“Just as every country honors its unknown fallen soldiers, we should honor those who died in solitude and pain for upholding universal principles of human rights.”
In this Christmas season, I want to pay tribute to two unsung heroes who stood up to repressive regimes – and paid with their lives.
One was Iranian, one Russian, and I doubt you’ve heard of either. Yet they represent many other lonely heroes around the globe who have held on to their values in the face of government repression, even though they knew it might cost them their freedom – or their very existence. Just as every country honors its unknown fallen soldiers, we should honor those who died in solitude and pain for upholding universal principles of human rights.
One such hero was Ramin Pourandarjani, a 26-year-old doctor who was working at Iran’s infamous Kahrizak detention facility as part of his military service. Kahrizak held many of the 4,000 demonstrators arrested for protesting Iran’s rigged June presidential elections. The prison became so notorious for beatings, torture, rapes, and killings of detainees that the regime had to close it, while continuing to deny the crimes that were committed there.
Those who spoke out about the torture at Kahrizak were themselves threatened. The truth embarrassed an Iranian regime whose leaders present themselves as arbiters of global “justice.”
Pourandarjani had seen the badly beaten son of a prominent conservative political figure, and, when the youth died, was forced to list the cause of death as “meningitis.” The young doctor chose to expose the situation by speaking about what he’d seen to an Iranian parliamentary committee. But he rightly feared for his safety.
When the doctor’s body was found on Nov. 10 at Kahrizak, Iranian officials first claimed that he’d been in a car crash, then said he’d had a heart attack, and then insisted he’d killed himself. Now there are reports that he was poisoned.
Pourandarjani knew that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had turned the country into a virtual military state and were killing those who opposed their behavior. Yet he bore witness to the horrors he’d seen.
Another such hero was a 37-year-old Russian tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. He’d been in prison for nearly a year before he died, awaiting trial on trumped-up tax-evasion charges. His real offense, it appears, was helping to uncover evidence that implicated Interior Ministry officials in the embezzlement of more than $230 million from the state.
When Magnitsky became deathly ill and was in excruciating pain, prison officials denied him treatment and kept making conditions worse for him in an effort to force him to incriminate a client. In the weeks before his death, Magnitsky kept pages of meticulous notes about hellish prison conditions. But he never gave in to his jailers’ demands.
After Magnitsky’s death, his notes reached the Russian media and caused a stir – perhaps because they provided evidence that the practices of the Soviet gulag continue. But this young lawyer died alone and in pain, as have many murdered Russian journalists and human-rights workers whose killers remain uncaught by an indifferent or complicit government. Magnitsky, like the others, died for doing work he believed in.
Pourandarjani and Magnitsky belong to a long line of individuals who struggle for justice privately and against great odds in countries such as Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and North Korea, and in much of the Middle East.
In his Nobel Prize speech, President Obama – who has sometimes seemed conflicted about espousing human rights – made an important point: “For some countries,” he said, “the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation’s development.” Obama rejected that distinction as false.
The president cited “aspirations that are universal,” such as the right to speak freely, worship as one pleases, assemble without fear, and choose one’s own leaders. I would add to that the human right that Pourandarjani and Magnitsky died for: the right to speak out against injustices perpetrated by unjust rulers. This is a universal right that cuts across cultures and religions, and it is recognized within Iran and Russia(even if their governments deny it). That is why these two men are heroes for us all.
*John Donne, Meditation 17