Despite Countless Testimonials, Tehran Denies Existence of Political Prisoners

By Edward Carney

In recent remarks on state television, the spokesperson for Iran’s hardline judiciary repeated a familiar regime talking point regarding the practice of political imprisonment. Quite simply, Gholamhossein Esmaili said, the Islamic Republic does not detain or prosecute people on the basis of political motives. Other regime officials have made similar statements in the past, but these have generally been met with ridicule.

In May 2015, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited New York and said in a television interview, “We do not jail people for their opinions.”

The Islamic Republic continues to hold foreign and dual nationals on bogus charges. Among these is the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was accused of playing a leading role in a vaguely defined “infiltration network” working toward the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic regime. In reality, recent comments from some Iranian officials appear to confirm that she is being held not on the basis of actual espionage activities nor on the basis of any publicly expressed opinions, but as a bargaining chip to be used in negotiations with the United Kingdom.

While the number of persons with foreign citizenship who are serving questionable sentences in the Islamic Republic may run into the dozens, most targets of the regime’s political imprisonment come from the country’s domestic population. These individuals and their advocates both at home and abroad were angered by the former judiciary chief Sadeq Amoli Larijani, who dismissed the issue in February of this year by saying, “Acting against security is different from political offenses defined in the law.”

This was the line of explanation adopted by Esmaili in his recent television interview. More specifically, he implied that persons who have “committed crimes against security”

sometimes falsely claim to be political prisoners in order to garner international sympathy. However, this account is contradicted by the very nature of some of the “security”

crimes with which activists and social media users might be charged, including “insulting the sacred” and “spreading propaganda against the system.” Furthermore, the official narrative that is shared by a handful of regime authorities is contradicted by countless Iranian citizens including those who have personally experienced political imprisonment or have attempted to defend falsely imprisoned family members and colleagues.

Last month, 30 scholars and researchers from the University of Tehran attached their names to a letter calling for the release of a student and independent journalist named Marzieh Amiri, who had been arrested 46 days earlier. The letter specified that she had been arrested in connection with a “lawful rally in front of Parliament on the occasion of International Labor Day,” an event that she was attempting to cover in her capacity as a reporter. The authorities’ efforts to silence such reporting reflect a broader crackdown on the sorts of labor activists who participated in the rally. And around the same time as the University of Tehran professors signed their letter, workers at the Haft Tapeh sugar mill in Khuzestan Province released a list of 40 colleagues and supporters who had been arrested in the preceding months in connection with longstanding, peaceful protests at the mill.

Labor rights protesters are, of course, not the only activist group to be targeted in recent crackdowns. There have been notable mass arrests of environmental activists, some of whom have apparently been targeted by the intelligence wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps because their efforts to protect Iran’s ecology are at odds with IRGC land use plans. The IRGC’s well-known influence over the judiciary has contributed to rampant disregard for the nation’s own laws in prosecuting those cases. This influence and these injustices were widely expected to increase following the appointment of Ebrahim Raisi to replace Larijani as head of the judiciary in March.

In the wake of that appointment, human rights groups sought to focus attention upon the clerical jurist’s long history of human rights violations, including his leading role in the actions of “death commissions” that were responsible for the mass execution of an estimated 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. Despite what this record implies about the current trajectory of the judiciary’s behavior, the families of some political prisoners have attempted to appeal directly to Raisi with letters highlighting violations of Iranian law in the relevant cases.

This strategy was adopted, for instance, by the signatories of a recent letter to Raisi which detailed irregularities in the prosecution of eight of the aforementioned environmentalists. The letter identified seven laws that were broken by regime authorities throughout the process of arrests, detention, and trial. Among these were the use of torture to extract forced confessions, and the denial of legal counsel to the detainees.

The latter issue appears to be increasingly commonplace, and it highlights the added dangers inherent in the regime’s use of “national security” charges as a means of denying the existence of political prisoners. The law allows for some restrictions on the rights of counsel in the case of such charges, and authorities have broadened the practice even further by insisting that certain detainees select lawyers only from a short list of candidates who have been pre-approved by the judiciary itself.

But to whatever extent these restrictions can be legally justified, the letter from environmentalists’ families notes that defendants and their attorneys must be present at the reading of an indictment or verdict, no matter what the nature of the charges. It also notes that one of the eight defendants in the given case, Niloufar Bayani, was left in detention at the reading of the indictment in order to silence her objections to the fact that the prosecution was relying on forced confessions that had been withdrawn. “Is this not a violation of the law?” the letter asked.

Although the letter does not mention him by name, a ninth environmentalist was arrested at the same time as the other eight. Kavous Seyed-Emami did not make it to trial, however, having died in his cell under suspicious circumstances soon after the mass arrests were carried out. Regime authorities quickly classified his death as a suicide and even asserted that he had confessed to espionage before taking his own life, but the same authorities also prevented the accused man’s family from carrying out an independent autopsy to establish whether or not there had been foul play. This goes a long way toward highlighting the mortal dangers that may follow after political imprisonment in Iran, especially in cases where authorities show little hesitancy in violating their own laws.

Those dangers may involve the direct impact of torture and mistreatment, as well as the long-term effects of inhumane prison conditions and the unlawful neglect of essential needs, including the need for medical treatment. And in some cases, it has been alleged that abusive authorities incentivized violent criminals to attack or even kill political prisoners who had been housed in close proximity to them despite laws calling for the separation of detainees according to the nature of their crimes.

There has been widespread discussion of this latter issue among Iranian human rights defenders following the murder of Alireza Shir-Mohammad-Ali, a political detainee in Fashafuyeh Prison who had protested the non-separation policy before apparently being targeted by prison officials in an effort to silence him. That effort may have ultimately included leaving his solitary confinement cell open in the presence of a convicted murderer who had explicitly threatened to kill a fellow prisoner in order to speed his transfer to another facility.

Like the practice of denying legal counsel to political prisoners, the forced cohabitation of very different kinds of detainees is made easier by the claim that prisoners of conscience actually pose a serious threat to Iran’s national security. Shir-Mohammad-Ali’s case has spurred yet another outpouring of letters, interviews, and statements by current and former political prisoners confirming that Tehran not only jails people for their opinions but subjects them to especially harsh treatment after the fact. Some have called attention to other cases in which such detainees had narrowly escaped a similar fate at the hands of violent criminals.

Among those identified by name were Soheil Arabi, a well-known political prisoner who has repeatedly protested harsh conditions and systematic mistreatment in the facilities where he has been held. Arabi is serving a sentence of more than 10 years for the crimes of blogging and civil activism, and he was initially sentenced to death on the charge of “insulting the prophet” and “insulting the sacred.” On at least three occasions, he has gone on protracted hunger strikes, resulting in serious consequences for his physical health. Despite this fact Arabi has been given only the most cursory medical care, in line with the judiciary’s practice of exerting additional pressure on detainees whose activism continues from behind bars.

That practice is also evident in the case of Arash Sadeghi, who has been denied medical treatment despite the effects of similar hunger strikes and despite the fact that he has been diagnosed with cancer. Although he was transferred to hospital to receive surgery for that cancer, Sadeghi was then quickly returned to his cell against doctors’ advice, resulting in a serious infection for which he has had virtually no additional treatment. Advocates have warned that his worsening condition could lead to his death, and that authorities would plainly be responsible for it, even though he would not be counted among the more than 100 individuals who have been executed by the judiciary so far this year.

Teachers’ rights activist Mohammad Habibi is yet another person who is unmistakably imprisoned on political grounds and is facing a growing risk of permanent health effects or even death as a result of neglect by regime authorities. Habibi has a growing tumor on the bone of his left forearm, but prison officials have prevented him from even undergoing diagnostic surgery at his family’s expense to determine whether the tumor is benign or malignant. His situation is representative of the overall lack of progress toward addressing the problem of political imprisonment in the midst of Tehran’s denials.

This is because nearly two years ago, photographs of the Iranian journalist Alireza Rajaee went viral on social media in order to illustrate the effects of political imprisonment and medical deprivation. While serving a four year sentence for “acting against national security” and “spreading propaganda,” Rajaee complained of pain in his eye and jaw but was only given painkillers instead of being properly examined by a physician. After his release, it became clear that the worsening symptoms were the result of sinus cancer, and because it had gone untreated for so long it became necessary for his eye and part of his face to be surgically removed.

Outcomes such as this represent a serious danger for virtually all Iranian political prisoners, of which there are many. Yet that danger has not prevented the growth of political and social activism in recent years. In fact, at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, residents of more than 100 Iranian cities and towns participated in a nationwide uprising featuring provocative, anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator.”

The appointment of Ebrahim Raisi as head of the judiciary may have been motivated in part by a desire on the part of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to crack down on such demonstrations. And arguably, there are growing signs that of worsening repression even as Tehran repeats its talking points denying the reality of political imprisonment.

On June 24, student activist Leila Hosseinzadeh was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for “propaganda” and “assembly and collusion against national security” as a result of her participation in the 2018 uprising. In reporting on the case, Iran Human Rights Monitor noted that this and other such sentences represented regime authorities specifically reneging on prior assurances that cases against students would not be prosecuted but would instead be handled internally by the institutions where they were studying.