Rezaian Conviction Raises Profile of Other Political Prisoners, Abuses

On Thursday, Twitchy pointed to this criticism and noted that National Review commentator Tammy Bruce described Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments on the issue as “beyond contemptible.” Kerry had been defending himself against frequent suggestions that the administration should have made the release of Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini a precondition for any nuclear agreement. In so doing, he said that the administration would not hold the nuclear deal “hostage to hostages,” but would pursue the two issues separately.

But with the nuclear deal having been followed up by Rezaian’s conviction about three months later, there is some question as to whether the prisoners’ release has been pursued as vigorously as the nuclear deal. The vast majority of public campaigning for that release appears to have come not from the Obama administration or other Western leaders but from private advocates or lower-level policymakers who have taken up the cause of one or more of the American hostages.

And it is not just these three men who are relying on such grassroots advocacy. In fact, the climate of repression suggested by the Rezaian conviction may encourage the families and friends of other political prisoners to take more action to put international pressure on the Iranian judiciary.

For instance, the BBC reported on Thursday that the British family of Kamal Foroughi had kept silent about his political imprisonment for roughly the past five years, out of fear of giving the Iranian regime grounds for reprisal. But now they have broken their silence in response to his apparently deteriorating condition in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. As has been the case with Rezaian, the exact nature of the charges against Foroughi has never been made clear, but he is now 76 years old and in the middle of an eight year sentence.

Even in spite of his advanced age, Foroughi has reportedly been denied necessary medical treatment. This is a common tactic for punishing or exerting pressure on political prisoners, and was reportedly employed against Rezaian, as well, leading him to unhealthy weight loss and various afflictions during the year that he spent awaiting trial on undisclosed charges.

Rezaian’s family played a leading role in calling attention to this issue, just as Foroughi’s family is doing now. But the prominence of private advocacy does not mean that these and other prisoners do not also have advocates among Western governments and large non-governmental organizations.

Unfortunately, sometimes this advocacy is posthumous, being aimed at exposing aimed at exposing ongoing practices that have led to recent deaths. Such is the case with Fatemeh Salbehi, who was the focus of an EU statement condemning Iran for executing her for a crime that she was accused of when she was only 17 years old. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Amnesty International had previously spoken out on her behalf, noting that she was convicted on the basis of a forced confession, which she subsequently recanted.

Salbehi’s story is also indicative of the Iranian regime’s religious fundamentalism, which allowed for her forced marriage, as a teenager, to a man nearly twice her age, whom she had never met. The fact that the husband was the victim in this case may have contributed to Salbehi’s harsh treatment by officials keen to make an example of anyone accused of bucking the patriarchal system in the face of exploitation and abuse.

While this is only speculation in the specific case, it is clear to many close observers of Iran that the regime has been eager to crack down on any perceived deviation from its political, cultural, and religious ideology, especially in the wake of this summer’s nuclear agreement and the associated expectations of improved relations between Iran and the West.

The Rezaian case has been viewed as an example of hardliners lashing out against would-be purveyors of Western influence. But the aforementioned crackdown is aimed not just at Western influence but also at supposed dissenters, religious minorities, and more. On Wednesday, for instance it was reported that two poets and two teachers had been convicted of the crimes of “insulting the sacred” and educating the Baha’i religious sect.

And on Thursday, the Human Rights Activists News Agency called attention to the case of Mohammad Akramipour, noting that he has now been kept in jail for 21 months while being denied either trial or release on bail. The charges against him allege that he attempted to spread Sunni Islam within the territory of the Shiite theocracy.

Also on Thursday, IranWire issued two reports related to the apparent crackdown. One indicated that a filmmaker had also been convicted of insulting the sacred and sentenced to six years in prison and 223 lashes because of the content of his documentary film, which examined graffiti art in Iran but had never been screened anywhere in the country. The other report notes that an unnamed Iranian-American had been arrested after apparently first having his computer hacked and used in increasingly common phishing attacks originating with the Iranian regime.

The latter case raises the specter of an expanded population of American citizens in Iranian jails, and may discourage Western businesses from doing business with the Islamic Republic even as sanctions are removed under the nuclear deal.

While Western opponents of the regime stand to be further frustrated by the Obama administration’s inability to keep US citizens out of Iranian jails, they may also be pleased by the prospect of diminished Western investment in the country. That is to say that many such opponents of the regime had already urged their own governments to avoid doing business with Iran as long as it remains a leading state sponsor of terrorism and a perpetrator of frequent human rights abuses.

The nature of those abuses is periodically pointed out by international rights groups, including Human Rights Activists in Iran, which on Thursday released its latest annual report on the situation. The report reiterates that the overall situation has not improved under so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani, either in terms of actual abuses or in terms of access to information. 

The report provides the names of a range of political prisoners in addition to those mentioned above, and it devotes separate sections to the past year’s repressive government actions with respect to public speech, press freedom, prison conditions, labor rights, and institutionalized discrimination against women, religious, and ethnic minorities.