About Zahir Janmohamed

Prior to Amnesty International, he worked for the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy where he organized conferences in Nigeria and Sudan on the democratization process. In 2002, he was an eye-witness to the communal violence in Gujarat, India that left thousands of Muslims dead. He has since spoken at over 25 universities and his articles have been published in over 30 publications. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Outlook India, and he currently serves as associate editor for the progressive online publication, altmuslim. Last year, he was invited to give a lecture at the prestigious Festival of Books in Guadalajara, Mexico, the largest book fair in all of Latin America.
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Film makers, Actors, and Activists Protest Toronto Film Fest For Tel Aviv Spotlight

The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has received a lot of attention this week after over 50 film makers, actors, academics, and activists signed and released a statement called the “Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation”. The 2009 festival chose to highlight Tel Aviv with 10 films by local filmmakers for its City to City Program and this prompted the protests because the individuals felt that “TIFF, whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.” The Jerusalem Post reported that some of the various individuals who signed the statement include American Actors Jane Fonda and Danny Glover, musician David Byrne, film-maker Ken Loach, and authors Naomi Klein and Howard Zinn.

American Actor Danny Glover

The open letter to the TIFF highlighted several reasons for the withdrawal from the festival. One reason was because that the festival was celebrating Tel Aviv as a city of diversity while Palestinian film-makers were absent from the program. Furthermore, the history of the city, which includes the struggles of Palestinian people is excluded and is also indirectly being celebrated through this spotlight.

“The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada.”

The letter also included another dimension of critcism against Israel by drawing parallels between Apartheid South Africa and Israel at times.

“Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.”

“However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.”

The protest began originally with film-maker John Greyson from Canada who withdrew his documentary “Covered”, which is about the violence in Bosnia-Herzengovina that shut down the 2008 Sarajevo Queer Festival, the Washington Times reported. In a later email Greyson added that,

“We’re not protesting the Israeli films or the filmmakers our target is TIFF’s Spotlight on Tel Aviv itself, and specifically its connections to the ‘Brand Israel’ campaign and the Israeli Consulate, which make the spotlight look and feel like a propaganda exercise. As filmmakers and audiences, we’re telling TIFF that eight months since the Gaza massacre, this is no time to be uncritically ‘celebrating’ Tel Aviv”

Critics of the protest have also spoken out in favor of the festival and Israel. Rabbi Marvin Hier was critical of those who signed the letter and was reported by TMZ as saying that “Whoever would sign on to a campaign like this would support the complete destruction of Israel.” Jane Fonda replied to the accusations with a statement issued saying,

“I, in no way, support the destruction of Israel. I am for the two-state solution. I have been to Israel many times and love the country and its people.”

The director of the TIFF, Richard Moore also spoke out and called this protest an effort to censor the films and the festival saying that, “Loach’s demands were beyond the pale. As a supporter of independent film and filmmaking he should be ashamed of himself.”

Even amidst criticism, Loach, O’Brien, and Laverty and many others have defended their decision to withdraw from the festival and encouraged others to take part in the greater international Boycott and Divestment Campaign any way that they could.

“On this site last week, Neve Gordon, a Jewish political professor teaching in an Israeli university argued: “The most accurate way to describe Israel today is an apartheid state.” As a result he too is supporting the international campaign of divestment and boycott. We feel duty bound to take advice from those living at the sharp end inside the occupied territories. We would also encourage other film-makers and actors invited to festivals to check for Israeli state backing before attending, and if so, to respect the boycott. Israeli film-makers are not the target. State involvement is. In the grand scale of things it is a tiny contribution to a growing movement, but the example of South Africa should give us heart.”

Amnesty International has taken no position on cultural or other boycotts anywhere in the world, though it does advocate sanctions in certain circumstances, as when it calls for embargoes on arms supplies to states or other parties in a conflict where such could be used to attack civilians. Earlier this year AI called for an arms embargo against both Israel and armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, in light of evidence of war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law during the December 2008-January 2009 conflict in Gaza.

Sana Javed contributed to this post.

UPDATE: I just changed the title of the blog post to reflect that the film makers, actors, and activists are in fact protesting the TFF and not boycotting. My apologies for the error.

Shia Muslims Still Face Inequality in Saudi Arabia

A new report by Human Rights Watch, entitled “Denied Dignity”, outlines how Shia Muslims of Saudi Arabia struggle against “systematic discrimination”.  The Shia community, which comprises about 10% to 15% of the Saudi population, faces “unfavourable treatment” in areas including religion, education, employment, and the justice system.

A recent Human Rights Watch report highlights an incident this past February where Shia Muslims clashed with religious police in the holy city of Medina. The report found that at this incident, “Security forces shot a 15-year-old pilgrim in the chest, and an unknown civilian stabbed a Shia religious sheikh in the back with a knife, shouting ‘Kill the rejectionist [Shia].’ This led to a number of demonstrations in the Eastern Province and to many protestors also being arrested.  Additionally, the report mentions how communal Shia prayer halls in the city of Khobar were closed in July of 2008 and how in 2009 many Shia religious and community leaders were arrested.

In the report’s press release, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said:

 All the Saudi Shia want is for their government to respect their identity and treat them equally. Yet Saudi authorities routinely treat these people with scorn and suspicion. 

While Human Rights Watch recognized some efforts toward religious tolerance made by King Abdullah the monarch of Saudi Arabia, they stated that “the discrimination by state institutions has not ended” and that domestically no progress has been made towards promoting or implementing religious tolerance. In the same press release Human Rights Watch also demanded that a commission be established for the equal sharing of holy places by all Muslims especially in the holy cities of Mekka and Medina.

The BBC and both Human Rights Watch cite religious differences to be main source of the tension and subsequent inequality between the religious groups.

At the end of the press release, Whitson called on the Saudi government to change its ways and honor the vows for religious tolerance that King Abdullah made in his speeches in Madrid and New York in 2008,

The Saudi government has long regarded its Shia citizens through the prism of Wahhabi dogma or state stability, branding them as unbelievers or suspecting their national loyalties. It is time for a new approach that treats Shia as citizens with equal rights.

Sana Javed contributed to this post.

15-Year-Old Palestinian Turns To ICC For Justice

After witnessing the deaths of her father Fathi, her sister Ismat, and her brother Ala on January 14, Amira Alqerem has turned to the (ICC) seven months later in hopes of justice for her family. Her family was attacked in Gaza during which lasted 22 days this past January and resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 Palestinians and three Israelis.

The AFP reported on Alqerem’s court filing:

“The three children were awoken by an explosion to find their father’s body, covered in blood, next to a crater near their house, the document claims. Ismat and Ala went off to seek help, but were killed in another explosion. Amira, who had stayed behind with her dead father, was hit in the right leg.”

Gilles Devers, an international lawyer from Lyon, is currently representing Alqerem. He believes the Israeli attacks were aimed at citizens and recently said, “This was a crime against humanity, that is why we brought it to the ICC.” He also reaffirmed the need for accountability, adding that “Israeli politicians and military leaders must be held responsible.”

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC Prosecutor, began a preliminary analysis in February of the alleged crimes committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead. He has received many claims similar to that of Amira Alqerem and to date, has received complaints from over 360 individuals in addition to evidence of wrong-doing from other non-governmental bodies, the Palestinian Justice Minister Ali Kashan, and the Palestinian National Authority all pertaining to this most recent Israeli offensive.

Through her interpreter, Alqerem noted that she was doing this “for all the children of Gaza” and that “I want to do something to change the situation.”

Sana Javed contributed to this post.

Shocking Video Footage from Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government is facing renewed calls for an investigation into human rights abuses after a graphic video was released showing extra-judicial killings.

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, which obtained the material, said this video was filmed in January – when the international media were prevented by the Sri Lankan government from covering the conflict zone.

The video shows a uniformed soldier shooting a naked man in the head. Eight dead bodies can be seen in the video as well.

Although Amnesty International is not able to verify the footage on this video, it raises important questions about violations committed during the recent conflict.

And the reaction to the video underscores the precarious situation in Sri Lanka, where tensions remain high.  In response to the video, the International Secretariat of Amnesty International repeated its call for “an international, independent and credible investigation into what took place during the final days of the conflict.”

The Sri Lankan governmnet has decried the video as “absolutely false”, suggesting that those who put forth the video of supporters of the LTTE.

What remains to be seen is if the video is used–by all parties–to further divisions or to create an important discussion about the violations during the recent conflict.

WARNING: The footage is very graphic.

Heavy Criticism Emerges after Jerusalem Evictions

Yesterday, approximately 55 Arabs, including 14 children, were evicted from their houses in east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jewish families that claimed ownerships of the property. Soon after the evictions, these families moved in under the protection of Jerusalem police.


However, the US, UN, and UK have all come out strongly against these evictions. “Unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community,” the State Department said in a released statement. Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. agency in charge of Palestinian refugees, said that the Arab families had been living there for more than 50 years.

Evictions, settlements, and the greater question of Jerusalem remain among the most contentious obstacles to a sustainable peace. Actions such as this are contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions related to occupied territory.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Iranian American Entertainers Speaking Out

Many Iranian Americans have turned to the arts as a means of critiquing the status quo both in Iran and the US. Among them is Maz Jobrani, an Iranian American  comedian and a part of the “Axis of Evil” comedy troupe. He has been touring with the troupe since 2005; his routine surrounding Iran, racial profiling, and being Muslim in America. His act is so popular that he has appeared on shows ranging from the Colbert Report to The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Last week, Jobrani also voiced his support for upholding human rights in Iran and urged his viewers to attend the Global Day of Action for Iran. “Over the last few weeks, we have watched elements within the Iranian regime react with brutality to people who seek to have a voice in their own government,” he said. “Many have been imprisoned and tortured. Some stand to be executed. We cannot simply stand by.”

Nazanin Boniadi is an Iranian born actress who has appeared on the soap opera General Hospital as well as the films Charlie Wilson’s War and Iron Man. When she’s not on set, Boniadi works alongside Amnesty International as an official spokesperson for disenfranchised populations across the world. She has been increasingly involved with Iranian youth and women, bringing attention to many of their unjust convictions and treatments in detainment. Last year, Boniadi wrote a heartfelt entry on Amnesty’s blog about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A bit from Jobrani’s stand-up routine:


Jobrani’s message of support for the Global Day of Action for Iran:


Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Update: Iran Releases 140 Prisoners

The Iranian authorities have announced they have released 140 prisoners from Evin Prison in northern Tehran, reports Reuters. Parliament official Kazem Jalali says that 150 prisoners, arrested during the uprising after the June 12th Presidential election, still remain behind bars.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also ordered the closure of a detainment center in Kahrizak after it failed to “preserve the rights of detainees”. Whether the prisoners in that prison were released or transferred elsewhere remains to be seen.

Lecture on Human Rights in Iran this Wednesday

As conditions in Iran continue to look bleak, many people are wondering what the rest of the world can do next. To address these and other concerns, Amnesty International will be hosting an lecture on the human rights situation in Iran and how the international community should respond tomorrow, (Wednesday) July 29th.

Speakers will include:

Payam Akhavan: Co-founder, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center & Professor of Law, McGill University and former UN prosecutor

Ahmed Batebi: Founder and spokes person, Human Rights Activists in Iran & former student activist in Iran

Mehrangiz Kar: Distinguished Human Rights Lawyer & Activist

The lecture will be taking place at 600 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, on the 5th floor. Due to space limitations, please RSVP to [email protected] or call (202) 675-8755.

Iran Global Day of Action a Resounding Success

Protests in more than 80 countries, with numbers ranging from a couple hundred to several thousand, took to the streets on Saturday to stand in solidarity with the Iranian people against the government’s brutal crackdown this summer. Among the 1,000 people in Amsterdam was Iran’s Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi who led the crowd in chanting: “We want to live in peace. Long live peace”.

The event will hopefully force the Iranian authorities to display greater transparency regarding election results and provide those imprisoned with their human rights.

“Our message is very simple,” [Aaron Rhodes, an event organizer] said. “We’re supporting civil and human rights in Iran and we’re calling upon the government in Iran to cease their abuse of power, cease the imprisonment of innocent people and the torture of detainees and stop the violence against people who are simply trying to exercise their internationally protected human right to peacefully protest.”

Back in Tehran, opposition leaders Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Khatami urged the country’s clerics to intervene to help stop the spread of “oppression” by the authorities. They accused the government of “savagery” and that its “interrogation methods are a reminder of the dark era of the Shah”, who ruled until 1979.

Below are some videos from the various rallies across the world:

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Global Day of Action for Iran this Saturday

On July 25, people in more than 60 cities across the world will be standing in solidarity with the Iranian people in their struggle for human rights. Protesters in Iran continue to experience brutality on the city streets while the number of arrests steadily rises– the latest being the detainment of opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi’s brother-in-law, Shapour Kazemi.

The global day of action, organized by United4Iran, is organized around the following four core demands:

  1. That member states and civil society organizations of the international community give sustained attention to the Iranian people’s human rights as a matter of international concern, and that the UN should immediately initiate an investigation into grave and systematic human rights violations in Iran, including the fate of prisoners and disappeared persons, unlawful killings, and torture and other ill-treatment;
  2. An end to state-sponsored violence, accountability for crimes committed and no recourse to the death penalty.
  3. The immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, including politicians, journalists, students, and civil society activists; and
  4. Freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of expression (including freedom of the press) as guaranteed by the Iranian constitution and Iran’s obligations under international covenants that it has signed.

Supporters include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi, Sean Penn, Dariush, Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Simin Behbahani, Reza Aslan and Ismael Khoi. Dariush will actually be performing at the rally in DC!

Attend an event near you! Visit united4iran.org for a complete listing.

San Diego, California

Rally time: July 24, 6-8pm
Rally location: Balboa Park, (1900 Park Blvd., San Diego, CA, 92101) at the corner of President’s way, on the lawn
More information: www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=101590536518
Contact: Stephanie Hanson at 760-230-2936, [email protected]

San Francisco, California

Rally time: July 25, 12pm-4pm
Rally location: City Hall
More information: www.norcal4iran.com
Contact: [email protected]

Chicago, Illinois

Speaker: Roxana Saberi

Time: July 25, 12 noon
Place: Federal Plaza, Dearborn and Adams
Rally time: Noon
Rally location: Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams Street in downtown Chicago
More information: Facebook or contact [email protected]

New York, New York

Rally time: July 25, 12:30pm
Rally location: Starts at Times Square, 41st and 7th Avenue. There will then be a march to the United Nations.

Washington DC

DC event on July 25 will be in 3 parts:

Part one: Demonstration @ UN Office
Start at 4:00pm, corner of 18th+K. We have requested road closure from DCDOT. Signs, slogans, use of bullhorns.

Part two: March to Rally
March starts at 5:15pm, East on K st one block, South on 17th st (march past WH w/o stopping), Enter Constitutional Gardens at 17th + Constitution St.

Part three: Rally at National Mall Constitution Gardens (on 19th + Constitution)
Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate
Mehrangiz Kar, Human Rights Lawyer
Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch, Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa Division
Parisa Saeb, Human Rights Activist
Dariush, Prominent Iranian Singer and Social Activist

For more information, contact [email protected].

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post