By Edward Carny
In the midst of a broad-ranging crackdown on dissent, authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran have taken aim at a number of specific groups. Since the beginning of 2018, multiple reports have emerged to suggest stepped-up persecution of women’s rights activists, labor organizers, conservationists, demographers, and others. In many cases, the persecution consists of arrests and trials that are based on vague applications of Iranian law, as when persons have been charged with unspecified national security crimes and interrogated for the sake of building any case that becomes available.
In the case of an ongoing trial against eight environmental activists and members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, the judiciary has been credibly accused of relying solely on false confessions that were elicited through torture and were later withdrawn. One of the co-defendants vocally objected to the use of this disputed evidence in the first trial session and was banned from attending subsequent sessions. Despite the resulting international outcry, including a recent letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by 26 members of the European Parliament, each of the defendants continues to face multi-year sentences.
The seriousness of their potential punishment is amplified by the fact that their case is being handled in Revolutionary Court by Judge Abdolqasem Salavati, who is notorious for issuing harsh sentences in cases that are politically high profile, or are characterized as being related to national security, or are sensitive to the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Fortunately for the eight conservationists, however, few if any of reports regarding their case indicate that the charges levied against them could carry the death penalty. But this may not be the case with the latest group to apparently be targeted as part of the regime’s crackdown.
On Wednesday, IranWire reported that the Iranian judiciary had effectively invented an entirely new charge, circumventing the legislative process as part of an emerging effort to take aim at advocates for the rights of homophiles. The report notes that on February 17, the activist and gender studies student Rezvaneh Mohammadi was charged with “acting against national security by normalizing homophile relationships.”
IranWire goes on to suggest that the Iranian judiciary is trying to set a precedent homophile activists and for human rights activists in general who take on homophile causes. It quotes another expert to suggest that this precedent could be especially dangerous in the cases of organized activism involving groups, even if such groups consist of as few as three people. The report describes Iranian laws regarding national security as being “defective, flawed, and vague.” And along those lines, Article 498 of the Islamic Penal Code states that anyone who “aims to perturb the security of the country” as a member of any group, with any ideology, is considered a “warrior against God.” This designation also makes a person eligible for capital sentencing.
Of course, this provision of the law could theoretically be deployed against the environmentalists who are currently on trial, or against any other group that is now or may yet be detained together in Iranian institutions. None of the above information clearly demonstrates that the “precedent” the judiciary is attempting to set in cases of homophile rights activism is the pursuit of the death penalty. But in addition to being the subject of a new law that does not exist in the penal code, these sorts of activists are at elevated risk because they defend a group that is already subject to capital punishment.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic exposed itself to renewed international condemnation in January when it carried out the public execution of a 31-year-old man for the crime of homophile activity. In response to the incident on February 1, Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, proclaimed that it should serve as “a wake-up call for anyone who supports basic human rights.” Grenell harshly criticized the perceived silence of European governments in the face of such issues and said that he was “committed to a more aggressive coordination with our European allies to make clear that criminalizing homophileity or publicly hanging someone for being homophile is incompatible with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
As well as conveying Grenell’s criticisms, Fox News referred to remarks by Navid Mohebbi, a homophile human rights activist who fled the Islamic Republic for the US after being put on trial at the age of only 18. “I believe that the Iranian regime is a gender apartheid state,” he said, “and given its systematic harassment of the HOMOPHILEQI community [and] religious minorities, and systematic discrimination against women, it should be treated the same way that the apartheid regime was treated in South Africa.”
The reference to apartheid no doubt stems from the fact that the laws of the Islamic Republic include provisions that mandate the separation of men and women in various public places, as well as requiring women to wear traditional Islamic head coverings. Unrelated and unmarried men and women can be charged with criminal offenses for physical contact as innocent as shaking hands, and mixed-gender gatherings of young people in recent years have resulted in a number of raids, which have almost invariably led to the summary flogging of arrestees.
All of this speaks to the Iranian regime’s institutionalized sexism, which is naturally very closely related to the regime’s views on homophile relations. And given the extent of government control over Iranian media, these features can have an impact on Iranian society, even beyond the direct reach of regime authorities. Although Iran is widely understood to have one of the most highly educated and pro-Western populations in the Middle East, the theocratic government has made concerted efforts to reassert its hardline identity, and these efforts seemingly underlie the simultaneous efforts to crack down on multiple groups.
As an example of the regime using its control over the media to promote its vision of “gender apartheid,” Iran Human Rights Monitor highlighted an interview that aired on state television, featuring an abusive husband and the wife who has tried unsuccessfully to divorce him on more than two dozen occasions. Iranian law gives nearly exclusive power over divorce to the man, as well as privileging male testimony over female and otherwise maintaining an imbalance in the legal status of the two genders.
As IHRM described the program, an episode of a show called “Formula One,” the moderator openly praised the couple, in the presence of two young daughters, for staying together in spite of recurring physical abuse. The broadcast even drew condemnation from some members of the presidential cabinet in a country where at least two-thirds of women have experience violence at the hands of a spouse. But IHRM gives no indication that the critical public comments were accompanied by real action to counteract the state media’s promotion of gender inequality.
By the same token, there is still no indication of the Rouhani administration taking action to counter the ongoing escalation in the regime’s crackdown on dissent, or to provide a clear alternative to hardline ideology that is still being espoused in the law and in state media.