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Human Rights in Iran: Marginalized and Sanitized

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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As P5+1 proceeds, it is important to appreciate that the prevention of a "nuclear breakout" capability is inextricably intertwined with the Iranian regime's ongoing massive repression of human rights.

Indeed, negotiations proceed while human rights violations in Iran continue unabated -- and have even intensified -- under the "moderate" President Rouhani. Iran's massive repression of the human rights of its own people should inform our approach to the nuclear negotiations. Simply put, Iran's assault on the human rights of its own people should engage the nuclear negotiating front.

First, the prospect of a rights violating regime seeking to possess nuclear weapons itself warrants concern.

Second, the reality of Iran's repressive treatment of its citizens -- and blatant breaches of its international law obligations in this regard -- should cause us to question the veracity of any commitments made by the regime in the context of the nuclear negotiations.

What follows is an overview of some of the more serious human rights violations that continue in Iran -- and the corresponding Iranian defiance of its international commitments -- underpinned by an ongoing culture of impunity.


Iran not only executes more people per-capita than any other state but the execution rate has actually escalated under President Rouhani, with the UN General Assembly expressing concern about the "alarmingly high frequency" of executions. At present, Iran now executes a person every eight hours, with death sentences carried out for overbroad crimes such as "corruption on earth" and "enmity with God." Iran has already executed more than 80 people in the first month of January 2015 alone -- the largest rate of executions of any month on record.

Indeed, under the new Islamic Penal Code, there are 80 offenses that can result in a death sentence, with many of those executed being activists for ethnic and religious minorities arrested on trumped up charges.

As well, the true number may very well be higher, as many are carried out in secret. While Rouhani continues to preside over a massive execution binge, the regime continues to deny Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, access to the country.

These wanton executions -- including the targeting of political prisoners and the attending culture of impunity -- must end.


2015 marks the 27th year since the Iranian regime's 1988 Prison Massacre, where then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the executions of thousands of dissidents, purging opposition to the regime. These victims were denied any semblance of due process with their guilt proclaimed by religious decree. Twenty-seven years later, the Iranian regime not only continues to suppress evidence of the massacre - while rebuking family requests seeking information surrounding the execution and burial of the victims - but continues to provide political and financial rewards to the perpetrators.

Indeed, Rouhani himself continues to indulge a culture of impunity, rewarding and promoting the perpetrators of grave abuses. His own Justice Minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, played a leading role in the 1988 Prison Massacre, presiding over the Evin Prison Death Committee that was responsible for selecting victims -- a scandalous example of the prevailing culture of impunity. As well, after political prisoners at Evin Prison's notorious Ward 350 were brutally beaten in April 2014, the responsible prison official -- Gholamhossein Esmaili - was promoted to head the Tehran Justice Department. Simply put, human rights violators are protected and even rewarded, with Rouhani's rhetoric of moderation ringing increasingly hollow.

As documented by the "International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran", nine government ministries that are under the direct authority of the President are themselves responsible for ongoing human rights abuses. These include: the Ministry of Culture and Guidance, which continues to engage in the suppression of "subversive views"; the Ministry of Intelligence, which engages in the arbitrary and indefinite detention of human rights defenders in secret locations using torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment to extract coerced confessions; and the Ministry of the Interior, which continues to engage in the suppression of peaceful gatherings by routinely denying permits for peaceful assembly.


Under Rouhani's presidency, authorities have continued to use torture to intimidate detainees and coerce confessions to justify trumped-up charges, while the general culture of impunity prevails. As documented by Dr. Shaheed, methods of torture include: whipping and assault; sexual torture including rape; and psychological torture such as prolonged solitary confinement.

In his latest report, Dr. Shaheed details the widespread and systematic use of both physical and psychological torture -- in particular to elicit confessions. The Iranian refugees who provided testimony for the report described torture, abuse and ill-treatment including prolonged solitary confinement, mock executions, threatened rapes, severe beatings, electroshocks, and the use of suspension and pressure positions.


Iran continues to imprison human rights defenders, students, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, artists, trade unionists, members of the political opposition, and civil society leaders generally. While Rouhani has freed some high profile political prisoners at opportune moments -- such as prior to a UN General Assembly appearance -- the tactical freeing of individual prisoners does not constitute systemic change in this regard. Indeed, the continued imprisonment of U.S.-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian is but one example of the regime's ongoing repression of free speech and free press, while the house arrest of 2009 Presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Medi Karoubi has entered its fourth year.

Human rights defenders and their families are harassed and imprisoned as part of a concerted strategy to silence dissent. Even those who have been released -- such as celebrated human rights lawyer and former political prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh -- continue to be closely surveilled and exemplify this routine harassment and intimidation.

Since her release on September 18, 2013, Sotoudeh has continued to be the victim of intimidation including "judicial harassment." Her family's home has been raided and looted by authorities; her law license was suspended in October 2014 by the Tehran Bar Association; and she continues to be the victim of arbitrary detention for acts of public expression, such as her arrest during a sit-in outside the Tehran Bar Association while calling for judicial independence in Iran.

The intermittent release of some high-profile prisoners -- and promises to release others -- must not deflect attention away from the Iranian regime's continuing arbitrary detentions -- with more than 900 political prisoners who continue to languish behind bars.


International observers have repeatedly recognized the systematic and widespread persecution of Iran's Baha'i religious minority, who are singled out for particularly cruel and unusual treatment by the regime. This includes the dramatic increase in state-sanctioned incitement to hatred; the alarming increase in arrests targeting Baha'i; violent attacks that continue to go unpunished; and the constant threat of raids, arrests, detention, and imprisonment characteristic of Iran's persecution of the Baha'i over the last decade. Some 130 individuals have been detained as of December 2014, many of whom have been prevented from retaining legal counsel to defend themselves.

The most prominent of these prisoners of conscience are the Baha'i Seven -- known as the "Yaran-i-Iran" -- who have been arbitrarily imprisoned since 2008 on various false charges ranging from espionage to "propaganda activities against the regime" and organizing "an illegal administration". These seven religious leaders have been punished for the practice of their faith, a right guaranteed under international and Iranian law, which is tantamount to putting the Baha'i community as a whole on trial.

The continuation of the systematic and widespread persecution of Iran's Baha'i community finds expression in recent statements by influential clerics. "We never say that Baha'is have the right to education [they] don't even have citizenship rights" declared Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Bojnourdi to the Fars News agency. Such incitement invariably leads to violence and discrimination. As described by Dian Alaei, the Baha'i community representative to the UN, " . . . Baha'i youths cannot attend university; Baha'i cemeteries are demolished with bulldozers, and Baha'i shops are locked up when their owners close during official Baha'i holidays".


The Iranian regime continues to target and incite hatred and violence against religious and ethnic minorities, violating their civil, political, social, religious, economic, cultural, linguistic, and educational rights. Among other abuses, minority schools and houses of worship have been closed or destroyed, restrictions have been imposed on both the public and private use of minority languages, and members of minority groups -- such as the Baloch, Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, and Christians -- have been imprisoned on spurious charges such as "spreading corruption on earth".

Indeed, as described in Dr. Shaheed's report, the Iranian regime has continued to target cultural rights activists form the Arab minority community, including the executions of Hasehm Sha'abni, Hadi Rashedi, Ali Chebeishat, and Khaled Mousavi.

Incitement against Gonabadi Dervishes continues, with members of the Dervish community imprisoned as infidels, and with the arbitrary arrest and detention of Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Evangelical Christians and their defenders. The continued detention of Christian pastors such as the eight-year sentence of American Pastor Saeed Abedini on charges of threatening national security for spreading his Christian faith is a case study. The regime also systematically represses religious worship by Protestant Christians, some 50 of whom are currently detained.

Religious minorities have also been forced into underground worship, and private home churches are routinely raided. Dr. Shaheed reports that during the past three years, authorities have closed officially licensed churches and arrested converts to Christianity, subjecting them to intense physical and psychological abuse, including the threat of execution.

In December, Pastor Victor Beth Tarmez, a former leader of the Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church, was arrested along with two guests at his home during a Christmas party. While the specific charges are unclear, witnesses report that the security agents stated at the time of the raid that the arrests were being carried out for an "illegal gathering".


Despite Article 20 of the Iranian constitution purporting to protect gender equality, Iranian women face widespread and systematic discrimination in many areas of life. For example, under the Iranian Civil Code, women are unable to leave the country without their husband's consent; non-consensual sexual relations in marriage are allowed with an increasing incidence of child, early, and forced marriage. Indeed, recent research by the Iran Student Correspondents Association reports more than 41 000 registered marriages among underage children.

Iranian women are also barred from marrying a foreign national without special permission from the Government; men are expressly defined by law as the "head of the family" such that male authority over women is legally mandated; and a husband can legally prohibit his wife from engaging in an occupation or technical profession that is "incompatible with family's interests" or with his "dignity". Since the Islamic Revolution, increasingly harsh restrictions have been placed on the freedom of women to participate in public gatherings along with men, such as sporting events. Although banned from attending such events in Iran, many turned out for the Asian Cup in Australia. The response by the head of the moral committee of the Iranian Football Federation was to issue a warning to Iranian national team members that they should avoid taking photographs with female fans and that the regime will be "obliged to take action" if the "players don't respect" these rules.

On January 12, female musician Harir Shariarzadeh was forced off stage by authorities during a concert. There are reports that an "unwritten law" has been imposed by hardliners of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and which has prevented at least 13 female musicians from performing live.
Iranian women are not only victims of discrimination but also of violence -- in particular acid attacks targeting those who disobey Islamic dress code by improperly wearing the hijab -- has become increasingly acceptable, with media coverage frequently overlooking and minimizing these incidents while religious leaders blame the victims.

In Iranian prisons, female prisoners suffer horrific sexual abuse. For example, former political prisoner Marina Nemat recently wrote that when she was arrested at age 16, she was tortured and "raped over and over again in solitary confinement in Evin Prison" to coerce a false confession. Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi was similarly raped and tortured in Evin prison in 2003 before being murdered. Rouhani and his government must be held to account for the continued persecution and violation of the rights of Iranian women in mocking denial of their undertakings to promote gender equality.


Iranian law criminalizes same-sex relations and allows the courts wide discretion in determining sentences, which can include corporal and capital punishment. As Dr. Shaheed has reported, many LGBT Iranians are victims of discrimination and violence, but do not report their victimization to the authorities out of fear that they will themselves be charged with a criminal offence.

Rouhani should publically condemn the criminalization of same-sex relations and end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.


While the Iranian regime continues to espouse principles of free speech and free press, any rhetorical commitment is mocked by reality. Indeed, Amnesty International has reported a "sharp rise in arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment of independent journalists in Iran [that] signals the authorities' utter determination to crush hopes for increased freedom . . . ." In addition, the regime has increasingly confiscated satellite dishes and continues to restrict open internet access. While internet censorship has prevailed in Iran since the 2009 Green Protests - and while there are reports of reform -- the targeting of open internet access continues.

Indeed, as described in the recent report "Internet in Chains: The Front Line of State Repression in Iran" -- released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran -- the Iranian national police force includes a designated cybercrime unit which is tasked with monitoring the online activities of civil and political activists. Established in 2011, the Iranian Cyber Police were responsible for the investigation and ultimately the arrest of Sattar Bahesti, who was tortured and died in custody. According to the report, the cyber police continue to pressure internet providers to provide them with evidence of online political activism.

In a recent statement, a senior IRGC official, Mostafa Alizadeh, acknowledged that the regime "is monitoring" and "has intelligence control over" all social networks in the country. He further acknowledged a massive crackdown against "obscene" comments on Facebook, stating that the IRGC has identified 350 offensive facebook pages managed by 36 individuals.

Censorship in Iran is not limited to the internet, but extends also to the traditional print media. The regime continues to shutter newspapers deemed unacceptably critical of the regime or seen as questioning tenets of Shiite Islam. For example, the reformist newspaper Ebtekar was closed for "spreading lies" after it reported that Evin Prison Chief Esmaili's promotion had been connected to the Evin prison assault over which he presided.

A glaring example of the regime's widespread and systematic censorship of free and independent expression was the arrest in May of seven young men and women who had created a homemade dance video set to the song "Happy". The video -- widespread on the internet -- was swiftly condemned by Iranian authorities as being "vulgar" and against "public chastity". Indeed, following the trial the director was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and 91 lashes while the other six participants were sentenced to six months imprisonment and 91 lashes. While the sentences in this high profile case were suspended for a period of three years, the effect of the verdict and sentences will be the chilling of independent expression and free speech.

The start of 2015 was marked by yet another wave of arrests targeting journalists -- including blogger Saeed Pourheydar, who has written for many reformist publicaitons -- further establishing the regime as a global leader in repressing freedom of expression. Indeed, reports have identified some 40 imprisoned journalists, making Iran one of the worst violators in this regard.

The international community must demand accountability and action from the Iranian regime, which must cease and desist from its criminalization of dissent and its accompanying culture of impunity.


The Iranian legal system is characterized more by the assault on the rule of law -- or law by theocratic rule -- while lacking any semblance of independence for the judiciary and the legal profession. Indeed, the system is designed to enable and enforce the regime's massive human rights violations, including revoking the law licenses of outspoken human rights defenders who have represented political prisoners -- such as Nasrin Sotoudeh.

Moreover, a culture of impunity pervades the Iranian judiciary, which, as Dr. Shaheed observed in his recent report, remains subject to the "undue influence of the security apparatus". In its Declaration submitted to the 2014 Universal Periodic Review, the human rights monitoring group International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran noted the "pervasive denial of due process" in Iranian courts; routine arrests, searches, and confiscations made without a warrant; the holding of detainees at unknown locations and without access to counsel; and the denial of information about charges or trial procedures. Indeed, the Declaration noted that trials are frequently "brief, with little or no evidence presented other than 'confessions' that have been elicited under torture".

Dr. Shaheed further notes that the excessive use of capital punishment has been "compounded by the frequency of reports alleging violations of national and international fair trial standards".

Human rights lawyers engaged in the defense of clients who have been arbitrarily detained or otherwise prosecuted for political crimes have been publically accused by the head of Iran's judiciary -- Larijani -- of damaging the government's reputation. Indeed, this type of ongoing intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention of human rights lawyers -- such as Mohammad Mostafaei, Shirin Ebadi, and Shadi Sadr -- constitutes a standing violation of Iran's international legal obligations under the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which provide that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work "without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference."


The UN Human Rights Council recently concluded its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Iran, which built on the 123 recommendations from February 2010 that Iran had accepted in order to "fully comply with its international human rights obligations". The past four years have demonstrated that the Iranian government, rather than implement the recommendations made in the first UPR, has continued its massive violations of human rights in breach of its own undertakings.

The recommendations Iran pledged to fulfill in the first UPR -- but which it has systematically violated - include allowing "freedom of expression, freedom of the media and of assembly"; "bringing its national legislation into conformity with international obligations on women's rights"; "taking further steps to eliminate torture and other forms of ill treatment; ensuring an effective and impartial judicial system"; and "investigat[ing] and prosecut[ing] all those, including Government officials and paramilitary members, suspected of having mistreated, tortured or killed anyone".

The international community must hold the Iranian government to account for its failure to meet its own human rights obligations and undertakings in the Universal Periodic Review.


The Iranian regime continues to engage in the persistent and pervasive incitement to hate and even genocide. Throughout the years, high-ranking government officials and religious leaders have called for the destruction of Israel, with the 21st-century beginning with Supreme Leader Khamenei calling for "the annihilation of the Jewish State". The Supreme Leader has continued to incite hatred and violence against the Jewish people and the Jewish State, declaring recently, yet again, that Israel is a cancer and that the "barbaric" Zionists have "no cure but to be annihilated".

While Rouhani has softened his tone for international consumption, he nonetheless presides over a regime that disseminates a bigoted ideology of anti-Jewish hatred and hatred against religious minorities like the Baha'i. Indeed, this virulent incitement to hate and violence originates with the Supreme Leader -- who himself continues the hateful legacy of his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Indeed, in a clear instance of incitement to hate, Rouhani declared before an audience of thousands at the Quds Day rally -- where protesters displayed placards calling for "death to Israel" -- that the "Islamic world must unite in unison to declare this day one of . . . hatred . . . against Israel". As well, the regime's use of Quds day, and since, to foster anti-Jewish vitriol must be viewed against the backdrop of its ongoing support for international terrorism targeting Jews and Israelis as documented in testimony before the U.S. Congress, Canadian Parliament and the like. Recently, the Supreme Leader has continued with his rhetoric of dehumanization, referring to Israel as the "wolfish, murderous infidel", while declaring the Zionist regime "illegitimate from its birth" and calling for Israel's destruction.

Supreme Leader Khamenei has also launched a new social media campaign that has come to be known as "We Love Fighting Israel", replete with its own Twitter hashtag: "#FightingtheZionists". It is indeed ironic that such incitement to hate has now gone viral given the regime's massive repression of social media and other forms of public expression.

Incitement to hatred of and violence against other religious minorities in Iran is also widespread, including Dervish Muslims -- who are described by religious leaders as "infidels and Wahhabists" -- and the Baha'i -- who have been accused, inter alia, of spying for foreign governments and are portrayed in state-controlled media as political subversives. Simply put, the regime's systematic incitement to hate constitutes a standing and ongoing violation of international law.


The importance of achieving a principled nuclear agreement is clear but one can neither ignore nor sanitize the rights-violating Iranian regime and threats posed by the culture of impunity that continue unabated under Rouhani's presidency, despite his promises of reform, transparency, and commitment to protect human rights.

Irwin Cotler is a Member of the Canadian Parliament, Emeritus Professor of Law (McGill University), and the former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada. He is co-Chair with U.S. Senator Mark Kirk of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran, and co-Chair of the Global Iranian Political Prisoner Advocacy Project.