Nelson Mandela's long walk for freedom appears to have come to a halt at the gates of the Islamic Republic's courts. In response to intense international concern about the trial of 13 Iranian Jews and eight Muslims on charges of espionage for Israel, Mandela expressed his satisfaction with assurances from Iranian leaders that their trial would be "free and fair."
On May 1, the first day of the trial, the former South African president issued the following statement: " The trial is a purely domestic affair in which citizens of the Islamic Republic are being tried. Foreigner should avoid any action that may be regarded rightly or wrongly as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state." During the recent visit of the Iranian minister of science and technology to Pretoria, Mandela added: " I told those who criticized the reial fo the spy suspects in Iran that your have not been to Iran. I have not been to Iran, and your criticism has no foundation."
Mandela, one of the most distinguished human rights advocates of the 20th century, is advancing a conception of justice that cuts against the grain of his own thoughts in the struggle against apartheid. Speaking in his own defense at Pretoria's Old Synagogue in October 1962, Mandela challenged the legal authority of the South African judiciary by subjecting the discriminatory racial policies of the South African state to an alternative conception of justice.
As recounted in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," he asked the court: " Why is it that in this courtroom I am facing a white magistrate, congronted by a white prosecutor, and escorted by white orderlies? I will tell Your Worship why: The real purpose of this rigid color bar is to ensure that the justice dispensed by the courts should conform to the policy of the country, however much that policy may be in conflict with the norms of justice accepted in judiciares throughout the civilized world."
Mandela explained how as a lawyer he had chosen to accommodate his conscience rather than comply with the law: "Our consciences dictate that we must protest against it, that we must oppose it, and that we must attempt to alter it .... Men, I think, are not capable of doing nothing, of saying nothing, of not reacting to injustice, of not protesting against oppression, of not striving for the good society and the good life in the ways they see it."
Iran is not South Africa. However, Madela cannot expect to waive the legitimacy of unjust laws by appealing to consience and international standards of justice in his own legal defense only to deny that same right to Iranians. Ot os a grave error of judgment for a statesman of Mandela's standing to assume that the trial of 13 Iranian Jews takes place in a legal, moral, and political vacuum. Their trial sheds light on the constitutional ordeal of millions of Iranians and exposes the atrocious human rights violations of the Islamic Republic. Over the past 20 years, the Iranian judiciary has served as the official organ of a modern inquisition. Revolutionary judges have sentenced thousands of political prisoners to death in trials that have been neither free nor fair. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a prejudicial legal order whose discriminatory and inhumane practices toward the Iranian people, particularly its assumptions about the inferior status of women, minorities, and dissidents, are comparable to the policies of apartheid.
Mandela cannot, in good conscience, dismiss the Islamic Republic's systematic persecution of religious minorities such as the Baha'i and Sunni Muslims. He cannot claim that the secret trials, forced confessions, and torture of pro-democracy students do not concern him. He cannot claim he is unaware of the arrest of reformist clerics, journalists, publishers, and editors, unaware of the imprisonment of Akbar Ganki, the investigative journalist responsible for exposing the state's role in the serial killing of political dissidents. And he cannot hear about the arrest of Mehrangiz Kar, a leading women's rights activist, and fail the make the connection between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on gender. Against this judicial background, it is hard to understand how Mandela can issue a statement expressing his satisfaction with the political reassurances of Iranian leaders about the trial of Iranina Jews. Harder still to understand how one of the moral beacons of the 20th century can permit the wardens of Iran's Evil Prison to hide their criminal history behind the shield of his moral authority.
Foreigners could have accepted the assurances of South African leaders about the free and fair nature of Mandela's trial in the Old Synagogue. They could have accepted the legitimacy of apartheid by accepting the political labels and criminal charges brought against Mandela and others. Instead of striving for the good society and good life as they saw it, they could have avoided any action that - rightly or wrongly - could have been perceived by the white authorities as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. They could have done nothing and said nothing before the oppression and injustice of the South African state. And they could do the same in the case of the Islamic Republic's judicial violations of Iranian citizens. But such foreigners would fall short of Mandela's definition of man.
Distilling the lessons of his long years as a political prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela wrote, " There is nothing so encouraging in prison as learning that people outside are supporting the cause for which you are inside." And for Iranian prisoners of conscience, there is nothing more discouraging than learning that Nelson Mandela is not with them. Inside or outside Africa, wherever, whenever, and however there is discrimination and injustice, people will look for Mandela's guidance and leadership - the Mandela magic.
The long walk to freedom is not about standing firm; it is about taking the next step.
-Amir Soltani Sheikholeslami
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