Defending the rights of Islam

Yes, Tehran has a human rights watchdog. And no, he has no difficulty in turning aside awkward questions by attacking the double standards of the West

Dr Saeed Rajaie Khorasani has a very impressive visiting card. "MP," it says. "Member of Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary General International Parliamentary Union Group of Iran, Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of Majlis [parliament], Imam Khomeini Street, Tehran."

It is the "human rights" bit that catches the eye. Death sentences, stonings, punishment are what we westerners think about, although - predictably - that is not quite the way Dr Khorasani regards the phrase.

"The interpretation of different nations regarding the so-called human rights situation differs very much," he says. "There are things which take place in England, for example, that create deep distress in Iran. Take sexual assaults against children. We can't tolerate this here. We believe that an innocent child only has the protection of his parents.There was a case in the German courts of a four or five-year old child who had been assaulted by his father - but the courts didn't seem to care very much."

Attack, as usual, seems to be the best form of defence on such subjects in Iran. And while we are busy objecting to Dr Khorasani's approach, trying to forget the "string-em-up" mentality that characterises many of our own dark responses - Iran's human rights leader is forging ahead in justification: "When this kind of thing happens here, people don't take it indifferently. They attack and kill the father on the spot. The brother who sexually attacks his sister - the biggest crime that can happen. In such cases, the conduct of the law in this country does not necessarily correspond with the law in Europe or America."

We recall for Mr Khorasani a widely circulating, but unconfirmed, report in Tehran that a 13-year old boy who sexually assaulted his sister was stoned to death, and that the girl will later have to marry a boy of the same age who joined her brother in the rape. "When you refer to specific cases like this, you have to realise that human rights here are not as bad as reported in the West. You choose not to take account of human rights abuses here like the over-crowding of prisoners in Kerman and Zahedan, where a great deal of drug-trafficking takes place and where jails are hopelessly overcrowded. This is an outstanding example of negligence and abuse of human rights - but such issues are not of use to westerners who wish to attack Iran."

In all conversations about human rights, we are invariably led down the same path. Different cultures, a different religion, another way of looking at morality, a defensive mechanism that turns all criticism of individual abuses into an argument about motives and the double standards of the West. So, as usual, we start again. For what crimes are defendants punished with the death sentence? And here Dr Khorasani - a small, eloquent, man who was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in New York (where the Americans accused him of shoplifting, wrongly he says) - is very precise indeed about the issue.

"The death penalty is imposed for murder, for premeditated killing. It is imposed for drug smuggling, depending on the degree of the crime." And adultery? "If a married woman has sexual intercourse with a man, both are supposed to be sentenced to death. Usually the emotion against the man for the crime is stronger than against the woman because it is assumed that the man is more to blame. The problem comes when a woman has been involved in regular adultery with men. Then the death sentence is definitely confirmed. I am not totally against the death sentence. I can imagine a case where a woman must be sentenced to death - because it is the unavoidable decision of the law. But, of course, I don't like to see it."

If a married woman and an unmarried man are found to have committed adultery, the punishment may not be death - unless the man has resort "to other legal means of sexual satisfaction and tried to seduce the woman". But, if - and he repeats the word "if" - children have been sentenced to death, he "strongly" condemns it.

So we move on to hijab, the obligatory covering of women to which some women in Iran, when they are talking to foreigners, object volubly. Not to abide by this ruling is forbidden according to Islamic law, Dr Khorasani says. "This requires that women wear hijab. Most women welcome this. They think it's part of their identity. I appreciate the differences of taste. But Islamic law does not take taste into account."

Dr Khorasani swears by the integrity of the Iranian courts, brushing aside the fact that large number of clerics sit on the judiciary, insisting they do so through their expertise in jurisprudence rather than their

theological commitment. Yes, he says, the penalty for alcohol consumption is "80 lashes", but this is not often imposed.

And what of the police who stop cars at night and object to the clothes that women passengers or drivers are wearing? What of the women who have complained that they are arrested merely for walking with young men not their husband? The police have merely been hunting for car thieves, he says.

There was an impatience in Dr Khorasani's voice. He was happier talking about the horrific human rights abuses against the Muslims of Bosnia, where Iran's offer of 10,000 peacekeepings troops has been turned down by the West. He is concerned about the lack of freedom in the Iranian press - caused by editors, he says, who have turned down his request for a regular column on human rights. "When I asked for this, they said, 'You are speaking the language of the enemy'. How can I expect such people to make papers available for discussion of human rights abuses?"

Why, he even wanted a new anti-corruption law to be passed in parliament that would force members and ministers to publish their commercial interests. For once, Dr Khorasani saw no Western parallels.

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