Fifty-three days ago, Iranian asylum seeker Ali Panah began a hunger strike after being told by the New Zealand Government that he would soon be deported to his original home, Iran, where he has been sentenced to death for blasphemy by the Iranian Government. On Wednesday night, Salient was exclusively told that, as a result of his hunger strike, Panah was rushed to hospital in a critical condition. Salient Feature Writer Rob Addison looks into Panah’s case and finds out why a decision on his fate needs to be made – and fast.
Each day at noon for the last couple of weeks, the bells at Wellington Cathedral have rung across Thorndon. The sound of the bells travels over the road and into Parliament grounds, entering Parliament House, filling its hallways and offices – at least for those who are willing to listen. Organised by the New Zealand’s Anglican Church, bells serve to remind our politicians of a man who presently lies emaciated in an Auckland remand centre. While his future is uncertain, the passing of time makes his chances look increasingly bleak. This is the story of Ali Panah.
On the 12th of July, Panah, a self-professed Anglican, began a hunger-strike – or fasting, as he sees it, after being told he would be deported back to his original home of Iran. According to Immigration Minister David Cunliffe and the Government, Ali should have been deported over 18 months ago, when he was first arrested and detained for overstaying his temporary working permit. The recent move by the Government to remove him came soon after Panah had exhausted his appeal options with the Refugee Status Appeals Authority, a process which has left him completely broke.
Cunliffe says he does not believe Panah is a genuine Anglican, and alleges that he is claiming Christianity to leverage his appeal to stay in New Zealand. Panah says if he is returned to Iran he may be executed or face being murdered by a vengeful family member. For this reason, Panah refuses to finalise his deportation by providing the authorities with his signed consent.
Ali’s difficulty is that he is a Christian convert, and the Holy Q’uran is very clear on the matter of religious conversion. While genuinely preaching the creed of tolerance, the Q’uran states that rejecting the word of Islam is wholly unforgivable. Iran is a country of sharia law, which means the Holy Q’uran dictates domestic law. But in recent times, the Iranian Government’s interpretation of sharia law has caused human rights to suffer. According to the Amnesty International Report 2007, Iran’s civil society is “facing increasing restrictions on fundamental freedoms of expression and association”. The Centre for International Development and Conflict Management says, “by and large, conditions for the vast majority of Christians in Iran have remained unchanged over the past decade” but that “levels of discrimination and harassment against Evangelical Christians have increased dramatically.”
Bruce Keane, who was Panah’s supervisor while they worked together as drainlayers in Auckland, exclusively told Salient he has documentation confirming Panah has already been sentenced to death by the Iranian Government. “Those documents are from Iran,” he says. “But because he hasn’t gone back to face the charges he has a right to appeal. Now these days they don’t always execute them but there is some that get executed.”
Keane says Panah moved from Iran to South Korea more than five years ago. While working and living there, Panah converted to Christianity from Islam. “What he did is he sent his mother a tape of his baptism and it got intercepted [by Iranian authorities], so in his absence he was sentenced to death.” Panah has never returned to Iran to appeal the charges.
Keane recalls the day Panah was arrested by immigration authorities. He said that while the two were working at a client’s property, he received a call from the Immigration Department asking if Keane was with Panah. “I said, ‘yeah, he’s with me’, and they said, ‘keep him there, we’re coming to interview him’.” Keane told Panah that they needed to wait for the authorities to arrive, and hour and a half later, two police officers and one Immigration officer arrived with a police wagon. “The next thing was that his hands were up his back and he was handcuffed. People were looking from the house [the two were working at] amazed at what was going on.” Completely taken by surprise, Panah was given his rights and placed inside the police wagon, which took him to an Auckland police station.
Keane says he is appalled at how the authorities dealt with the situation. “It was just the way it was done. They didn’t have to do that on private property and it was at the back of the house with people looking.” Keane says he later returned to his client’s home where the arrest took place to explain what had happened. “They were pretty horrified that that was what all it was about,” he says.
Keane also exclusively told Salient of Panah’s first few days under police custody. On the day of his arrest, Keane says Panah had been working inside a sewer. He says he told the authorities at the time that Panah, who was saturated in waste, was a health hazard to himself and others and therefore needed a shower and a change of clothes, “but they didn’t want to know”, he says. “The next day, I went up to the police station and took him a pair of clothes and toiletries, and they refused to accept anything.”
Keane says three days later when Panah appeared in court, the police still hadn’t offered him a shower and a change of clothes. “And in court I had to stand up and say this man would be a health hazard to everybody…” Keane says at this point, the judge present ordered the police to allow Panah a shower and a clean set of clothes.
It’s important to mention that Keane is not the typical person you would expect to find supporting an asylum seeker. But Keane says Panah isn’t a typical asylum seeker. “It’s crazy, our law,” says Keane. “If you have a look around, most of the immigration people who come to this country are on the dole or in Housing New Zealand homes and they’re getting carried by the workforce. But you get a guy who can do it and is capable of doing everything and we refuse him.”
According to Keane, Panah was a model employee. “He was very good. We were working 70 hour weeks and he’d never ever have time off. He was always available and always with a smile on his face. He’s very easy to get along with. He got along with everyone, really.”
Keane, who has been making regular visits to Panah while in detention, says it can be very difficult to visit Panah in remand.
In order to visit a person an inmate at Mt. Eden Remand Centre, one needs to be registered on a prison database. “They’ve cut us off the computer and said I’m not registered and [ordered me to] reapply. They keep changing the unit, and because they change the unit it means the visiting times change, so you go all the way there and you can’t visit him.” He says it has happened too often for it to be coincidental, and believes the prison authorities make it deliberately difficult for Panah’s supporters to visit him. “It’s happened three times in the last two weeks to give you some indication of it. It’s just extremely hard – I don’t think they like him getting any support.”
The Labour Department, which is processing the case, says Panah’s situation has been trivialised by information disclosed to the public for privacy reasons. They also say Panah may have the option of being deported to a third country, where he will not face religious persecution. John Minto of Global Peace & Justice Auckland says deporting Panah to a third country still means that he would eventually be returned to Iran. “If he goes to any third country, that’s just a stepping stone to Iran. He could only get visitor status or stay a very short time in any other country”, says Minto. “So if we send him out of New Zealand, he will end up in Iran where his life is in danger.”
Keane describes the Labour Department’s statements as “rubbish”.
“They’re making it out to be that there’s something behind the scenes but there isn’t. I’ve got all his details and different things.”
Keane says he’s made himself available to the Immigration Department for questioning, but has failed to get their attention.
“They just want to make decisions behind closed doors,” he says.
As well as from the within Government, Panah faces staunch opposition from other politicians. New Zealand First Deputy Leader Peter Brown stated in a press release two weeks ago that Iranian asylum seekers regularly “rort the system after all appeals have failed by converting to Christianity, then claim that they could not be deported due to safety concerns resulting from their ‘conversion’.”
In a personalised attack on Panah, Brown said: “Ali Panah, the current cause celebre of the human rights brigade, is a case in point. Through his refusal to admit he has no valid claim to remain here, Mr Panah has brought his current situation on himself.” I tried interviewing Brown, but after several days of him avoiding my phone calls, I was told Brown was unavailable for comment.
Minto is outraged at Brown’s allegation that Panah is not a genuine Christian. “That is absolute bullshit. No one is questioning Peter Brown’s Christianity. It smacks of the Spanish Inquisition!” “According to his Anglican vicar, according to the parishioners, according to the people who visit him in the jail, this man is a deeply religious person. And his faith is quite genuine. It would be an appalling situation in New Zealand if we begin to judge people by what we think they might believe or what or not believe.”
Reverend Dr. Anthony Dancer immediately dismisses any suggestion that Panah’s Anglicanism is non-genuine. Dancer says Panah has been preaching Christianity while in remand and has been working as a social worker for his fellow inmates. “He’s taking the time to try and make it a better place even though he can’t stand being there.” Dancer says his vicar, Clive Speering, who has been regularly visiting Panah while in detention, has absolutely no doubt that his faith is genuine.
“Peter Brown is quite quick to make political capital and expedient media coverage for his views, but they’re not grounded on anything remotely factual. They’re idle speculation.”
“I think the more credibility you give to Peter Brown’s views, the more credible they become.”
On the matter of Islamic conversion, Dancer, who has a PhD in Theology, says: “we’re not talking about whether you drink Speights or whether you drink Monteiths. It is a serious life decision and you don’t turn your back on Islam just for the sake of being in a foreign country. So people aren’t going to be converting to Christianity in order to escape Iran and claim refuge – it doesn’t happen.”
Minto also dismisses Brown’s suggestion that Iranian asylum seekers regularly manipulate local asylum law, and adds that it doesn’t happen nearly as frequently as Brown would like us to believe. “It’s very rare for Iranian asylum seekers to enter New Zealand in the first place because there’s a whole policy to prevent people getting on planes to New Zealand if they might be in that position. So we haven’t even had a trickle of people in this regard and there have only been a tiny number of people who have converted – we’re talking about three people that I’m aware of. So it’s a tiny minority of people in this position.”
It would be fair to say that Panah’s case is wrought with irony. Firstly, David Cunliffe is a member of Amnesty International, which is one of several organisations campaigning for Panah to be granted a temporary visa until it is safe for his return to Iran. But as well as this, Cunliffe is also an Anglican. “How is it that David Cunliffe is able to question the Christianity of a fellow Anglican?” asks Minto. “Here is a case where he can do something and take some action to support the work that Amnesty does and yet he’s not doing it.”
“I think it’s the malign influence of New Zealand First, and Labour is worried about that coalition going off the rails, and it could on an issue like this. [New Zealand First Leader] Winston Peters could turn feral and collapse the Government, and for his own personal advantage it may well work in his favour.”
Dancer shows his spirit of compassion is not one-sided, saying that while he does not support Cunliffe’s present position, he can sympathise with it. On the matter of Cunliffe balancing his Anglicanism with his Ministerial role, Reverend Dancer says: “I think it’s easier to sit somewhere else and say this; it’s harder to sit in his chair and try and balance these things.” For this reason, Dancer believes the public must support Cunliffe’s decision-making, but challenge him to make the moral decision.
Keane believes this is an issue for the tax-payer. “Instead of costing the taxpayer $90,000 a year to keep him in prison, he’s got the support and he’s got the community, he’s got somewhere to live, he’s got everything set up for him. Why do we have to pay? He’s not going to run away because he wants to stay here. So why keep him in prison and load extra costs on [to the taxpayer]? Even if they sought everything out and put him on bail, then at least it’s going to save the taxpayer $90,000, isn’t it?”
Minto says the politics behind the case become irrelevant when there’s a human life at stake. “The key issue is that it’s unsafe for him to go back to Iran. Why are we questioning all these things?” On these grounds, Minto and Global Peace & Justice believe Panah should be given a temporary visa until it is safe for him to return to Iran.
But Dancer argues that there is much more at stake. “In some ways it’s all about Ali Panah”, he says, “but in other ways it’s nothing to do with him at all. It’s actually to do with us and our humanity. Don’t misunderstand it – I’ve got compassion and this is a human life we’re talking about here. But whose human life is really at stake here? This is part of the conundrum for me. If we send him back, he’ll live or he’ll die – and certainly his life is in the balance.
But I think there is a much bigger risk which is that we’re doing something to our humanity if we allow this kind of thing to go on because we’re devaluing our humanity; we’re not living up to being human – we’re less than human because we’re letting all sorts of other factors take hold of us and manipulate how we act towards our fellow humans.”
Dancer says that whatever Cunliffe and the Government decide, they need to act soon. The worst case scenario would be that nothing happens”, Dancer says, “and at the moment the silence is deafening.”
In the meantime, the bells at the Wellington Cathedral will continue to toll, and the members of the Anglican Church will continue to pray. Bruce Keane will keep visiting Panah in remand, despite the difficulties that he faces in doing so. John Minto and Global Peace & Justice will persist in their campaign for Panah to be granted a temporary visa. And above all else, Panah’s fast will endure. But how this will end – God only knows.
Save Ali Panah. Tell our government that his situation is intolerable. Email or phone Immigration Minister David Cunliffe asking that Ali be given humanitarian dispensation.
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