Little Scrutiny of Rouhani Administration Amidst Denials of Human Rights Violations

Thus, IranWire takes it upon itself to present guidelines for such an interview, urging journalists to challenge Zarif on the double standards and contradictions in his public statements. These include a tendency to dodge questions about political prisoners by saying that the judiciary operates independently of the presidential administration that he serves, while also maintaining that the Iran does not hold political prisoners.

The latter claim flies in the face of the findings of a wide range of international human rights defenders, yet it is a claim that is repeated by many Iranian officials including hardline members of parliament and the supposed moderates within the administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

Another IranWire report featured brief interviews with two members of parliament regarding one political prisoner who was well known to the Western public. The questions specifically addressed former US Marine Amir Hekmati’s announcement this week that he was suing the Islamic Republic for torture that he was subjected to during the more than four years he served in Iranian prison on false charges of espionage.

Hekmati’s conviction initially led to a sentence of death, which was overturned by Iran’s Supreme Court and replaced with a sentence of 10 years, which was cut short by his release as part of a prisoner exchange in January. As his lawsuit alleges, the conviction was secured on the basis of a false confession that was elicited via psychological and physical torture, which included his being whipped on the bottoms of his feet, beaten with batons, shocked with a Taser, and kept in stress positions for hours.

No concrete evidence was ever publicly presented to substantiate the notion that Hekmati had traveled to Iran for anything other than his stated purpose of visiting his grandmother and other family members.

The MPs who commented on this case for IranWire barely acknowledged the accusations of mistreatment. When asked about it, both suggested that Hekmati’s account from inside Evin Prison was motivated by a desire to disseminate propaganda and to claim monetary compensation. And both reiterated that they believed the former Marine to be guilt of spying.

Such commentary is quite similar to that which Zarif and other high-ranking officials have offered on the cases of other prominent political prisoners. For instance, when pressed on the case of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was later released alongside Hekmati, Zarif repeatedly deferred to the judiciary’s judgement, refusing to comment explicitly on his guilt but also insisting that Rezaian had been arrested on the basis of legitimate evidence. Speaking more generally, IranWire notes that Zarif has told the Western media that Iran doesn’t imprison people for their opinions, and that this claim has been “ridiculed and refuted by numerous former prisoners of conscience.”

But the refusal to acknowledge the political nature of cases like those against Hekmati and Rezaian is part of a larger problem of disregarding the overall international criticism of Iranian human rights violations. In response to the persistence of those criticisms, supported by data gathered by NGOs and the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, the Islamic Republic has even installed its own internal “human rights monitor,” but this position has only served to deny the findings of foreign observers.

Those denials are difficult to take seriously in the face of anecdotal information gathered both from within Iranian prisons and from people like Hekmati, who have experienced prison conditions firsthand and escaped to countries where they may talk about them freely, without fear of reprisal. Among those who have provided information from inside the country, a number have been subjected to additional judicial punishment on the basis of charges such as “communicating with the UN special rapporteur.”

Nevertheless, their efforts continue to have an impact on the international understanding of the overall state of the Iranian criminal justice system, as well as the particular pressures faced by prisoners of conscience.

Further elucidating the general situation, the Human Rights Activists News Agency issued a report on Thursday thoroughly detailing the conditions in Evin Prison’s Ward 7, which primarily houses individuals convicted of financial crimes, but also contains some political-security defendants. HRANA notes that almost all of the estimated 55 inmates in this category have been convicted of the vague crime of “collaborating with hostile governments.”

There is no clear criteria by which the judiciary defines what constitutes a “hostile government,” much less the nature of the “collaboration” that allows for people to be charged with a crime. HRANA quotes one of these convicts as saying that he and his fellow inmates are victims of a “spy-creating project.”

Foreign observers have made similar accusations, especially in light of the recent mass arrests of Iranian journalists and persons with foreign professional contacts. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian hardliners have presented these people as being members of a vaguely defined “infiltration network.” Meanwhile, the absence of evidence for foreign spying has been explained away by claiming that this network is structured in such a way as to leave some members unaware of the fact that they are working for Western entities.

But Iran’s campaign of political imprisonments has certainly not just been directed against people accused of having ties to the West. It has also been directed against writers and artists who are perceived as being out of step with the regime’s ideology, as well as people with possible ties to Iran’s adversaries within the Middle East.

Another HRANA report detailed the case of one such apparent victim, Yousef Silavi, who had been questioned and threatened by Iranian authorities before disappearing from his home. Although no Iranian law enforcement agency has officially taken responsibility for the disappearance, it is believed that he is being held hostage to exert pressure on his daughters to return to Iran.

Mona and Shima Silavi currently reside in Syria, where they have been offering Arabic translation services to asylum seekers who are seeking to leave the country, where Iranian forces have taken on a leading role in the defense of the embattled presidency of Bashar al-Assad. The two women have repeatedly been interrogated at the Iranian embassy in Syria over their work, 

leading to the perception that their family is being targeted over the support of Arab causes.

These types of stories, alongside the specific crackdown on supposedly pro-Western sentiments, serve to undermine the notion that Foreign Minister Zarif and the rest of the Rouhani administration are leading a trend of moderation within the Iranian regime. This notion was further undermined last week when the now-famous profile of White House foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes revealed that the Obama administration had deliberately disseminated that narrative to help justify the Iran nuclear deal.

But despite the doubt that this casts on the seriousness of that narrative, it still appears to be the case that the Obama administration, as well as the Western media, have been operating on the assumption that moderation is forthcoming.

While IranWire suggests as much when it says that the media has been handling Zarif with kid gloves, various other critics have pointed to apparent concessions and excessively permissive policies that the Obama administration has offered to Iran. On Thursday, Bloomberg View and The Tower contributed to these criticisms by alleging that the administration had “stopped blacklisting domestic charities that collect funds for terrorist organizations.”

Although the official rationale for this change is that the government elected to put more focus on the pursuit of investigations and prosecutions instead of public designation, some experts have raised concerns that the move has diminished the amount of scrutiny given to some such charities. Many of these can be expected to be linked to Iran, which is still regarded as the world foremost state sponsor of terrorism, regardless of the narrative of moderation under the Rouhani administration.