Translator’s Note: On January 11, 2010, Mehdi Karroubi, one of the two reformist presidential candidates who have challenged the fraudulent June 2009 Iranian election, issued a statement in which he offered five ways for the Islamic Republic to exit the “current extensive crisis.” The next day, Shadi Sadr, feminist attorney and human rights activist, issued a critique which focused on the first point of Karroubi’s five-point plan. Large excerpts of this critique follow. For translations of other statements by Shadi Sadr, please see www.iranianvoicesintranslation.blogspot.com
On the Meaninglessness of Forgiveness: A Critique of Mehdi Karroubi’s Five-Point Plan
Author: Shadi Sadr
Translated by Frieda Afary
January 12, 2010
. . . The call for investigating human rights violations and identifying their agents and perpetrators, which became a focal demand of the new people’s movement after the expose of the murders, tortures and rapes, has been completely ignored in Mousavi’s statement. [Reference to a statement and five-point plan issued by reformist opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Mousavi on January 1, 2010—tr]. Karroubi however, devotes the first point of his five-point plan to this subject.
According to Karroubi, the first solution is for “the oppressors to confess and repent and demand forgiveness from the people.” Employing the language and discourse used by Elm al-Hadi, the Friday Prayer Imam of the city of Mashhad, who calls the leaders of the revolt, “enemies of God,”(1) Karroubi asks those who have been oppressing the people, to repent. He considers repentance by the oppressors to be the first way to restore peace in the country. He writes: “Those who must repent are not the ones who offered martyrs for the realization of their right to vote. Those who must repent are the perpetrators of the acts of cruelty committed on Ashura Day and the events after the election [Ashura is a Shi’a day of mourning which was turned into a massive anti-government protest on December 27, 2009–tr]. Those who must repent are the ones who have put our country’s wealth up for auction, used other people’s money to give generous donations, and left the people in a state of poverty. Those who must repent are the ones who endorsed incompetent people, rejected competent individuals, deprived people of the right to choose, issued permits to change the votes of the people, and answered their protest with bullets. Those who must repent are the ones who deprived university students of an education and placed uneducated people in positions of authority. Repentance by the oppressors is the first way to restore peace in the country and console those who have lost loved ones. The people of Iran are not too demanding. They can forgive those who repent and confess to their crimes. However, they will not forget their oppressive acts. No one is interested in taking revenge. Revenge is not a remedy for the acts of cruelty already committed” (2).
Although Karroubi addresses the issue of “acts of cruelty” committed against the people, his analysis and especially the solution he offers, demand serious criticism . I will try to address some of these issues below:
1. Mr. Karroubi must certainly know better than I do, that “repentance” is a religious act which concerns the human being’s relationship to God. The “servant [of God—tr]” returns remorsefully to his God (3). Those who oppress the people however, must above all be answerable to the people who have been oppressed by them. Furthermore, suppose some oppressors confess to the fact that they have beaten innumerable victims, or tortured five people directly, or were involved in the murder of someone, or witnessed or ordered or committed rape. Now after committing all these acts which by any legal definition constitute crimes, they have repented and expect the people to forgive them.
First, what guarantee is there that the act of repentance has been thorough and exact? Secondly, what guarantee is there that the repentant individual will not break his/her vow? More importantly, what difference is there between forgiveness or lack of forgiveness when the lack of independent mechanisms for enforcing justice, allows all oppressive institutions or agents and perpetrators of human right violations, to continue to stay in power and remain in the position of not needing forgiveness or not having any concern about the lack of forgiveness on behalf of the victims. Forgiveness only means something when lack of forgiveness has meaning. In the absence of guarantees for enforcement, we can call repentance and forgiveness meaningless.
Another question remains: How can Mr. Karroubi be so sure that “the people of Iran” will forgive the repentant ones who have confessed to their crimes? Has he interviewed each and every one of the victims of brutality, torture, imprisonment and rape, and the relatives of those murdered in the streets and prisons? Is his general rule, backed by a comprehensive judicial investigation? Or is it simply that a “guardian jurisprudent” uses his political position as the owner of his “peasants” lives, property and honor, to represent the people’s demands without having asked them about their demands.
For example, would Neda Agha- Soltan’s mother or Sohrab Aarabi’s mother , forgive the agents and perpetrators of the crimes of their children, if they simply confess and repent? [ Neda Agha-Soltan who has become a symbol of the Iranian democratic opposition movement is known to most readers as a young female philosophy student who was shot dead by government forces at a mass protest following the fraudulent June 2009 election. Sohrab Aarabi was a young male student activist who was also killed by government forces in June 2009—tr.] If the mothers are willing to forgive, is the confession and repentance of the rapists whose names and faces are not known by their victims, an adequate permit for the rapists to walk safely and freely in the same streets that they have made unsafe for many others?
2. In the introduction to this statement, Karroubi writes: “Anyone who has dishonored Ashura is to be condemned. Clearly, those who commit such a crime should be investigated by a competent court. The offenders must be punished in accordance with the country’s laws.” However, Mr. Karroubi who believes in putting the violators of Ashura on trial, writes the following when it comes to those who have been victims of oppression: “No one is interested in revenge, and revenge will not remedy previous crimes committed against the people.” Just like that, he substitutes “revenge”– a tribal method for restoring justice– for punishment, a modern institution accepted by all human rights based systems. He does not even recognize the right of the victims to justice within the framework of the existing laws.
The following question arises: Does Mr. Karroubi distinguish between someone who hits or injures someone else in a brawl, and someone who injures a number of people at a demonstration? Is there a difference between a criminal who kills his creditor with a knife, and an oppressor who shoots demonstrators? If both of these actions are legally considered “assault” and “murder,” then why is it that members of the first group, i.e. common criminals, receive prison sentences and punishments in kind or the obligation to pay blood money, but oppressors do not? Enforcing punishment which is considered praiseworthy when applied to common criminals, turns into revenge which is considered abominable when applied to the oppressors In my opinion, there is a fundamental difference between these two groups of criminals. The first group consist of common people who have common motivations and often commit crimes accidentally or out of desperation. However they are judged and punished ruthlessly and without any sympathy. The second group consist of professional criminals who consciously and systematically violate basic human rights, and receive political, economic and social benefits as a result. Precisely for this reason, they should be more heavily punished than the first group.
Labeling the demand for the enforcement of justice, as “revenge seeking” or “extremism” constitutes a type of false reasoning that will have dangerous consequences. These consequences were not taken seriously when Taghi Rahmani, a nationalist-religious political activist published a note to the Mournful Mothers (4). [Reference to a group of mothers of opposition activists and political prisoners who have been holding weekly vigils at a park in Tehran. For more information in English, see http://mothersoflaleh.blogspot.com/ –tr.] The mothers had demanded “punishment for the perpetrators and agents of the murder and torture of their children.” . . . By equating the demand for justice and just trials, with brutality, Rahmani suppresses that demand and calls on the Mournful Mothers to “compromise” in order to end the violence. Now, once again, the suppression of this popular demand manifests itself in writing in Karroubi’s statement.
3. When many political and civil rights activists such as Karroubi and Taghi Rahmani, refer to revenge and the continuation of brutality, they seem to have in mind, the existing criminal justice system which is based on punishment in kind, i.e. a life for a life and an eye for an eye. This system is rooted in individual or tribal revenge-seeking. Based on this definition, the demand for justice, trials and punishment for the agents and perpetrators of human rights violations, is defined within the framework of the existing system which consists of execution, torture and amputation of body parts. Based on this inverted definition, the demand for justice leads to more crime, torture and brutality, and therefore, is to be condemned.
However, a look at similar experiences in other countries reveals that responding to continuous and systematic human rights violations, by establishing a justice-seeking process, is a pre-requisite for the realization of democracy and the only guarantee for stopping the cycle of violence. The following are all processes that have been tested and can lead a society to peace and non-violence: a social discourse concerning justice-seeking; the formation of truth-finding commissions to gain collective awareness of the reality of murder, rape and torture, and its effects on victims, their family and society; the establishment of open and public courts with objective standards for judgment.
Without these processes, “compromise,” “pardon” and “reconciliation” will only mean “covering over” and “obfuscation.” Even worse, this type of forgiveness or pardon, will never lead to reconciliation, because the oppressors will feel confident that they will be immune from search and punishment, regardless of the degree to which they violate the rights of the people and continue committing acts of brutality.
South Africa is one of the best and most vibrant examples of a national reconciliation process . . .Although we have not had this grand experience, we have learned from other nations. The responsibility of civil society activists is to learn from the successful experiences as well as defeats of other countries, in order to not let made-up interpretations of non-violence, render the people’s movement sterile. On the contrary, all of us have to do our best to prepare society for the following: Hearing the truth, however bitter; reconstructing collective-historic memory, however difficult; traversing the process of guaranteeing the prevention of systematic human rights abuses, however long. More than anything, we need to look at the mirror on a daily basis and stare ourselves in the eye and say: The demand for compromise and pardon from a mother who does not know where her child is buried or how she/he was killed, is in reality another act of suppression. Let us not forget that suppression and brutality are not only defined by truncheons that hurt the body.
3. Alameh Tabataba’i Al-Mizan fi tafsiri’l-Qur’an. Volume 4, p. 379.