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How many Canadians are jailed in Iran? The government won't say

by Catherine Cullen (feat. Thomas Juneau)

CBC News
July 13, 2016

First, there was the news that a Canadian professor had been jailed in Iran for what her family believes are allegations of "dabbling in feminism and security matters."

Then came reports a prominent artist, a dual Canadian citizen, had also been detained and questioned, possibly because of his nude artworks. Parviz Tanavoli has told media outlets that his passport has been seized and that he was prevented from leaving the country.

But could there be more? We asked Global Affairs Canada to confirm the total number of Canadians being detained in Iran.

The answer: the department won't say.

In fact, CBC News had to ask a couple of times. 

"I should have clarified that for privacy reasons we cannot share this information," said spokesman Austin Jean, when pressed again.

And how does making a number public violate an individual's privacy?

"The number is too small and could lead to identification of the individuals," Jean said.

Privacy debated

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, disputes the government's logic.

"We wouldn't agree that giving numbers and statistics as to how many cases are being tracked and are of concern to Canada should be a privacy consideration," he said.

Amnesty is only aware of the two cases of Canadian citizens being detained right now, he said. But there are a handful of others with Canadian connections, including permanent resident Saeed Malekpour, who has been imprisoned since 2008. He was facing a death sentence but it has since been commuted to life in prison, Neve said.

Canadians ought to know exactly how many cases the government is tracking, Neve said, particularly since Canada is in the process of trying to rebuild its relationship with Iran.

"Right at the forefront of that process needs to be consideration of these cases with Canadian connections."

Unanswered questions

University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau said it can be tricky to determine when information should be withheld for privacy and security reasons. 

"Do privacy concerns justify not giving the number? To be honest, I don't know," said the former Middle East strategic analyst for the Department of Defence and author of a book about Iran.

He said privacy is only one reason the government might choose to withhold information.

"When it is to protect from embarrassment? When it [is bureaucratic] inertia? When is it actually justified on grounds of privacy and security? It's not always clear and sometimes it's a very blurry zone between all of these priorities."

Juneau does agree that in individual cases, it's often best for the government to keep a low profile.

Too much public attention can make it harder to get prisoners released in a country like Iran, he said. Hardliners can begin to feel that if they release the prisoners, it will be seen as bowing to pressure from the West.

He said foreigners and especially dual nationals are detained in Iran on a regular basis, sometimes for a year or two. While they usually go free, he said it's never entirely clear why they were detained or what negotiations led to their release, making it difficult to draw lessons from these cases.


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