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Iran deserves a red card for its human rights abuses

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The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has become increasingly paranoid, and thus even more of a pariah. It is concerned about signs of seething popular anger over the dire economic conditions of its people. The regime’s inept management of the coronavirus pandemic and sanctions imposed by the U.S. have compounded these tensions. Nothing captures the nature of the country’s economic woes as well as the fall in the value of the country’s currency. It is today worth only 1/400th of its value in 1979, the year the regime came to power. The regime is also worried about increasing anger over its persistent structural corruption, its ideological sclerosis and its brazen disregard for the human rights of its people, particularly of women.  

As part of a series of threatening gestures of intimidation, a few weeks ago, the regime killed Navid Afkari, a 27-year old national wrestling champion. Even by the flimsy standards of justice for capital punishment in Iran, the execution of Afkari broke multiple laws and all standards of caution. His lawyers were not informed about the execution, he was denied a last visit with his family and he was told he was being transferred to another prison when he was actually being taking to his execution — all breaches of the regime’s own laws.  

His crime was participating in demonstrations against economic hardships in the summer of 2018. His alleged charge was the murder of an intelligence official. Much evidence was presented at the trial and afterward showing he could not have been the murderer. Evidence is also emerging that he was killed under torture and thus summarily buried in the dark of the night under the eyes of the regime’s intelligence officials.

Instead of intimidating the people, the brutal murder of this defiant young man caused an uproar on social media in Iran and around the world. At least 30 other demonstrators have already received death sentences and anxiously await their fate. More than 7,000 people were arrested only in the 2019 demonstrations. Amnesty International just published a detailed and painful report of torture and physical abuse of these demonstrators. Momentous as these events are, they are not all that is happening in Iran now.  

Earlier this year Nasrin Sotoudeh, a defiant human rights attorney, went on a hunger strike to protest the mistreatment of political prisoners. Since 2009 the regime has incarcerated or tried to prosecute at least 60 attorneys simply for daring to defend political prisoners. Sotoudeh was on a hunger strike to protest these new death sentences, as well as the treatment of prisoners — including the regime’s refusal to free political prisoners on bond pending an end to the coronavirus in prisons. After more than 40 days, she broke her strike after being taken to the emergency room of a hospital. In the face of such acts of perfidy by the regime, the international community cannot and should not remain silent.  

The future of Iran should only be determined by the people of Iran. But international organizations and the community of law-abiding nations have a critical role to play in supporting the democratic aspirations of the people of Iran. No less importantly, they must register their intolerance of disregard for human rights, and the rights of lawyers in the performance of their duties. 

Afkari was an accomplished athlete who, out of economic necessity, gave up his goal of becoming an Olympian to work as a laborer. The World Player Association, representing more than 85,000 athletes, has already demanded Iran’s suspension from international competition. International wrestling organizations should follow suit. The Olympics and every other international sporting federation and institution must also suspend Iran’s membership.

FIFA, the international body in charge of soccer around the world, had for too long been silent about Iran’s egregious policy of banning women from entering stadiums for soccer games. It has recently threatened to suspend Iran not just for gender apartheid, but also for the illegal participation of outside forces – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – on the soccer federation. FIFA should immediately turn its threat into action.   

At the same time, international legal organizations must, in support of Sotoudeh and other human rights lawyers who are or have been in prison, suspend all ties with any legal organization connected to the Iranian regime inside or outside Iran. Regime interrogators regularly tell imprisoned dissidents like Sotoudeh and Afkari that after their execution or death, there will be a short-lived international furor and then people will forget. We must not forget, and a sustained ban from international organizations is one way to ensure that our amnesia does not help their despotism. Such bans worked on Apartheid South Africa; it will work on the Iranian regime. 

We are also in the midst of a critical and hotly contested presidential election in the U.S. Iran, China and Russia have been trying to illegally influence the outcome of the election. But the Iranian regime’s cyber-jihadists, as well as some of the its supporters, have been propagating the idea that whoever wins – particularly if it is former Vice President Joe Biden – the Iranian regime will make a “deal” with the new administration and receive immediate sanction relief. It is critical that both campaigns and the Trump administration emphasize that food and drugs should not be part of any sanction regime. Both campaigns should also make it clear that when and if negotiations begin – regardless of who is the president – the U.S. will not ignore the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.  

Respect for human rights will come to Iran only when the Iranian people can make a democracy by themselves, for themselves. Now is a pivotal moment for this help. Such international support will impact the geopolitical calculations of China and Russia, which are both being actively courted by the Islamic regime to become more actively involved in saving the regime and sustaining the status quo.   

In spite of its radical rhetoric and bravura, the Islamic regime has shown that it responds only to credible international pressure. It must be made to understand that with such egregious breaches of human rights, they have no place in the civilized community of nations. Suspending the regime from sports leagues and international legal organizations is the first step to delivering that powerful message.   

Shirin Ebadi received the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote human rights in Iran. Abbas Milani directs the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. Hamid Moghdam is the CEO of Prologis. 

Tags Amnesty International Biden Donald Trump Execution of Navid Afkari Human rights in Iran Iran Iranian people Iranian Revolution Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Joe Biden Protests in Iran Women's rights in Iran

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