Dear President Obama:
With the 68th UN General Assembly under way this week and the possibility of talks between the Unites States and Iran after 34 years of extreme tension and diplomatic silence, I feel it is my duty as an ex-political prisoner from Iran to write to you. Since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, various Western media outlets have shown a great deal of optimism that the relationship between Iran and the United States might take a turn for the better. However, most of this attention has been focused on Iran’s nuclear program, while for millions of Iranians the main problem, as it manifested itself during the 2009 presidential elections, has been that country’s terrible disregard for human rights and the lack of basic civil liberties. During the past 34 years, tens of thousands of Iranians have been arrested for speaking against the Iranian regime, almost all of them have been tortured, and thousands have been arbitrarily executed.
I was arrested in 1982 at the age of 16, and spent more than two years in Iran’s Evin prison. I was tortured, raped and forced to convert to Islam (I am a Christian and was born in a Christian family in Tehran) and I witnessed the torture and execution of my teenage friends. I have published two memoirs about my experiences in Iran, which have been translated into 25 languages, and I give an average of three talks a week at schools, universities and conferences around the world. Reliving my traumatic experiences takes a toll on me and is not at all something I enjoy, but it is all I can do to make sure that the world knows the stories of my friends who are buried in mass graves and those who have been so traumatized that they cannot speak. I am a witness and I have to testify.
What prompted me to write this letter was an article about a young woman named Masha Allen, who was abused by her adoptive father, Matthew Mancuso. Mr. Mancuso used Masha for child pornography until she was rescued by the FBI in 2003. Your Secretary of State, John Kerry, who was then a senator, was inspired to bring in Masha’s Law in 2006 to make it easier for victims of child pornography to sue for civil damages and seek justice. It is heartwarming when victims’ stories are heard and especially when practical steps are taken to help survivors. Masha’s lawyer said, “They have already taken away her childhood. She shouldn’t have to spend her adult life testifying to get justice.”
In Evin, they tied me to a bare wooden bed and lashed the soles of my feet with a length of cable until my feet were so swollen that I could not recognize them and could not walk. They took away my freedom, my childhood, my religion, and my dignity. After my release from Evin, I spent about 20 years battling post-traumatic stress disorder in silence and, for the past seven years, I have been speaking about my experiences, reliving them again and again with no real possibility of justice.
Dear Mr. President: If U.S. officials meet with their Iranian counterparts this week or in the near future to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, please remind the Iranians of the suffering of people like me and the hundreds of innocent political prisoners who languish in Iranian prisons as we speak, including students, writers, lawyers, film makers, journalists, bloggers, Christian pastors, and many members of the Baha’i community. Recently, in a political move and an attempt to present a softer face to the world, Iran released about 90 high-profile political prisoners, including human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and Canadian citizen Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, but hundreds more remain behind bars, many of whom are in desperate need of medical attention but have been denied help and are dying.
Dear Mr. President: It goes without saying that it doesn’t take much skill to negotiate with one’s friends, but it is most challenging to negotiate with one’s enemies. In my humble opinion, nothing can be fixed with bombs and violence in the long run. I certainly encourage you to negotiate with Iranian authorities, but when you do, please hold them accountable and ask them about the members and leaders of the Baha’i community who are incarcerated only because of their religion and about converts to Christianity who face years in prison, and please do ask Mr. Rouhani about his minister of justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who was a member of death committees in the 1980s in Iran and had a hand in the arbitrary execution of thousands of individuals, many of whom were teenagers.
Marina Nemat is the author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran.