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Our courts must become a symbol of hope for victims of foreign torture

Marina Nemat is the author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Zahra Kazemi's family could not sue the Iranian government. Ms. Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, was tortured, raped, and killed in Iran in 2003. The Court announced that Canada's State Immunity Act does not allow Ms. Kazemi's son or her estate to sue Iran for her horrific death. But the Court said that the Parliament had the ability to change the current law on exceptions to state immunity, but it had chosen not to do it as yet.

I met recently with former justice minister Irwin Cotler, and he told me that he had once again put together a private member's bill that would amend the State Immunity Act to allow civil lawsuits to proceed on Canadian soil against foreign states responsible for torture abroad. Mr. Cotler has asked the federal government to sponsor the legislation.

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On Oct. 31, I watched the members of the Iranian delegation take their seats in the Human Rights Council Chambers at the United Nations in Geneva, facing the representatives of many nations and members of various NGOs to respond to the UN Periodical Review, which had made recommendations to improve human rights in that country. Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary of Iran's High Council for Human Rights and advisor to the chief of the judiciary on international affairs, who was leading Iran's delegation, read from a text that claimed Iran was, more or less, the garden of Eden. He claimed that in his country, there were no political prisoners, no torture, no arbitrary trials, and no disregard for women's rights and religious minorities. It was as if the Iran he spoke about was another Iran in another galaxy; it was certainly not the Iran that I was born and grew up in and spent two years as a teenage political prisoner. Iran has the highest number of executions per capita in the world, torture is commonplace, and even juvenile offenders are put to death.

In 1982, when I was arrested in Iran at the age of 16 for speaking up against the government, two men dragged me into a room, tied me to a bare wooden bed, took off my socks and my shoes, and lashed the soles of my feet with a length of industrial cable made of heavy rubber. Why the soles of the feet? Because our nerve ends are in our feet; with every strike of the lash, my nervous system would explode, and then it would be magically put back together, and I would be wide awake for the next strike. After a while, if the devil had appeared and offered to take me home if I sold him my soul, I would have. I signed every document they gave me without reading them. I confessed to everything they wanted me to confess to. Torture is not designed to get information; it aims to kill the human soul. Later, I was raped over and over again in solitary confinement in Evin prison where Ms. Kazemi was tortured and killed. Many of my friends are buried in mass graves in Iran.

I am asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to support Mr. Cotler's bill to give victims of torture standing in Canadian courts and bear witness to the atrocities committed against us. When I was in prison, I believed that the world had forgotten and abandoned me. Hope keeps victims of torture alive, and it is acknowledgement that gives hope. Please acknowledge us and our right to bear witness.

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