Wednesday, June 21, 2006

UN Rights Council 'Mockery'

Graeme Hamilton and Steven Edwards,
The Iranian prosecutor implicated in the death of Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi is part of a delegation at a new UN human rights body that was created to replace a commission widely discredited for allowing human rights abusers too much power.

The attendence of Saeed Mortazavi made a "mockery" of the inaugural meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, according to critics.

The move also angered human rights activists and defenders of press freedom.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the inaugural council session on Monday, urging the member states to mark a "clean break" from the practices of the now-disbanded Human Rights Commission, which had become infiltrated with human rights abuser states. READ MORE

Hillel Neuer, a Montrealer and executive director of activist group UN Watch, said he was shocked to see Mr. Mortazavi in the council hall.

"There is nothing more obscene than seeing someone alleged to have been involved in torture and possible murder sitting there as a dignitary," Mr. Neuer said. "Unfortunately, we're reminded that the Human Rights Council is still a case of the foxes guarding the chicken coop. There may be less foxes than there were in the commission, but that should not put anyone at ease."

"His [Mr. Mortazavi's] presence makes a mockery of the Council and is an open expression of defiance by Iran, which is sending a message to the international community that it has nothing to fear from anything the body might say about its human rights record," said Payam Akhavan, international law professor at Montreal's McGill University, and president of a Connecticut-based centre that documents human rights violations in Iran.

While Iran failed to win election to the 47-member Council, all UN member states can attend the body's sessions as observers, and Iran is expected to address the chamber tomorrow.

"There's a reason why Iran is not on the Council: Its appalling record on human rights," said Dan Dugas, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, who was returning from Europe yesterday.

"The fact that Iran would send such an individual is indicative of their appalling attitude towards human rights."

Among states with poor human rights records that won Council seats, Cuba said yesterday its election was a "victory" for human rights, while Saudi Arabia spoke in favour of women's rights despite denying Saudi women the right to vote or drive.

Canada won election to the Council, but the United States did not stand, saying it first wanted to see how the body conducted itself.

With Mr. Mortazavi is Iranian Justice Minister Jamal Karimi-Rad, who served as spokesman for the Iranian judiciary following Ms. Kazemi's 2003 arrest.

Ms. Kazemi, 54, was arrested while photographing a demonstration outside Tehran's notorious Evin prison. She fell into a coma after being beaten while in custody. Authorities initially attributed her death to a stroke but later acknowledged the beating.

A report from Iran's Parliament, dominated by reformists at the time, blamed Mr. Mortazavi, Tehran's chief prosecutor, for Ms. Kazemi's illegal detention and the subsequent attempt to cover up the fatal beating. Mr. Mortazavi reportedly took part in her interrogation.

No one has been convicted in Ms. Kazemi's death. An intelligence agent who maintained he was a scapegoat was found not guilty, and last November, Iran's judiciary said it would conduct a new investigation.

Reza Moini, a spokesman for Reporters Without Borders in Paris, said the presence of Mr. Mortazavi in Geneva undermines the UN's effort to present the new council as a fresh start.

"It's shameful that the Council of Human Rights accepts that a human-rights violator can participate and talk about human rights in Iran and around the world," Mr. Moini said in an interview. His group's secretary-general, Robert Menard, noted Mortazavi's involvement in Ms. Kazemi's death and called his presence in Geneva "an insult to victims of the Iranian government's repression."

"There is no justice in Iran. If there was, it is Mr. Mortazavi who should be in prison for these crimes," Mr. Moini said.

By Reporters Without Borders' count, the prosecutor is responsible for the jailing of more than 60 journalists and the closing of more than 80 newspapers since 2000. His actions earned him the nickname, "the butcher of the press."

In a 2004 report, "Like the Dead in Their Coffins: Torture, Detention and the Crushing of Dissent in Iran," Human Rights Watch said political prisoners in Tehran were known as "Mortazavi's prisoners" by guards and other prisoners. "Few individuals bear more responsibility for turning the judiciary into a tool of the ongoing political crackdown than Said Mortazavi," the report said, using an alternate spelling of his first name.

The allegations have not hurt Mr. Mortazavi's career, and he is the second highest-ranking member of Iran's delegation to the Geneva meeting, after the Justice Minister.

Iran's official news agency, IRNA, reported on Monday that Mr. Mortazavi wants the UN council to take a hard line on human-rights abuses by the United States and Israel. Among the other causes Mr. Mortazavi will defend are "the right to access high technologies, including nuclear technology for peaceful purposes" and freedom of expression for Holocaust deniers, IRNA reported.
A must read.