By Edward Carny
The United Nations and Amnesty International each recently contributed to a long series of reports concerning ongoing human rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the broader Middle East.
The relevant UN report was presented to the 40th session of the Human Rights Council by Javaid Rehman, the special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran. The second of two sections in that report focuses on Iran’s persistent practice of executing juvenile offenders – a problem that had already returned to international headlines with the news of the planned implementation of the death sentence for Mohammad Kalhori.
But the first section took a wider look at recent Iranian protests and the government’s violent response.
The special rapporteur credits Tehran with undertaking some measures to address the public’s economic grievances, though these are only one of a number of factors driving protest that began in late 2017 and have frequently taken on a strongly anti-government tone. The report therefore points to numerous arrests of lawyers, human rights defenders, labor activists, and others as evidence of an increasingly severe response by regime authorities.
Amnesty International corroborates this assessment in its overview of the human rights situation in several Middle Eastern and North African countries over the year 2018. During that period, the human rights group says, at least 7,000 people were arrested for participating in peaceful protests in the Islamic Republic alone. And while such reports shine a light upon ongoing trends as they affect the activist population as a whole, various anecdotal reports continue to point out the particular consequences for specific individuals and groups.
Along these lines, the Center for Human Rights in Iran issued its latest report on Tuesday about the long-term plight of labor activists who have been involved in protesting for back pay at the Haft Tapeh sugarcane factory. Two such activists have become something of a cause célèbre since the beginning of the year, owing in part to their willingness to speak publicly about the torture that they experienced after their initial arrests in November of last year.
Because of this, both persons, Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, were re-arrested in January, two weeks after making their public statements. They remain in detention to this day, and multiple human rights groups have warned about the likelihood of their being subjected to further torture. The latest reports do not convey specific such allegations, but they do explain that both of the political prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health conditions, which may be attributable either to physical torture or to generally poor prison conditions.
Tuesday’s CHRI report notes that in spite of their worsening situation, neither Bakhshi nor Gholian have been granted access to medical treatment. This, of course, constitutes a form of torture in and of itself, and one that is commonly utilized as a means of exerting additional pressure on Iranian prisoners, especially political prisoners. At the same time that reports of their plight leak to the public, the pair’s families have also been subjected to their own pressure and threats of prosecution, partly as a means of discouraging further public disclosures.
One day after issuing this report, CHRI turned its focus also to the particular abuses that the regime has carried out against another specific activist group: those who have advocated for greater ecological protections in certain areas of Iran. Early last year, nine members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested by the intelligence division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and accused of using their environmentalism as a cover for vaguely defined spying operations. One of the arrestees died under suspicious circumstances, while the remaining eight are currently on trial, where the case against them seems to rely entirely on false confessions that were elicited under torture and were later withdrawn.
After objecting to the introduction of this “evidence” one of the co-defendants was barred from attending subsequent trial sessions. And following reports to that effect, it has also been revealed that the families of the remaining defendants have also been prevented from observing the proceedings. As CHRI notes, this has helped to fuel international outcry over the systematic denial of due process to the persons in this case and in others like it.
Among other irregularities, the environmentalists have been barred from receiving legal counsel or have been instructed to select an attorney from a short list of those who have been pre-approved by the judiciary. In the case of six of the eight defendants, the court simply appointed a lawyer on the accused’s behalf. But those who selected their own legal representation were likely not much advantaged by the situation, in part because reports indicate that none of the defendants was informed of the precise charges they faced until after the trial had begun.
All of these practices are familiar to cases of politically motivated arrest in the Islamic Republic, and all have been extensively reported upon. But in the context of numerous recent reports affirming the growth of crackdowns on dissent and supposed threats to the clerical regime, it stands to reason that these practices can be expected to go on increasing in frequency, intensity, or both.