Iran’s Waning Human Rights

Iran’s Waning Human Rights

With international attention focused on Tehran’s nuclear activities, democracy advocates, journalists, and human rights campaigners in Iran face a worsening situation and daily harassment. 

August 9, 2006 12:51 pm (EST)

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The recent death of activist Akbar Mohammadi in Tehran’s Evin prison, followed by the ban of a leading human rights organization, are fresh signals of the low tolerance for dissent under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime. Human rights monitors say that in Iran critics are silenced, independent journalists and opposition members are arrested, and minorities are persecuted. Reports persist of torture in detention centers. With attention in the region focused on matters of war and peace—Israel’s battle with Hezbollah, Iran’s nuclear program, sectarian warfare in Iraq—human rights violations appear to face less international scrutiny. Some experts argue that Washington’s latest soft diplomacy efforts and its emphasis on encouraging regime change in Iran are only damaging the cause of Iranian activists. Others say more forceful action by the United States and others is needed to reverse Iran’s worsening human rights record.

What is the status of Iran’s human rights record?

Rights watchdog groups say the regime’s moves against government critics have recently intensified. "The situation has deteriorated in terms of targeting independent voices and organizations," says Hadi Ghaemi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, pointing to a rising number of disappearances, incidents of torture, and summary executions, often by stoning. Experts say the basij, a volunteer military established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979-80 revolution, has cracked down on women, homosexuals, and ethnic and religious minorities like Azeris, Arabs, Christians, and Kurds. Ghaemi says sharia, or Islamic law, is now more strictly imposed by judges than under the previous regime of reformist President Mohammed Khatami. The result, says Karim Sadjadpour, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst, is that "critics"—journalists, activists, human rights lawyers—"are not as bold as they once were."

What are some specific human rights violations in Iran?

  • Rise in summary executions. Of the ninety-eight Iranians executed so far this year, a dozen were women or minors (by comparison, Amnesty International reports sixty-nine executions between July 2005 and January 2006, two of whom were minors). Despite a moratorium in 2002, watchdog groups say death by public stoning of women has resurfaced (Iran’s penal code allows it in cases of adultery), particularly in provinces where there is less media attention. Homosexuals are often targeted as well. Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which affords legal rights to minorities and minors.
  • Persecution of religious or ethnic minorities. According to the State Department, the Iranian government has severely restricted freedom of religion. There have been widespread reports of Iran’s non-Muslim religious minorities—particularly the Baha’is—being harassed or imprisoned by government authorities. Charges of economic neglect and discrimination by various minorities have in some cases led to clashes between police and ethnic or religious minority demonstrators. In March, Baluchis attacked a police motorcade in southeastern Iran, killing twenty. In May, clashes in the northwest city of Tabriz between ethnic Azeris, which comprise a quarter of Iran’s population, and government forces over an offensive cartoon in a state-run newspaper left nine people dead. In another incident, a number of protesting Ahwazi Arabs were killed by security forces in Khuzestan province. Since early 2005, there have been a number of attacks against government targets by Arabs, mainly in southwest Iran, where the bulk of the country’s two million Arabs reside. But "the most difficult question for the regime to resolve is the Kurdish question," Sadjadpour says. There are 4.8 million Iranian Kurds, and they live in some of the least developed sections of the country. Sadjadpour says "given what they see next door—the newfound confidence of Iraqi Kurds—there’s concern Iranian Kurds will agitate for greater autonomy."
  • Clampdown against human rights organizations. On August 2, Iran’s Interior ministry banned one of the country’s most prominent minority rights groups, the Defender of Human Rights Center (DHRC), founded by 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. The group defends roughly 70 percent of Iran’s political prisoners and has been particularly critical of the religious hard-liners in power. A number of similar organizations reported cases of harassment or curtailment of activity.
  • Abuse of prisoners. Mohammadi was the second prisoner at Evin to die—rights advocates say he was beaten—in custody over the past three years. He was one among thousands of students arrested in July 1999 during a protest over the closure of several newspapers. In April 2004, Iran’s judiciary officially banned torture but the practice remains commonplace in prisons like Evin, where inmates are often subjected to sensory deprivation (or so-called "white torture"), solitary confinement, or floggings. Much of the prisoner abuse, the UN Special Representative for Iran of the Commission on Human Rights (UNSR) found in 2003, occurs in unofficial detention centers run by Iran’s intelligence services and the military.
  • Intimidation of journalists. Reporters without Borders, in its most recent annual report, calls Iran "the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists and bloggers," with the number of threats, summons, and arrests of reporters increasing under Ahmadinejad’s watch. Thirteen journalists were jailed in 2005, and what little independent media there is in Iran practice what investigative journalist Akbar Ganji calls self-censorship to avoid closure. Over the past decade, more than one hundred newspapers have shut their doors (A brief glasnost-type period under Khatami was followed by a press crackdown after the 1999 student uprisings). Ganji, released in March after serving more than five years in Evin, recently told an audience at the PEN American Center that detained journalists are often forced to confess to false crimes like espionage or face torture. Many are banned from leaving Iran. Last October, the Iranian government introduced so-called Press Courts to punish, monitor, or detain journalists suspected of violating the country’s press codes, according to the State Department’s 2005 Human Rights report. In Iran, "there’s freedom of speech," Sadjadpour says, quoting an old adage, "but not freedom after speech."

Why is Iran’s human rights situation worsening?

Because of Ahmadinejad’s conservative stance on cultural issues and embrace of strict Islamic law, writes Bill Samii, a Middle East expert with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Another problem, Samii says, is the president’s "appointment of officials with security and intelligence backgrounds for interior ministry and provincial government suggests the human rights situation will only worsen." Prominent Iranian activists, among others, say their country’s human rights situation has been adversely affected by President Bush’s refusal to disavow the military option to solve the impasse on Iran’s nuclear activities. "[T]he threat of foreign military intervention will provide a powerful excuse for authoritarian elements to uproot [human rights organizations] and put an end to their growth," wrote Ghaemi and Ebadi, in a February 2005 New York Times op-ed.   

What leverage does the United States have on human rights in Iran?

Not much, experts say. "It’s very difficult to do anything from 5,000 miles away when you have no embassy in Tehran," Sadjadpour says, adding that the best U.S. policy should be, like the doctor’s oath, "to do no harm." Iranian officials say the United States employs double standards because it supports regimes with poor human rights records like Saudi Arabia. Ghaemi calls the United Nations the most legitimate voice on human rights in Iran but says “its criticism has not been very forceful and not based on any independent investigations.” In a sign of the government’s attitude toward the new UN Human Rights Council, it included in its delegation to the Council’s opening session Tehran’s prosecutor-general Said Mortazavi, regarded by Western monitors as a rights abuser and implicated in the death of the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003.

What leverage do the Europeans have?

Very little, experts say. For the past few years there has been a formal human rights dialogue between Europe and Iran, but it has produced few tangible results, and last December, Iran suspended the dialogue. "They [Europe] felt like they weren’t holding the major cards," Sadjadpour says, adding that the United States holds more carrots than Europe on this issue and should therefore include human rights as part of the agenda if Washington and Tehran ever hold talks on the nuclear issue. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have criticized the European Union for not exerting enough pressure on Iran on the issue of human rights. But on July 26, the European Union did issue a statement blasting the Iranian government for its arrest of human rights lawyers, including Abdolfattah Soltani, a founder of the DHRC who was sentenced to five years in prison.

How does Iran’s human rights record compare to the rest of the region?

It’s better than most Arab states in the Middle East. Some independent newspapers are still permitted. Women generally enjoy more freedoms than in other states in the region, including the right to vote and attend university. Yet these freedoms, Sadjadpour says, "are in spite of the regime, not because of the regime." Further, Iran has had a different recent past than many of its Arab neighbors. "There’s been revolution, war, a reform movement—all of which has given rise to more widespread calls for protection of human rights than other [Middle Eastern] countries," Ghaemi says. "There is a grassroots movement [in Iran] that believes respect for human rights must be enshrined in the government. [Among the opposition] you don’t see much common views of ideology but you see a constant call for human rights and peaceful disobedience campaigns."

Iran’s revolutionary history also distinguishes it from most Middle East countries. Roughly three-quarters of its population is under the age of thirty, meaning they were not as strongly influenced by the revolutionary era of the 1980s. "They don’t have any special allegiance to the Islamic Revolution. Increasingly they are outspoken when their economic means are not met," Sadjadpour says. He says the failure of Khatami’s eight-year reform movement (1997-2005) has resulted in a sense of apathy among young Iranians. "They tried to change the system via the ballot box," he says, "and it didn’t work."

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