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On Various Issues, Tehran Strives to Soften Public Perception of Human Rights Abuses

IW reported upon these protests on Thursday, featuring an interview with one of the several men who have conducted similar demonstrations in solidarity with the female activists. As of the time of that report, 29 people were known to have been arrested as a result of these protests, not including Vida Movahed, the 31-year-old woman who was held in detention for one month after conducting the first such demonstration, an extension of the ongoing White Wednesday movement that encourages women to wear white hijabs each week as a symbol of their opposition to legally mandated veiling.

Movahed’s arrest on December 27 coincided with Tehran authorities’ announcement that women would no longer be subject to arrest for violations of the Islamic dress code, but would instead be ordered to attend classes on religious standards of behavior. Although Movahed was ultimately released without charge, the well-known human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh expressed concern that a case could still be built against her, warning the authorities, “Don’t touch her.”

Criminal charges for the women’s rights activist would definitively undercut local officials’ efforts to appear more lenient in their enforcement of forced veiling laws. But those officials’ specific claims have already been proven false by Movahed’s arrest and then again by the 29 additional arrests that almost immediately followed her release. Meanwhile, the Rouhani administration’s attempt to weigh in on the public debate over this issue arguably demonstrates similar inconsistency.

This was the position of one expert on women’s rights issues in Iran who was quoted by CNN. “This move is extremely strategic,” Nina Ansary said of the report released by the president’s office. “On the surface it immediately appears that he’s waving the flag of women’s rights to choose to wear the veil or not, but when you think that this report signals half of the country is in favor of the law, it’s almost a back-handed way of lending support for the regime.”

Viewed in this light, the report is representative of a pattern of behavior on the part of Rouhani, whereby he straddles the middle ground between hardline authorities and the reformist movement that helped to carry him into office in 2013 and then against last year. During his campaign for a second term, Rouhani reiterated and even strengthened a number of the progressive campaign promises that had characterized his previous campaign. These included women’s rights issues such as the inclusion of women in the presidential cabinet, but after his second-term inauguration he consulted with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over all cabinet picks, resulting in reliably conservative choices and no women.

Outside of the context of political campaigns, Rouhani has also backed away from promises such as freedom for the Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since 2011. Furthermore, numerous reports have suggested that the Iranian regime’s crackdown on domestic dissent has worsened in many respects during Rouhani’s tenure and certainly in the wake of mass protests that broke out in dozens of cities and town around the same time as the women’s rights protests that were sparked by Movahed.

The anti-government demonstrations have also put on display the regime’s broader impulse toward the sort of double-speak on human rights issues that had already been seen in the Rouhani campaigns and in the Tehran government’s pre-protest commentary on violations of the hijab law. While the nationwide gatherings were at their peak, regime authorities attempted to claim that only a few hundred participants had been arrested, but this figure ultimately climbed into the thousands. One Member of Parliament acknowledged 3,700 arrests and this remained as the maximum official estimate from within the Iranian government until January 30.

On that date, a number of Iranian lawmakers were granted access to Evin Prison to explore the aftermath of the protests for the first time, according to the CHRI. One of those lawmakers then informed the press that the delegation had been informed of 4,534 arrests connected to protests across the country. However, even this figure falls well short of the estimates given by domestic activist networks. The National Council of Resistance of Iran has reported that based on that intelligence, at least 8,000 people were arrested during the demonstrations and at least 11 were killed under torture.

Last year, authorities at Evin Prison opened themselves to new criticisms from the international activist community after they arranged a heavily stage-managed visit to the facility by select foreign ambassadors. The event was intended to forestall criticism of human rights violations in one of the country’s most notorious detention facilities, but several political prisoners wrote open letters in response pointing out that the political wards had been avoided and a number of prisoners transferred to prevent their contact with the ambassadors, resulting in a very incomplete picture of the prison’s conditions.

Had political detainees been permitted to speak openly to visiting observers, they would have no doubt raised familiar human rights issues such as torturous interrogation, punitive beatings, and seemingly arbitrary pressure tactics such as the withholding of medical treatment. But the regime’s attempts to downplay these issues are longstanding, and Tehran even maintains its own so-called human rights monitoring office, the function of which appears to be limited to contradicting foreign criticism of well-known Iranian human rights abuses.

Naturally, those denials are sometimes backed up by token gestures such as the release of sick prisoners for medical leave. But it is often the case that this leave is only granted in the direst of circumstances, after conditions have been permitted to worsen over a long period of time. This was the case with the 81-year-old Iranian-American political prisoner Baquer Namazi, whose four-day leave was extended through Sunday according to a recent report by IW.

Although Namazi’s release was embraced by the State Department, the relevant statement also called for a permanent end to his plainly unjustified detention. Meanwhile, his international legal counsel Jared Genser noted that regardless of the length of his temporary release, “it is clear from the Government’s own doctors that returning him to prison would be tantamount to a death sentence.”

What’s more, token gestures of mercy appear even less significant in light of the fact that they invariably correspond with worsening situations for other victims of legal abuses. In the present case, the CHRI reports that the infamous revolutionary court judge, Abdolqasem Salavati, refused to release another Iranian-American political prisoner and his wife, despite successful efforts by his family to raise the extraordinary bail amount of 27 million dollars.

“If I wanted her free, I wouldn’t have set [the bail] so high,” the judge was quoted as saying. CHRI identified this as only one of several blatant violations of due process to which the couple has been subjected since their arrest in July 2016, ostensibly for serving alcohol and hosting mixed-gender parties in their home. Vafadari has since been charged under a law that specifically targets persons who acquire foreign citizenship, although the law also specifies that Iran does not recognize that change in status.

In addition to being prosecuted on dubious charges, a number of imprisoned dual nationals have also been subjected to character assassination in Iran’s state media, which cites flimsy evidence to advance the notion that those people are guilty of espionage or conspiracy. This phenomenon is also indicative of the regime’s efforts to control public perceptions of its human rights abuses without mitigating those abuses in the process. Such projects enjoy little credibility where the hardline judiciary is concerned, but it remains to be seen how the Iranian public and the international media will react to the Rouhani administration’s efforts to pay lip-service to recent protest movements without supporting them in any meaningful way.

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