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Rising Calls for Human Rights Sanctions on Iran as Moderation Remains Illusory

By Mahmoud Hakamian

Last month, a Human Rights campaign highlighted the long history of human rights abuses attributed to Iranian Justice Minister Alireza Avaei. The article points out that Avaei has been under sanction by the European Union since 2011 for these actions, which include his role on a “death commission” during the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. The article also notes that the US has never followed suit, effectively suggesting that while the current president has been ramping up sanctions on the Islamic Republic, he has not brought adequate attention to relevant human rights issues.

Naturally, the article’s author then goes on to recommend that the US take action to hold Avaei accountable for past crimes. Doing so, he said, would help to “boost the morale” of protesters who have been highly active in Iran over the past several months, “thereby encouraging them to continue their campaign for justice.” He also argues that sanctions should be extended to the entirety of the Iranian Ministry of Justice, which ostensibly defends human rights on a domestic level but in reality acts as an apologist for the clerical regime, denying all wrongdoing.

As the IranWire article notes, Avaei’s predecessor as Justice Minister, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was also a member of a death commission in 1988. When details of the massacre were revealed in 2016, Pourmohammadi even went as far as to say that he was proud of the role he had played in carrying out “God’s command” of death for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the leading Iranian opposition group and main target of the mass executions. Notably, both Pourmohammadi and Avaei were appointed by the supposedly moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, thus underscoring the article’s claim that sanctions on the Justice Ministry “would help discredit the widespread international perception that Rouhani constitutes a reformer who seeks to temper the regime’s belligerence.”

Clinging to the Moderation Narrative

For serious opponents of the theocratic regime, that discrediting has been a long and difficult project. Some international media continue to seize upon superficial or even unconfirmed reports that seem to support the moderation narrative, while downplaying broader patterns of repression and abuse. Many human rights groups have emphasized that crucial human rights indicators have actually deteriorated under Rouhani’s “moderate” administration rather than improving. Yet his reputation remains largely intact, even as increasing numbers of Iranian activists participate in protests that highlight the lack of differences between Tehran’s political factions, via chants like “reformists, principlists: the game is over.”

One of the latest stories to contribute to the moderation narrative is the suggestion that the Rouhani administration might finally be close to fulfilling a campaign promise that dates back to 2013 when he was running for his first term. Much of the public disappointment with that administration stems from his failure to take any recognizable steps toward freeing the Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011 as a result of their role in Tehran’s mass protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad two years earlier. But on July 28, Karroubi’s son announced that he had been told by a “reliable source” that the Supreme National Security Council had approved the release of the two men, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard.

The CHRI subsequently reported on that announcement by saying that it had been almost immediately disputed by Iranian officials. Additionally, Fars News Agency published a commentary insisting that if the Green Movement leaders were ever cleared for release, it would only be because the SNSC and the supreme leader had determined that they would no longer engage in political activities or otherwise “cause insecurity in society.”

For his part, the 80-year-old Karroubi published a letter at the end of May in which he expressed personal doubts about whether they would ever be granted release. “The way things are going, it seems our fate will be determined by the angel of death, Azrael,” he wrote. The comment could have been made in reference only to the lack of progress in his own case, or it could have been meant to highlight the overall trend of persistent crackdowns on political dissent in the Islamic Republic.

Responses to an Uprising

Not only does the regime refuse to release those who have already been detained for peaceful activism, but other arrests and prosecutions are still proceeding at a steady or even accelerating pace. As one example of this, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported on Monday that 11 more detainees had been sentenced on charges of “disturbing public opinion” and “spreading falsehoods” in connection with their participation in the nationwide protests at the beginning of the year. The sentences range from one to three years in prison and include 74 lashes for each defendant.

An estimated 8,000 protesters were arrested during those demonstrations, and at least 14 were reportedly killed under torture. A further 50 were shot dead in clashes between the crowds and security forces. What’s more, the immediate aftermath of the uprising included raids on the homes of known political activists, along with other instances of stepped-up repression and censorship. The persistence of these conditions is suggested by reports such as that which was issued by CHRI on July 27, regarding pending prosecution for Kurdish political activist Mokhtar Zarei.

The prospective charges of “insulting the supreme leader” stem from a letter that Zarei wrote in March of this year criticizing Ali Khamenei for the multitudes of human rights abuses committed under this rule. After describing some such crimes, Zarei addressed Khamenei directly to say, “These are just a small portion of Your Excellency’s resume as the ruler. Believe me, the people know a lot more but they cannot talk because they are afraid of being punished and face a terrible fate.”
CHRI points out that negative remarks about the supreme leader or the founder of the Islamic Republic carries a threat of between six months’ and two years’ imprisonment. It also notes that Khamenei himself has denied that such punishment occurs, insisting in a speech shortly preceding Zarei’s letter that “there is freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of choice in the country.”

Khamenei and others have also routinely denied the reality of Iranian human rights abuses, but have not directly addressed the specific allegations provided by either foreign or domestic critics. Both of these denials are belied by growing lists of credible reports about the regime’s targeting of various groups for political prosecution and about the arbitrary, extrajudicial punishments that those groups are often subject to.

Prisoner Abuse and Religious Persecution

In the first place, the Human Rights Activists News Agency issued a detailed report on July 25 regarding the routine abuses that have occurred in just one Iranian prison, Rajai Shahr. The article describes prison officials’ participation in organized crime, smuggling, and targeted assassinations, as well as their tendency to work closely with prison gangs. It also specifically identifies some of the senior most participants in these activities and highlights a pattern whereby Iranian authorities avoid punishing or even deliberately reward such perpetrators through promotions.

The significance of this ongoing pattern was underscored by IHRM, which reported on Tuesday that five violent offenders in Rajai Shahr had been paid by the authorities to attack political prisoners two days earlier. Such incidents are facilitated by the tendency of authorities in this and other prisons to ignore the law calling for separation of inmates according to the category of their crime. Meanwhile, HRANA points out that in some cases, a contrary tactic is employed as guards isolate prisoners not according to type of crime but on the basis of their membership in a targeted identity group, like the Baha’i religious community.

Both CHRI and IranWire recently reported upon incidents that point to the ongoing and potentially escalating persecution of the Baha’i faith. Firstly, a man by the name of Zabihollah Faoufi was sentenced to one year in prison on national security charges for allegedly promoting his Baha’i faith, even though witnesses insisted he had only spoken about the religion in response to direct questions. The relevant report indicates that his wife has been given a similar sentence and that several of his associated were arrested as part of his case.

Secondly, Fataneh Nabilzadeh reportedly began serving a one-year sentence late last month for the crime of administering exams in her home to two young students on behalf of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an organization that was created to counteract the effects of the clerical regime’s systematic denial of Baha’i access to education and employment.

The report on Nabilzadeh’s case indicates that while raids on such exams are commonplace, this is the first instance of someone being tried and imprisoned solely on the basis of administering a BIHE test. The report also goes into greater detail about the practice of isolating Baha’i prisoners, noting that they have been “kept separate from other prisoners because of ‘cleanliness’ issues” and “even have different hours for walking in the prison yard to minimize the chances of encounters between Baha’is and other inmates.”

While this particular practice appears to be unique to dealings with the Baha’i, they are by no means the only religious group that is targeted for regular persecution. Furthermore, the regime’s behavior toward some such groups clearly points to the overlap between that persecution and the increasing suppression of political dissent.

In February, a demonstration by members of the Sufi sect known as Gonabadi dervishes emerged from the group’s fear that their leader would be arrested alongside political activists in the aftermath of the nationwide uprising. The dervishes are still suffering consequences to this day for their clashes with Iranian security forces, and IHRM reported on Monday that two detained Sufi women by the names of Sepideh Moradi Sarvestani and Shokoufeh Yadollahi had been denied transfer to hospital for serious health conditions over a period of five months.

Withholding medical care is a common means of exerting additional political pressure on Iranian political prisoners, and thus it is one of many well-recorded human rights violations that the regime repeatedly denies perpetuating. The IHRM report on paid attacks in Rajai Shahr notes that both of these tactics are being used in tandem there, with the victims of those attacks experiencing delays in their transfer to hospital, which threaten to put their lives at risk.

Opposing the Illusion of Change?

These tactics can easily be regarded as extrajudicial means of execution in a country that already holds the record for maintaining the highest rate of capital punishment per capita. That rate has declined over the past year or so, as Tehran seemingly bowed to pressure urging it to halt the practice of executing non-violent drug offenders in clear violation of international law. But world-record levels of state-mandated killing persist, and there are growing signs that alterations in the law regarding punishment for drug offenses may not be enforced over the long term. This in turn suggests that their short-term enforcement was primarily intended to promote the dubious notion of a trend toward moderation.

Iran Human Rights reported on July 27 that only one execution of a non-violent drug offender had been confirmed since the new law went into effect, but that there was widespread concern that the killings would resume after the hardline judiciary finished reviewing old cases and upheld a portion of the death sentences. The report notes that at least two and perhaps several more convicts with drug-related charges had recently been transferred to solitary confinement in preparation for their execution.

As news of these executions and other persistent human rights violations continues to spread, it remains to be seen how the Iranian Ministry of Justice will react, in light of its historical role as a leading apologist for the regime’s domestic activities. At the same time, it remains to be seen whether the spread of that news will prompt the United States and other Western governments to sanction that Ministry or otherwise put greater focus on issue of Iran’s human rights record.

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