The Islamic Republic is one of a very few nations to be subject to such a resolution on an annual basis, as widely reported domestic human rights issues continue to be perpetuated by the government regardless of international outcry. The vote on the latest resolution is scheduled to take place on November 14, and it is expected to pass easily. However, the precise breakdown of yay and nay votes is never exactly the same, and the joint letter seeks to widen the margin as much as possible, in order to send a stronger message to the Iranian regime.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran, being one of the signatories of the letter, published its full text on its website. It called attention to the fact that some observers had expected human rights improvements under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but these have not materialized. Rouhani was embraced by some Western officials as a relative moderate when he first ran for the presidency in 2013, on a campaign that promised such popular moves as the release of Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011.
This same promise, and others besides, were reiterated when Rouhani campaigned for reelection in May of this year. However, soon after his electoral victory, he began to distance himself from such promises, saying for instance that the release of the Green Movement leaders was primarily dependent upon the action of other state entities, including the notoriously hardline judiciary.
Other expectations stemming from Rouhani’s moderate campaign platforms included a reduction in the rate of executions in the Islamic Republic, which carries out more death sentences per capita than any other nation on Earth. However, in 2015 alone, Rouhani oversaw nearly 1,000 confirmed executions. And Wednesday’s open letter reported that at least 440 executions have been carried out so far in 2017.
These include numerous individuals who had been convicted of non-violent drug crimes, as well as some political prisoners and several individuals who had been juveniles at the time of their arrest. Each of these categories of killings is in violation of international laws and covenants, which are laid out in documents to which Iran is a signatory. The issue of juvenile executions has been a subject of recurring international activism, and it was meant to be addressed by a periodic review of UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which Iran participated in at the start of last year.
Despite this, the letter notes, at least nine juvenile offenders have since been put to death in the Islamic Republic. At least 20 others remain on death row. Iran’s non-responsiveness to the outcry on this issue is reflective of a broader refusal to participate in international dialogue on human rights issues. Iran maintains a domestic office that is supposedly charged with monitoring human rights, but in practice this office only functions to issue denials of international criticism, albeit without presenting evidence that the information cited by international human rights monitors is false.
Furthermore, Iran has barred the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran from entering the country, and has sentenced Iranians to prison for communicating with this and other human rights defenders. The office of the special rapporteur is currently occupied by Asma Jahangir, having been vacated by Ahmad Shaheed last year. Last month, Jahangir presented the United Nations with the results of a semi-annual report of the human rights situation. In doing so, she acknowledged positive signs in the form of some of Rouhani’s public statements, but ultimately observed that various aspects of human rights had only grown worse in the Islamic Republic.
Even so, Rouhani’s statements are not the only positive signs, though the significance of any of them is a matter of some debate. For instance, there has long been a push by more reform-minded politicians in the Islamic Republic to reduce the country’s rate of executions by changing the drug laws that account for the vast majority of death sentences.
These efforts had previously failed in parliament or been blocked by the Guardian Council, which is tasked with vetting all legislation and candidates for high office, to assure that they are in line with Islamic law and the will of the supreme leader. But recent reports indicate that the latest drug law reform measure successfully passed both of these obstacles. However, the actual reforms are modest and retain mandatory death sentences for some drug crimes, none of which rise to international standards for the “most serious crimes”, which arguably justify death sentences.
Furthermore, it is not clear what, if any, effect these changes will have on the actual activity of Iranian judges. No plan has been outlined for commuting the sentences of individuals who have already been sentenced to death for the lower-quantity drug trafficking crimes supposedly targeted by the reforms. And on Wednesday, the Iran Human Rights website reported that four drug offenders had been put to death in Urmia Central Prison. The report added that these killings were not officially announced by Iranian officials or state media, possibly suggesting a developing effort to mask non-compliance with the recent legal changes.
On the other hand, secrecy is not unique to this situation but is a common feature of the Iranian regime’s record on human rights. As mentioned above, Iranians are barred from speaking to human rights defenders like the UN special rapporteur; and the regime will sometimes go to shocking lengths to enforce this ban.
According to a report issued by CHRI at the end of October, recent actions against the activist Mahmoud Salehi may stem in large part from the fact that he sent a letter to the office of the special rapporteur in 2015 after he was granted medical release while serving a sentence for “propaganda against the state” and “creating an opposition group”, namely a labor union. The letter explained that Salehi had lost both of his kidneys after prison officials cut off his medication and barred him from receiving specialized treatment until his urinary condition had greatly worsened.
The CHRI report and a subsequent follow-up describe how Salehi was re-arrested in October after security officials interrupted his dialysis treatment so as to order him to begin serving a one-year sentence handed down in February. The prisoner needs constant medication and specialized treatment twice a week, but since returning to prison he has reportedly been kept in conditions which led to him developing a further illness and ultimately being hospitalized after experiencing “mild heart failure”.
In addition to highlighting the lengths to which Tehran will go in criminalizing the spread of human rights information, this case also calls attention to the familiar use of medical deprivation as a means of exerting pressure on political prisoners. On Tuesday, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported upon one of many other such cases, namely that of Majid Asadi, an alleged supporter of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran who was held in solitary confinement for 50 days after his February 18 arrest and who continues to be denied medical care despite digestive symptoms that may be indicative of bowel cancer.
The issue of medical deprivation gained particular traction in September when photographs began to circulate of the activist Alireza Rajaie, who lost an eye and part of his jaw as a result of cancer that went undiagnosed for months as he was refused access to specialized medical care, in defiance of the recommendations of prison physicians.