By Mahmoud Hakamian
A group of 26 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday, urging him to intercede in the case of eight environmental activists who are currently standing trial after having been detained for about a year in absence of specific criminal charges. At the time of their arrests in January and February of 2018, the members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were vaguely accused of using their credentials as conservation researchers to conceal some manner of intelligence-gathering activities, ostensibly on behalf of one or more foreign governments.
Monday’s letter, published in its entirety by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, points out that no evidence has ever been provided to substantiate these accusations. It also highlights the fact that the Iranian judiciary’s case against the environmentalists is apparently built solely on a confession that was elicited under torture and later withdrawn. The defendant who was the object of this torture was absent from three of five trial sessions, presumably because she had interrupted the first session to object to the prosecution’s persistent references to her forced statement.
The allegations of torture are strengthened by a number of factors, including further information about the given case, as well as historical information about the Iranian regime’s conduct in politically motivated arrests and trials.
The eight co-defendants in the current case might have been joined in court by a ninth, had he not died under suspicious circumstances shortly after his arrest. The Iranian-Canadian university professor and founder of the PHWC, Kavous Seyed-Emami, was found dead in his cell last February, and prison officials quickly labeled the incident a suicide but also stymied all efforts to secure an independent autopsy for the deceased.
His family has vigorously disputed the official account, and the resulting controversy has helped to bring international attention to the likely instance of fatal torture, and also to the broader crackdown on environmentalists.
A number other persons fitting into that category have been arrested over the past year, including a dozen in the country’s Kurdistan region alone. And environmentalists are only one of a number of groups that have seemingly been targeted for harassment, arrest, and prosecution. Others include participants in and supporters of long-term labor protests like that which has dogged the Haft Tapeh sugarcane factory. That situation has also become the focus of international attention in the wake of the re-arrest of fellow activists Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, who revealed details of their torture after Iranian state media aired their forced confessions in January.
Bakhshi and Gholian have both been the subject of urgent statements from Amnesty International and other human rights groups concerning the likelihood that they are being subjected to further torture during their current period of detention. Those warning were reiterated last Friday, when IranWire published an update on their case and described the activists as facing “intense pressure” by authorities who are committed to airing another round of forced confessions.
Persons familiar with the case indicated that the detention orders of Bakhshi and Gholian had been extended for another month. Meanwhile, the scope of the Iranian regime’s campaign against them and against labor activists in general has expanded. Authorities now appear to be advancing a propaganda narrative that portrays the Haft Tapeh protesters as part of an organized foreign plot to destabilize the Islamic Republic. This is notably the same strategy that was used in the regime’s response to nationwide anti-government protests that began in December 2017 and continued through much of the following January.
In that case, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other officials insisted that domestic organizers affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran were only foot soldiers in a plot hatched by a “triangle of enemies” consisting of the United States and Iran’s regional adversaries.
The IranWire report quoted a source close to Bakhshi and Gholian as expressing some optimism about the possibility of their being released. “The Intelligence Bureau is trying hard to force them into giving confessions in the coming days,” said before adding, “Perhaps, if they fail, they will release Esmail and Sepideh next week.” But the same source indicated that authorities have also signaled their intention to transfer the pair from their current detention facility in Khuzestan to a more prominent center for political prisoners somewhere in Tehran. He also noted that relatives of both Bakhshi and Gholian have come under pressure as the regime struggles to contain public information about the case.
IranWire gives the impression that authorities are alternating between putting pressure on the prisoners and on their families, and CHRI corroborated this, giving some details of the Intelligence Ministry’s actions. On February 17, agents attempted to violently arrest Bakhshi’s mother, causing her to collapse before being taken to the hospital. Other relatives have been explicitly threatened with prosecution and instructed to help calm the media’s response to the ongoing situation.
CHRI also notes that Bakhshi’s and Gholian’s families have been told that both prisoners are lying about their experiences of torture, even though eye-witnesses inside the relevant prison have confirmed their accounts. Pressure tactics are commonly used against both prisoners and their families to enforce the regime’s pre-fabricated narratives, and there is little reason to suppose that the efforts in the present case will be abandoned simply because the prisoners hold out a little longer.
Foreign and domestic backlash against those tactics may prove helpful, but as mentioned above, the arrest and prosecution of conservationists and labor activists is part of a much larger phenomenon that must be addressed in its entirety.
Reports concerning Bakhshi and Gholian point to deteriorating health conditions for both prisoners, and this puts them at risk of another familiar pressure tactic that has seemingly escalated in recent months. On Monday, Iran Human Rights Monitor published a report detailing several instances of authorities in just one Iranian prison, Rajai Shahr, withholding medical treatment from political prisoners who are sick or wounded.
The report highlighted one inmate who may lose a kidney as a result of progressive damage and the denial of sophisticated treatment that his family has already paid for. Another is at risk of going blind, partly as a result of the effects of torture he experienced early in his 15-year sentence. The same prisoner is said to be suffering from a number of other ailments, as is the case with many political detainees who have been denied medical treatment over the long term. In some cases, the effects of torture and harsh prison conditions are amplified by the effects of age. The oldest prisoner identified in the IHRM report is 72.
The report states that “Iranian authorities have a long history of putting the lives of political prisoners at serious risk by denying them adequate medical care.” But the volume of recent cases may be indicative of recent escalation. This would certainly be in keeping with the overall trend in the regime’s treatment of political prisoners and known activists. The seriousness of that trend was a key message of the report released last week by Iran Human Rights on the situation of human rights defenders in Iran over the past year.
“In 2018, the pressure upon and suppression of human rights activists in Iran intensified through detention, threats and imprisonment,” the website said in its summary of the report. “Iranian authorities view human rights defenders as threats to the security of the state.”
The summary also discusses the situation in the context of two prominent anniversaries: the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and the birth of the Islamic Republic, and the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
The report itself focuses on 19 individual human rights defenders who have been subjected to political imprisonment and large-scale extrajudicial pressure, but it notes that this is only a sample of the broader phenomenon, which affects labor organizers, environmentalists, women’s rights advocates, minority activists, and other specific groups. Iran Human Rights notes that the collective plight of these groups and of the Iranian people as a whole can be addressed by the international community this year, when Iran is subject to its third Universal Periodic Review.
The UPR was similarly cited in another report also released by Iran Human Rights last week, this one focusing on Iran’s prolific use of the death penalty. The report acknowledges progress in this area relative to last year, resulting from the government’s reform of laws regarding standard sentencing for non-violent drug criminals. This accounts for all or most of the 48 percent decrease in total executions between 2017 and 2018. But with 273 people put to death in the most recent year, the Islamic Republic appears to be retaining its status as the country with the largest number of executions per capita.
What’s more, 13 of the executions took place in public, and this practice continues with IHRM reporting one such incident on Sunday. The problem is compounded by the routine denial of due process in Iran, particularly in cases involving laws that do not rise to international standards for justifying the death penalty, or are not recognized as laws at all.
During the previous UPR in 2014, Iran accepted only one of 41 recommendations involving the death penalty. And in 2018, the execution of six individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes confirmed that Iran remains committed to defying the international community over this and other human rights matters.