Irwin Cotler: For the Sake of Human Rights, We Must Stand for the Nameless
February 16, 2017
The image swept the internet: A lone woman on a busy Tehran street, black hair flowing, waving a white hijab on a stick — a symbol of the White Wednesday women’s rights movement in Iran. Iran’s rulers have noticed, too, arresting 29 White Wednesday protesters last week. Their names have not been released.
The new wave of arrests recalled for me the words of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, when he was released from Iran’s notorious Evin prison: “The prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten.” We must not forget those arrested by tyrannies around the world who remain imprisoned based on their fidelity to conscience.
We may not know all of their names, but we must speak for these heroes in the war for freedom and the rule of law — to let them know we stand in solidarity with them, and that we will not relent until their freedom is secured.
For that to be realized, there are concrete steps we must take.
To begin, democratic governments should take action to punish those responsible for the culture of corruption and criminality, and the impunity that underpins them. One solution is the passage of what has come to be known as Global Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act, like those recently passed in Canada, the United Kingdom, United States, Estonia and Lithuania. These acts are named for Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered the most brazen corruption scheme in Russian history and documented those responsible. His reward was to be jailed, tortured and ultimately killed by Russian authorities.
The Magnitsky Act allows democratic governments to sanction those involved in major human rights violations such as those Magnitsky suffered by imposing visa bans, asset seizures, and excluding the perpetrators from the benefits of travel and doing business in the world’s democracies.
Extending Magnitsky to the jailers of Iran’s White Wednesday protesters should become a human rights priority.
Both governments and non-government organizations must recognize that abuse of governmental power for political purposes is not an isolated act, but often happens to similarly-situated persons in groups. For example, it does not require study of each individual arrest to recognize as prisoners of conscience the White Wednesday protesters and all of those scooped off the streets of Iran during the recent protests. We do not need to know their names to recognize that the pattern of persecution and prosecution is the same: arbitrary arrest, torture in detention, denial of the right to a fair hearing, trumped-up charges, and the like.
Our approach to the Iranian freedom protesters can be informed by what has come to be known as the “Yukos Affair” in Russia. That case led to the arrest and imprisonment of employees of the former Yukos Oil Company as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to silence Yukos’s politically active leadership and to expropriate Yukos’s assets, funneling them into state-owned companies operated by Putin cronies. Accordingly, top-level Yukos executives Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, and were ultimately released from prison after diplomatic, political, and legal pressure was applied.
Others arrested on the same baseless charges have been left behind.
Former mid-level Yukos manager Alexei Pichugin, jailed since 2003, remains Russia’s longest serving political prisoner. As Mr. Khodorkovsky recently wrote, “Mr. Pichugin has held in his hands the key to his freedom: All he needs to do is bear false witness against me and other Yukos executives. Lie, and walk free….” It’s time for organizations such as Amnesty to recognize Mr. Pichugin as the prisoner of conscience that he is, and as our Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights has done.
In every case, Bahari’s words about the political prisoner’s nightmare should serve as our call to action on behalf of the “nameless” ones, whether they are the White Wednesday protesters arrested in Iran or those such as Alexei Pichugin, locked away in distant prisons of the world’s tyrannies. One way to remember them is to recognize these groups of cases and patterns of persecution for what they are — common injustices that demand shared redress. Doing so is essential, for the freedom of these individuals and for the humanity of us all.
Irwin Cotler is founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and longtime Parliamentarian, and an international human rights lawyer.