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The following statement was issued jointly by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB), and the Iranian American Bar Association (IABA) on developments to the case involving Bijan Ghaisar.
On November 17, 2017, 25 year old Bijan Ghaisar was tragically shot and killed by two U.S. Park Police officers in Virginia. Bijan, who was unarmed, was pursued by the officers following a minor traffic incident and shot nine times in an encounter that should have easily been resolved without deadly force. He died in the hospital ten days later.
Now, after more than 500 days of federal officials dodging accountability, the names of the officers involved—Lucas Vinyard and Alejandro Amaya—have finally been identified by court order in the discovery phase of the Ghaisar family’s lawsuit against the U.S. government for excessive use of deadly force. Given the damning video surveillance, we call for accountability, including the immediate firing of the officers involved.
As organizations serving and representing tens of thousands of Iranian Americans, we have been deeply concerned by the lack of accountability from the U.S. Park Police, Department of Justice and FBI surrounding the investigation into the shooting of Bijan. Delayed justice is no justice at all, and tangible steps must be taken to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future at the hands of these two officers who engaged in deadly excessive force. Doing so is an imperative first step to ensure public safety and pursue justice for the Ghaisar family.
While this is a critical step, it would be insufficient without further efforts by the FBI and DOJ to release a full and public report on the shooting, and help facilitate a favorable resolution of the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Ghaisar family. We also join a number of officials—including Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA), Jennifer Wexton (D-VA), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA)—in condemning the FBI for failing to answer questions into the 16-month long investigation put forth by former Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley.
Refusing to provide transparency into the investigation, and failing to hold the responsible parties to account, greatly risks an erosion in the public’s trust of the justice system, and continues to deny justice to the Ghaisar family. The only acceptable outcome for the investigation into this case is full transparency into the findings, and the immediate firing of the responsible officers.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, March 15, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON, DC — NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement after the Islamophobia-driven attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand:
“We are shocked and outraged by the unconscionable terrorist attacks on the al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch yesterday, which claimed the lives of 49 and injured dozens more. We relay our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of those taken in this tragedy, and mourn alongside the Muslim community and all those who are shocked by this inhumane act of evil.
“This attack is yet another reminder that fanning the flames of Islamophobia, white nationalism, and anti-Muslim sentiment is profoundly dangerous. Unfortunately, the U.S. now has a President that is a global leader in spreading such bigotry and who has failed on numerous occasions to halt his hateful rhetoric and the policies like his ongoing Muslim Ban that are inspired by it. We reiterate our call for Donald Trump to make a clean break from his white nationalist and Islamophobic roots and condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile acts of terror that spring from such hatred.”
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NIAC Statement on Politically Motivated Sentencing of Prominent Human Rights Lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh
NIAC is deeply concerned by reports that prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh reportedly faces up to a 38-year prison sentence and 148 lashes on fabricated, politically motivated charges. NIAC unequivocally condemns the Iranian government for its arbitrary and politically motivated detentions in contravention of Iran’s human rights obligations, and reiterates its call for the immediate and unconditional release of Sotoudeh, along with all prisoners of conscience.
Sotoudeh has for years defended those who have suffered rights abuses at the hands of the Iranian government. From her defense of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protestors to her support for the anti-compulsory hijab activists of last spring, Sotoudeh remains one of Iran’s staunchest human rights advocates. Sotoudeh was released in September 2013—in what was widely seen as a good will gesture ahead of President Hassan Rouhani’s first trip to the UN General Assembly—after more than two years of imprisonment on politically motivated charges following her work highlighting juvenile executions in Iran and her defense of human and civil rights protestors.
News of Sotoudeh’s sentencing comes only days ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8th—and serves as a stark reminder of the restrictions and costs Iranian women continue to pay in their fight against compulsory hijab and systemic gender inequality. Since her arrest last June for representing three activists protesting compulsory hijab, Sotoudeh has endured two hunger strikes and refused to participate in her trial after being prevented from selecting her own lawyer. Her husband, fellow imprisoned human rights activist Reza Khandan, noted that she is being prosecuted on seven charges, most of which relate to her opposition to Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.
While the fault for Sotoudeh’s incarceration lies squarely with Iranian authorities, U.S. policymakers must carefully weigh the impact of pressure policies on empowering Tehran’s most reactionary forces and reducing our ability to hold Iran accountable to its human rights obligations. The Trump administration’s abrogation of the nuclear deal, imposition of inhumane sanctions, and ratcheting up of tensions with Iran has further emboldened Iran’s hardline forces that are not accountable to elected institutions. As hardliners seek to match Trump’s bellicosity and undermine moderates and the will of the Iranian people, human rights proponents like Sotoudeh often become the first victims.
On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East will hear from family members of individuals unjustly detained in Iran. This is an important opportunity to highlight and condemn the Iranian government’s unconscionable imprisonment of Americans and other politically motivated detentions that violate Iran’s human rights obligations.
It is also important that Congress spur the Trump administration to reverse course and take concrete steps to secure the freedom of Robert Levinson, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Nizar Zakka, Xiyue Wang and other dual nationals unjustly imprisoned in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the President has made the release of dual nationals in Iran a priority, while his move to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose nuclear-related sanctions has torched existing diplomatic channels that could be used to press for the release of Americans – not to mention other interests including human rights and security issues.
The motivation behind the detentions are clear and require a serious approach rather than broad brush or politicized grandstanding. Dual nationals who have been arrested in Iran have been targeted by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence and prosecuted by the Iranian Judiciary that is not legally accountable to Iran’s civil government but rather only to unelected institutions. These hardline elements of the regime oppose Iran’s economic integration with the rest of the world, thrive under sanctions and the Iranian people’s isolation, and engage in ruthless tactics aimed at sabotaging rivals who prefer moderation of Iran’s foreign policy and reform of its domestic policies. These elements have benefited extensively from the Trump administration’s abdication from the nuclear agreement, the return of a sanctions economy, and appointment of advisors to the Trump administration who have openly called for war. Hardliners inside Iran prefer to maintain a revolutionary ideology predicated on confrontation with the West and fear the engagement with the U.S. that led to the JCPOA, as well as the potential of sanctions relief that would lift up ordinary Iranians, empower Iran’s private sector and build space for Iranian civil society. Imprisoning Americans is just one more way that these hardline elements seek to enshrine confrontation with the U.S. and guarantee their grip on power will not be undermined through engagement.
While the Trump Administration’s efforts to collapse the deal have undercut the political capital of moderates, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other members of the Iranian administration must continue to hear from the international community that these detentions and human rights violations are unacceptable and that they are responsible for challenging and stopping the perpetrators of these actions within the regime, even if they are not under the administration’s direct control.
The Obama Administration developed a playbook for bringing imprisoned dual nationals home, via consistent diplomacy and back-channel negotiations aimed at securing their release. A combination of public accountability of Iran’s government and credible diplomacy is the formula to achieve results in changing Iran’s behavior. To increase the chances of winning the release of current U.S. persons held in Iran, members of Congress should pursue a multipronged approach based on:
Spotlighting These Cases
The cases of American citizens arrested inside Iran on arbitrary charges has been tragic. Businessman Siamak Namazi, long an advocate of improved U.S.-Iran relations, has been imprisoned alongside his father Baquer Namazi, an 81-year old former diplomat for UNICEF whose health is ailing. Xiyue Wang was arrested while conducting research for his PhD dissertation at Princeton University on the Qajar dynasty.
Former FBI agent Bob Levinson’s whereabouts have been unknown since he first went missing in Iran over eleven years ago, which would make him the longest-held U.S. hostage. Meanwhile, U.S. resident Nizar Zakka was arrested after being invited to a conference in Tehran by Iranian officials.
Congress cannot allow the plight of U.S. persons to languish in the background. Members of Congress should continue to hold hearings and raise awareness regarding these cases to increase the reputational costs of Iran committing such gross acts of injustice.
Condemn Iran’s Hardliners–But Don’t Play Into Their Hands
The January 2016 prisoner exchange that led to the release of five Americans, including Washington Postjournalist Jason Rezaian, was reflective of moderate and reformist elements of the regime, including President Rouhani, prevailing in internal arguments that cooperation with the U.S. rather than confrontation pays off for Iran.
Condemn the elements behind these detentions inside Iran. Hardline factions, which control the Iranian judiciary, have their own reasons for resisting any thaw in the U.S.-Iran relationship and have been largely responsible for incarceration of foreign nationals.
Call for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif and other officials in Iran’s civil government to hold these elements accountable, while publicly recognizing the split within Iran between these camps.
Push Administration for a New Approach
Well-conceived and tough-minded diplomacy is necessary to lead to progress in the case of imprisoned dual nationals inside Iran. The prisoner exchange under the Obama administration took place after 14-months of secret bilateral talks led by veteran U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk and included negotiations with Iranian intelligence officials.
Reaching a similar approach today requires more, not less engagement with Iran. Demand accountability of the Trump Administration on this issue – including what is the Administration’s strategy for securing the release of these prisoners and advancing American interests and what tangible measures the Administration is undertaking to secure the release of these prisoners.
Any diplomatic effort to secure the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran would have a far greater chance of succeeding if the U.S. upheld its JCPOA obligations and restored regular diplomatic dialogue. While this is unlikely under the current Administration – and must not be allowed to be construed by Iran as a precondition for the release of Americans unjustly detained – Congress should signal that the U.S. will return to the nuclear deal under a new administration in order to boost U.S. credibility.
Washington, D.C. – Last December, NIAC worked with Rep. Jared Huffman and a group of 13 lawmakers who sent a letter to the the State Department regarding the dire humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions on the Iranian people. On February 15, the State Department sent its response to the lawmakers. Rep. Huffman’s letter requested responses on the following questions:
- Is it a deliberate strategy of the Trump administration to starve the Iranian people or deprive them of basic medicines? If not, what substantive steps has the administration taken to ensure the Iranian people have continued access to life-saving medicines?
- Which foreign nations have expressed concern about the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran, and what have they asked the administration to do to ensure the free flow of humanitarian goods to Iran?
- According to a report in The Guardian, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have pushed both the State and Treasury Departments to produce a “white list” that would “give clear guidelines about what channels European banks and companies should follow to conduct legitimate transactions with Iran without fear of future penalties.” Has the State or Treasury Departments acted upon this proposal to establish a white channel to ensure the flow of humanitarian goods? If not, why not?
- What additional measures have been contemplated to ensure the free flow of humanitarian goods to the Iranian people? If these were rejected, why were they rejected?
- Are broader license authorizations or exemptions necessary to ensure the flow of humanitarian goods to Iran? If not, what is the evidence for this assessment?
Unfortunately, the State Department failed to directly address these questions or acknowledge accountability for the humanitarian impacts of sanctions on ordinary Iranians. The response sidestepped any responsibility to uphold U.S. legal obligations to ensure essential goods, like food and medicine, are not blocked by sanctions. Yet, this is not the position of key U.S. allies in Europe, as the Huffman letter articulated.
As French ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud stated in November 2018: “The fact is the banks are so terrified of sanctions that they don’t want to do anything with Iran. It means that in a few months, there is a strong risk that there will be shortage of medicine in Iran if we don’t do something positive.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Negative Effects of Unilateral Coercive Measures has also warned that the administration’s reimposed sanctions “are destroying the economy and currency of Iran, driving millions of people into poverty, and making imported goods unaffordable.” Such concerns have led the European Union and Switzerland to create separate independent financial channels to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran.
The administration’s failure to take these issues to heart is deeply concerning, as it appears to rule out steps that could alleviate the impact of sanctions on the same Iranian citizenry that the administration professes to support.
NIAC greatly appreciates Rep. Huffman and the lawmakers with whom he worked to spotlight this critical issue and for his efforts to hold the administration accountable to its humanitarian obligations. We will continue to work with its allies to shine a light on the impact of broad sanctions on the Iranian people and push the administration on its failure to properly facilitate humanitarian exemptions to U.S. sanctions.
The full text of the State Department’s response is below and Rep. Huffman’s original letter can be read here.
Update (3/1/19): Javid Zarif’s resignation has since been rejected by President Rouhani, keeping him at his post as foreign minister. Read more about Zarif’s resignation saga in this week’s Iran Unfiltered.
Javad Zarif’s pending resignation as Foreign Minister reflects a hardening posture in Iran following the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Rouhani now has to decide whether or not to accept the resignation—and it remains entirely unclear if he will do so. If Zarif reverses his decision in the wake of public outcry over his resignation announcement, which was made on Instagram, he could return with increased legitimacy and decision-making power.
The forthcoming decision on whether or not to accept Zarif’s resignation comes as the Rouhani administration has been warding off hardliners in order to preserve the nuclear deal in negotiations with Europe. As the chief negotiator on the Iranian side, and one of its biggest proponents domestically, Zarif’s resignation would be a boon for radical forces in Tehran who oppose the JCPOA and further engagement with the West. If his resignation materializes, it would further indicate that the political winds in Tehran are favoring domestic hardliners bent on following the Trump administration’s footsteps and leaving the JCPOA. It would also be a major signal that Zarif believes there is little room for a diplomat with his depth of knowledge of the United States and its political system, as there are likely to be no negotiations between the U.S. and Iran until 2021 at the earliest.
Zarif’s resignation also occurs in the midst of a contentious domestic debate over legislation to increase the transparency of Iran’s banking sector and to bring it in line with global standards. However, the bills have been opposed by domestic hardliners affiliated with the IRGC and others who benefit from an opaque banking sector and a sanctions economy. These actors recently threatened to impeach Zarif for linking opponents of the banking reforms to corruption. Zarif’s departure would better enable these elements to keep Iran’s banking system in the dark—ensuring that this key obstacle to Iran’s engagement with the world remains in place for the foreseeable future.
As Foreign Minister, Zarif has defended or deflected many of the most objectionable policies of his government—including the arrests of dual nationals and the country’s backing of the brutal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who visited with Iran’s Supreme Leader and IRGC Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani today. Any review of Zarif’s tenure as Foreign Minister cannot overlook the abuses of the government that he represented.
However, over the past forty years, the U.S. and Iran have had few clear channels for negotiations, and Zarif has long been a major proponent of U.S.-Iran negotiations and deescalation. Trump’s plan to collapse the deal may indeed be aimed at empowering radicals in Iran. Hardliners in the U.S. have long cheered for Iran to be led by radical elements to make engagement difficult and validate calls for sanctions and military action. Should Zarif bow out of Iran’s political theater, Trump and his team may be getting exactly what they wish for.
A new version of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019 (H.R. 1044 — previously known as H.R. 392) has been introduced by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Ken Buck (R-CO) in the House of Representatives and Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) in the Senate.
It is largely identical to past versions in that it will remove the per-country limit on employment-based permanent residency, which would add significant wait time to individuals from smaller countries like Iran, while benefiting individuals from larger countries like India and China. In the 115th Congress, the legislation was added to the House homeland security appropriation before NIAC Action, the Iranian-American community, and Iranian nationals across the country rallied against it. Particularly given the combination of the Muslim Ban and the community’s reliance on single-entry visas, many were strongly concerned that H.R. 392 would have a hugely negative impact on Iranian nationals in the United States.
We continue to have strong concerns about the impacts of this proposal and are committed to ensuring that the visa and green card process is equitable for Iranians and will advocate accordingly. However, our collective advocacy, meetings, and calls so far have helped to secure one significant exception in the language of the new bill. Under the new language, if you have already filed a petition for employment-based permanent residency that has been approved, the bill would no longer add to your wait time.
What this means: If someone’s petition for an EB-1/2/3/4/5 visa is approved prior to Sep. 30, 2019 then they wouldn’t have to wait for the visa any longer than they do currently if the bill passes.
We recognize that while this change may lessen the impact of the bill’s passage on individuals over the near-term, many of our longer-term concerns regarding the bill’s impact on Iranian nationals’ path to a green card remain. Please take a moment to share your thoughts on this change and what impact it will have on you to inform our forthcoming discussions with legislators and their staff.