Lawmakers Seek Support for Iranian Dissidents

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It was years before Roya Sepehrrad could speak of being tortured in an Iranian prison. But even as she fought back tears, her voice rang out Monday in a cramped Capitol room.

"Many of my friends were raped the night before their execution," she said. "This so-called sacrifice is to prevent a virgin from going to heaven."

Two senators asked Sepehrrad and other exiles to speak on behalf of legislation designed to help Iranian dissidents bring democracy to their government.

Arrested at the age of 14 for selling newspapers and planning demonstrations, Sepehrrad went on trial after a year's imprisonment and was sentenced to seven more. Today an American citizen living in Virginia, Sepehrrad said Iranian clerics extorted her family's wealth in exchange for her life.

"I'm here today to ask the United States to listen to Iranian people: the fundamentalists who rule Iran do not represent the people of Iran," she said. "And negotiation with the fundamentalist government of Iran is increasing the threat of terrorism around the world."

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said it is critical for people to understand the nature of Iran's regime.

"It's a terribly harsh reality, but it's a reality that needs to be seen," Brownback said.

The bill is designed to let government money to help expand pro-democracy broadcasting into Iran; it also would boost the influence of Iranian-Americans on the Persian radio service, Radio Farda (search).

In addition, the measure would make it U.S. policy to work for an internationally monitored referendum in Iran to bring about peaceful change in government. The bill says the United States will support the people of Iran in a peaceful struggle for freedom rather than engaging the current government.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Iran is financing and training and providing weapons and safe haven to terror groups. "We must send a clear message to the government of Iran," Cornyn said.

The bill is called the "Iran Democracy Act" (search). Brownback, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (search), said the measure is similar to lawmakers' efforts last month to pay for opposition broadcasts during the war on Iraq.

"If we had done an Iraq Democracy Act and implemented it earlier, we'd have a lot more organization and a lot more communication (now) inside Iraq," Brownback said. "I think we missed an opportunity to make a similar transition."