By Mahmoud Hakamian
On Wednesday, the Fair Observer published an article commenting upon the ongoing cycle of anti-government protests and government crackdowns in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The piece notes that Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, has referred to the year 2018 as a “year of shame,” because of the Iranian regime’s brutal repression of dissent in the wake of a nationwide uprising that brought attention to worsening economic hardship and Tehran’s apparent disregard for the basic needs of the Iranian people.
According to Amnesty and the Fair Observer, an estimated 7,000 peaceful activists were arrested over the course of that year, either because of their participation in street protests or simply as part of the regime’s reactionary crackdown on known and suspected dissenters. Many of those who were arrested were also threatened with the death penalty, which may be legally sought in the Islamic Republic as punishment for vaguely defined charges like “spreading corruption on Earth.” Although the given article does not explicitly mention the threats that emerged in 2018, it does note that capital sentences have been carried out against 61,000 activists and dissidents since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
The particular focus of regime crackdowns has shifted somewhat over those 40 years, and indeed some variations have been observed over the course of 2018 alone. This is to say that regime authorities have identified different identity groups and interests groups as threats to the theocratic dictatorship and have set their sights upon them en masse. The Fair Observer notes that a number of minority ethnic groups have seemingly borne the brunt of the regime’s abuses over the past year, and it also notes the unique recent focus on environmental activists.
This latter issue returned to the headlines last week when eight conservationists who had been arrested a year earlier were taken to court for the second session of their trial. Four of the individuals in question have been charged with spreading corruption; three are accused of espionage; and one is charged with “conspiracy against national security.” As well as reporting upon this, Voice of America News indicated that yet another individual had been arrested on the same day of the trial. This person, Pouria Sepahvand, was a member of the same organization to which the eight defendants belongs, the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation.
One of the founders of the PHWF, Kavous Seyyed-Emami, was also caught up in the initial round of arrests, but did not survive long enough to see trial. After he was found dead in his cell last February, regime authorities declared that he had committed suicide, but his family vigorously disputed this account and encountered government obstruction as they sought an independent autopsy. The prevailing alternative explanation is that Seyyed-Emami died from the effects of torture as he was being interrogated – an explanation that is strengthened by credible reports that at least one of his fellow detainees also experienced torture.
According to Voice of America, the only significant evidence that has been cited in the case against the eight environmentalists is a confession made by one of them, Niloufar Bayani. But that same defendant repeatedly interrupted the most recent trial session to insist that she had been forced to issue that confession under mental and physical duress and that she had since retracted it. These objections were apparently given no credence by the judge, in keeping with the tendency of Iran’s government authorities to close ranks in the face of human rights allegations and collective deny wrongdoing.
What makes this situation worse is that such denials are often accompanied by expanded efforts to suppress dissent, including that of victims who seek to expose the torture and mistreatment they have experienced during arrest and detention. This fact was brought into sharp focus by reporting on the case of Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, two activists associated with the labor strike at Haft Tapeh sugarcane factory who were arrested, released on bail, then rearrested last month after going public with accounts of the torture they had experienced during their periods of detention.
These two individuals were made the joint subject of an “Urgent Action” statement by Amnesty International last week. The statement describes Bakhshi and Gholian as being at “grave risk of further torture” as the regime attempts to silence them and contain public awareness of the ongoing crackdown. It also urges concerned individuals throughout the world to write to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a means of campaigning for their release and raising the profile of the regime’s victims.
Similarly, the Fair Observer article highlights the important role that might be played by the international community in the wake of Iran’s “year of shame.” It quotes one human rights activist as saying that in the wake of arrests and instances of torture, if “the media in the West do not react, security forces then widen their mass arrest operations across the region.”