2020 Marked by a Tumultuous Start for Human Rights in Iran

On January 14, Human Rights Watch released its annual summary of the state of human rights in Iran, reviewing Iran’s from brutal crackdowns on protests, arbitrary arrests, and execution; Iran’s continued discrimination based on religion, gender, and orientation; and the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions. Some issues raised in the report include:

  • The right to assemble, protest, and voice rightful grievances has long been repressed by Iranian authorities. However, under the weight of growing internal pressure from economic discontent and sanctions beginning in late 2019, Iranian authorities grew increasingly cruel in their crackdown on domestic dissent. 
  • This has resulted in an increase of arbitrary arrests of journalists, artists, activists, and foreign and dual nationals. Additionally, the judiciary has increasingly ignored due process and lacked transparency in dealing with such cases, and has doled out harsh sentences. 
  • The worst of these abuses came in November of 2019, after protests – sparked by a spike in gas prices – were met with brutal force. At least 300+ deaths have been reported, but may include many more as the government refuses to declare actual numbers. A staggering 7,000 people were reportedly arrested and the internet was shut down for nearly a week as Iranians were forcibly cut off from the outside world. 
  • Though the report notes some small victories for women, such as limited permission to attend soccer matches and an amendment to the nationality law that allows women to pass citizenship to their children, the legal status of women is still highly discriminatory. Such inequitable practices are also true for religious minorities, especially of the Bahai faith, and homosexuality continues to be criminalized.
  • The report also discusses the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions. Though legally exempt from sanctions, the report notes limited access to vital medicines and medical equipment due to banking restrictions.

As is evident in the report, 2019 was a bleak year for human rights and Iranians have suffered greatly under domestic and foreign pressures. Unfortunately for Iranians, the new year has been a devastating continuation of tragedy. The events of the past two weeks have rocked not only Iran, but also the globe, as people all across the world held their breath bracing for a war that seemed inevitable after the U.S. assassination of Iran’s General, Qassem Soleimani.

In their attempt at retaliation, Iranian authorities carried out an attack on U.S. airbases in Iraq. On the night of the attack, January 8th, Iranian defenses mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, which was leaving Iranian airspace and carrying 176 civilians. The weight of this tragedy was compounded by authorities hiding the details of the crash for three days. More protests broke out after the state declared its error, as Iranians took the streets to grieve and shout their anger at incompetent officials culpable for this and other calamities. Again, protestors were met with unjust force. 

Those responsible for this appalling loss of life must be held to account. Iranian authorities must end their authoritarian practice of silencing rightful dissent and do justice by their citizens by adhering to their obligations under international human rights law. 

The 176 lives needlessly lost were a consequence not only of inept Iranian officials, but also a result of increased escalation and conflict between the United States and Iran.

As Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau stated: “I think if there were no tensions, if there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians [57 of crash victims] would be right now home with their families. This is something that happens when you have conflict and war, innocents bear the brunt of it and it is a reminder why all of us have to work so hard on de-escalation.”

Such tragedy is a reminder that the greatest human rights violation is war itself, which is why it is incumbent upon both Iran and the United States to end this cycle of violence and bellicose language in order to prevent further loss of innocent life and the unpredictable costs of war.

With MLK Day upon us we are reminded of his sage words so many years ago during the war in Vietnam: “A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just…’ America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood…War is not the answer.” 

A Birthday Wish of Freedom for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Today is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s 41st birthday. It will be her third birthday behind bars in Iran, away from her husband and daughter. Lacking due process or evidence, Nazanin was convicted of spying by Iranian courts in 2016. Iranian authorities have often used vague language to detain and convict Iranian dual nationals on trumped up charges.

Her husband has relentlessly pursued all avenues to help free his wife, including calling on British officials to secure Nazanin’s release. On her birthday, Mr. Ratcliffe also revealed that Nazanin had met another detainee while in prison, Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic arrested by Iranian authorities in September, 2018.  

Nazanin is said to have seen Moore-Gilbert at the health clinic, where she was being checked after beginning a hunger strike on Christmas Eve. A number of women have joined Moore-Gilbert in her hunger strike, including French-Iranian academic, Dr. Fariba Adelkhah, who was detained in similarly unfounded circumstances as the other women.

In a letter released by Center for Human Rights in Iran, Moore-Gilbert and Adelkhah stated: “We are striking not only to demand our immediate freedom, but to ask for justice for the countless, thousands, unnamed yet not forgotten men and women who have suffered the same fate as ours or worse, and have been imprisoned in Iran, having committed no crime.”

Iranian authorities must stop these unwarranted arrests, respect due process, and end its practice of detaining foreign nationals as bargaining chips. In spite of their unjust detentions and lamentable situation, the resilience and solidarity of these women is truly remarkable. Mr. Ratcliffe shared a moving gesture from Nazanin in her encounter with Moore-Gilbert, “Before the guards pulled them apart Nazanin was able to tell Kylie that the world is watching her story & it will be ok.” The world is indeed watching and hoping that justice will prevail over the political games of nations.

To sign Amnesty’s petition to free Nazanin, click here.

 

Amnesty Report: Torture and Detention in Aftermath of Iran Protest Crackdown

In a new report, Amnesty International noted that the death toll for the recent protests in Iran has risen to 304. This number may include many more still not reported or confirmed. In addition to the outrageous death toll, thousands have been injured or detained by Iranian authorities. Many of their fates are still unknown. 

The initial suppression of protests was marked by the use of lethal force, violence, and mass arrest. Notably, the report notes that arrests have continued after protests have abated. These detentions have targeted Iranian activists from across the spectrum, journalists, and students. The mass arrests highlight the arbitrary nature of the incarcerations and show that Iranian authorities are more concerned about containing a populace that is suffering under economic sanctions and the authoritarianism of the state, than with addressing their rightful grievances. 

Amnesty’s report also cites cases of torture and abuse at the hands of the authorities while under arrest. In some cases, Iranian authorities have refused to give any information to the families of detainees, making their whereabouts and conditions unknown. The impact of these shameful measures is felt not only by those unfairly being held and tortured, but by their loved ones in search of answers and justice.

All those detained must be treated according to international law, which prohibits torture and promises due process, and Iran must stop its systematic use of arbitrary detention to tamp down dissent and protests. All people have the right to assemble, protest, and hold to account their government. Iran is no exception, and we continue to call on the government of Iran to fulfill its obligations under international human rights law. 

Amnesty International has also provided a copy of its report in Persian, which can be found here.

Recognizing Human Rights Day

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In commemoration of that day, which marked the first truly global avowal of human rights, we acknowledge the premise of that declaration and reaffirm our commitment to faithfully working towards that hopeful objective on Human Rights Day.

The UDHR is a cornerstone of the United Nations, as its intent was to define and codify the meaning of fundamental freedoms and basic principles that all states should aspire to and carry out. Though the efficacy of the United Nations has been critiqued, because of power imbalances between states, the impact is still consequential. The letter and spirit of the declaration continues to hold great meaning, and now more than ever, the need to fight and struggle vigorously to attain that goal is paramount.

In the spirit of Human Rights Day, NIAC reaffirms its conviction that all people, regardless of race, gender, nation, religion, orientation, or creed, deserve the same freedoms and rights as described in the UDHR over 70 years ago. True justice comes when there is justice for all.

We will continue to advocate for justice at home in the United States and call on other nations, such as our country of heritage, Iran, to adhere to their human rights obligations and uphold the sanctity of humanity. Summed up best by 13th century Persian poet Saadi, whose words adorn the walls of the United Nations:

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain

Death Toll Rises in Iran Protests

Protests erupted in Iran on November 15, 2019, following an abrupt hike in gas prices by the Iranian government. Though the price hike sparked the initial outpouring of protestors, the demonstrations illustrated deeper fissures and grievances of the Iranian populace, who have been long suffering under crippling sanctions and government corruption. Worse yet, protests quickly turned deadly as Iranian security forces met demonstrators with lethal force.

Within hours of the protests breaking out, Iranian authorities enforced a near total blackout of internet services, effectively cutting off Iranians from the outside world. As Human Rights Watch appropriately asserted, the internet shutdown, censorship of journalists and lack of transparency indicates an intentional coverup of the violent crackdown and the events that transpired.

The suppression of protests must be condemned for infringing upon the most basic rights of Iranians to assemble and express their dissent, but even more reprehensible is the loss of life we have seen. According to Amnesty International, reliable sources conclude that the death toll has reached at least 208, though the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. Amnesty International sources also note the difficulty of gathering information from families of victims for fear of government reprisals.

The attempt to coverup the events and subsequent internet shutdown by authorities have made it difficult for those even living there to know the extent of the crackdown or demonstrations. The psychological toll of these events on the larger Iranian public will be difficult to measure. The Iranian government must address the root causes of these protests and tackle the issues that are hurting ordinary Iranians, rather than adding to their plight with brutality and further repression.

Jailed Iranian Environmentalists Sentenced

In January 2018, nine Iranian environmentalists were detained by Iranian authorities and accused of “spying” after filming an endangered cheetah. One of the activists, Kavous Seyed Emami—an Iranian-Canadian professor and prominent environmentalist—died while in custody.

While Human Rights Watch and activists such as Jane Goodall have pleaded with Iranian authorities to release these environmental activists, they have remained in prison and have been denied due process or a fair trial. To add insult to injury, as Iranians protested across the country last week after a dramatic hike in gas prices, these activists were dealt harsh sentences by Iranian courts.

The egregious sentences of these environmentalists further illustrated the lengths the Iranian government will go to in order to suppress any activity it deems a ‘security threat.’

According to Human Rights Watch, despite no evidence of wrongdoing, these activists were sentenced to 6-10 years in prison for allegedly “collaborating with enemies of the state.” The fact that these sentences were handed down during large scale protests and an internet blackout indicates the government’s fear of added reactions from a rightly discontented Iranian populace.

Jane Goodall’s plea, before they received their sentences, aptly sums up the tragedy of these environmental activists: “they’ve worked so hard to ensure the future of endangered species, such as the Asiatic Cheetah found only in Iran. They’ve helped to shed a light on Iran as a country committed to conserving its wildlife, now they await their sentences.” Now they have sadly received their sentences and in the midst of injustices carried out in the streets against protestors, another injustice was carried out quietly in Iranian courts.

Iranians Killed and Arrested in Protests Across the Country

On Friday November 15, Iran’s government sharply raised gas prices, further hurting Iranians who have already been struggling economically due to government mismanagement, corruption, and the effects of harsh U.S. sanctions. The price hike sparked protests in cities across the country, as Iranians took to the streets to air their rightful grievances and express their frustrations. However, as seen in the past, Iranian authorities have confronted protestors with inexcusable violence and have worked to stifle the demonstrations.

 

Four days in, the protests have continued to rock different parts of the country, with banks and other buildings set on fire as Iranians resist the security forces who have killed at least 12 people, while other estimates, according to sources on Twitter, range as high as 200. Over 1,000 people have been reportedly arrested, one of which includes Sepideh Gholian, a 22 year old labor activist who had been released from prison only a few weeks ago. Gholian was first arrested in January of 2019 for her participation in workers protests at Haft-Tappeh Sugar Cane Company. After a video of her was posted online protesting the increase in gas prices, she was arrested again.

 

To add to their draconian assault on the rights of Iranians to assemble and protest, Iranian authorities have shut down internet services in an unprecedented online blackout, effectively cutting off Iranians from the outside world. Additionally, Iranian authorities have silenced domestic journalists to prevent Iranian media from criticizing the gas prices or covering the protests.

 

It is without question that the right to assemble, protest and express dissent is an inalienable right and recognized as such under international law. We condemn all use of lethal force and repression of the demonstrations. Iranian authorities cannot silence their people’s grievances through the use of force, or by controlling communications platforms such as news media and the internet. They will have to confront the calls of their citizens and address the economic burdens that ignited these protests.

Iranian Man Arrested in Sweden for Alleged Role in 1988 Mass Executions

The Associated Press reported today that an Iranian man has been detained in Sweden on suspicion of taking part in mass executions that occurred in Iran in the summer of 1988. Though exact numbers are unknown, estimates for the executions range from 3,000-5,000 killed in the span of four weeks in prisons across Iran. 

The timing of the mass executions coincided with then Supreme Leader Khomeini’s decision to accept the UN ceasefire that ended the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a fringe Iranian opposition group, fought on the side of Saddam Hussein and continued their fight despite the ceasefire. Iranian authorities used the attacks and misdeeds of the MEK as a pretext to eliminate, in mass, political prisoners of all stripes, including former MEK.

The origins of the MEK in Iran in the 1960’s was a guerilla group resisting the authoritarian rule of the Shah, but most of its original leaders and founders had been killed by the time of the revolution. Their historical evolution to a cultish opposition group is complex. As historian Ervand Abrahamian notes [1], by 1987 the MEK “had its own revered leader…a rigid hierarchy in which instructions flowed from above…its own dress code and physical appearance” and “the burning conviction that its own radical version of Shiism was the one and only true interpretation of Islam.” 

Upon ending the war with Iraq, Iranian special courts were set up to purge the country of dissent and instill fear in all political rivals. Former MEK were targeted, but political prisoners of all backgrounds suffered the same fate in a horrifying mass killing, in a brazen show of disregard for due process or law and order.

Though some officials vocalized their condemnation of this appalling episode, such as Ayatollah Montazeri who resigned in protest, Iranian authorities have never investigated or held culpable any of the criminal participants of the “prison massacre.” Amnesty International has repeatedly called on Iran’s government to do justice by the victims of this massacre and their families, through reparations and by holding to account those who participated in the killings. 

If the man detained in Sweden was a party to this offense, then one small step towards justice has been taken. Ultimately, Iran’s government must stop trying to bury this injustice, undertake meaningful steps to acknowledge this tragedy and hold accountable those complicit in these crimes against humanity.

[1] Abrahamian, Ervand. Radical Islam : The Iranian Mojahedin. London: I.B. Tauris, 1989. Print.

Iran Releases Several Political Prisoners

In a welcome bit of news, a number of Iranian labor activists and journalists have been released from prison. This includes: Sepideh Gholian, Atefeh Rangriz, Marzieh Amiri, Sanaz Allahyari, Amir Amir-Goli, and Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Far.

These activists were a mix of labor protestors, journalists, and women’s rights activists. They were previously given heavy sentences and have now been released on large bails.

Earlier, a number of parliamentarians wrote a letter to Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi appealing for the release of some of these prisoners and others. They mentioned Rangriz, who had been sentenced to 11 years in prison and 74 lashes, and Amiri, who had been sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison and 148 lashes, among other political prisoners.

Rangriz and Amiri were arrested after being present during May Day labor protests in front of parliament this year. Amiri is a journalist for the reformist Shargh newspaper, while Rangriz is a women’s rights activist. (Read more about the May Day protests in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

The MPs stated Rangriz and Amiri had a constitutional “right” to join the demonstration and a duty to “report” on it. The signatories included MPs Ali Motahari, Elias Hazrati, Mahmoud Sadeghi, Mostafa Kavakebian, Parvaneh Salahshouri, Tayebeh Siavoshi, Fatemeh Saeedi, Hamid Zarabadi. 

Days after these activists were released, labor activist Esmail Bakshi was also released on a heavy bail. Read more about the cases of Bakhshi and Gholian in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

Many of these now-released labor activists were handed heavy sentences in September. At the time, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi said the sentences would be revised after widespread outcry.

Raisi has attempted to portray himself as a supporter of worker rights, stating recently: “The grievances of laborers in the country are not small and we are in the process of addressing them. Hearing the grievances of those who have problems is our duty. The concerns of workers are understandable, and the responsible institutions must resolve the problems.”

He added: “However, sometimes some people under the cover of labor issues, have other aims they are seeking. We must not blame their actions on workers.”

While the release of these activists is welcome news, Iranian authorities must continue in this vain and allow for a free space for activists to express their grievances. 

 

Human Rights Watch Report on Impact of Sanctions on Iran

According to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), U.S. sanctions, reinstated after the United States pulled out of the landmark Iran nuclear deal, have had a detrimental impact on the situation of human rights in Iran. The findings of this report are corroborated by the findings the United Nations Special Rapporteur, which also recently noted the negative impact of sanctions. Both reports indicate how sanctions have exacerbated economic hardship for Iranians, which in turn impede their access to vital resources such as medicines and food.

The report clearly shows how such impediments go against the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – ratified by Iran and signed by the United States – obliges states to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,’ as well as the right to an adequate “standard of living” that includes “adequate food.”

The HRW report notes that, despite stated exemptions for humanitarian goods by the United States, the nature of sanctions has prevented international banks from participating in any kind of financial transactions with Iran for fear of penalties due to secondary sanctions. The current sanctions system of the U.S. has thus made it nearly impossible for such humanitarian transactions to take place.

Contributing to this scenario is an atmosphere of hostile U.S. rhetoric, as the HRW report states, “US officials have indicated that the pain US sanctions are causing for ordinary Iranians is intentional, part of a strategy to compel Iranian citizens to demand their autocratic government to ‘change behavior’,” what HRW calls “a recipe for collective punishment that infringes on Iranians’ economic rights.” The aggressive language of some U.S. officials has created an environment of overcompliance, where companies and banks prefer not to risk U.S. punishment for facilitating even humanitarian transactions.

The HRW report discusses in detail the issue of medicine and medical supplies, a key human rights concern. While Iran manufactures 97% of its own medicines, critical life-saving medicines, especially for rare and complicated diseases are imported and now access to those medicines are affected by sanctions. In terms of medical supplies, 70% of supplies is reportedly imported, these imports are negatively impacted by sanctions and prevent the import of vital medical equipment such as MRI machines.

The full report from Human Rights Watch can be found here. While we continue to spotlight the issue of human rights in Iran and the reprehensible abuses of Iranian officials, we must also acknowledge abuses at the hands of foreign actors, especially when it is our government. It is incumbent upon us to call out these issues, particularly when we have the opportunity to make a real impact. As Americans, we can and must hold our government accountable when our policies violate human rights at home or abroad.

Report of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, has submitted a second report to the General Assembly. The full report can be found here. This second report is focused on the human rights situation of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, who are often treated as second class citizens and denied their full rights. The following is a brief summary of the report:

  • The overall economic situation has created increased hardships for all Iranians, such as inflation, rising cost of living, and unemployment. The report notes that these challenges have been further exacerbated by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions and have affected the most vulnerable groups, which include minorities.
  • The report further notes that the economic deterioration from sanctions have had secondary impact on access to basic human rights services, such as education and health.
  • The flooding disaster from early spring has also contributed to economic hardship, with severe damage to infrastructure, housing, livestock and agriculture. The floods have negatively impacted millions of Iranians.
  • The political situation is linked to increased repression and restrictions on basic rights, such as expression, press, and right to a fair trial.
    • While the report notes a sharp decrease in executions in 2018 due to a change in law related to drug offenses, Iran’s execution rate is still one of the highest in the world and is especially appalling for including child offenders.
    • The report also shows increased arrests of dual and foreign nationals, human rights lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, and workers assembling for legal protest.
  • In the case of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, the Special Rapporteur has raised concerns over disproportionate targeting for political activism, executions related to national-security charges, and discriminatory practices in business and employment.
    • One issue leading to such discriminatory practices is rooted in the legal framework of the constitution, which only recognizes Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as religious minorities. Under this legal structure, conversion from Islam is also prohibited.
    • These inequitable practices have an impact on the daily life of minorities, for instance in the case of inheritance, in which non-Muslims cannot inherent from Muslims.
    • The case of Baha’is in Iran is especially concerning as they do not have protected status and have often been the targets of discriminatory practices. Baha’is are the largest unrecognized minority group in Iran, which the report estimates at about 350,000 people. The treatment of Baha’is goes beyond discriminatory practices, wherein Baha’is face constant persecution.
    • The report also notes the legal prejudice against the Iranian LGBTQ community, by highlighting not only the criminalization of same-sex relations, but the use of the death penalty in some cases.
    • The Rapporteur has also expressed his concerns over the legal status and treatment of women, as well as increased repression of women’s rights activists and anti-hijab activists.
    • In the case of ethnic minorities, Iranian Arab Ahwazis, Kurds, Baluchis, and Azeri Turks, which combined number approximately 30 million people, are sometimes subjected to discriminatory practices and are among the hardest hit by economic troubles.

The Iranian government’s continued repression of basic freedoms and discriminatory practices on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religion must be condemned. While the work of the UN Special Rapporteur is a welcome and needed step, more must be done to bring Iran into the international community so that it can be held accountable for its deplorable actions against its citizens.

#WomenOfFreedom

An online campaign organized yesterday by United for Iran, used the hashtag “WomenOfFreedom” to recognize courageous Iranian women, which have shown time and again that they will continue to fight for their rights to the last inch. Highlighting the activism of some in particular, the campaign honored Nasrin Sotoudeh, Sepideh Qoliyan, Niloufar Bayani, Atena Daemi, Azita Rafizadeh, Zeinab Jalalian, and Shekoufeh Yadollahi. Many groups and individuals participated in the campaign in a show of solidarity with these environmentalists, lawyers, and activists, who have been unjustly treated and unfairly detained.  

Iranian women have seen two important recent developments for women’s rights in Iran. First was the citizenship law approved by the Guardian Council, and the second was Iranian women purchasing tickets for a soccer match at Azadi Stadium. Such policy changes are a consequence of the tireless efforts by these women to address the imbalances and repression of Iran’s gender-biased legal code.

Though these victories may seem small, they carry immense meaning to the women who bought tickets for the first in their lives to watch a soccer game, the mothers who will be able to apply for citizenship for their offspring, and the children who will finally receive the services they deserve. Of course, more sweeping reforms are needed to tackle the rightful grievances of Iranian women, beginning with the release of female activists who have done nothing but demand their basic rights.