I am not here because of political action. Nonetheless, everything in Iran is about politics. If you are silent, it’s a political action. If you should speak, it’s a political action. I was just an activist. You cannot be free of politics in Iran. Therefore, I had to leave. Asieh Amini.
Featured in the January 4 issue of the New Yorker, Amini recalls her own struggle to bring about effective change within a rights abusive nation. In 1979, revolution would transform the socio-political and economic landscape of Iran bringing with it a new Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Though war raged on within Iran, Amini remained largely unaffected by the mounting violence. She enveloped herself in a literary web of poetry and art, spending her days writing and painting with her sisters.
By 1993, Amini had begun her journalism studies at Allameh Tabataba’s University and was thriving in her very first positions writing for state-controlled newspapers. Though skeptical of politics, she often found herself embroiled in this unfamiliar, though omnipresent space. As the government took a more strident effort to crackdown on dissent, Amini found herself out of work and under heavy surveillance.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2004 that Amini would find herself drawn to the story of a 16-year-old girl. Accused of “acts incompatible with chastity,” Atefeh Sahaaleh was sentenced to death. Abused and prostituted by her mother from the age of five, Sahaaleh was continually raped and paid for her silence. This was the first time that Amini had encountered such law – Sharia law and the Iranian judicial system. As she continued her investigation, Amini soon learned how difficult it would be to publish such a story. Further research would lead her to even more cases about juvenile executions and stoning.
Amini became heavily involved in the women’s right movement and founded the “Stop Stoning Forever Campaign” in 2006. Along with experienced feminists and international researchers, Amini investigated stoning cases all over the country. Soon, she realized that Iran had become too dangerous and the situation was only worsening. Though reluctant to leave, Amini left Iran for Norway in 2009.
A journalist, poet, women’s activist, and one of Iran's most effective campaigners against the death penalty, particularly stoning and juvenile executions, Amini has continued her struggle for women’s rights while in exile, publishing newspaper articles, essays, novels and poems, and speaking out in public about the issue. In the interview below she speaks about the conditions for human rights in Iran, interference of foreign policy and the duties of reporting journalists.
Interview with ASIEH AMINI
By Madochée Bozier
Since 2006, the Iranian government has been crippled by the economic sanctions imposed progressively by the US, EU, and UN in response to the country’s nuclear program. However, on January 16, the U.N. nuclear agency certified that Iran has met all of its commitments under last summer's landmark nuclear deal, which has prompted the US to lift economic sanctions. What were your initial reactions upon hearing this news?
I am not an economist or politician, but I always look at things from a journalistic or human rights perspective. During the years that the Iranian government was negotiating with the United States and the European Union about nuclear energy, Iranian human rights defenders grew increasingly concerned about the situation in the country. Governments have a tendency, especially the Iranian regime, of ignoring human rights issues when evaluating economic policy. They forget that the issues are about the people and consequently, forget about human rights violations in Iran. Unfortunately, the situation for everyone, activists, journalists, artists, prisoners, is the worst that it has been in years.
We had hoped that the Iranian government could find the best solution. It is important to support healthy diplomatic relations with the international community, however the government should prioritize national policy and concentrate on the Iranian people first. You cannot have an unequal situation at home and prioritize others.
Though the US has lifted sanctions in regards to Iran’s nuclear program, non-nuclear sanctions remain in place. However, how do you think these recent events serve to undermine progress in the struggle for human rights in Iran?
In the last ten years, the situation in Iran has worsened. After the revolution in 1979, there was a radical transformation of Iranian society and everything came to a standstill. There has been no positive progress, unfortunately. The number of executions has increased, including that of political prisoners, activists, and artists. There has been no improvement.
The Iranian situation is quite complicated. The government has shown us that we cannot expect an ideal human rights solution. Unfortunately, they have been very deceitful and uncooperative. When we confront the administration and pressure it to uphold campaign promises, politicians argue that human rights are dependent upon the judiciary system. But when we talk about human rights, we are talking about a country and you cannot separate it into systems. The president is the one responsible. You have to take the problems as a whole. Everything is interconnected.
I cannot be very hopeful for the future of human rights in Iran. Yet, we must remain hopeful and we must continue to struggle.
Has foreign policy proved beneficial or detrimental to the promotion of international human rights in Iran and how?
Foreign policy can prove to be very beneficial or detrimental to the human rights situation in Iran. International support for human rights in Iran can help. Political and economic deals can help. In the past, we have seen that international press can solve some problems. I don’t think that the Iranian regime can continue international relations without improving the human rights situation in Iran.
If we consider human rights in Iran, we have to think about activists that need opportunities to continue their work. Activists in Iran are victims of the regime. They actively struggle for a better Iran. Their effort is for the country, but they suffer. The western powers should prioritize human rights in their foreign policy strategies with Iran. Nations have been very self-interested, operating/negotiating primarily within the state system. Each country thinks for itself. These borders cannot work any longer. We see the chaos of the Middle East as example. Dictatorship cannot last. This human rights struggle is for the whole world. If a regime continues in one place, the result of that can have global effects.
The conflict in countries is the result of international relations. Western interference in the Middle East is about the economy and it cannot continue to work in this way. It does not work for the people. The political deals between the western powers and the Middle Eastern countries are because of the money. Money in one hand and violence and war in the other. If democracy and Human rights are good things, they should be for everyone in every country.
In your New Yorker article, you mentioned that you were always wary of politics though you often found yourself embroiled in what was at the time, a fairly unfamiliar space. How would you say that your relationship with politics has evolved since you began your journalistic career?
I am not here because of political action. Nonetheless, everything in Iran is about politics. If you are silent, it’s a political action. If you should to speak, it’s a political action. I was just an activist. You cannot be free of politics in Iran. Therefore, I had to leave.
Do you still agree that journalists “don’t make decisions about the system?” What did you mean by that?
You are referring to a dialogue that I had about my work with the newspaper, Khordad. This was not a normal conversation as I was being held at gunpoint. These men were supporters of the hard-liners who opposed the current president Khatami’s support of the press.
All media in Iran is governmental. Nobody had newspapers that were truly independent. All media had a relation to power though some were more connected than others; some were more supportive of the hard-liners than others. All newspapers had a power relation.
As they were interrogating us, I said that as a journalist, I am not the person who makes executive decisions about the newspaper. I just report the news. I don't decide the political orientation of the newspaper.
In 2004, you came across your first news story about juvenile execution, which introduced you to Atefeh Sahaaleh. You state that she became an alter ego, a daughter you might have had under different circumstances. What do you think attracted you to Atefeh Sahaaleh’s story, and that of other young girls trapped within the Iranian judicial and social system?
During that time, I worked at a newspaper. At the same time, I volunteered as the editor-in-chief of a feminist news website, which is now banned. The website’s name was “Women in Iran,” which has since been banned by the government. We came across Sahaaleh’s story and discussed whether we wanted to pursue the case. Nearly everyone, besides myself and another journalist, declined to continue the investigation. So, I decided to do it myself.
I just thought that somebody should do it. I didn’t think that the case was particularly extraordinary. It wasn’t about that. I was about reporting the news. What is news? It should have character. It should be abnormal, interesting, and unusual. I thought that somebody should follow the case. I went there and asked about her situation and her life. I had to return to her village twice and even traveled to two other cities.
It wasn’t something that I thought I had a choice about.
Amnesty International recently published a report on the execution of 73 juvenile offenders in Iran from 2005 to 2015. The report further states that there are at least 160 juvenile offenders currently on death row. What measures are activists in Iran taking to help those juveniles that have been condemned to face execution?
When Amnesty published this report I posed myself the same question. Who can follow these cases in Iran? Unfortunately, the current situation for juvenile offenders and those on death row is more precarious because even the activists, lawyers, and journalists are under pressure. They cannot follow up the cases. The situation for victims is the same for human rights defenders. Most activists have been arrested, are silenced and isolated, or have been forced to leave the country. Those who do continue to work within Iran cannot be open about their investigations and in this line of work, you must have the opportunity to speak about your findings. Most of the news in the media comes from outside of the country.
My journalism was valuable because I was reporting from inside Iran. There are two points that are particularly significant to this context: 1) being a part of the local situation and 2) being a real human rights activist, without a personal agenda. Human rights should be solely about human rights, not politics. It should be about the people. If you aren’t a true human rights activist, when you gain power, you forget about the people.
It is important for local journalists and activists to be the principal reporters, but when this proves impossible, we can depend upon the international community to take action. It’s everyone’s responsibility, but it is ideal and more effective to have local journalists.
In June 2015 Iran introduced reforms specifying that juveniles accused of a crime must be dealt with by specialized juvenile courts. Do you believe that these courts will indeed reduce the number of juvenile offenders found on death row?
I hope so. We have had special courts before. I think that the courts can help the situation, but the most important thing is the law. They continually deceive the Iranian people and the international community. On numerous occasions the government has promised to stop juvenile executions and to reform the judicial system. But in reality, they find ways to appease the community and focus international attention away from the problem. They do not intend to stop.
In Iran, execution has two meanings. In sharia law, Qisas is one of the several forms of punishment. In the case of murder, qisas allows the victim’s nearest relative or guardian, with the court’s approval, to take the life of the killer. The Iranian courts say that qisas is different from execution and that most of the juvenile cases are associated with this law, which would theoretically absolve the government of any wrongdoing because nobody can change sharia law.
This is a game of semantics. Nothing is being done internally to change the judicial system, to change the law.
Interview January 2016