Since taking office in 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been subject to near-constant criticism regarding the mismatch between his public statements and his administration’s actual actions with regard to human rights and freedom of speech.
As a candidate, both for his first term and his 2017 reelection, Rouhani promised, for instance, to secure the release of the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. But after securing office in both contests, he quickly backed away from those promises, citing the independent authority of the judiciary and the ultimate responsibility of this and other hardline entities for the status of detainees. Rouhani also promised that dual nationals would be able to return to Iran without fear of reprisal under his leadership, and yet more than 30 such individuals have been arrested on spurious charges just since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations in 2015.
The ongoing tension between Rouhani’s public relations and his policy initiatives was highlighted anew on Saturday when the CHRIٍ reported upon the apparent inaction of a commission convened by the president with the stated purpose of investigating the cause of several recent, suspicious deaths. The supposed fact-finding commission has now been in place for more than three months, but according to persons familiar with the cases it was supposed to be investigating, it has not even arranged to speak with those who were responsible for interrogating persons who died in detention amidst crackdowns on dissent early this year.
The commission was convened five days after the death of Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Professor Kavous Seyed-Emami spurred widespread outcry both domestically and internationally. His death took place after the mass arrest of environmental activists whom the intelligence division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps declared to be spies. Some have suggested that these allegations merely provided an excuse to silence criticism over government mismanagement of water and other resources, which benefited the land holdings of the IRGC itself. In any event, the accusations of spying were never publicly substantiated, and neither was the government’s account of Seyed-Emami’s death.
After the detainees death was discovered, judicial authorities insisted that he had confessed to spying and then committed suicide. However, CCTV footage from his cell shows neither of these things. Seyed-Emami’s death apparently took place off camera, and authorities have frustrated efforts to conduct an independent investigation of the cause of death. Suicide is the same explanation that was given for other suspicious deaths that were reported in the midst of the government’s crackdown on mass protests in January. In some of those cases, the families of the deceased were also prevented from commissioning independent autopsies, and were harassed for speaking publicly about the deaths.
So far, the only action of the Rouhani administration’s “fact-finding commission” has arguably been motivated by the desire to defray accusations of harassment against the survivors of deceased detainees. According to an attorney for the Seyed-Emami family, “The only thing the commission has done is one of the president’s assistant legal advisers, Ms. [Laya] Joneydi, has met with Seyed-Emami’s widow and listened to her cry and share her memories. But there has been no meeting with agents of the Revolutionary Guards who detained Kavous Seyed-Emami and other environmentalists.”
Meanwhile, the harassment continues of those who are seeking to bring real publicity to this and other such cases. Another report published by CHRI on Saturday highlighted the continuing threats against Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer who revealed in January that his client Vahid Heydari had been beaten at an Arak police station some time before his death in custody. The revelation led to Najafi being arrested on national security charges including “spreading propaganda,” thus putting him at risk of a jail sentence of multiple years.
Najafi told CHRI that he has faced this sort of pressure at various point during his career. “The authorities themselves have told me that they are trying to grind me into oblivion,” he said, adding that, “in fact, they have succeeded in putting me under financial pressure and disrupted my life.” He is now free on approximately 237,000 dollars’ bail, but spent three months in prison prior to mid-April.
The report also indicates that Najafi is scheduled to face trial alongside several participants in the January protests, a fact that highlights the apparent overlap between specific crackdowns on those protesters and a more general crackdown on known dissenters and political activists. The demonstrations, though taking place simultaneously in an estimated 142 cities and towns, were credited with giving voice to a number of different economic, social, and political demands. As such, it may be difficult to separate the nationwide uprising, or the government’s response to it, from other protests such as the demonstrations for Arab rights in Khuzestan Province and the ongoing protests by farmers in Isfahan over water scarcity.
The Arab protests were mentioned on Sunday by Iran Human Rights Monitor in the context of a report on eight detainees who have begun a hunger strike in protests against their mistreatment and indefinite detention. These eight and others have been held in custody within harsh conditions for upwards of 10 months, without their cases being referred to court. This alone speaks to the hardships faced by Iranian political prisoners, and those who initiated hunger strikes were reportedly subjected to harsher treatment, including isolation and refusal of family visits.
Naturally, the consequences for protests staged inside prison can also include beatings and torture A recent report by the Human Rights Activists News Agency calls attention to one example of this, identifying Abdul Hakim Chakeri as someone who objected to intrusive and degrading searches after a family visit and who was punished by being shackled, beaten, and left in the prison yard for three days.
Growing numbers of people could be facing fates such as this in the coming days. Iran-HRM reports that some 500 people have been arrested for participation in the Arab rights protests, including children under the age of 15. Meanwhile, sources like the National Council of Resistance of Iran indicate that the broader anti-government protests resulted in approximately 8,000 arrests, hundreds of which recently led to the filing of national security charges, which could carry multi-year sentences or even death sentences.
Another Iran-HRM report was published on Sunday which called attention to the staggering numbers of arrests that already took place in Iran, even before the crackdown on the uprising at the start of this year. The latest statistics indicate that about 500,000 people are detained at some point each year and that 200,000 of them go on to serve substantial sentences. The report also finds that in the Iranian year spanning from March 2016 to March 2017, about 70 percent of detainees were under the age of 40. This young trend in arrests, as well as the raw number of them, is very likely to accelerate when the current year’s statistics are taken into account, as hardline authorities have acknowledged the overwhelmingly young make-up of the arrest rolls associated with the January uprising.
At least one regime official attributed to the high number of arrests in general and the high number of youth arrests in particular to “deteriorating moral values.” But this can easily be interpreted as a coded reference to increasing numbers of politically motivated arrests, as authorities crackdown on dissent and also step up the enforcement of mandatory veiling and other repressive, often religious, laws.
This trend, too, persists in defiance of President Rouhani’s public image, which was largely defined by campaign-trail promises of a freer and more open Iranian society. As with the controversy over suspicious deaths of detainees, Rouhani has repeatedly made public statements urging greater legal permissiveness and a more moderate approach to domestic policy. But in these and other areas, there is still no sign of real initiatives that are aimed at curtailing hardline authorities or containing the widening crackdown.