On Wednesday, Amnesty International issued a new report on human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic of Iran, with particular emphasis on the trends that they have followed since the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani. Contrary to the expectations of some Western officials and some of Rouhani’s initial body of domestic followers, the so-called moderate has consistently failed to oversee improvements in the human rights situations over the course of his first four years in office, which end this week with his inauguration for a second term.
In fact, far more than just failing to deliver on promised reforms, Rouhani’s presidency has coincided with a “vicious crackdown” on social activists and civil society, according to the Amnesty report. The human rights advocacy group points to several specific cases in order to highlight the broader trend of long prison sentences being handed down for activities that cannot be reasonably identified as crimes.
One such case is that of Arash Sadeghi, an activist who is serving 19 years in prison for activities like communicating with international human rights defenders, and who is now reported to be in critically poor health following a months-long hunger strike and the punitive denial of medical treatment by prison authorities. Another case is that of Narges Mohammadi, a renowned human rights lawyer who is serving a 16-year sentence, largely as punishment for communicating with the European Union’s head of foreign policy in 2014.
The Amnesty report also highlights the targeting of labor organizers and ethnic/religious minorities. But its larger point is that the overall threshold for defining activities as national security crimes has steadily diminished throughout the first four years of Rouhani’s presidency. At the same time, the sentences for these things have grown more severe. The Iranian judiciary is able to easily get away with arbitrary arrests and punishment, because of rampant abuse in the country’s legal system. Amnesty has identified specific cases in which activists were handed years-long prison sentences after trials lasting only 45 minutes after defense attorneys were either obstructed in their work or targeted with threats of legal consequences if they earnestly advocated for the accused.
The regular persecution of human rights defenders in the Islamic Republic indicates that the Iranian regime is devoting its efforts to simply suppressing criticism of human rights abuses, as opposed to actually addressing relevant criticisms coming both from the international community and from the Iranian public. The efforts to block information leaks are backed up by outright denials from Iranian officials, many of them denying any wrongdoing whatsoever, either intentional or unintentional.
Iran Human Rights Monitor points out, for instance, that Iran’s own so-called human rights official, Javad Larijani recently asserted that there were no political prisoners in the country at all. This claim immediately preceded a heavily stage-managed tour given to foreign diplomats, of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. As has previously been reported, last month’s public relations stunt was conducted without the presence of any human rights monitors and showcased only a select portion of the prison while steadfastly avoiding contact between the foreign diplomats and the political prisoners who are housed in the facility, primarily in their own dedicated wards.
Iran Human Rights Monitor described all of this as “an attempt on the part of the regime to debunk growing international criticism of Iran's human rights violations, especially in its prisons.” But clearly such public relations efforts are doing little to diminish international reporting upon ongoing abuses, especially as those abuses escalate, contradicting previous expectations of domestic progress.
One of the earliest signs of a worsening human rights outlook under the Rouhani presidency was the escalating usage of the death penalty in a country that had already acquired a reputation for consistently leading the world in per capita rates of execution. In 2015 alone, approximately 1,000 people were put to death by hanging in the Islamic Republic, and Rouhani was credited with overseeing the worst period of executions in 25 years. Since then, the rate of hangings has fluctuated dramatically, but the periodic flurries of execution have been more than enough to let Iran retain its world-leading title. In 2016, the Islamic Republic accounted for 55 percent of all of the known executions that had been carried out across the globe.
The Iran Human Rights Monitor report indicated that 102 Iranian death sentences were carried out in July 2017 alone, at the end of which 120 additional executions were still pending. That month’s executions accounted for nearly half the number that had been carried out during the previous six months. The total figure for the first six months of 2017 was 239.
What’s more, the human rights concerns on this issue are not just limited to the overuse of capital punishment or even to the fact that it is applied to nonviolent crimes including drug trafficking and some political or religious crimes such as “enmity against God.” Tehran has also been criticized for continuing to apply the death penalty to persons who were still minors at the time of their alleged offenses, and for carrying some executions out in public, as by hanging convicts from cranes over assembled crowds that have sometimes been shown to include children.
The Iran Human Rights website reports that one such execution took place on Tuesday, with the 28-year-old convict Hossein Sarooki being hanged before a crowd of approximately 5,000 people. The public nature of the execution was proudly acknowledged by Iranian state media, and Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that that same state media had widely publicized at least seven of the executions carried out in July. In the first half of 2017, at least a dozen executions were carried out in public, and at least three persons who had been under 18 at the time of their offenses were put to death.
Whereas Tehran’s response to some Western criticisms of these trends is simple denial, there are also instance in which Iranian officials disregard those criticisms as cultural impositions by imperial powers. The execution of minors is one such example, in which case the clerical regime proudly stands by laws that allow for the contravention of international human rights standards. Similarly, various Iranian officials have proudly acknowledged their role in past incidents that foreign observers have described as crimes against humanity. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi’s public statement last year affirming that he feels proud of his participation in a massacre of political prisoners in 1988, which Pourmohammadi described as carrying out “God’s commandment” of death for the opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
This sort of boasting has also been applied to known instances of the Iranian state killing other declared enemies, including Western nationals. On Wednesday, Commentary Magazine pointed out that the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani had publicly bragged about the organization’s role in killing Americans during the American occupation of neighboring Iraq.
While this rhetoric was directed against US servicemen on foreign soil, it is still relevant to the domestic human rights situation in Iran because a handful of the country’s political prisoners are Western nationals, while others have apparently been targeted on the basis of their connections to the US, Britain, or other Western nations. Last week, the US House of Representatives held a hearing for the families of four American citizens and one US permanent resident who are being held hostage in Iran. One of those individuals, Robert Levinson, vanished without a trace after being taken into custody 10 years ago, and the others were arrested more recently and are serving sentences of upwards of 10 years, on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations of spying.
In a recent interview with CBS News, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif attempted to deny that one of these individuals, the 81-year-old Baquer Namazi, is even being held in prison. But his family in the United States has been in contact with people who have visited him in Evin. This once again goes to show the inadequacy of Iranian denials in the face of steadily growing evidence for persistent human rights abuses.
American, Canadian, and British authorities are well aware of the existence of Iranian political prisoners, if only because their own citizens have been included in those ranks. At the same time, it is difficult for Tehran to deny that it is holding prisoners of conscience, since its punitive crackdowns on those specific prison populations have generated very public activism from the same. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported on Wednesday that dozens of inmates in Gohardasht prison began an indefinite hunger strike after prison authorities raided their wards, threatened at least one inmate with early implementation of his death sentence, and arbitrarily transferred prisoners in an apparent attempt to prevent information escaping the prison and reaching international human rights authorities.
Throughout recent months, hunger strikes have proven effective at attracting domestic and international attention to the abuse of political prisoners, even in spite of the ongoing efforts by the regime to suppress communication between prisoners and the general public.