Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on 
Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Issue No. 17 - Evidence - Meeting of February 8, 2017

OTTAWA, Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, to which was referred Bill S-219, An Act to deter Iran-sponsored terrorism, incitement to hatred, and human rights violations, met this day at 4:22 p.m. to give consideration to the bill.

Senator A. Raynell Andreychuk (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: This evening, we are continuing our study of Bill S-219, An Act to deter Iran-sponsored terrorism, incitement to hatred, and human rights violations.

I welcome our witness from Toronto, by way of video conference, Ms. Marina Nemat. Ms. Nemat is a member of the Board of Directors at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. In 2007, Ms. Nemat published a memoir of her life in Iran, entitled Prisoner of Tehran. She is also the author of another book, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, published in 2010.

Thank you for appearing before us. I know you have an opening statement, and then we will go to questions. Welcome to the committee.

Marina Nemat, as an individual: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.

Let me just give you a little summary. I was born in Tehran in 1965. When I was 13, the Islamic Revolution happened. I was a student in high school at the time. When our math and science were replaced by religious propaganda, I protested, and, as a result, I was arrested at the age of 16, in 1982. I was taken to Evin Prison, along with hundreds and hundreds of other young people.

In the 1980s, we had waves of mass arrests of young people in Iran. When I was arrested, I was taken into an interrogation room. Two men tied me to a bare wooden bed. They took off my socks and my shoes. They handcuffed me. When they handcuffed me, they laughed, because I was 90 pounds, and they realized that my hands would slide out of the cuffs. So they put both of my wrists in one cuff. When it clicked, my right wrist cracked, and the torture had not even begun. Again, remember, I was 16 years old. I was 90 pounds.

When they took off my socks and my shoes, they lashed both of my feet with a length of cable about an inch thick. With every strike of the lash, my nervous system would explode. Then, it would be magically put back together, and I would be wide awake for the next.

They didn't pause to ask me any questions when they were beating me. They just kept beating.

At that point, if the devil appeared and asked me to sell my soul and said he would get me back home to my mom, I would have sold my soul with whipped cream and a cherry on top. I would have done anything to go back home, but that was not an option.

I spent two years in Evin Prison. I'm not going to get into the details, but I think it should suffice to say that I was tortured. I was raped. At night, I would listen to gunshots that ended my friends' lives, and I never knew when it would be my turn.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm one of the ones that survived. Many of my friends are buried in mass graves in Iran.

This happened many years ago. I'm 51 years old now. I've been living in Canada since 1991. Many of the people who tortured me are dead, but others have taken their place. In Iran, prisoners are still being tortured, and Iran still has the highest number of executions per capita in the world. People are still being widely mistreated in prisons in Iran. I have lost hope of anyone who directly had a hand in my torture and rape being held accountable, but the fact is that in Iran today there are people who, on a daily basis, torture and abuse prisoners.

I'm one of those people who doesn't believe in invading Iran or any other country for that matter. I'm against putting wide, broad-brush sanctions against any country because usually broad sanctions hurt the people. That is not what I would want ever, at all.

But I'm very familiar with the Magnitsky Act that has put in place very specific, targeted sanctions against Russian officials who have directly had a hand in torture. I would very much like to see the same thing done against Iranian officials who have had a hand in torture, terrorism, prisoner abuse and that sort of thing.

Being part of the prison community, I know there are databases, and it's not difficult at all to get the names of these individuals. I know that many of them have property in Canada. I know that many of them have bank accounts in Canada.

Let me tell you that one of my cellmates one day, on the subway in Toronto, ran into her interrogator. She couldn't breathe. She had a nervous breakdown.

None of us want the interrogators who tortured us to be tortured. None of us want our interrogators and torturers to be executed and mistreated or anything like that in any way, but there needs to be some sort of accountability on the international level. Again, the Magnitsky Act has shown that this is actually possible.

I don't know if we can do this in Canada, but if we can, I would be tremendously grateful. I know that many of my cellmates and the families of those who died in Evin Prison would be tremendously grateful as well.

The Chair: Thank you.

You referred to the Magnitsky Act, which is a different act than we're studying. Have you had an opportunity to look at Bill S-219?

Ms. Nemat: Yes, I have.

The Chair: It is specifically directed at Iran. Do you have any comments on it?

Ms. Nemat: I would very much like to see it implemented.

The Chair: You now are on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture. Could you explain it? Is it linked to any other international centres, or is this independent to Canada?

Ms. Nemat: We are all connected, all of the victims of torture worldwide. There are many out there. I'm not sure exactly how many, but there are quite a few of them out there. I'm familiar with the one in Denmark. We are all closely related. We act independently, more or less, but we communicate with each other, and we have programs that we collaborate on together.

The Chair: Thank you.

Senator Oh: Thank you for your presentation.

You mentioned earlier that one of your friends ran into someone in Toronto who interrogated her. That was in Toronto.

Ms. Nemat: Yes.

Senator Oh: Do you have any idea how many Iranian interrogators are living in Canada? How are they getting into the country?

Ms. Nemat: They simply apply. They apply either on tourist visas or they come here as immigrants. They usually have a lot of money, very big bank accounts. If you would like to have the names of a few of them, that can certainly be arranged.

Senator Oh: Is there an organization on your side tracking down these people who are living in Canada?

Ms. Nemat: There are various organizations that do that. The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture doesn't do that, but we certainly run into the names of these individuals because many of their victims live in Canada. There are many organizations worldwide that track them.

Senator Oh: During the Second World War, they tracked down the persecutors and many other people. I think people who have committed very bad criminal acts before coming to Canada, maybe we should do something to pursue them.

Ms. Nemat: I certainly hope so.

Senator Bovey: Thank you for being with us today and for sharing a brief summary of your experiences.

I was interested with an interview you did with the CBC back in 2010, when you brought out your second book at that point. In that interview, you said something that interested me a lot. You said:

Democracy cannot be exported; it has to be achieved, and it is not an event, but it is a process.

Given what we're talking about with Bill S-219, what part of that process do you think this is?

You said earlier that you were against broad sanctions but you felt there was validity with more targeted sanctions. What do you think the role of sanctions might play? Would it improve or hurt the development of democracy?

Ms. Nemat: I'm sure you understand that the people of Iran and the Government of Iran are two very different things. Iran has been a horrible dictatorship, and the price of dissidence is tremendously high. Basically, my generation was used as an example that, "We will do this to you if you speak out,'' and the people of Iran got the message. They understood that if they spoke out, horrible things would happen to them and to their children.

So we need to differentiate between the people of Iran and the government. The people of Iran are basically the hostages of their government. But the fact is that this government has the Iranian media in its hands. So if Western countries force wide sanctions on Iran and if the people of Iran cannot buy medicine for their children, if the price of food goes so high that people are hungry in Iran, then the Government of Iran will tell the people that it is the West's fault, that it is because of Canada, the United States, France and Germany that you are suffering. Because they hold all media, after a while the enemy without is easier to blame than the enemy within, so they would blame the West.

But if sanctions are targeted, if they don't go after the people of Iran but go after certain individuals — by the way, let me tell you that most of these individuals are quite well known in Iran as well. They live in huge palaces, in huge houses. They have a horrendous amount of money, and they have very bad reputations.

So if we go after them and the people of Iran witness that the West has no interest in making them suffer, that the West has an interest in making torturers, murderers and rapists suffer, then I think the message will eventually hit home and the people of Iran will see the real purpose of the sanctions.

Senator Bovey: In that same interview — obviously, I found it to be a very interesting one — you said:

Dictatorships fall. This is a rule of history. Iranians showed the world last year that they are fed up with their political system . . . .

Obviously you're saying that they're still fed up with their political system.

You also commented that:

What the anti-regime movement in Iran needs is a leader who speaks for all . . . .

Coming back to the quote I used before about the process, where is the process now? Has there been any movement in the last seven years?

Ms. Nemat: There has been a little bit of movement. I'm in touch with young people in Iran on a daily basis. So dissidence definitely exists in various shapes and forms, but as I said, the price of dissidence is very high and has not decreased in the past 10 years. Even though Iran now has a so-called moderate president, nothing has fundamentally changed. People are still being tortured and raped in Iranian prisons. That remains.

One of the huge problems with a widespread movement in Iran is what is going on in the region. I have many friends in Iran who tell me, "Marina, you're absolutely right; we need to get rid of this regime. But the problem is, look at Syria. Do you want the same thing that happened in Syria to happen to us? We budge, and the whole country will burn down. We are all going to die because the amount of money and weapons that the revolutionary guards hold is mind- boggling.'' There's no way the people of Iran can stand up to that; if they do, it will be civil war. Is that really what we want to happen in Iran? Absolutely not.

Until this situation in Syria is resolved, we will not see significant change in Iran, because the people of Iran are just terrified. That does not mean that the international community should not speak out against widespread and horrific disregard for human rights in that country. I think that is our duty.

Again, I don't believe in war. I don't believe democracy can be thwarted; not at all. And I don't believe in wide sanctions because they hurt people, but there are other things we can do.

Senator Cordy: Thank you very much for being with us today to tell your story. It's quite moving and quite horrifying to hear some of the things that happened. You read about them, but when you get somebody who tells you their personal story, it makes it even more real.

I also thought you made a great distinction when you spoke about the difference between the people of Iran and the Government of Iran. We always have to keep that in mind when we often blanket a whole country. Indeed, the people of a country want peace and harmony, and it's the government that we should be dealing with.

I received a letter from the President of the Iranian Canadian Congress. Perhaps everybody on the committee received it, too. I'm not sure. In his letter he says:

As a Canadian citizen of Iranian heritage, I find the Bill S-219 deeply concerning, untimely, and prejudiced against the 350,000 strong Iranian Canadian community.

He goes on to say that the Iranian Canadian Congress — I'm putting this in my own words — calls upon the Government of Canada to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran, including reopening embassies in both countries as a matter of utmost importance.

I've also heard from people who say that if we really want to make a difference and make things better, we can't do that without a dialogue, that perhaps closing the embassy was a mistake, and that we can't do anything if we have nobody within the country to be on the ground and to perhaps do some diplomatic work within the country.

You said that you read the bill. Do you differ from what the President of the Iranian Canadian Congress says, or do you think that his concerns have merit?

Ms. Nemat: Let me explain. When the embassy was shut down in Ottawa, I was in the middle of negotiating the release of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, the Iranian-Canadian citizen who was in Evin Prison for five years. I was working internationally with his wife. We had gone to Italy and the U.K. We were speaking with the Government of Canada, and we had just established contact with someone at the Iranian embassy. I was not the one who was speaking directly to the Iranian embassy. His wife, Antonella, was. I am on Iran's most wanted list, so I didn't want to muddy the water when it came to speaking with Iran. I have testified at the UN Human Rights Council against the Iranian government, so I didn't want to interfere with that. Antonella was in the middle of negotiations. When the embassy was struck down, we both cried because it destroyed her efforts in making contacts with Iran.

Now, I don't know why we have to make everything into such a black-and-white scenario. Why not different shades of grey? We can have a force, I believe, in diplomatic conversations. I certainly believe that Iran, or any country that wants to, should have an embassy in Canada. And Canada should have an embassy in every country out there, of course. Having a conversation with your friends is not the thing; having a conversation with your enemies is what's called diplomacy. I'm not against conversation or negotiation whatsoever, even with my worst enemies.

Please don't forget for a moment that these are the people who, at the age of 16, tied me to a bare wooden bed, ripped me from my family and raped me over and over again. So I believe I should be talking to them if they want to talk to me. The problem is they don't, because I tried at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. I tried. When I was testifying against them, the Iranian delegation was sitting across the table from me. Not for a moment did they make eye contact. I was there to speak with them, but they didn't even make eye contact.

I totally believe in negotiation. I believe we should have an embassy in Iran. I believe Iran should have an embassy here. But at the same time, I believe that those who are, who were torturers in Iran, those who have raped 16- and 17- year-old girls and now have millions of dollars in bank accounts in Canada, should be held accountable for their actions.

Again, I don't know in all practicality if this is even possible, but if it is possible — I mean, I understand the fear of the Iranian congress because of what's going on in the United States. Everybody is terrified, because in the United States, Iranians are being painted with a broad brush. I'm an Iranian and the people who tortured me are Iranian as well, but are we the same? Should we be looked at the same way? Absolutely not. I'm the victim. They are the torturer. So there needs to be a distinction. This is the whole point. There needs to be a distinction between those who suffer and those who inflict suffering. If this can be achieved, of course through negotiation, diplomatic relations, I have absolutely nothing against it.

Senator Gold: Thank you for agreeing to talk with us.

I'm still not clear in my own mind as to your views on the specific scope of the bill that we're looking at. I understood you to say that a Magnitsky-type bill focused on the perpetrators of those horrible acts that were committed against you and your fellow citizens ought to be dealt with here in Canada with regard to their presence, their property and the like.

We are in fact looking at such a law as a committee. The law we're looking at now, though, seems to me to be somewhat broader in scope, with a somewhat different focus. It's not to put you on the spot, but can you give us your thoughts on the specific scope of this particular piece of legislation? Is it as narrowly focused as a Magnitsky-type bill in your mind, or are there aspects of it that you think might go beyond what you think are best?

Ms. Nemat: There are aspects that I think can be better than what is in the bill now. There's no arguing that. I don't think it is perfect.

I think I'm putting it clearly enough, but I have to explain that I'm not a lawyer and I'm not a politician. I'm in front of you as a witness, as someone who is a victim of the system of the Iranian regime. I'm telling you, on behalf of many victims, what we would like to see. We would certainly like to see targeted sanctions against the officials who have hurt us and our families, and killed our friends.

At the same time, myself and many of my friends also believe that in the meantime, we are not against Iran having an embassy here or Canada having an embassy in Iran, because that can come in handy. If we can tweak the bill in a way that it includes all of this, that would be fantastic.

I always use Magnitsky as an example because I am tremendously familiar with it. I have read it over and over. I have dealt with the people who actually created it, so I am very familiar with it. Do I think this bill is as good as the Magnitsky Act and as targeted? No, I do not.

I would be more than happy, maybe at another time, to sit down and go through it line by line, and I would be happy to tell you exactly which one of the lines I would like to change.

Senator Gold: Thank you very much.

The Chair: Thank you. I think that is a good note to end on, that you see some merit in the bill. You've put your views forward about what could be changed about it. You've made your message very clear and very succinct. I admire anyone who can go through what you have and remember and relate with such even-handedness. We thank you for being here.

(The committee adjourned.)