Last Friday, a group of United Nations human rights experts issued a statement highlighting the case of one detained human rights defender and urging Iranian authorities to take action on it and all similar cases.

However, this week, reports pointed to those authorities not only dismissing appeals for the release of political detainees but also initiating a new wave of arrests while also continuing to implement harsh sentences for persons who have taken part in protests such as the nationwide uprising that marked its one-year anniversary this month.

The UN statement was signed by the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and a number of other experts.

It began by giving credit to the Iranian regime for granting temporary release to the human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh. But it then went on to emphasize that temporary release is not adequate in light of the nature of the charges against her, the mistreatment she has suffered since starting her sentence in 2018, and the conditions she is likely to face if she is returned to prison prematurely. 

Such premature re-incarceration would be in line with standard practice in the Islamic Republic. Sotoudeh herself was already subjected to that practice when she was briefly transferred to a hospital outside the prison system after her health deteriorated as a result of a 50-day hunger strike.

Far from being permitted to receive treatment that would fully restore her to health, Sotoudeh was soon transferred to a notorious facility known as Qarchak Prison—a move that some of her supporters viewed as a deliberate effort to endanger her life. 

That transfer was cited by the UN experts alongside acknowledgment of preexisting fears that she and countless other political prisoners could be exposed to Covid-19, which is spreading in a third wave through Iranian society and is particularly uncontrolled in the prison system.

Qarchak was believed to present a particularly serious risk of infection. So it was perhaps little surprise to her jailers of her advocates when Sotoudeh began testing positive for the coronavirus. 

That positive test was apparently the basis for the prisoner’s furlough, although the Iranian judiciary did not publicly sight any particular reason. On one hand, it is possible that her infection is precisely the outcome that authorities were expecting to achieve when they arranged her transfer.

On the other hand, some of those same authorities may have been concerned about the international scrutiny that would fall upon them if she was allowed to suffer through the illness or even die while still behind bars. 

It is not clear whether Tehran anticipates the same level of scrutiny if Sotoudeh suffers serious effects from the disease while on furlough. And it is perhaps on account of this uncertainty that the UN experts’ statement notes the possibility of the furloughed prisoner still being barred from prompt and thorough access to medical treatment.

We now urge the Iranian authorities to ensure that Ms. Sotoudeh is able to obtain unhindered access to the health care she requires to treat both her underlying conditions and the COVID-19 disease,” it said. 

The statement went on to say that Sotoudeh’s case “shows the real risks for those in detention in Iran,” making it imperative for “all arbitrarily detained individuals” to be granted the same temporary release, at a bare minimum.

Of course, the ultimate goal for the statement’s authors and other human rights advocates is to guarantee that any such release is made permanent. But notwithstanding any concerns over public scrutiny that the regime is coping with now, it does not appear the least bit amenable to changing its overall practices in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which in turn emerged in the wake of a dramatic upsurge in popular unrest. 

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On the same day as the UN human rights experts issued their statement, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that Iran’s Revolutionary Court had sentenced three university students to multi-year terms in connection with their peaceful activism.

At least one of them, Maryam Eshaghi, received one year in prison plus a four-year suspended sentence simply for participating in the nationwide uprising of November 2019. That participation was specifically identified in her charging document as “assembly and collusion against national security.” 

Persons familiar with the recent proceedings have said that the students’ sentencing was likely intended as a warning to others who would take part in anti-government protests or labor organizing.

A similar warning was delivered to activists focused on the issue of forced veiling when, on November 9, the country’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Saba Kord-Afshari regarding her total sentence of 24 years. In line with Iran’s penal code, she will now be expected to serve the longest single sentence, 15 years on the charge of “encouraging corruption and prostitution” by protesting the compulsory Islamic dress code for all women in Iran. 

It is very likely that in the near future there will be more sentences like the above, for all manner of Iranian activists. This was the implication of a report from Iran Human Rights Monitor, which observed that “the clerical regime’s Intelligence Ministry has launched a new wave of arrests in Iran to fend off the outbreak of a spate of protests.” 

The report specifically notes that raids were conducted on the homes of several former political prisoners, at least three of whom were arrested and subjected to several hours of interrogation.

Iran: New Wave of Arrests

These actions were undertaken without prior summons or advance notice, and likely without legal warrants. Such abrupt raids are a relatively commonplace phenomenon in the Islamic Republic, and they underscore the unaccountable nature of hardline entities like the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

It is naturally feared that those tactics will help the regime to continue a trend of repression that has been ongoing at least since the time of the November 2019 uprising, when it was alleged that the IRGC took the lead in opening fire on crowds of protesters, resulting in as many as 1,500 deaths.

That death toll is apparently the worst to emerge from a single incidence of repression since the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners. And the website Iran Human Rights stated last week that the ensuing crackdown makes the situation in Iran “more grave today than it has been the last three decades.” 

This claim was published in the site’s summary of its own report on the situation of human rights defenders in Iran. It looks at 53 examples of those individuals, acknowledging that this is only a small portion of the total figure, and reported that they had collectively been sentenced to nearly 400 years in prison and 787 lashes.

The report also noted that the past year had seen a continued rise in the number of persons who, like Nasrin Sotoudeh, have been targeted by regime authorities at least in part because they dared to practice law in defense of other activists. 

Iran Human Rights emphasized that judicial punishments were not the only consequences that people have suffered for the crime of promoting human rights. Detainees their family members, and other supporters have suffered harassment, financial, and social consequences for their activities, and this phenomenon was notably put on display in recent days as citizens throughout the Islamic Republic attempted to commemorate the deaths associated with last November’s uprising, only to be barred by authorities from entering cemeteries or assembling peaceably. 

Some of this harassment was reported in real-time on social media, where Iranians also joined in condemning public and private statements from regime authorities which seemed to demonstrate a disregard for the public’s concerns about the fallout from the uprising.

The regime’s effort to downplay and distract from that issue lends support to the idea behind an emerging movement to use makeshift civilian authorities in order to address last year’s alleged crimes against humanity. 

On Saturday, Iran Human Rights joined with Justice for Iran and Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort in announcing the formation of an “international people’s tribunal,” known as the Aban Tribunal in reference to the month on the Iranian calendar in which last year’s crackdown took place.

The announcement explained that “the Tribunal provides a mandate to a group of renowned international lawyers on behalf of the victims’ community and the public to investigate human rights violations by Iran during a wave of national protests in November 2019.” It is now scheduled to hear from expert witnesses during three days of hearings before issuing a judgment regarding the regime’s culpability in April 2021. 

Iran Human Rights quoted Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British barrister with a background in international human rights law, as saying that tribunals such as this one “fill gaps in knowledge and information, created because national and international bodies fear to tell the truth.”

In the case of the November 2019 crackdown, allegations of such fear have naturally been levied against the obstructionist Iranian authorities, but also against Western policymakers who have made little public effort to confront the apparent crime against humanity over the past year.