Denigration of Ali Panah hides real issue of justice

Green Party Immigration Spokesperson Keith Locke says he is quite happy to take up Immigration Minister David Cunliffe’s challenge for Ali Panah’s supporters to tell the true story about his case.

“Mr Cunliffe knows there is only one relevant issue of credibility in the case, and that is whether Mr Panah really is a dedicated practising Christian at risk of persecution in Iran for his beliefs,” Mr Locke says. .

“On that crucial question there is no doubt at all. Everybody that has been with him over the past five years — friends, workmates and fellow parishioners – can testify to his intense religious commitment. It can also be shown that converts from Islam to Christianity are in danger of persecution in Iran.

“There has clearly been deterioration in this respect since the Refugee Status Appeals Authority determinations in 2004 and 2005, and since the election of President Ahmadinejad in June 2005 led the Iranian government to intensify its campaign against non-Muslim religious minorities.

“We reject Mr Cunliffe’s diversionary tactics of hinting indirectly at matters of personal credibility in Mr Panah’s refugee status appeals process. Mr Cunliffe knows such matters cannot – and should not — be litigated through the media, since the hearings are conducted in secret. We have access only to anonymised texts of Refugee Status Appeals Authority determinations from 2004 and 2005 that the media is guessing to be Mr Panah’s case, based on clues released into the public domain.

“In any case, these matters are clearly irrelevant to a current assessment of Mr Panah’s Christianity — all the evidence for which is also in the public domain, or to the risks that he currently faces within the Iran of 2007.

“The UN Refugee Convention places the onus on the Government to protect refugee claimants who have a well founded fear of persecution in their home country for reasons of religion. On August 15, the Catholic News Agency reported that a man had been lashed 34 times amid ‘other humiliations’ in Teheran, after a copy of the Gospel was found in his car. In May 2007, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in its annual report to Congress that ‘Christians in Iran continue to be subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance and imprisonment,’ and recommended to Congress that Iran should be listed as one of only eleven ‘countries of particular concern’ for its ‘systematic and egregegious violations’ of the right to freedom of religion.

“All that Mr Cunliffe has offered is that UNHCR has not so far listed Iran as a country to which deportees in general cannot be safely returned. This is not the relevant test. If Mr Cunliffe wishes to make this an issue of credibility, I challenge him to state categorically — yes or no — whether Christian converts in Iran are currently at risk of persecution on account of their beliefs,” Mr Locke says.