No Sign of Change in Iran’s Human Rights at Beginning of 2016

In the run-up to the end of 2015, the Iran Human Rights website noted that mass executions were taking place on a nearly daily basis, and Iran News Update pointed out that this would very likely help the Iranian judiciary to cross the expected threshold of 1,000 executions for the calendar year. Even the very last day of the year saw at least five executions, according to Iran Human Rights.

That same source has kept a close watch on Iranian prisons during the first days of 2016, thus bringing early attention to what is arguably the most prominent human rights issue in the Islamic Republic. Based on reports from inside those prisons, at least 21 individuals have been executed by the Iranian judiciary already, most of them for non-violent drug crimes. This seems to suggest that the dramatic increase in executions that has been observed under President Hassan Rouhani is still ongoing.

Fortunately, these early reports have not yet identified death penalty recipients who were also political prisoners, but there were certainly examples of this overlap in 2015, and there is little reason to suppose that more examples will not emerge throughout the current year. Certainly, the arrest and arbitrary detention of political prisoners has already been demonstrated to still be ongoing, by such activist organizations as the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

That organization pointed out on Monday that the widespread persecution of Christian converts is still an ongoing phenomenon, as evidenced by the pre-Christmas arrest of Meysam Hojati from his home in Isfahan. Security forces took him into detention and confiscated a number of personal belongings, including his computer, his Bible, and even his Christmas tree, making it clear that the raid was motivated by his non-Muslim faith and was very likely intended as a gesture of intimidation against other converts celebrating the Christmas holiday.

The International Campaign pointed out that these arrests have become an annual tradition over the course of the past ten years, and that their recurrence at the end of 2015 is indicative of no change in the climate of domestic repression under President Rouhani.

The Christian Post commented upon the Hojati case on Wednesday, emphasizing that it contradicted Rouhani’s campaign promises of a freer and more open Iranian society. “All ethnicities, all religions, even religious minorities, must feel justice,” it quoted him as saying during his 2013 campaign. But by some accounts, the persecution of religious minorities has only intensified since then, and has been directed not only against converts and traditionally marginalized groups like the Baha’i, but also against established faith communities that are ostensibly protected by the Iranian constitution.

For instance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran pointed out on Saturday that authorities in Tehran were proceeding with plans to build an Islamic prayer center on the grounds of the Assyrian community’s Chaldean Catholic Church, which was illegally confiscated two years ago. This has reportedly drawn criticism not only from the church itself but also from Sunni Muslims and other groups at risk of similar repressive moves by the Shiite authorities.

Meanwhile, the specific case of Meysam Hojati points to more than just the pattern of individual prosecutions behind Iran’s religious discrimination. It also highlights the arbitrary nature of the Iranian judicial system, since Hojati has been taken to an undisclosed location and has been denied contact from his family since his arrest.

Such denials of due process can sometime lead to extreme results. In a report published on Wednesday, the International Campaign called attention to the extraordinary case of Saeed Zeinali, a former student protester who was arrested from his home, in front of his parent in 1999 and then never heard from again, other than a brief phone call three months later.

This week, the Iranian judiciary denied that Zeinali had ever been arrested, suggesting that it is the responsibility of his family to provide documentary evidence that he was taken by security forces. While it is not clear that any current judiciary officials were involved in his disappearance, the official commentary on this case serves as further evidence that there has been no change in Iran’s human rights behavior, insofar as authorities remain unwilling to acknowledge or investigate the wrongdoing of their predecessors.