Insider news & Analysis in Iran

It was reported on Monday that the Iranian judiciary had handed down new sentences against a number of activists and journalists, in connection with a longstanding labor rights dispute involving the Haft Tapeh sugarcane plant. The plant was the site of several protests, chiefly last November, in which workers demanded unpaid wages that in many cases had accrued for months.

The protests led to familiar crackdowns by government authorities, in cooperation with plant owners who benefited from a questionable move toward privatization of formerly government-run industries.

These crackdowns entailed the detention of at least 40 workers at the plant, and sentences for these labor organizers and their supporters have been gradually accumulating ever since. The latest incident is particularly significant in that it involves a major protest leader who was detained and tortured at the high of the demonstrations, as well as the independent journalist who championed his case using a now-banned news network on the social media platform Telegram.

Esmail Bakhshi, the worker and union representative, is now scheduled to serve seven years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security.” If upheld, the same prison term awaits the journalist Sepideh Qoliyan, as well as three other reporters and one editor for the Gam news network. A seventh co-defendant and colleague of Bakhshi are expected to sever five years. Yet another labor rights activist is still awaiting a final sentence after having been released on bail as a result of medical problems that had worsened during his pre-trial detention.

The specified prison terms only reflect the longest of the simultaneous sentences handed down for each of the defendants. Iranian law ostensibly limits actual prison time to the longest sentence in such cases, though authorities have been known to flout these rules, sometimes by arbitrarily adding sentences to a political prisoner’s file after he or she has begun a term of imprisonment.

This was the case, for instance, with the women’s and children’s rights activists Atena Daemi and Golrokh Ibrahimi Iraee, who were each accused of committing the vaguely-defined crimes of spreading propaganda and insulting the supreme leader while already behind bars. In July, both were sentenced to serve more than two additional years as a result. In Iraee’s case, this means a likely return to prison after having recently been released upon serving more than half of her six-year sentence. And for Daemi, it could mean extending her ongoing seven-year sentenced to nine years.

A lawyer for Daemi described the court’s conduct in this case as “vindictive,” and many human rights advocates fear that such conduct is on the rise in the Islamic Republic’s “Revolutionary Court” and in the criminal justice system as a whole. Much of this expectation stems from the appointment, earlier this year, of Ibrahim Raisi as the head of the judiciary. Raisi is widely regarded as one of Iran’s worst human rights abusers, in part because of the leading role that he played in the massacre of an estimated 30,000 political prisoners mainly MEK supporters in the summer of 1988. His appointment of judiciary chief was therefore seen as a symbol of commitment to repressive tactics on the part of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

That apparently hardline turn at the head of the judiciary has apparently had knock-on effects further down the hierarchy. For example, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported last week that Evin Prison had recently acquired a new warden, Gholamreza Ziaei, and that he appeared to be mounting a large-scale crackdown on inmates. Long before taking the position, Ziaei came under US sanction for his past history of human rights violations, at times when he headed other prisons and a specific ward within Evin. Newly empowered to expand upon that record, Ziaei’s office has issued directives limiting family visits to the facility and requiring prisoners to pay the full cost of all medical needs in advance, before receiving any sort of treatment.

This is very much in keeping with the longstanding practice of denying medical treatment to political prisoners and anyone else who is singled out for extrajudicial pressure. This bodes poorly for the ill co-defendant if the Haft Tapeh case who is still expected to receive a multi-year sentence. But of course, it may also have consequences for those who have already been sentenced, all of whom were held in Evin for at least a portion of their pre-trial detention.

The withholding of medical treatment presents and especially serious threat in the very likely event that persons like Esmail Bakhshi receive the same treatment as they have during prior periods of detention. As part of the disclosure that landed him back in prison in January, leading to his latest sentence, Bakhshi stated: “During the first few days, without reason or any conversation, they tortured me and beat me with their fists and kicked me until I was going to die. They beat me so much I couldn’t move in my cell for 72 hours.”

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