Iran Unlikely to Bend to Pressure After International Human Rights Day

The NCRI’s president, Maryam Rajavi, addressed the gathering to explain that the regime’s extensive crackdown on dissidents, activists, journalists, and minorities has had little impact on the sentiment of ordinary Iranians, who continue to demonstrate against the theocratic government on a regular basis. Earlier in the week Iran News Update reported upon several incidents of activist pushback against the latest attempts by Tehran to suppress media and cultural expressions.

But Iran News Update also noted that this resilience does not seem to have slowed down the government’s repressive measures in any fashion. It may, however, have inspired more foreign activism of the sort seen among British MPs and other supporters of the Iranian people on Human Rights Day. Some of those MPs used the occasion to urge the active protection of Camp Liberty and other groups within the reach of foreign governments, as well as policy initiatives such as punitive sanctions against individuals and entities responsible for the domestic repression within Iran.

But although that repression has led many to regard Iran as a pariah state, its defiance of this status remained very clear in the midst of the week’s renewed foreign activism. As previously reported, Amnesty International this week restated its criticism of Iran’s continued use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders. In what could be viewed as a response to earlier such criticisms, the Islamic Republic recently upheld the death sentences against two such offenders who had been the subject of vigorous international activism.

On Friday, the Christian Post called attention to another such Iranian act of defiance against international norms. Following upon earlier reports from the NCRI and Iran Human Rights, the outlet reported that a woman accused of complicity in the murder of her husband was recently sentenced to be buried up to her neck and pelted with stones until she is dead.

Despite the Iran-related activism seen in some circles on Human Rights Day, the Christian Post reiterated that many commentators on international affairs have accused the world community and particularly Western powers such as the United States of effectively turning a blind eye to human rights issues in the midst of attempts to secure and implement the deal ostensibly constraining the Iranian nuclear program.

But the same report quotes one expert as saying that the international sensitivity to issues like stoning makes it unlikely that the recent sentence will be carried out as ordered. It may instead be converted to a sentence of death by hanging, making the unnamed defendant one of the approximately three hangings per day that are currently being carried out in the Islamic Republic.

If the Christian Post is correct in suggesting that the stoning will not be carried out, it likely means that the sentence was considered by the Iranian judiciary as a symbolic reaffirmation of its fundamentalist sharia laws. In other words, it allows Iran to formally reject compliance with international norms, while stopping just short of violations that would draw near-universal outcry from foreign powers. But for Human Rights Day activists, this no doubt helps to highlight the number of slightly less egregious offenses that Iran is currently getting away with, perhaps because of international focus on the nuclear deal.

The aforementioned crackdown on media and supposedly non-Islamic culture is certainly ongoing. For instance, IranWire reported on Friday that three artists who had been arrested in 2013 recently had six year prison sentences handed down as punishment for the vague, political charges of “insulting the sacred” and “propaganda against the regime.” This comes about a month after high-profile arrests of several Iranian journalists and two poets whose work had previously been published with the blessing of the regime’s censorship authorities.

IranWire also noted that just one day ahead of International Human Rights Day, the European Court of Justice formally upheld its ruling against Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the English-language propaganda network Press TV for their 2009 airings of false confessions elicited under torture. The case serves to indicate how the negative roles of Iranian state media reaches beyond mere censorship and often includes tacit endorsement of some of the regime’s most serious abuses.

While examples like these leave no doubt about the persistent problems with Iran’s human rights, other stories are admittedly less clear-cut. For example, the Christian news site Bos News Life reported on Friday that the Iranian judiciary had seen fit to release four Christian prisoners who had been detained for their faith and their participation in the Iranian Christian house church movement. The four have reportedly be “led to believe that they will not be summoned to return to prison.”

But this fact in and of itself highlights the largely arbitrary nature of the Iranian judicial system. The prisoners have technically been released only on temporary leave and thus remain under constant threat of being targeted in another crackdown on the rights of religious minorities. Meanwhile, a fellow Christian prisoner has been kept in bars beyond the end of his five-year sentence.

The dichotomy between such instances of release and extended detention may serve the same basic purpose for the Iranian judiciary as its symbolic stoning sentence. The periodic release of political prisoners could allow foreign and domestic activists to entertain the possibility that this signifies progressive trends of the sort expected to follow the 2013 election of so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani. At the same time, expanded repression of other targets sends a cautionary message to other Iranian citizens.

The same duplicity can easily be found in one interpretation of a story carried by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran on Friday. The activist organization suggested that in spite of the stoning sentence and the current rate of three executions per day, there may be a major shift emerging within the Iranian government on the topic of the death penalty.

The report indicates that 70 Iranian members of parliament have introduced legislation to change the maximum sentence for drug related crimes from death to life in prison. Non-violent drug crimes currently comprise the vast majority of the hundreds of death sentences carried out in Iran every year.

But the change outlined by the bill is notably modest. The International Campaign’s report indicates that the death penalty would remain viable for any cases involving armed trafficking. But more importantly, chances are slim that the bill will pass at all. A similar measure was introduced last year but failed to move forward. As with all Iranian legislation, the challenges facing the new bill include not only passage by the parliament, but also preliminary approval by the Guardian Council and final approval by the supreme leader’s Assembly of Experts.

In light of this, it is entirely possible that Iranian MPs anticipate the same outcome for this year’s bill as last years, and that the proposal serves only to give the impression of a serious response to international pressure. Indeed, this view is strongly implied by remarks made by Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of the Human Rights Council of the Iranian Parliament.

Larijani suggested that he supported the outlined changes but also declared that they would be very slow in coming. He went on to lodge familiar defenses of Iran’s sovereign right to its current repressive laws, urging foreign powers to tone down criticism over the short term. “This has to go through the legislative process but until then Westerners should respect our current laws,” he said.