On May 28, 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson penned a passionate article in the London Observer, drawing attention to the plight of two Portuguese students who had delivered a toast calling for democratic reform in their country and were promptly carted off to prison for defying dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Benenson wrote in that article: "Open your newspaper any day of the week, and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government.... The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all over the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done." That summer, Benenson went on to co-found Amnesty International.
Today, across the Muslim world, the annual "prisoners of conscience" day — from a phrase in Benenson's article — finds scores of political dissidents languishing in jail, their only crimes being peaceful expressions of opposition to the undemocratic regimes under which they live.
Their situation is particularly dire in Iran, where on May 17 in the city of Isfahan — home also to one of the country's nuclear installations — jailers executed brothers Abdollah and Mohammad Fathi Shoorbariki, after subjecting Abdollah to beatings and threats of rape. Their parents were never shown the charges against their sons. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Bijan Fathi said, "I still don't know whether my sons' charge was moharebeh (enmity against God) or robbery. I don't believe they were at war with the regime or with God."
Last weekend Iran's semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that Iran had arrested 30 people whom the country accuses of spying for the United States. It's not yet clear whether the charges hold water, but even if they don't, like so many other Iranians who stand accused of crimes against the regime, the detained face the death penalty.
In Iran, 29-year-old Iranian Kurdish university student Habibollah Latifi also faces extrajudicial execution on charges of "enmity against God" — a claim Tehran frequently invokes to silence political dissent. Latifi awaits his fate on Iran's death row with at least 16 other known Iranian Kurds, as part of a massive wave of internal repression amid the demonstrations across the Middle East. The victims of Iran's judicial system have no recognized rights to defend, and their trials, when they exist, are show trials at best.
According to an Amnesty International investigation last month, there has been "a sharp rise in the rate of executions in public in Iran — which have included the first executions of juvenile offenders in the world this year. Since the start of 2011, up to 13 men have been hanged in public, compared to 14 such executions recorded by Amnesty International from official Iranian sources in the whole of 2010." Eight of those executions have taken place in the last month alone.
The plight of homosexuals, who face widespread state-sanctioned murder and violent repression, was the subject of last year's Human Rights Watch report, "We Are a Buried Generation: Discrimination and Violence Against Sexual Minorities in Iran." The investigatory report noted that trials based on moral charges in Iran are usually held in private. As a result, it is a herculean task to assess whether the defendants were killed for their sexual orientation.
As Iran continues its brutal crackdown on prisoners who seek the freedom to elect a government of their choosing, Western governments have swept its human rights violations under the rug, in hopes that dialogue and negotiations will somehow force its rulers to stop repressing their people.
President Obama, to his credit, has come to the realization that words alone will not change the Iranian leaders' behavior, and he has enacted a range of sanctions against the regime as recently as this week. "Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail" in Iran, Obama said in his annual address to the Iranian population on the country's Nowruz holiday in March.
In a sharp break from his administration's previous posture, Obama attached names to the nebulous statistics of brave Iranians promoting democracy at the risk of their livelihoods.
"We have seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights; Jafar Panahi imprisoned and unable to make his films; Abdolreza Tajik thrown in jail for being a journalist. The Bahai community and Sufi Muslims punished for their faith; Mohammad Valian, a young student, sentenced to death for throwing three stones," Obama said.
Although the United States and the European Union have enacted human rights sanctions against Iran's leaders, they have done little to prevent the ongoing persecution of Iran's pro-democracy activists.
To inform the 50th anniversary of prisoners of conscience day with something more potent than symbolic speeches and commemoration events, the Obama administration must match words with actions. For starters, the president could help fast-track the one-two punch of human rights and economic sanctions legislation working its way through the House and Senate.
The new congressional measures contain a range of innovative penalties to crack down on Iranian officials responsible for human rights abuses, including targeting their assets and rejecting visas for their travel to the United States. The measures also punish foreign companies for their lucrative business deals with Iran's Revolutionary Guard, including the sale of products used to repress Iran's people, and the purchase of crude oil from Revolutionary Guard-controlled companies, which are the dominant force in Iran's petroleum trade.
In southern Europe, prisoners of conscience made enormous sacrifices to bring freedom and representative government to their countries. Portugal's fascist regime, for example, finally met its demise in 1974, as democracy began to take root. The Iranian people, who have suffered under their nation's theocratic dictatorship for far too long, deserve no less.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mark Dubowitz is executive director and head of the Iran Human Rights Project.