Iran, member of top U.N. women's rights body, cracks down as women demand rights

The unrest comes amid outcry for allowing Iran's president to enter the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

Updated: September 21, 2022 - 11:17pm

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday while his government back home was waging a violent crackdown on women protesting mandatory Islamic head coverings.

Just six months earlier, Iran became the newest member of the U.N.'s top women's rights body.

In March, Iran began a four-year term on the Commission on the Status of Women, the "principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women."

Iran was officially elected to the body last year by the U.N.'s 54-nation Economic and Social Council, which included several Western democracies.

The vote came just weeks after the U.N. reported that the Iranian regime "violates and undermines women's dignity and fundamental human rights, including the right to equality and non-discrimination." The same report detailed how "the legal age for a girl to marry in the Islamic Republic of Iran is 13 years, with even younger girls allowed to marry with paternal and judicial consent.

Iran also "effectively devalues the worth of a woman's life to half that of a man, and consequently makes women more vulnerable to crime," according to the U.N. report.

Six months after Iran began its term, a young woman died in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police, who had allegedly detained her for wearing a hijab, an Islamic head covering that's mandatory for women in Iran, in an "improper" way.

Mahsa Amini, 22, was beaten while in detention and died in a coma last week after suffering repeated blows to her head, according to activists, witnesses, human rights organizations, and other sources.

Iranian officials have denied these allegations and announced an investigation, with police describing the death as "unfortunate."

However, such denials haven't stopped Iranians from pouring into the streets since Amini's death to denounce their government and demand greater freedoms, often calling for regime change and the death of both Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Iranian women have been leading the demonstrations, publicly burning their hijabs in a striking display of defiance that's galvanizing mass anti-government protests nationwide.

In response, security forces have attempted — so far unsuccessfully — to quell the unrest, resulting in at least hundreds of injuries and arrests and at least eight known deaths as of this writing.

Iranian authorities have also imposed a partial internet blackout and restricted use of WhatsApp and Instagram.

Raisi didn't address Amini or the demonstrations during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. However, he pointed to the deaths of indigenous women in Canada as well as Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories and ISIS' "savagery" against women from minority groups to argue a "double standard" exists against Iran when it comes to human rights.

"So long as we have this double standard, where attention is solely focused on one side and not all equally, we will not have true justice and fairness," Raisi said.

President Biden spoke to the U.N. shortly after Raisi and expressed support for the Iranian protesters.

"Today we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights," Biden said.

Despite those comments, however, Biden has come under intense scrutiny for allowing Raisi to enter the U.S. in the first place given his own personal human rights record.

As Raisi spoke on Wednesday, thousands of people gathered outside the U.N. to call for the prosecution of Raisi for crimes against humanity.

"Today, we have at the United Nations this morning an outrage that this terrorist, this killer, is speaking to an organization founded to protect the rule of law, to mediate conflict, to provide peace in the world," former Sen. Joe Lieberman said at the gathering. "[Raisi] is the absolute opposite of that.

"We asked the [Biden] administration to deny [Raisi] a visa, but they didn't. And when he arrived at the airport here in New York, he was greeted by a United States Secret Service detail to protect him. The police should have greeted him, arrested him, and taken him to The Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity and genocide. That's where he belongs."

Leading up to the U.N. gathering, the Biden administration came under intense, bipartisan pressure from lawmakers, activists, former U.S. officials, and others to deny Raisi an entry visa to come to New York for the General Assembly for his role in human rights violations.

Raisi served as deputy prosecutor of Tehran, the Iranian capital, from 1985 to 1988, when he played a central role in the execution of tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were members of the exiled People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), an Iranian opposition group.

In the summer of 1988, then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the secret executions, and Raisi was part of a so-called "death committee" that carried out and oversaw several of the killings.

The U.S. government, the United Nations, and human rights organizations have documented and condemned Iran for the 1988 atrocities, including Raisi's role.

Raisi said the accusations against him come from the MEK, which seeks regime change in Iran, but didn't deny that mass executions took place when asked whether he regretted his role on the death commission during an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" that aired this week.

"They were assassinating people, and what happened to them was exactly proportionate to what they did," said Raisi, calling those who were targeted "terrorists."

Raisi was also asked about his alleged involvement in the 1988 mass killings at a news conference in June 2021.

"If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised," he said. "I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far."

Last month, Iranian dissidents filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Raisi for the torture, murder, and disappearance of political prisoners in Tehran and Karaj, Iran in 1988.

This week, 13 more plaintiffs joined the suit.

Despite the outcry, however, the Biden administration didn't ban Raisi from entering the U.S.

Some critics have suggested Biden didn't want to anger Iran and risk ongoing efforts to strike a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The administration has said it's "obligated" to allow Raisi into the country.

"As host nation of the U.N., the United States is generally obligated under the U.N. Headquarters Agreement to facilitate travel to the U.N. headquarters district by representatives of U.N. member states," a State Department spokesman told the Washington Free Beacon. "We take our obligations under the U.N. Headquarters Agreement seriously."

Raisi's speech comes amid a wave of attempted assassinations against American citizens on U.S. soil allegedly planned by the Iranian government.

"These are Americans whose lives were threatened by Iranian thugs on American soil," said Lieberman. "Not so long ago, that would have been cause for war by the United States. But what did our government do? Issued a statement, didn't use the power of our government, didn't decide that there was cause to stand up and leave the [ongoing nuclear] negotiations."

Iran has denied involvement in attempts to harm or kill those allegedly targeted, including former U.S. officials.

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