After being made the subject of unsubstantiated accusations of espionage, Hekmati was reportedly whipped, drugged with lithium and then left to experience painful withdrawal symptoms, subjected to sleep deprivation, and falsely told that his mother had died. His story stands as just one example of the rampant mistreatment of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic. He is one of just a handful of persons allegedly targeted on the basis of American citizenship or connections to the West, but stories of routine abuse are highly prevalent among populations of native Iranian prisoners, including activists and political dissenters.
The Associated Press briefly called attention to one such recent group of Iranian political prisoners on Thursday when it reported that Iranian school teachers throughout the country had staged protests that day. At the same time that these demonstrations continued previous calls for improvements to the standard of living of members of a profession that stands to see reductions in their real income under the current Iranian budget, they also served to call for the release of colleagues who have been detained by authorities since previous protests on this topic last month.
Those detentions certainly stand as examples of the punitive abuse of police authority in Iran, but they also indicate that Iranian activism continues to function in spite of the crackdowns and in spite of the publicity given to cases of physical and psychological abuse like that directed at Amir Hekmati.
Some activists and commentators are hopeful that this evident commitment may still prove capable of making some inroads toward improvement of the human rights situation, especially if some of the world’s attention refocuses on that issue as negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program draw to a close.
But despite the relevant foreign role, many urge for change from within the Iranian populous, whether this be through regime change or some sort of reform. The latter is widely regarded to be a difficult prospect, but an article in Al Monitor on Thursday raised the question of whether a higher degree of local-level political participation might be capable of affecting policy within city councils, producing reverberations upward through the political structure.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has complete authority over virtually all Iranian affairs, but that authority can hardly be exhibited everywhere at once. Al Monitor quotes an anonymous Iranian journalist as saying that in last month’s Tehran city council elections, the government’s hardline Guardian Council was virtually absent and did not play the vetting role that it would have played in higher-level elections. As a result, some figures deemed undesirable at those higher levels, such as women who oppose forced veiling, were not disqualified and went on to win seats.
Al Monitor speculates that greater participation in such elections could make ordinarily repressed voices stronger from the local level up. Only about 10 percent of voters participated in the city council elections, but younger voters made up the largest portion of voters. The youth of Iran are known to be highly educated, generally pro-Western, and often interested in activism.
The article quotes one member of a neighborhood council as saying, “Neighborhood councils are the first step for making a real civil society; they are a place where thousands of thousands of ordinary people can engage with policymaking, and what democracy needs are people who really care about policymaking. The Iranian authority is aware that in the long term, neighborhood councils are direct roads for making democracy, and I think I understand why [the official media] avoided encouraging people to participate. It is scared of such councils.”
The fear of organized popular dissent may also explain why certain Iranian officials have been known to make statements ostensibly endorsing popular causes even though those statements are generally in contrast to official actions. President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly been cited as an example of this tendency, having campaigned on promises of improved human rights and lesser censorship.
Activist organizations are quick to point out that his actual record has shown no meaningful improvement in these areas. Quite the contrary, notable conservative crackdowns have taken place during his tenure, the rate of executions has risen greatly, and institutional sexism has strengthened, as demonstrated by initiatives to separate women and men in public and in the workplace.
Nevertheless, as the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran pointed out on Thursday, President Rouhani spoke out against discrimination toward women in a speech last Sunday. While such comments disregard the lack of action on this issue since Rouhani’s election in 2013, the Campaign notes that the need to speak on the topic may have been motivated by the increased attention that it has been given by activist organizations, foreign entities, and the Iranian people.
Still, Rouhani’s remarks seemed to dismiss the notion of government accountability for the discrimination the president highlighted. “We have no patriarchy nor matriarchy in Islam; what we have is a meritocracy. Men and women side by side by each other on social issues, are [the embodiment] of [the Islamic principle of] ‘promotion of virtue and prevention of vice,’” he said in reference to a government initiative empowering members of Iran’s civilian militia to confront people in public for supposed violations of Islamic laws and principles.
Many activists blamed the publicity of this plan for a series of acid attacks on women in Iran, apparently motivated by their being “improperly veiled.” Rouhani’s speech seems to divorce the government policy from the actions of a few bad elements of society. But even on this view, the Iranian government appears to have done little or nothing to address those elements. After all, last year’s string of acid attacks was not an isolated incident.
IranWire called attention to this fact on Thursday when it reported that Somayeh Mehri, the victim of a 2011 acid attack perpetrated by her husband and his brother, died as a result of health complications brought on by her injuries. Mehri’s children, one of whom was also burned by acid in the same attack, now face the prospect of being raised by the very man who wounded their mother and contributed to her death.
This, of course, is only one of many anecdotal stories that have either a direct or indirect connection to the clerical regime’s influence on Iranian law and culture. What’s more, that influence even extends beyond Iran’s borders, prompting activism in other localities as well. For instance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran pointed out on Thursday that Iranian exiles in Iraq are still pleading with the Baghdad government to release the body of Ali Salari, who died as a result of the medical blockade on the Iranian dissident community at Camp Ashraf and who has since been held by authorities and refused burial, in what has been described by the NCRI as a “well-known method employed by the religious fascism ruling Iran that is now being implemented through its Iraqi agents against the Iranian dissidents residing in Iraq.”