Divergent Expectations Follow the End of Karroubi's Hunger Strike

On Friday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran declared that “all eyes are on President Hassan Rouhani” to see how he handles the aftermath of former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi’s brief hunger strike. On Wednesday, Karroubi stopped eating and announced two demands: the removal of intelligence agents and recording devices from the home where he is being held indefinitely, and a public trial to present him with actual charges and a defined sentence if found guilty.

The following day, the 79-year-old Karroubi, who is taking medication for heart problems, was taken to hospital as a result of high blood pressure. While there, at least two regime officials visited him and had conversations with him about his demands. Later on Thursday, Karroubi’s family announced that he had ended his hunger strike after receiving assurances that the intelligence agents would be removed from his home.

The CHRI article on this situation suggested that the Rouhani administration might take further action and push for the fulfillment of Karroubi’s second demand. This optimism was apparently based on the growing expressions of support for Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, both of whom have also been subject to house arrest since 2011. This focus is not only coming from the overwhelmingly pro-democracy population of Iran, but also from certain Iranian legislators and other politicians.

Though now banned from the public eye because of his status as a reformist figurehead, former President Mohammad Khatami has demanded that Rouhani take a more assertive stance on the house arrests, which were major reformist talking points in Rouhani’s campaign and arguably helped him to secure electoral victories both in 2013 and this past May. However, the CHRI points out that Khatami has publicly acknowledged the Iranian president does not have the power to end the house arrests on his own.

Rouhani himself acknowledged this fact soon after winning his second term in office. In speeches immediately following his victory, he indicated that freedom for Karroubi and Mousavi would depend in large part upon institutions like the judiciary, which has been accused of being increasingly beholden to the hardline paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These comments clashed with Rouhani’s statements on the campaign trail suggesting that a stronger mandate for his second term could lead to follow-through on the promises of freedom for the political prisoners.

Accordingly – and contrary to the optimism expressed by the CHRI – other outlets like The Guardian have reported that there is no indication that any elements within the Iranian regime have responded to Karroubi’s demand. Furthermore, Karroubi himself expressed an upsettingly realistic attitude about his prospects when issuing the demand. His wife has told reporters that he “does not expect a fair trial,” and yet will respect the verdict, as long as the trial is conducted publicly.

In reporting upon Karroubi’s initial announcement of his hunger strike, Iran News Update indicated that there was a possibility of this opening up the elderly leader to additional pressure by the regime. The announcement of intelligence agents’ removal is perhaps a hopeful sign, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the regime will actually follow through on the promise. In other instances, officials have made the barest compromises with hunger strikers in order to convince them to bring an end to protests that had attracted a significant amount of public attention.

In various cases, the regime has gone on to renege on its promises, leading groups like the CHRI to the conclusion that political prisoners had been “tricked” into ending their protests before they could achieve their goals. This language has been applied to the cases of civil rights activists Ali Shariati and music distributors Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian, among others.

Even if Tehran does remove surveillance devices from Karroubi’s home in line with his demands, it is possible that this could be seen as an opportunity for authorities to engage in additional abusive activity as long as Karroubi remains under indefinite detention. The trend of arbitrary an extraneous punishment for political prisoners is certainly ongoing. On Friday, another CHRI report highlighted the case of Reza Shahabi and explained that he had recently been ordered to return to prison to serve the months the he had spent on medical leave from a prison sentence that had since expired.

Only after complying with the initial order was Shahabi told that he would be serving an additional year on the basis of his alleged involvement in a 2014 clash between prisoners and guards, in which Shahabi himself was injured after prison authorities raided a ward full of political prisoners. On August 9, Shahabi began a hunger strike in protests against this unlawful sentencing, illustrating the apparent fact that when a hunger strike like Karroubi’s ends, another is never very far behind.

Naturally, figures like Shahabi cannot be expected to receive the same level of nationwide attention as figures like Karroubi. But some hunger strikers do indeed achieve national renown and spark solidarity protests, especially when the act of self-starvation stretches on for weeks. At the beginning of this year, for instance, dozens of people assembled outside of Evin Prison to demand action on his case after the hunger strike by human rights activist Arash Sadeghi exceeded 70 days. The outcry compelled regime authorities to grant conditional release and a case review to Sadeghi’s wife, whose arrest in October had sparked his hunger strike.

Of course, the promise of a judicial review is scarcely a compromise, and it is rare that Iran releases a political prisoner ahead of schedule or even demonstrates a commitment to taking legal proceedings seriously. The country’s legal system is subject to frequent international criticisms for carrying out unfair trials which bar political prisoners from access to their lawyers and result in guilty verdicts after only minutes-long trials behind closed doors.

These unfair trials have gained particular international attention in recent months when they have been directed against Western nationals accused of spying. The latest such figure to be made publicly known is Xiyue Wang, a US citizen and Princeton University researcher who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on the basis of his copying documents from a library as part of his research. On Friday, Reuters reported that Wang had been denied an appeal request, thus casting doubt not only on his prospects for a fair hearing but also on the Rouhani administration’s promise of moderation in the form of engagement with the wider world.

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