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Q&A: "Cycling for Human Rights in Iran" founder takes on Ahmadinejad

This Magazine Staff

Ahmadinejad speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in 2008

Ahmadinejad speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in 2008

Almost one year ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the currently contested President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, delivered his infamous speech at the U.N. General Assembly. Putting aside for a moment that the U.N. has failed its mandate to prevent wars between countries and, therefore, is rather debunked as an institution, it has also been a microphone-box for some of the world’s most notorious self-proclaimed leaders.

In his 2008 speech, Ahmadinejad alternately wooed and unsettled the audience with his defiant, confident and eloquent rhetoric that challenged everything from the U.S. occupation of Iraq to the existence of gays in Iran. The reaction of the crowd was mixed: some lamented the fact that the world was forced to choose between leaders like Bush and Ahmadinejad, while others lauded Ahmadinejad’s criticism of the U.S. occupation and chastised Colombia’s president for his hypocrisy (Bush, whose track record is worthy of war-criminal stature, after all, received a reception that was much more welcoming).

The problem with some portions of the left is that in the quest to establish a genuine alternative to Western—and, especially, American—imperialism and hegemony, some of the most unsavoury and unscrupulous characters are embraced. After all Ahmadinejad has met with Chavez, the darling of so much of the left, and supports Cuba, leaving activists somewhat confused and befuddled.

However, illusions cannot be easily maintained after this summer’s disputed Iranian elections and the ensuing atrocities. Regardless of how Ahmadinejad may have appeared before—sometimes as the defiant underdog who will not be intimidated, sometimes as the goofy, ugly-yet-comical figure—there should be no room for confusion anymore: Ahmadinejad represents a callous, bloody and tyrannical regime.

The reality is that the current Iranian government doesn’t care about the peoples of Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine – it doesn’t even care about the people of Iran. The events following the contested June elections are testament to this fact. Wide-spread documentation of systematic imprisonment, torture, abuse, rape and death of protesters is all too well known now, though still vehemently denied by the regime. Unfortunately, the Iranian government is capable of much more painful, despicable and violent acts than those which met Neda Agha-Soltan’s fate. At least she died by a bullet wound and not due to the “rupturing of her womb and anus.”

But a question that is often asked among leftist circles, or anyone trying to challenge any status quo, is what to do now, knowing what we know? How should we proceed? What strategies can we employ? And, perhaps above all, what is our objective? For those Canadians of Iranian descent, who have ties with Iran, or who are simply concerned citizens who feel that injustice anywhere should be opposed everywhere, the options are fairly limited. But creativity sometimes grows in the most desperate of situations.

One Toronto-based group, Cycling for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) decided to express their solidarity with the peoples of Iran by biking from Toronto Ottawa’s Iranian embassy to deliver a petition that features the following demands:

  1. immediately and unconditionally release the political leaders and activists arrested on June 15th, and all others who have been arrested for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly;
  2. allow them immediate access to their family members, lawyers of their choice and to any medical treatment they may require, and that they be protected from all forms of torture or ill-treatment;
  3. allow peaceful demonstrations by those wishing to express their opinion of the elections, even if critical.

The positive response to the Ottawa ride has encouraged CHRI to plan another one, this time a four-day, 800 km journey, starting this Saturday, September 19th, to New York. Information about the bike ride can be found here, and it is not too late to participate/volunteer for the ride.

Why New York? Ahmadinejad is planning another speech, after all.

toNYC

This Magazine spoke to CHRI founder Ali Bangi and asked the following questions:

Why are you riding to New York?
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s (Iran’s controversial president) visit to the U.N. General Assembly is a good opportunity for us to raise awareness about the situation of human rights in Iran. We believe extreme forms of human rights violations have happened and continue to happen during his presidency and he has failed to respond and address the issue. Instead, he has endorsed government sanctioned violence against peaceful protests by Iranian students and ordinary people who have expressed their critical opinion about the recent presidential elections.

Why bike?
We use cycling as a tool to raise awareness. Cycling from Toronto to New York is kind of a mental and physical challenge that we believe is kind of similar to those facing many Iranian students, activists and political leaders that have been imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly, which are both recognized rights by Iran’s constitution and the universal human rights. Cycling also keeps us together. We bike every Sunday and that’s how we have become a team/group. Finally, cycling long distances for human rights is what draws the necessary media attention and helps us deliver our message to the Iranian government that people in Canada are concerned about the human rights situation in Iran, as well as send a message to the Iranian people that we have not forgotten them.

What is CHRI position on Ahmadinejad being able to travel to New York? Do you feel like he should be arrested on spot?

No, he should not be arrested yet! If he was convicted of crimes gainst humanity and the U.S. was a member of the International Criminal Court (ICJ) he would/should have been arrested. He is not yet convicted of any crime and the U.S. is not a member of ICJ. So, he should be able to travel there and return to Iran. Iran is a member of the U.N. and he is going to the UN General Assembly meeting to represent a member state, Iran. The recent presidential election was controversial and there are allegations/evidence of vote rigging. However, Iran’s Guardian Council approved the election and announced him as Iran’s president. I disagree with the decision of the Guardian Council but I believe we should deal with the issue through lawful acts. Finally, I disagree with isolating Iran and its leaders. We should keep them engaged and deal with them within the established international law and customary international law.

If you were able to actually speak to Ahmadinejad, what would you tell him?

I would provide him with extensive evidence of human rights violations by his government and ask him to respond.

What concerns you most about the situation in Iran, and why do you feel that Canadians should pay attention to it?
The human rights situation in Iran is unfortunately getting worse. Widespread arrests, intimidation of the opposition, closure of newspapers, torture, rape in the prisons by the prison guards, etc. have proliferated at an alarming stage. Why should Canadians pay attention? Iran’s elections are partly an internal matter (if we want to strictly observe Iran’s soverignty) and there is not much Canadians can do about them. However, human rights are universal and it is the responsibility of everybody, regardless of their background and nationality, to protest violation of human rights, anywhere, when it happens.

How can people get involved with CHRI?

Who’s funding this? How can people donate if they are unable to participate in the ride?
We are an independent and non-partisan group. All our funds come from supports from individuals who care for human rights in Iran.

People can donate online, at the above link, or write a cheque to CHRI or just donate during our many fundraising events, usually in the busy parts of Toronto. We set up our bikes, hand out flyers and ask for donations. Here I would like to thank people of Toronto for their very generous donations/support. I also want to thank people from almost all over the world who have made online donations.

What else can be done?
A lot more and there are many other good organizations doing great work, some of whom we are partners with. We are organizing a conference on advocacy at the University of Toronto on October 17th, with support from the University of Toronto we are helping Iranians to by-pass the Internet filters put in place by the Iranian government to block them from access to many internet websites, we are involved in cultural events, we organize panel discussions by professors, activists and students, etc. Recently Iranian students from Toronto colleges and universities have got together and created Iranian Students Federation of Colleges and Universities (ISFCU). By joining our efforts together we can achieve and have already archieved a great deal

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