By Edward Carney
Over the past week, there have been several instances of the Iranian government coming under new pressure or being subject to renewed condemnation over what is widely alleged to be an escalating crackdown on political dissent and advocacy for human rights.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported upon a push by Canadian lawmakers to have the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau impose sanctions on 19 entities under the broad authority of the Magnitsky law. The report quoted former Canadian minister Irwin Cotler as saying, “2018 has seen an unprecedented assault on human rights in Iran. The Iranian regime must continue to be held to account to end the impunity of its human rights violations.”
On Thursday, activists with the organization Human Rights Watch conveyed a similar message, rather explicitly calling attention to the driving force behind the accelerating pace of abuses, namely the ongoing unrest that has grown out of a nationwide uprising at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.
Human Rights Watch called particular attention to the impact that this unrest has had upon the practice of law in the Islamic Republic, where three defense attorneys were recently sentenced to between six and 13 years in prison for their professional activities and political expressions. “Now Iran is not only arresting dissidents, human rights defenders, and labor leaders, but their lawyers as well, criminalizing their fundamental freedoms,” said Michael Page, the advocacy group’s deputy director for the Middle East.
Apart from the three recent prosecutions, Iran has taken a number of measures in recent months to limit the process of legal defense and to discourage lawyers from taking up the cause of political detainees and prospective clients. As well as exerting direct pressure on those lawyers through security forces, the regime has formally barred independent defense attorneys from making themselves available to a wide range of so-called national security cases, instead limiting defendants to choosing from a list of no more than 20 pre-approved lawyers.
Michael Page’s statement went on to say that “lawyers should be the cornerstone of protecting the rights of the accused, but in Iran, they are just another enemy of repressive authorities.” This is perhaps especially true of human rights lawyers, a number of which have been in the crosshairs of those authorities throughout their careers. This, too, has been a source of foreign condemnation of the Iranian regime’s human rights record, both in recent days and over the long term.
In keeping with this trend, the European Parliament easily passed a resolution on Thursday demanding that the Iranian government release the renowned human rights lawyer and political prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh. She is currently held in Evin Prison, where she faces a five year sentence as well as the potential for further unspecified terms related to four other charges that stem from her defense of high-profile clients and her willingness to communicate with the outside world about human rights, women’s rights, and repression in the Islamic Republic.
According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, the European Parliament’s statement echoed Human Rights Watch in calling attention to the expansion of the regime’s crackdown to include lawyers alongside dissidents. The statement also called for the release of a wide range of detainees, as well as condemning familiar Iranian human rights issues such as the execution of juvenile offenders, the arbitrary arrest of persons with dual nationality, and the systematic persecution of members of the Baha’i religious minority.
This latter issue was also the focus of a resolution that passed the US House of Representatives on Wednesday – the 18th of its kind. Like the Canadian statement regarding a more general body of human rights violations, the resolutions was accompanied by a call for new sanctions.
Its 140 authors and co-sponsors urged the US president and the secretary of state to focus economic pressure on those who are “directly responsible for serious human rights abuses, including abuses against the Baha’i community,” according to IranWire.
Such calls to action may find a more receptive audience in the White House than in the leadership of the European Union, at least in the immediate aftermath of this week’s outpouring of statements and condemnations.
Although the Trump administration has been criticized for placing little emphasis on human rights issues in comparison to supposed national security issues, it has rarely hesitated to impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, especially following the president’s withdrawal of the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
By contrast, the EU remains committed to upholding that agreement, ostensibly by any means necessary.
Even as the parliament was examining Iran’s growing record of human rights abuses this week, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted that a special purpose vehicle for evading US sanctions would likely be in place by the end of the year.
However, with pressure mounting from multiple sources of opposition to Tehran’s rights violations and other “malign behaviors,” it remains to be seen whether the international body will retain its historical level of commitment to providing Iran with financial support.