Inattention to Levinson Case Suggests Disregard for Broader Human Rights Situation

The younger Levinson reiterated his outrage about his father being essentially neglected in a deal early this year that released four imprisoned Americans as part of a prisoner exchange. He went on to say that that outrage had been renewed in light of the fact that Iranian and American officials report that they are close to an agreement that will release two additional Americans who were arrested in recent months. In this context also, no mention has been made of Robert Levinson.

“Once again, my father, a CIA contractor and ex-FBI agent who was the only one of the imprisoned Americans acting in service to his country when he was taken, is being abandoned,” Daniel Levinson wrote. “We’ve lost track of how many times he has been left behind.”

The elder Levinson was reportedly on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 either as part of a private investigation or as a consultant with the CIA. He was kidnapped in March of that year, and his family has since received sparse images and video of him, the intent of which have never been entirely clear. FBI sources indicate that they believe Levinson to still be in Iran as a prisoner, although Iranian authorities have never formally acknowledged knowing his whereabouts.

In his editorial, Daniel Levinson also noted that, given his belief that the Obama administration was not doing enough to secure his father’s relieve, he undertook his own trip to Iran and Kish Island in February of this year. While there, he says, he was struck by the extent to which visitors to the country are closely monitored, adding that this makes it virtually impossible to believe Iranian authorities claims that nobody knows where Robert is.

Of course, this monitoring of visitors is just a symptom of Iran’s broader surveillance culture, which has considerable consequences for the native Iranian population, especially activists and other targets of political repression. So whereas Daniel Levinson’s editorial is of unique interest to Americans and other people who are concerned with Iran’s foreign policies and treatment of “outsiders,” it is also another reminder of the overall problem of human rights violations in the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian judiciary will have a chance to partially rectify the situation for at least four victims of these abuses and the underlying surveillance culture this summer, according to an Iranian human rights website. It reports that four Iranian activists who have been given long prison sentences for their peaceful activities will appear together in an Iranian appeals court on July 5, in line with a recently issued summons.

The prospects for rectification are questionable, however. The judiciary frequently upholds even convictions that are blatant instances of political imprisonment, even though it does sometimes diminish the length of the sentence, thereby sparing the regime from the possibility of years of international activism on the case, while leaving the prisoner with a sense of the punishments that he or she may face in the case of continued activism.

One particularly notable recent example is that of Atena Farghadani, a young artist and activist who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drawing and posting on Facebook a political cartoon criticizing the Iranian government’s attacks on women’s rights. The long sentence was seen as punishment both for this political activism and for exposing the abuse that she suffered at the hands of authorities following her initial arrest. This week it was reported that her sentence was sharply reduced from 12 years to 18 months, meaning she will ostensibly be released on May 11.

However, this release cannot be taken for granted any more than it can be taken for granted that the Obama administration will be able to convince the Iranians to release Robert Levinson. In the past, Iranian authorities have arbitrarily added charges to prisoners’ files in order to re-convict them, or have simply refused to release inmates upon expiration of their sentences.

A similarly unlawful tactic of repression involves the refusal to release prisoners, especially political prisoners, on medical furlough or to grant them access to essential medical treatment in the midst of health crises. This problem is so pervasive that several United Nations special rapporteurs including the special rapporteur for human rights in Iran issued a statement this week condemning the practice and urging the Iranian government to address the general issue of mistreatment of prisoners.

However, that statement itself was criticized by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, both for the lack of effective pressure on the Iranian government and for inadequate representation of some targeted groups among those cases that it specifically highlighted. Kurdish activist and managing director of Iran Rights Transparency Jalaml Ekhtiar pointed out, for instance, that a large number of Kurdish political prisoners are currently being denied necessary medical attention, but none were named in the statement.

UNPO also highlighted the need to bring attention to discrimination and repression against other groups such as the Ahwaz and Baloch. Indeed, there is a long list of religious and ethnic groups that are subject to routine mistreatment by the Iranian government, and sometimes this mistreatment does not stop with domestic policies but also extends to outward-directed propaganda.

A well-publicized example of that is the Iranian regime’s anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric, which has been known to include Holocaust denial among high-level politicians. In 2006, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government organized an international conference questioning the reality of the Holocaust, which coincided with a cartoon contest on the same topic.

Now, Tehran has subjected itself to new criticism following the announcement of a follow-up to that cartoon contest. Although the so-called moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani has developed a reputation for keeping a less rhetorical tone on issues such as Iran’s policies toward Israel and Jews, many critics feel that these public statements misrepresent the actual sentiment of government figures.

Case in point, IranWire reported on Friday that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had claimed in a recent interview with the New Yorker magazine that the new Holocaust denial cartoon contest was not organized by or affiliated with government institutions. But IranWire points out that this is an apparent lie, seeing as one of the entities organizing the event is funded by the Islamic Propaganda Organization, which is directly supervised by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and funded by the Ministry of the Interior. Another organizing entity is known to be closely affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

This connection between the government and ongoing anti-Semitic rhetoric stands alongside various reports of ongoing or worsening human rights abuses to support the position of staunch opponents of the Iranian regime who claim that the Rouhani administration does not represent a shift toward moderation when compared to its predecessors and overseers.