Growing Opposition to Iran’s Crackdown on Foreign and Minority Voices

On Wednesday, the UK’s Independent newspaper reported that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had finally made a public statement on the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British charity worker who was taken into custody by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in April of last year. Johnson and other British government officials had come under fire in recent months for their failure to publicly call for the political prisoner’s release, even as the UK continued to pursue new economic relations with Iran in the atmosphere created by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe is currently serving a five-year prison sentence, but is also facing additional charges that could extend her sentence past 20 years. The exact nature of the charges has not been made known to the defendant, her lawyer, or her family in either case. And Johnson referred to the fact of this secrecy in his recent comments, calling it “extraordinary, incredible”. However, this kind of opacity is actually common in cases against Iranian political prisoners, and a number of US nationals have also been condemned to multi-year prison sentences in the Islamic Republic without having ever had their charges read to them.

The case against Zaghari-Ratcliffe appears to have been based simply upon her dual nationality and her affiliation, however loose, with British media. Early in her career, Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for BBC Media Action, a charitable arm of the British Broadcasting Company. Her husband has explained that her work largely consisted of making travel arrangements for people who to receive training in the pursuit of journalistic activities in areas with limited press freedom, like Iran. Iranian authorities transformed this aspect of her background into claims that she had personally trained journalists on behalf of BBC Persian, with the express intention of helping them to topple the Iranian regime.

In fact, Zaghari-Ratcliffe never worked for BBC Persian at all, and she had little contact with actual journalists. Unfortunately, Johnson’s comments on her case failed to fully discredit the Iranian account, despite being aimed at defending her. “She was simply teaching people journalism as I understand it,” he was quoted as saying, apparently accepting Tehran’s account of the role she had played while rejecting Tehran’s interpretation of that role and its purpose.

This is not the only perceived shortcoming in Johnson’s statement. According to the Independent, his remarks also included apparent justification for the government’s former silence on the case. The Foreign Secretary argued that loud, public campaigns for the release of Western nationals in the Middle East can be counterproductive. As evidence, he pointed to multiple arrests of US nationals, some of which took place after public outcry regarding other cases.

Interestingly, Iranian authorities themselves often tell the families of political prisoners not to go public with their cases. This advice tends to be supported by the claim that the cases will be quickly resolved if the families remain silent. Yet in many of those cases, the families end up speaking out months or even years later because their loved ones were falsely convicted in spite of the silence, or because they remained in detention with no sign of progress toward any end.

In response to Johnson’s remarks about US nationals being taken into custody as reprisal for public campaigns over other cases, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee directly asked the Foreign Secretary whether this meant the Iranians were hostage-takers. “I’m not going to go as far as to say that,” he replied, according to the Independent.
While Johnson apparently overstated the extent of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s association with the BBC, her husband’s account of much looser connections are likely enough on their own to justify her arrest in the minds of hardline Iranian authorities.

The renewed attention for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case comes as the UK is also dealing with reports of a targeted Iranian campaign against 152 employees and contributors of BBC Persian. Tehran recently passed a measure barring each of these individuals from conducting any financial transactions in the Islamic Republic, as well as barring any who were in the country from leaving. This prompted the BBC to file a complaint with the United Nations, to which to UN special rapporteurs issued a joint statement on Friday, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

“The Iranian authorities appear to regard any affiliation with the BBC as a crime,” the statement read in part. It was authored by special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye and special rapporteur on Iran’s human rights situation Asma Jahangir. It went on to note that the harassment of BBC Persian reporters was clearly aimed at interfering with legitimate journalistic work.

Two days earlier, Jahangir had also presented the UN with her semi-annual rapport on the overall human rights situation in Iran, as noted by CHRI. In it she said that that situation was generally deteriorating, even though there were some hopeful signs, particularly in the form of public statements from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. But these statements have been repeated since his campaign for election to his first term in 2013, yet no recognizable action has been taken to follow up on them.

The simultaneous crackdowns on journalists and dual nationals are emblematic of the Rouhani administration’s inaction and the regime’s terrible human rights record, especially considering that Rouhani himself had repeatedly called for a freer and more open Iranian society while promising that Iranian expatriates could return home without fear of reprisal.

Neither the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case nor the recent financial and travel bans on BBC journalists are unique. In fact, a recent video report by IranWire detailed the harassment that BBC journalists had been experiencing for eight years, since shortly before BBC Persian was formally banned. Another report from the same outlet looked specifically at recent instances of harassment, closely coinciding with the new measures and the broader media crackdown.

Some of the worst examples include detention and intimidation of journalists’ families, including elderly parents and children as young as 10 years old. The younger sister of one journalist, Saeedeh Hashemi, was held in solitary confinement for 17 days and forced to call her sister from prison in order to urge her to either give up working for the BBC or begin spying on Western institutions for the Iranian regime. Others have received death threats and threats of termination from their jobs, and IranWire states that there is no sign of this pressure letting up even in the wake of the international attention brought to it by the BBC’s formal complaint.

However, somewhat contrary to Boris Johnson’s remarks on the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, there is no clear evidence that the newfound attention is causing that pressure to intensify, either. In any event, the BBC complaint and the coverage provided by foreign and dissident outlets like BBC Persian and the PMOI-affiliated Iran National Television helps to expose the extent of Iran’s efforts to control the flow of media.

A CHRI report on Monday pointed out that Mohammad Yazdi, a member of Iran’s Guardian Council had made notably provocative statements about the extent of the limitations on dissent in Iranian media. He declared that reformist journalists are “against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran” if they question a finding by the council, which is tasked with vetting legislation and political candidates for compliance with Islamic law and the will of the supreme leader. He added that “the state will stand against them,” presumably implying that such journalists could be charged with national security crimes including those that carry the death penalty, like “enmity against God”.

Yazdi was responding to criticism levied by independent journalists against the decision to prevent a duly elected individual from taking his seat on the Yazd city council, on the grounds that he is a member of the Zoroastrian religious minority. IranWire discussed the incident in greater detail, noting that the Iranian constitution ostensibly allows religious minorities to hold office, but also that the Guardian Council has free rein to interpret the constitution in any way it pleases.

Strictly speaking, the constitution only allows religious minorities to hold office if they are representing a region in which their religious identity is predominant. IranWire argues that this limitation was imposed by design, on the understanding that religious minorities would shrink in a country where they are systemically discriminated against and where conversion from Islam to another faith is illegal and even punishable by death.

On Wednesday, Huffington Post published an article looking at the broader phenomenon behind the disenfranchisement of the Zoroastrian city council candidate, Sepanta Niknam. The article describes how Iranian schools strive to erase minority cultural identities and languages and how religious and ethnic minorities are routinely deprived of civil rights, with the intention of gradually eradicating those minorities. It goes on to explain that this “Persianization” project has apparently bred more protests by minority groups, putting Iran at growing risk of being the latest country to be fractured by separatist movements.

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