As Fox News pointed out, the head of the Iranian judiciary made reference to the prospective releases in a speech on Monday, wherein he also denied that the Islamic Republic is currently holding anyone in jail based on political activism or dissent against the regime. Such denials are commonplace among Iranian officials, even though the plight of political detainees is well-reported in the global press, often on the basis of leaked information from persons inside Iranian prisons. In 2015, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was widely condemned and ridiculed after declaring in an interview with American television, “We do not jail people for their opinions.”
Western media has been following the cases of roughly a dozen dual nationals who are currently serving sentences or awaiting trial in Iran on the basis of recognizably unsubstantiated charges. But these represent only a fraction of the larger population of political prisoners, which has swelled over the past year in the midst of a crackdown on persons alleged to have participated in or supported anti-government protests that swept the entire country at the beginning of 2018.
Philip Luther, the research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Amnesty International, was recently quoted as saying the regime’s brutal response to this unrest constituted a “year of shame.” And on Wednesday, the Christian Science Monitor published a report detailing the close connections between Tehran’s crackdown on the purely domestic population and its attacks on foreign and dual nationals who have been baselessly accused of membership in an “infiltration network” tasked with the overthrow the Iranian regime.
The article points to the elaborate conspiracy theories that have grown up among members of ruling elite, especially members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in the wake of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision to adopt the language of “infiltration” in place of the previous, less specific charge of “cultural invasion.” Whereas the earlier language prompted officials and supporters of the regime to be on guard against subtle trends of Western influence, the recent warnings of “infiltration” suggested something more deliberate and targeted, and thus it set the stage for mass arrests.
But regardless of the specific language, the regime has long considered foreign criticisms – or domestic criticisms that might somehow be linked to foreign actors – to be national security threats. This is evidenced, for instance, by the fact that the regime maintains its own human rights monitor, whose only apparent role is to dispute accounts of Iranian human rights abuses and to portray foreign criticism as being driven by cultural imperialism and disregard for Islamic law.
The ongoing crackdown on dissent has noticeably overlapped with efforts by some regime authorities to reassert their commitment to the fundamentalist Islamic principles on which the government was founded. Toward that end, the nation’s prosecutor-general expressed regret last month that the judiciary does not utilize ancient forms of corporal punishment more often. “Based on Quran, God, the passionate and merciful, has categorically ruled that the hands of a man or a woman if proved guilty of theft, should be amputated,” Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said in comments carried by Fars News Agency. “Unfortunately, so as not be condemned on human rights issues in the United Nations, we have abandoned some of the divine laws.”
Montazeri’s statement points to two contrary trends in Iran’s politics and dealings with the international community. In the first place, the regime strives to deflect foreign criticisms of its human rights record, and in the second place, it strives to defy those criticisms and demonstrate its unwillingness to compromise with its professed “enemies.”
This can be seen, for instance, in the judiciary’s treatment of the issue of capital punishment for juvenile offenders. Such sentences are banned by two international conventions that Iran has signed, and yet the practice continues with several juvenile executions being carried out each year. Nevertheless, when a sentence of this kind is brought to the attention of international human rights advocates, it often results in the execution being delayed and the case reviewed, even though the judiciary almost invariably upholds the sentence and carries it out at a later date.
The prospective release of thousands of as yet unspecified Iranian prisoners may be indicative of a similar phenomenon, with the regime attempting to improve its international image in the wake of a “year of shame” and in the midst of crackdowns that are, by all accounts, still ongoing. Furthermore, the sentence commutations, if they actually take place, may turn out to include non-violent drug offenses that were already due for review following a change in minimum sentencing laws.
The Islamic Republic consistently maintains the world’s highest rate of executions per capita, but this rate has declined over roughly the past two years as a result of activist pressure regarding drug laws. Even so, various reports during that period indicated that the judiciary was moving slowly to review cases that were affected retroactively by legislation that clerical authorities had begrudgingly allowed to pass into law. The judiciary’s supposed display of clemency on the occasion of the regime’s 40th anniversary may be an opportunity to given the impression of a sudden, humanitarian turn that had actually been delayed over the long term.
Even if that is the case, it is not clear that it will spoil the regime’s bid to secure a better global image of its criminal justice system. On the other hand, the announcement of prisoner releases was closely followed by new revelations regarding the regime’s past record of political arrests and prisoner abuse.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had come into possession of leaked documents detailing all of the judicial proceedings in the area of Tehran over a 30 year period. After months of cross-referencing the file with data gathered by their own researchers and by other activist groups, RSF determined that between the regime’s founding in 1979 and the suppression of Green Movement protests in 2009, approximately 1.7 million people were detained in the notorious Evin Prison. Of these, nearly 62,000 are known to have been political prisoners, with 520 of those being aged 18 or under.
In keeping with the organization’s emphasis on press freedom, RSF noted that at least 860 of the detainees in Tehran and the surrounding area were jailed on the basis of their work as reporters. The actual figures for journalists and other prisoners of conscience may be even higher, because the judiciary’s documents do not list detainees’ professional status. The AP suggests that this has allowed authorities to maintain a veil of plausible deniability regarding the true reasons for the arrests.
Secrecy continues to surround various arrests and trials in the Islamic Republic, including those of dual nationals. But information from the global press and Iran’s domestic activist community often injects these cases with credible suspicions regarding the regime’s behavior. The new RSF report underscores the fact that these suspicions are sometimes confirmed as new information trickles through Tehran’s tight network of censorship.
Whether or not the international body pursues the case, the global publicity for these new findings can be expected to make the Islamic Republic subject to renewed scrutiny of its human rights record, and perhaps also of the current conditions of its criminal justice system. This may prove uniquely inconvenient as the regime works to somewhat rehabilitate its image.