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2010 Katharine & George Alexander Law Prize Address

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Untold suffering

In my opinion, today we must know: What did exactly happened to Niloufar, Zahra and Taraneh in their final hours of life? Who are responsible for their harassment and death? What did their family and friends go through amidst their fear and sorrow and humiliation? Not only the Iranians, but in my opinion the whole world, has to hear these narratives that are so worthy of being told and retold and so deserving of being heard-not only because they open a window into an untold chapter of human suffering, but also and more importantly, so that they won't be repeated ever again.

My generation, a generation that came of age and went to school and college during the government of the Islamic Republic, has little information about the widespread violations of prisoner's rights in the 1980s. Even worse, complete and utter censorship about the news and information pertaining to that period has caused my generation to believe the official narrative-which mainly was that those who were executed in prisons were terrorists who killed innocent pedestrians in the streets. For this reason, even those who possess minimal information about what transpired during those dark years hardly sympathize with the victims and their families. We internalized the government propaganda and believed that people like Niloufar Tashayyod were terrorists who staged bombing and therefore were deserving of torture and execution. Until last June, we believed that such widespread crushing of opposition by the government that occurred in the 1980s would never repeat itself. But what occurred during the crushing of the post-election protests clearly showed that what we thought was wrong. Violations of human rights occurred on such a widespread scale that it was only comparable to the events of the first decade after the revolution. Although such events, beatings, and imprisonments-and even killing of the protestors in the streets-caused the younger generation to become more sensitive to the violations of human rights in Iran, our history did not merge with theirs. Our pains and suffering did not tie itself to theirs, as if we were the first of our kind to experience such maladies, and whatever came before us had passed and was no longer relevant to our work of today. Or, at their best, they were numbers in books and narratives of the previous generations: 3,000, 5,000, 7,000, and 20,000 people. No names, no faces. We repeatedly spoke of the necessities of clarifying the facts surrounding the death of Taraneh Mousavi, the urgency of trying those responsible for that grave injustice, and the right of her family and friends to narrate her story, mourn her death, and demand the punishment of actors and instigators of such event. Yet we never spoke of Niloufar Tashayyod and other women like her. However, if a correct narrative about Niloufar Tashayyod's life was published, the violators of human rights would cease to enjoy impunity so that they could continue in their ways and sexually assault Zahra Kazemi and kill her during interrogation. Perhaps if the actors and instigators of Zahra Kazemi's death were introduced to public and subjected to a fair trial, there would no longer exists a security force that would dare to single out Taraneh Mousavi from the crowd and lead her to her death. Today, we sympathize more with the new faces and names. We sympathize with Taraneh Mousavi more than with Zahra Kazemi and with Zahra Kazemi more than with Niloufar Tashayyod. Regretfully, the rest of the world is also more familiar and sympathizes more with the new names than the old ones.

Historically speaking, Taraneh Mousavi is a continuation of Zahra Kazemi-who herself is a continuation of Niloufar Tashayyod. However, in Iran we are facing segmented historical experiences. With more than a century's experience of combating democracy and freedom, we are still at the starting point on a lot of fronts. In 2009, we witnessed how the government unjustly and unfairly labeled many people who, like myself, participated in the peaceful post election demonstrations with the charge of “Moharebeh” which means taking arms against the government and is punishable by execution. However, we were unable to make the connection between this systematic distortion of the facts in the Iranian judicial system and what had transpired in the past. We could not fully comprehend that, if rape and sexual torture took place in Iran after the election, this was not merely a new and unprecedented occurrence. In fact, this occurrence, although commonplace, was never narrated, the facts surrounding it never clarified and the actors and participants never justly punished and therefore, it occurred again. In the public's opinion, all the prisoners who were executed post election were victims of violations of human rights. We restored their respect and that of all those who were charged with baseless accusations, yet we did not extend this restoration to the victims of such violations of human rights in the past history of our country. It seems that the previous generation was not successful in narrating their history and transferring it to our generation and in turn our generation, under the yoke of heavy censorship, was not put in contact with valid narratives of that time. Therefore, now is the time to, once and for all, stitch together these various narratives and create from them a uniform, or at least uniformly acceptable, narrative. If not, my fear is that my daughter's generation, the third generation since the revolution, will not remember Taraneh Mousavi, because no justice was served in her case, in much the same way that we do not remember Niloufar Tashayyod and thousands like her and do not demand justice to be served for her and her family. Worse than that, today that our wounds are fresh and bleeding; if we do not honor the old wounds of others, then the next generation will likewise not respect our wounds that are bound to become old with age. Searching for justice, without dividing it into time periods and dividing history and prioritizing it, is the historic duty of my generation.

Now you must be asking: What does your long-winded story of your generation and its connection with the past have to do with us American citizens who do not share your history or face your current challenges?

In an international world, we all know that, in many cases, individual courage has changed the course of history. History cannot deny or forget the instrumental role that the individual courage of Rosa Parks played in the American Civil Rights Movement. Today, as we stand in the battlefield of citizen's rights, we need to learn from the individual and collective experiences of others in order to achieve human rights. At the same time, we need the individual courage and ingenuity of each and every one of you that will be incredibly important and effective in an international world. I consider the awarding of the Katherine and George Alexander law prize to myself a lasting measure in making possible the narration of the story of every Iranian who fought and still fights to achieve equality and freedom.

These days everyone speaks of “Democracy in Iran” and “Democracy for Iran.” Although a world of meaning and difference lies within those conjunctions and prepositions, for me, it is clear that without justice-and I mean right at this moment-democracy will not be achieved in Iran. On this path, although Iranian civil society plays an important role, the international community can also offer significant help, such as educational programs to transfer similar experiences of other countries, support for plans to research and document violations of human rights, support for the preparation of blacklists containing the names of those who have participated in widespread violations of human rights, and efforts to convince governments as well as the United Nations of the necessity of taking effective steps against these violators. Each one of you who agrees with me should start thinking right now about ways to make the names and faces of the Niloufars and Zahras and Taranehs more prominent each day and subsequently make the world increasingly less safe for the violators.

In hopes that Justice prevails for Iran,
Many thanks,
Shadi Sadr

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Spring 2011

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