Hekmati was previously sentenced to death on charges of spying – charges which both he and the US government have denied. That charge was overturned in favor of the ten-year sentence that he is currently serving. The purported forthcoming review of his case may result in a similar reduction of his sentence, but judicial reviews in Iran do not have a particularly strong recent track record of judgments that are favorable to the defendant.
In October, human rights groups reacted with disappointment to news of the execution of Reyhaneh Jabbari, a young woman who was sentenced to death for the stabbing death of a man whom she said had been trying to rape her. Under international pressure, the case had previously been brought up for review, but the death sentence was upheld and her execution merely delayed. Some critics of the regime concluded that domestic pressure from security forces had outweighed international outcry, in part because the deceased had been a former member of the Ministry of Intelligence.
Masoud Seyed Talebi had received the original sentence for charges of “propaganda against the state,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” “insulting government officials,” and “publishing inappropriate images,” all owing to posts that he had made to online social media.
Talebi’s appeal sought a reduction in his sentence but instead the appeals court returned his case to a lower court after noting that another charge, “insulting the sacred,” had not been addressed in the previous ruling. This additional personal expression-related charge led to a five year extension of his anticipated time in prison.
The International Campaign notes, “The ensuing 20-year sentence is indicative of the intensifying crackdown on social media networks in Iran, as hardline authorities attempt to reign in exponential growth in the use of such networks.”
But more than just being part of a social media crackdown, cases like this may also be part of a broader crackdown aimed at reasserting conservative principles in Iranian society. This has also be characterized by policies forcing women out of public life, legislation that harshly criminalizes signs of Western influence such as dog walking, and efforts to give greater power to the Basij volunteer militias that are charged with confronting violations of the law or Islamic mores in public.
This empowerment of civilian enforcement has been blamed for a series of acid attacks mostly targeting women, which began in October. These attacks were one part of the Iran human rights situation that were highlighted by Maryam Rajavi, the president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in a message to the groups friends and supporters marking the Christmas holiday.
“We shall not forget disfigured innocent girls who were targets of acid attacks by gangs led by the mullahs’ regime,” Rajavi declared after first calling attention to the general suppression of human rights and the endemic persecution of Christians and other minorities within the Islamic Republic.
In some cases, it seems that this persecution is so firmly established that representatives of the clerical regime see no advantage in even denying it. Ayatollah Bojnourdi, a member of the Supreme Judicial Council of Iran during the era of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, has declared that members of the Baha’i religious minority have no citizenship rights. This is in direct contradiction to statements made by Larijani in response to accusations that the Iranian regime maintains a policy of denying Baha’is access to education and essential services.
Larijani’s denial of these accusations was also contradicted by Baha’is themselves, with Dian Alaei, a representative of the community at the UN, saying, “Mr. Larijani must be uninformed about the present situation facing the Baha’i community in Iran, or else he would know that Baha’i youths cannot attend university, Baha’i cemeteries are demolished with bulldozers, and Baha’i shops are locked up when their owners close during official Baha’i holidays. These are things that can be seen by all.”
Together, the contrary trends of acknowledging and denying these rights violations raise questions about the intentions behind judicial reviews like that promised to Amir Hekmati. If the re-examination of his case is a favorable response to public pressure, it may have a favorable outcome. If, however, it is part of an effort to take a hardline stance toward minorities and foreign interlopers, it might only make Hekmati’s situation worse.