.