Iranian President Rouhani's takes flak for 'prisoner swap' talk

(Photo: Ecumenical News / Peter Kenny)Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of jailed Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini speaking at a human rights conference in Geneva, Switzerland on February 25, 2014.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is often viewed in the West as the moderate face of the Islamic republic's leadership.

But he is copping flak from groups representing religious groups and people after he spoke at the United Nations in New York.

He made his first address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28 since the historic nuclear deal with six world powers.

The Baha'i International Community expressed disappointment over Rouhani's failure to address the human rights situation in his country during his speech.

Bani Dugal, the Baha'i International Community representative to the United Nations noted the "promise of coexistence and dialogue" with other nations that marked President Rouhani's speech.

But she said, "We are extremely disappointed that he did not discuss any steps he would take to improve the human rights of Iranian citizens."

Following her statement, the American Center for Law and Justice accused Rouhani of publicly holding U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini and the other wrongfully imprisoned Americans as hostages, demanding ransom for their freedom.

The center cited a Sept. 28 interview with Rouhani while he was in New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations.

"If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set [a number of Iranians in the United States who are imprisoned] free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well," Rouhani told CNN interviewer Christiane Amanpour.

"If the Americans take the appropriate actions vis-a-vis Iranian citizens who are being imprisoned here, then the right atmosphere and environment will be created for reciprocal action perhaps," the Iranian president said.

The ACLJ said, "This is an absurd and insulting demand, treating Pastor Saeed – who has committed no crime and is merely imprisoned because of his Christian faith – as a hostage for ransom.

It cited Pastor Saeed's wife Naghmeh responding, "My husband is not collateral. He is a father and a man who broke no law. Yet Iran is treating him like a pawn in a game of chess.

"President Rouhani's demand that America release 19 criminals in exchange for his consideration of releasing individuals like my husband, imprisoned solely for his faith, demonstrates that the Iran of today is no different than the Iran who took Americans hostage during the Iranian revolution."

Dugal said in her Sept. 28 statement after Rouhani's speech that he has failed to end religious discrimination, despite promises to do so.

She noted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had raised this in his yearly report on human rights in Iran to the General Assembly..

She noted in particular that Ban expressed concern about "reports of persistent discrimination" against ethnic and religious minorities.

Ban had said that the Iranian president had himself made commitments aimed at "ensuring equality, upholding freedom of belief and religion, extending protection to all religious groups and amending legislation that discriminates against minority groups."

Dugal said, "President Rouhani has now had two full years to live up to the promises he has made regarding an end to religious discrimination in Iran. Sadly, despite all his talk, little progress has been made."

She said that in the case of the Iranian Baha'i community, the Iranian government has actually intensified its anti-Baha'i propaganda campaign in the media.

She said this included the arbitrary arrest and detention of Baha'is continued, and Baha'i youth are still banned from higher education."

Dugal said more than 6,300 items of hate propaganda directed against Baha'is have been published in government-sponsored Persian media since President Rouhani took office in August 2013.

The government has also continued its crackdown on Baha'i businesses, said Dugal, adding that there have been more than 200 individual incidents of economic oppression against Baha'is under Rouhani's administration.

The exclusion of Baha'is from public sector employment, begun in the early 1980s, continues.

"With 74 Baha'is currently in Iranian prisons, solely because of their religious beliefs, it is clear that President Rouhani's promises for change are hollow," she said.

"At a time when world leaders are meeting with President Rouhani, the Secretary-General's report is a sober reminder that the human rights situation in Iran desperately needs to remain on the international agenda," she said.

"How long must Iranian Baha'is face persecution? How long must they wait before they can go to university, be allowed to bury their dead without obstruction, or live without fear of imprisonment?" she said.

Dugal also referred to an article by forrmer Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, who wrote last week that "[t]he best way to test the Iranian government's will for a new chapter in its relationship with the rest of the world is to question them about their treatment of 300,000 Iranian Baha'is."

"Mr. Bahari, who was himself imprisoned in Iran in 2009, correctly points out that when Iranian officials are asked to explain why they persecute Baha'is, 'they simply don't tell the truth.'

"The world must ask why President Rouhani not only refuses to discuss reports of human rights violations generally but also avoids addressing his government's unwillingness to confront the Baha'i question," said Dugal.

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