On Tuesday, the BBC reported upon recent activity on Iranian social media, which has become well-known as an outlet for protests and verbal opposition to the Iranian regime. In a nation where critical speech is frequently criminalized, social media is also heavily restricted, with total bans being technically in place on platforms like Twitter and Facebook throughout Iran. But many Iranians use virtual private networks and other workarounds in order to defy the bans, thereby contributing to a tumultuous political situation between the regime and its citizens.
The BBC made reference to the bans and their defiance after reporting that the hashtag #18Tir had become popular in recent days as activists and pro-reform Iranians called attention to the legacy of the 1999 student protests, which had their anniversary on Sunday. The incident led to police and civilian militias storming a Tehran University dormitory where students had been protesting the banning of a reformist newspaper. The clashes left at least five students dead, and another was arrested at his home only to disappear while in custody, never to be seen again.
Eighteen years later, the case of Saeed Zeinali continues to be championed by Iranian activists especially around the anniversary of the protests. It also calls attention to the broader problem of what the United Nations Commission on Human Rights refers to as “enforced disappearances” – something that has been known to take place on a fairly regular basis in the Islamic Republic. Other examples of the same have been given similar attention in recent months in spite of the regime’s efforts to suppress public dialogue. Prominent among these are the enforced disappearances of an estimated 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
It is well understood that virtually all of the people involved in that incident were executed following their trials before the “Death Commission” that was tasked with ferreting out persistent opposition to the clerical regime and allegiance to dissident organizations near the end of the Iran-Iraq War. However, the vast majority of the victims are at least arguably categorized as enforced disappearances because their bodies were never released to their families and their places of burial were never revealed.
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which was the main target of the 1988 massacre, has identified probable locations of some of these mass graves, as well as providing the international community with fairly detailed accounts of how the executions and burials were carried out. But the PMOI has also repeatedly urged the United Nations, the European Union, and other global powers to order an investigation into the massacre and to hold its chief perpetrators to account.
Veils of Silence Lifted
These appeals were renewed last year after new information became publicly available about the trials and killings. This also led to unprecedented awareness and discussion of the massacre within Iranian society, particularly on social media. The information took the form of an audio recording from the time of the killings, in Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, then the next in line for the supreme leadership of the Islamic Republic, reprimanded some of his colleagues for their culpability in “the worst crime” of the regime up to that point.
The recording was briefly made available online by Montazeri’s son and continued to be distributed by various activists after the regime ordered it taken down. Ahmad Montazeri was also made subject to national security charges including “spreading propaganda” and was initially given a lengthy prison term before having that sentence reduced and then suspended. Meanwhile, after the previously enforced veil of silence on this matter was unexpectedly lifted, some officials began to publicly defend the killings. Among them was Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who served on the Death Committee in 1988 and now serves as Justice Minister within the supposedly moderate presidential administration of Hassan Rouhani.
The regime also inadvertently kept public dialogue about the massacre alive by fielding Ebrahim Raisi, another leading participant in the killings, as the main challenger to the incumbent Rouhani in presidential elections that took place on May 19. This led to members and supporters of the PMOI placing posters and painting graffiti in the run-up to the election, describing Raisi as a “murderer” and Rouhani as an “imposter” and urging the Iranian people to “vote for regime change.”
Public Relations Stunts
While Tehran no longer seems capable of containing public dialogue about the massacre, the July 1999 protests, or other such hot-button social media topics, the regime does continue to flatly deny the well-established international criticisms of its human rights record. Toward that end, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Thursday that a heavily stage-managed event had taken place to show off a sanitized version of Evin Prison to various countries’ ambassadors to the Islamic Republic.
The notorious Tehran institution is the home to three wards for political prisoners controlled separately by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Intelligence Ministry, and the intelligence branch of the judiciary, as well as another that is not under the control of any particular organization, and one that is used exclusively to house clerics who have generally been imprisoned for views that differ from the regime’s official, fundamentalist interpretation of Shiite Islam.
Each of these wards, as well as much of the prison itself, have been sites of recurrent human rights abuses, including beating and torture, the denial of medical treatment to prisoners in ill health, and the failure of authorities to address unsanitary and inhuman conditions that have been known to exacerbate health problems and give rise to prisoner complaints and protests, which are often violently suppressed.
One common tactic for these protests is the hunger strike, and many high profile instances of this have taken place in recent months, some of them lasting for several weeks and putting protestors at severe health risk. In some cases, the regime has brought an end to such protests by promising action on prisoners’ demands, whether for review of individual cases or for the improvement of prison conditions. But more often than not, it seems, these promises are quickly broken after protestors have halted their hunger strikes and faded somewhat from international headlines.
This was the case, for instance, with Ali Shariati, who was the subject of another report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran. That report described Shariati as having been “tricked” into ending his hunger strike in January, after approximately two months. Authorities promised him conditional release, far surpassing his request for a judicial review of his case, which stemmed from his pro-reform activism at the time of Rouhani’s campaign for a first presidential term in 2013. While Shariati was being interrogated following his arrest in June 2014, the interrogator reportedly taunted him by saying that Rouhani was doing nothing to help his case, in spite of his promises of an improved domestic situation and the end of some repressive practices.
Pressure on an Unchanging Regime
The persistence of poor prison conditions, arbitrary punishments, and excessive use of the death penalty are all factors that have been cited to support the conclusion that promises of moderation have not come to fruition under Rouhani’s presidency. The ambassadorial visit to Evin Prison only serves to highlight that no major faction of the regime is concerned with addressing the existing problems, being instead focused on publicly denying them and contradicting widely supported, independent reports on the human rights situation.
The Center for Human Rights report points out that the renowned and now exiled Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi published an open letter in response to the visit. The letter notes that at least 20 political prisoners were transferred just ahead of the ambassadors’ arrival, in order to isolate them away from the demonstration. Ebadi addressed the ambassadors directly to ask several questions about the visit, including whether they had been shown “the solitary cells without windows, ventilation or toilets” or even informed about the existence of the political wards wherein treatment is frequently much worse.
Much as political prisoners were isolated away from the demonstration, the regime has also sought to prevent them or any other potential spokespersons for the prison population from speaking to international human rights organizations or the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. This situation has been enforced since 2005, and yet investigators have managed to obtain crucial information, such as the fact that in 2007 the overall population of Evin Prison was more than 5 times over capacity.
Such overcrowding is all but certain to continue in the near future, in light of the numerous reports of a crackdown on activists, journalists, and allegedly pro-Western citizens, which is being driven simultaneously by the IRGC and the Intelligence Ministry. Naturally, the enhanced social media activity related to such things as the 1988 massacre and the 1999 protests has contributed to this situation. In the midst of the presidential election campaign, the IRGC reportedly arrested dozens of group administrators for the enormously popular and relatively secure messaging app Telegram.
Various other groups have also been identified as contributors to the swelling ranks of political prisoners, among them the ethnic and religious minorities that are generally understood to be viewed by the clerical regime as a threat to its ideological integrity. World Watch Monitor was among the outlets to report this week on the apparent surge in convictions for persons arrested on the basis of their Christian faith. There have been at least 12 such convictions in the last month, with four receiving 10-year sentences just last week.
The relevant article quoted one human rights advocate as saying that the crackdown is evidently motivated by fear of the growth of Christianity, which is technically legal in Iran but only for people who were not formerly Muslim. The growth of illegal conversion seems to be taking place in parallel with the growth of social media activism and direct protests against the clerical regime. In the annual Free Iran gathering in Paris on July 1, representatives of the National Council of Resistance of Iran called attention to at least 11,000 protests that had been identified over the previous year and argued that this made Tehran vulnerable to regime change.