Blacklisted Iranian Official Stirs Outrage, Draws Protests at U.N. Human Rights Council

Demonstrators gathered outside the UN in Geneva and some diplomats left in protest over an address given by Iran’s justice minister, who has been sanctioned by the EU over human rights violations, RFERL reports. Alireza Avayi took the podium at the United Nations Human Rights Council late on February 27, slamming what he called “appalling deficiencies” at the UN and accusing Western powers of “exploiting human rights for their political ends.”

His presence spurred a protest outside the gates of the UN’s European headquarters, with between 100 and 150 protesters waving flags used by exiled Iranian opposition groups and signs reading “Arrest Avayi.” Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, and a handful of European diplomats left the council chamber in protest.

The demonstration featured a large pyramid of shoes meant to represent the thousands killed in a 1988 massacre of political prisoners allegedly overseen by Avayi. Avayi is perhaps the most controversial of the around 100 dignitaries addressing the opening of the rights council’s annual session this week.

Brussels has slapped sanctions on him, maintaining that as Tehran’s former top prosecutor, he was “responsible for human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, denials of prisoners’ rights. and an increase in executions.” According to exiled members of the Iranian opposition, he played a key role in a 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Amnesty International has said nearly 5,000 prisoners were executed in a matter of months, while Iranian opposition groups put the figure closer to 30,000.

Before Avayi took the floor, a handful of diplomats left the room to protest his presence. When approached by journalists after his speech and asked about the criticism, Avayi walked by without responding.

Earlier this week, Washington’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, slammed the rights council for allowing him to participate and accused Avayi of “some of the worst human rights violations in Iran.”

“The council should be ashamed. Yet again, the council discredits itself by allowing serial human rights abusers to hijack its work and make a mockery of its mandate to promote universal human rights. This does nothing but reinforce the United States’ call for much needed reforms at the council for it to be viewed as a good investment of our time and money,” Haley said.

The U.S. delegation to the council said Avayi “oversaw the summary executions of Iranians” in the late 1980s while today, he presides over “arbitrary” arrests and imprisonment “in a network of facilities notorious for suspicious deaths, the use of torture, and denial of medical care.”

On February 26, a Swiss lawyer filed a complaint on behalf of the National Council of Resistance of Iran asking the Swiss attorney general to prosecute Avayi for crimes against humanity. The attorney general’s office did not say whether it would press charges.

European Union sanctions bar Avayi from traveling to the EU and freeze any assets he might hold in the bloc. Swiss authorities have also imposed sanctions on Avayi, but they are financial and do not prevent him from visiting the country.  Avayi is not on the UN Security Council’s sanctions list.

Outside the U.N.’s Geneva headquarters, around 100 protestors rallied against his appearance. The NCRI said they included relatives of victims of the 1988 mass killings and representatives of human rights and anti-death penalty groups.  Photos of some of those killed in 1988 were exhibited.

“Avaei should stand trial before international criminal court for his role in massacre of political prisoners in Iran in 1988,” read one banner, while another said, “Avaei must be expelled from U.N. Human Rights Council for crimes against humanity.”

A coalition of 15 human rights groups, Impact Iran, called Iran’s decision to send Avaei as its representative “an insult to the memory of the victims of his expeditious and deadly trials, as well as the human rights defenders risking life and liberty to document violations of fundamental rights in the country.”

“By choosing a major violator as Iran’s voice on human rights, Iran is also making a mockery of the Human Rights Council and showing contempt for the U.N. human rights system as a whole,” it said.