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Iran Attempts to Limit Exposure of Human Rights Abuses

In May, Mohammadi was sentenced to 16 years in prison for her peaceful activism, of which she will serve a minimum of 10 years, unless the Iranian judiciary takes highly unusual action to commute her sentence. Although such action seems unlikely, there has been virtually unprecedented advocacy among Iranian politicians for a review of her case. A number of members of the Iranian parliament, for instance, sent a letter to the head of the judiciary, urging “Islamic mercy.” But there has been pushback against these efforts, both from conservative MPs and from the judiciary itself. 

Furthermore, hardline news outlets have sought to expose Mohammadi’s defenders, as in the case of Alireza Rahmani. His Telegram post asking friends to sign a petition on her behalf was published online, presumably contributing to his subsequent arrest. Rahmani, the director of public relations for the Qazvin governor’s office, was quickly released on bail, but still faces possible national security charges for “supporting a provocateur. 

The sentencing of Mohammadi and the backlash against her defenders can both be regarded as examples of an ongoing crackdown on dissent and activism. Political imprisonment has long been recognized as a common phenomenon in the Islamic Republic, but human rights defenders tend to see a greater degree and intensity of enforcement in current circumstances, compared to recent years and particularly the period prior to negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. 

This apparent intensification was highlighted in another report which described a series of arrests that took place at an event commemorating the victims of a series of assassination carried out by the Iranian government against dissidents in the 1990s. These attacks are known as the “chain murders,” and dissident or reformist groups have taken to commemorating the victims every year. 

Iranian security agencies seek to disrupt these gatherings every year, but the latest gathering, which took place on December 2, was met with considerably more force than is usual. Several members of the Writers’ Association of Iran were arrested by plainclothes officers who failed to identify which security agency they represented. The writers’ association quickly released a statement saying that the memorial event had been “prevented by overwhelming force and violence… a continuation of the same policies that led to the chain murders.” 

A board member of the organization said that various members were called by security agents in advance of the gathering and told not to attend. When the event was set to begin, “anyone who seemed connected to the commemoration was stopped, and eventually the participants were beaten and taken into custody in a way we had not seen before.” 

This is not the first incident this year in which the Iranian regime has sought to obstruct public recognition of the chain murders. And those killings are certainly not the only topic about which the regime has sought to enforce public silence. On Tuesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that the mother of political prisoner Asou Rostami had faced threats from security officials after she spoke to the media about the violent nature of his arrest. 

Rostami’s family has had no contact with him or new information about him since his transfer to Gohardasht Prison on November 4, at which time prison officials threatened to place him in conditions that would make his previous cell seem “like a hotel.” After his mother spoke to the media, security officials called her to declare that the newfound publicity would only make Rostami’s situation worse. 

The initial case against this political prisoner was itself connected to the regime’s efforts to keep restraints on the public discussion of Iranian human rights issues. He has been sentenced to two years in prison for using the internet to disseminate information about such things as communication among human rights defenders and statistics regarding the Islamic Republic’s world-leading rates of executions. 

This latter topic was the focus of a report published by the Human Rights Activists News Agency. It examined available information about death sentences that were announced and that were carried out in the period between October of 2015 and October of 2016. HRANA finds that at least 504 executions were carried out during that kind, though it also notes that the reports is very likely incomplete, thanks in large part to the secrecy that surrounds the regime’s own reporting of those executions. 

But even among those executions that can already be confirmed, HRANA notes that 39 of them were carried out in public and that four involved persons who had been convicted for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Although the total number of executions was reportedly lower than in the previous 12 month period, the number of public decrees of execution was higher, with 84 sentences apparently having not been carried out by the time of the report. 

Various human rights organizations and the United Nations agree that during the 2015 calendar year, approximately 1,000 Iranians were put to death, mostly for non-violent drug-related crimes. HRANA finds that for the period it examined, these sorts of crimes accounted for more than 50 percent of the executions. Another seven percent were related to political charges, and four percent could not be placed into this category or into the categories of murder, rape, or drug charges. 

Naturally, Iran’s abuse of the death penalty and its penchant for taking political prisoners help to contribute to the overall sense of the country as an unsafe place, not only for Iranian citizens living under the thumb of the regime but also for visitors and potential visitors, including those who fled the country earlier in the history of the Islamic Republic. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, the current conditions have indeed led to diminished interest in traveling back to Iran to visit family or conduct business. 

Although the article highlights different perspectives from different members of the Iranian expatriate community, it is clear that many of those expatriates believe that the situation for dual nationals has actually gotten worse after the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. While some maintain that the danger is limited only to those who are engaged in political activities, others recognize the considerable paranoia that has taken hold among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other hardliners, regarding dual nationals and anyone with connections to the hated West. 

What’s more, anti-Western rhetoric has also been observed among the supposedly more moderate officials in the Rouhani administration. Indeed, the US Congress’ recent reauthorization of the Iran Sanctions Act has spurred Rouhani himself to repeatedly express a perspective that seems well in line with that of his hardline critics. Agence-France Presse reported on Tuesday that Rouhani had declared the ISA renewal to be proof that the US is still Iran’s “enemy.”  

Even before adopting this rhetoric, Rouhani had done little to nothing in order to fulfill his promise that Iranian expatriates would be permitted to return to the Islamic Republic without fear of reprisal. Various recent arrests belie that claim, as well as underscoring the idea that the regime is still in the midst of an aggressive crackdown on dissent and supposed threats to Iran’s hardline Islamic identity.

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