Routine Pardons Contribute to Dubious Public Relations Campaign on Human Rights

On Thursday, The Iran Project reported that the clerical regime’s Supreme Leader had pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,166 prisoners following a traditional request from the judiciary which marks the Muslim festivals of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Ghadeer. The first of these is celebrated by all Muslims and represents the end of the annual hajj pilgrimage; the other is a Shiite-specific festival that commemorates the passage of Islamic leadership to Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

Iranian law establishes the tradition whereby the supreme leader can grant clemency upon recommendation from the head of the judiciary. But it is noted that the law also specifically bars various types of crimes from being subject to this clemency. These include rape, armed robbery, arms smuggling and certain financial crimes. The banned categories also include drug crimes, which account for the overwhelming majority of capital sentences in the Islamic Republic. Iran has long been criticized for its maintenance of the world’s highest per-capita rate of executions, a statistic that is largely attributable to drug-related executions, although political prisoners may also be made subject to the country’s death penalty.

Additionally, the judiciary may not request and the supreme leader may not grant clemency to individuals who have been convicted for armed struggle against the government or for the associated crime of Moharebeh, which translates as “enmity (or war) against God.” When this charge was codified in Iranian law, it was supposedly meant to apply to armed fighters, but in practice it has often been used in order to pursue the death penalty for people who have committed such “crimes” as campaigning or providing financial support for pro-democracy opposition groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

Initial reports of Khamenei’s pardons appeared in state-affiliated Iranian media and were notably vague. Thus it is not clear what types of prisoners were scheduled to be released in commemoration of the holy days. But based on the law and the established practices of the Iranian regime, it is safe to conclude that few if any death row inmates or political prisoners were included in the gesture. Furthermore, one might suppose the publication of this story to be part of a broader Iranian public relations campaign aimed at disputing or deflecting international criticism of the regime’s human rights violations.

Interestingly, Khamenei’s pardons came just days after Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi issued a statement rejecting the findings in the latest report by the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Iran News Update reported upon this earlier in the week and highlighted it as an example of a propaganda campaign that also includes the heavily stage-managed tour of Evin Prison that was given to select foreign diplomats in July. The report also noted that while the regime routinely rejects human rights reports from international organizations, it does not back these rejections with actual evidence of the reports’ falsity, choosing instead to simply accuse critics of political bias.

In the past, even supposedly moderate figures like Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have been lambasted by international media and human rights advocates for such things as statements asserting that the Islamic Republic simply does not hold political prisoners. But numerous non-governmental organizations regularly track political imprisonments in Iran and they have determined, for instance, that the country ranks 165th out of 180 on criteria of freedom for journalists.

Dozens of reporters are known to presently be held in Iranian jails, and even those who are not under arrest are subject to a generally repressive environment. In fact, The Tower issued a report on Thursday indicating that the regime’s efforts to control the media are so comprehensive they do not even stop at the Iranian border. The report detailed the harassment of foreign-based journalists through such means as threats levied against their family members in Iran. Iranian intelligence agents have also reportedly made their presence known at international gatherings like the nuclear negotiations that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Tower suggests that this foreign intimidation has likely affected coverage of the JCPOA and other issues.

Of course, it is easy to see these measures as being closely aligned with the regime’s efforts to spread its own propaganda through state-controlled media and public statements, some of which are blatantly false. In the interest of broadening the reach of such statements and associated anti-Western rhetoric, Supreme Leader Khamenei maintains an active presence on Twitter, consisting of separate accounts that tweet in Farsi, Arabic, and English. Numerous other Iranian officials also use Twitter and other social media platforms, despite the fact that these are technically banned throughout the Islamic Republic.

Many private citizens evade these restrictions, often using them for the purpose of dissenting commentary and activist organizing. But reports routinely emerge to indicate that Iranian authorities are stepping up efforts to stamp out the most undesirable content on these platforms. The Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported that one such crackdown seemed to have been undertaken by Cyber Security forces in the wake of protests that started in the city of Baneh on Tuesday. As many as 5,000 residents of that city alone closed shops and took to the streets to demand justice for two kolbars – Kurdish cross-border porters – who had been killed by Iranian border security the previous day.

Rudaw also reported that these protests had spread to the cities of Sanandanaj and Sardasht by Thursday. Meanwhile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran vaguely connected these protests to a number of others that had also begun this week, some of them addressing repression of labor rights activists and others calling attention to the plight of political prisoners, especially those that have been on life-threatening hunger strikes for periods of weeks.

While the regime’s response to these protests has been indicative of the falsity of its claims regarding human rights in general, some of those protests have also served to refute a more specific propaganda claim issued by the supreme leader around the time he granted clemency to unidentified prisoners. Iran Front Page News reported on Thursday that Khamenei had responded to a letter of protest from a Sunni cleric who was concerned about institutionalized discrimination of Sunni Muslims, who are a minority in the Islamic Republic. In that response, Khamenei called for equal protection of all groups under the law, effectively denying the legitimacy of the cleric’s concerns.

But recent reports have suggested that the Iranian judiciary has responded to pressures over its overuse of the death penalty by slowing the implementation of capital sentences for Shiites but actually accelerating them for Sunnis. This is only one piece of evidence cited to support the notion of institutionalized discrimination, to say nothing about the regime’s treatment of other minorities, including the Kurds and Baha’i religious community.

The Baneh protests were motivated not only by the killing of the two kolbars but also by previous such killings and by the fact that such incidents are widely regarded as indicative of Iranian authorities’ contempt for the lives of the Kurds, whom they perceive as a threat to national security because of strong ethnic identity and an active separatist movement. Tuesday’s protests were certainly not the first of their kind in recent months. In May, riots rocked the city of Mashhad when citizens suspected that authorities had covered up the role of a Revolutionary Guard intelligence agent in the death of a 25-year-old hotel chambermaid.

Even discounting these reports as isolated incidents, Khamenei’s comments about equal protection are falsified by official state policy toward groups like the Baha’i. In fact, in 1991, Khamenei personally approved a memo stating that Baha’i students “must be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies.” The government has also made a familiar habit of shuttering Baha’i businesses and paving over Baha’i gravesites.

Naturally, neither these nor any other acts of obvious disenfranchisement are publicly acknowledged by Iranian officials. But human rights monitors have collected multitudes of clear evidence for such practices, thereby preemptively countering the regime’s efforts to deny its culpability for human rights violations against minorities, activists, reporters, and the Iranian people as a whole.

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