“Their action is in defence of their rights and against the injustice and oppression they suffer at the hands of that ruling system. Such an action is not only permissible but also, in some cases and stages, obligatory.”
– Grand Ayatollah Yousuf Saanei.
Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi is an Iranian political prisoner, jailed in Evin prison since 2006. An outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic, Boroujerdi is an advocate for democracy, human rights, religious freedoms and the separation of religion from politics. He is opposed to Vilayet – i Faqih, the system that rules Iran by clerical jurisprudence.
He is a charismatic leader with a large following, and the government considers his teachings to be threat. After a short detention in 2004, Boroujerdi was banned from making speeches, and ordered to eliminate all contact with his adherents. Despite the restrictions, he continued to speak out publicly and the government jailed him as an enemy of the Islamic Republic.
In a secret trial without legal representation, the Special Court of the Clergy sentenced him to death for openly criticizing and working against the regime. The sentence was later reduced to eleven years. Tortured repeatedly, his health suffers as a result.
“Every Iranian household bears the scars of these inhumane acts of injustice,” Boroujerdi stated In an open letter to the UN Human Rights Council. “Today, throughout the world, Iran, which purports to represent ‘political Islam,’ has become the role model for injustice and violence.”
Ali Paydar, a follower of Boroujerdi, established the website BamAzadi as an information base about the Ayatollah and to provide updates on his treatment while imprisoned.
I asked him why Boroujerdi is considered by authorities to be a threat.
“Given that Mr. Boroujerdi strongly believes in the separation of religious power from state, and given that he has made many attempts in implementing this belief in Iran, he is therefore a threat to the regime. His progressive beliefs question the raison d’être of the regime. It would not be an exaggeration to say that at present this regime does not fear any political prisoner as much as they fear Mr. Boroujerdi, because he is a religious intellectual who, along with his knowledge of the principles of Islam, addresses serious criticism to the Islamic regime in Iran.”
When President Ahmadinejad claimed an election victory in 2009, Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate in the largest show of opposition since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Government response to the opposition movement was severe. Approximately 4,000 demonstrators were arrested, and 200 of them remain in jail. Ten were given death sentences, charged with crimes against God (Moharebeh). Prisoners are often held without contact with lawyers or family members, and are subject to torture.
Opposed to the oppression, other prominent religious scholars have spoken out. To find out more about them, I spoke with Iranian blogger and journalist Omid Memarian. He has written extensively about Iranian politics and human rights since 2002.
Memarian says that there are several religious leaders in Iran who disagree with the repressive policies of the Islamic state. Two examples are Grand Ayatollah Dastgheib and Grand Ayatollah Saanei.
Because of their opposition to the government, the offices of Dastgheib and Saanei were attacked. Members of the militia are believed to be responsible.
“In the case of Saanei and Dastgheib, both have been really critical and direct in their criticism, and the regime has attacked their offices to disconnect them from their supporters,” Memarian said.
Saanei and Dastgheib have not yet been imprisoned, but the Iranian government has banned the adherents of Ayatollah Saanei from following his religious rulings.
Saanei supports the actions of the protestors and has spoken out against the death sentences handed down by the Revolutionary Court.
I reached him by email and asked if he believed that protesting constitutes a crime against God and the Islamic Republic. “People who protest the actions and decisions of their ruling system and raise their objection are not by any means considered ‘Mohareb,’ since their action is in defence of their rights and against the injustice and oppression they suffer at the hands of that ruling system,” he said. “Such an action is not only permissible but also, in some cases and stages, obligatory.”
In a statement from Evin prison in November, Ayatollah Boroujerdi said, “Now that Iran’s theocratic leaders have lost all domestic and international credibility, they have devised plots to execute prisoners in every possible way. As neither international observers or local inspectors are allowed to visit prisons, threats and assassination attempts against jailed dissidents are now on the increase.”
Shortly after, six of his followers were arrested without charge and imprisoned.
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the government is now on an “execution binge,” killing a prisoner every nine hours on average. How many, and who they are, is difficult to determine because executions are carried out in secret, much like they were in 1988, when “death commissions” ordered an estimated 5,000 prisoners killed.
“This regime can not survive,” Memarian said. “The majority of people living now did not vote for the Islamic Republic. They did not approve of the constitution, and they are not the people who accepted the Islamic Republic as a political institution. What the government did is not a long-term solution. It can not constantly arrest critics, journalists and lawyers and send them to prison.”
Ali Paydar agrees. “The movement is very much alive because of the tyranny in Iran. The protest movement of the people was an answer to three decades of suppression, murders and executions, and it would be extremely unfair if we were to talk about the dissent of the people as merely a protest against elections. If we listen to the protest chants after the recent elections, we would hear that the people of Iran are asking for a change in the regime of the Vilayet -i Faqih. I say with absolute conviction that the people of Iran are just waiting for the moment and the opportunity.”
The international community, including Canada, has attempted to put pressure on Iran to improve its human rights record.
“We continue to call on Iran to respect its domestic and international obligations and ensure fairness and due process for all its citizens and others,” Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Laura Markle told me. “There are numerous reports of individuals like Ayatollah Boroujerdi and his followers having been denied their rights. For the eighth consecutive year, Canada again successfully led international efforts to adopt a resolution on the situation of human rights in Iran at the Committee of the UN General Assembly. The Government of Canada stands firmly with the people of Iran against human rights abuses, discrimination against and ill treatment of women, and the lack of due process for all prisoners.”
“Friendship, understanding, and unity must be established among all humans in the world,” Boroujerdi said. “Every kind of war and bloodshed under any title damages the human spirit.”