By Edward Carney
In a testament both to the Iranian regime’s persistent contempt for human rights and its belligerent relations with Western adversaries, several American and European citizens and permanent residents remain imprisoned in the Islamic Republic on the basis of false and unsubstantiated allegations of spying or pursuing the “soft overthrow” of the clerical regime.
The falsity of the charges in at least one of these cases was reaffirmed this week following a report by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which focused on the 10-year sentence given to Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University graduate student who was arrested more than two years ago and accused of collaborating with foreign states over his acquisition of library materials, even though these materials related to a period in Iran’s history decades prior to the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
An article at USA Patch reported upon the working group’s report and quoted Princeton officials as saying that it confirms the Iranian government had “no legal basis for the arrest and detention.” Furthermore, Wang’s wife Hua Qu praised the report for this same conclusion while comparing it to earlier statements by the US government, which also expressed no ambiguity regarding the political nature of the case. Qu said of her husband, Iranian authorities “should immediately release him on humanitarian grounds,” then added: “Innocent people should not be instrumentalized for political purposes.”
Many advocates for Wang’s release have described him as a being used as a bargaining chip by Iranian authorities as they seek more concessions from the West, either in the form of the release of Iranian prisoners or a reduction in economic pressures associated with US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
European authorities have so far remained committed to that deal, but this has not prevented Iranian-European political prisoners from facing pressure in the Islamic Republic. Such individuals, including the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, have also been widely described as bargaining chips for Iranian negotiations with European governments regarding trade deals and other matters.
This is not the only way in which Wang, Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and others have been linked in the public consciousness. There are also notable similarities in the ways their hardships have been described by loved ones and other advocates.
Hua Qu and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe have both described their spouses as having confessed contemplating suicide in telephone calls.
Both prisoners have also reportedly been subjected to psychological torture and other mistreatment, resulting in notable deterioration of both their physical and mental health.
Qu said of her husband, “He has lost weight, developed arthritis in his knees, suffered rashes and pains all over his body, and fallen victim to depression,” according to the Patch article.
And last week, The Sun quoted Richard Ratcliffe as saying that his wife suffered two panic attacks and subsequently experienced persistent numbness in her legs following her return to Evin Prison after a brief furlough during which she was permitted to visit her daughter.
The now four-year old child, Gabriella, was with her mother at the time of her arrest and was barred from leaving the country to rejoin her father in the UK. She has since been kept in the care of her Iranian grandparents, and over more than two years she has largely lost the ability to communicate with her father in English. Meanwhile, Xiyue Wang’s son has also been without a father for more than 850 days. He is now five years old and starting kindergarten, according to Qu.
Of course, among natural-born Iranian citizens with no real connection to the West, there are also many children who are left without parents by the Iranian justice system. In many cases, the issue at hand is not just separation but executions.
At times the death penalty in Iran is implemented on the basis of charges that are just as questionable as those of the Western nationals who have been detained over the past few years. In other cases, the charges are not seriously in doubt, but the punishment does not reflect international human rights standards, or the act would not be recognized as a crime in any democratic country.
There is no shortage of such incidents that have been brought to the attention of the world community, and a recent Urgent Action statement by Amnesty International underscores the fact that death sentences are often based, in whole or in part, on forced confessions elicited under torture.
The statement suggests that this may be the situation facing Houshmand Alipour and Mohammad Ostadghader, two Iranian Kurds who were detained on August 3 and have been held largely in isolation ever since, without legal representation or the opportunity to receive family visits.
Attacked at Home and Abroad
The two men have been accused of taking part in an armed attack by Kurdish separatists, and just four days after their arrest, they were shown “confessing” on state television, an incident that Amnesty described as a violation of “their rights not to be compelled to incriminate themselves, to presumption of innocence and to freedom from degrading treatment.”
Such broadcast confessions are frequently precursors to the death penalty, insofar as the establish advance justification in the view of supporters of the clerical regime. In fact, the Amnesty statement indicates that the latest such execution took place this past Saturday when two other Iranian Kurds, Zaniar Moradi and Loghman Moradi were hanged in connection with forced confessions that were extracted via torture and aired on state television years earlier.
The implementation of their death penalty so close in time to the broadcast of a “confession” from two other Kurds is perhaps indicative of growing anxiety among Iranian authorities regarding political activity among ethnic and religious minorities.
Of course, the clerical regime is already anxious about overall political activity among the Iranian citizenry, given the fact that activists in an estimated 142 localities participated in a mass uprising at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, after which numerous other protests have flared up all around the country.
The protest movement has generated a predictable crackdown on the activist community in general, but this sort of crackdown in Iran is generally accompanied by more targeted repression of minority groups, including the Kurds and anyone else who is perceived as a threat to the Persian, hardline Islamist identity of the ruling regime.
This naturally includes foreign nationals and anyone who may be seen as promoting Western culture or the “soft overthrow” of the regime, as in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The rapid actions being directed against Kurdish prisoners come at a time of broadly increased tension between Iranian authorities and the country’s Kurdish region, as well as the Kurdish community as a whole.
Kurdistan 24 indicates that a third individual was executed on Saturday in addition to the two who were named in the Amnesty statement, and also that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps followed this up by executing two members of the Peshmerga militia in Kurdistan Province following a raid that killed six others.The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan released a statement on Sunday noting that the summary executions constituted “a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
The Associated Press subsequently reported that the IRGC raid inside Iranian Kurdistan was immediately followed by a missile strike on a Kurdish group in Iraq. The incident, which reportedly killed 11 people and wounded 50 others, drew condemnation from Iraqi authorities, who had neither approved the IRGC operation nor received advance notice of it.
But there is little indication that Iraq, being so politically entwined with the Islamic Republic at this moment, will take concrete action based on this condemnation.
Protests and Backlash
The AP report concludes by pointing out that, putting aside armed clashes between Iranian and Kurdish forces, there have been various recent surges of activism by the Iranian Kurdish population, inspired by discriminatory incidents including some that allegedly involved the deaths of innocent Kurdish citizens at the hands of Iranian security forces.
These same trends of institutionalized discrimination and responsive protests can be observed with regard to other Iranian minorities, as well.
As one example of this, media pointed to a spate of dance-based protests on social media whereby ethnic Azerbaijanis both in northern Iran and in independent Azerbaijan have been calling attention to persistent social, economic, and environmental problems.
Some of the issues at hand, such as the worsening unemployment and inflation crises, are common to protests by ethnic minorities and the broader Iranian population, while some, like the environmental mismanagement that is contributing to the drying of Lake Urmia, are specific to the geographic area or the demographics of the protests.
The reports suggests that Iranian authorities are particularly nervous about the current Azerbaijani protests, because these are indicative of rare cross-border collaboration between the same ethnic group in Azerbaijan and in Iran, and because the Iranian regime is already “extremely sensitive about any hint of Azerbaijani separatism.”
As mentioned above, such assertions of ethnic identity are threatening to the regime’s hardline identity. But public expressions do not need to rise to the level of separatism in order to represent such a threat. Accordingly, the regime’s crackdown on minorities and Western nationals has also tended to encompass journalists and artists who appear to defy the regime’s cultural demands and propaganda.
In one of the latest examples of this phenomenon, Iranian security forces arrested the director and theater manager behind a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, apparently because online promotion for the play showed men and women dancing together – an act that is illegal under the theocratic system.
The AP report on the arrests noted that they are part of a pattern: “In July, Iran detained a teenage girl who posted dance videos online.” In some of the offending videos, the “crime” of dancing was made worse by the fact that Western popular music was featured, ostensibly undermining the regime’s efforts to enforce separation between Iranian and Western cultures and to portray the US and Europe as the “enemy” of the Iranian nation and Islam.