The Iran Human Rights report also hinted at the secrecy that the regime often imposes upon these cases, noting that none of these latest four executions were formally announced as having been implemented. This in turn highlights the uncertainty surrounding any specific determinations of the number of executions carried out by the Iranian judiciary in a given year.
Most human rights groups, including the United Nations commission on human rights, agree that in 2015 at least 966 individuals were put to death in Iran, although the real number may be higher than that. Tallies are still being conducted for the year 2016, but reliable estimates already exceed 500 executions.
The secrecy that surrounds Iran’s executions is also frequently extended to other areas of human rights concern. The leadership of the Islamic Republic, along with its own so-called human rights monitor, typically dismiss international concerns about its human rights abuses. But these denials are often difficult to uphold, as some of the victims of those abuses, including many of the country’s political prisoners, actively cooperate with international monitors to draw attention to their plight.
This phenomenon has been especially pronounced in recent months, as the country has reportedly seen a surge in hunger strikes, some aimed at gaining specific concessions for individual political prisoners or their relatives, and some aiming to expose the overall conditions of Iranian prisons, particularly political wards. The situation has become so threatening to the Iranian regime that judiciary chief Mohammad Javad Amoli Larijani recently advised lower judiciary officials over it.
On Thursday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran quoted Larijani as saying, “we should not give any chances to those who think they can enact their intentions by applying media pressure. He added that hunger strikes and other protests “have no legal status and will not affect the judicial process.”
But this latter claim seems to conflict with reports from earlier in the month suggesting that the hunger strike by political prisoner Arash Sadeghi had been successful in securing conditional release and retrial for his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, who had been arrested and ordered to serve a six year sentence based on the contents of an unpublished short story found in a notebook in her home. Iraee’s release and the end of Sadeghi’s hunger strike came about after hundreds of Iranian protested out their behalf outside of Evin Prison, while hundreds of thousands of others advocated for them on social media.
The judiciary’s action on Iraee’s case gives the clear impression that the Iranian regime has some concern with public relations, as is to be expected of any government that might face pressure from diplomatic and trading partners, as well as from its own people. This concern is underscored by the action that the regime has also apparently taken in response to other protests and hunger strikes. But Larijani’s commentary also underscores an aversion to such responses, which in turn results in some political prisoners being punished for their protests.
One recent example of this is the Lebanese-born American permanent resident Nizar Zakka, who began a hunger strike in early December and was subsequently transferred to a prison ward housing violent criminals, and barred from having contact with his family or other visitors, in an apparent effort to force him to end his protest. A different kind of example comes from the case of Atena Daemi, who was arrested in her home and taken to serve a seven-year prison sentence for her peaceful activism in November.
Subsequent to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ raid on her home, Daemi filed a formal complaint against the hardline paramilitary and domestic security force, alleging excessive use of force and unlawful behavior in conducting the raid without presenting a warrant. The IRGC responded by levying five new charges against Daemi, including resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, and insulting the supreme leader.
But on Thursday, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that three of the five charges against Daemi had been dropped after police officers who were not affiliated with the IRGC corroborated her story. This development could be described as a modest human rights victory, and it arguably demonstrates the regime’s reluctance to pursue a sensitive political case that is highly – and internationally – visible. However, the assault and resisting arrest charges remain implausibly in effect, and the fact remains that Daemi is facing additional punishment for simply calling attention to the circumstances surrounding her arrest.
On balance, the case highlights the possibility of measured success in prisoners’ rights activism, but also points to the probability of Iran evading of downplaying its concessions to that activism. Another report by the International Campaign may point to the same phenomenon. It notes that Saeed Shirzad had ended his hunger strike after 39 days because authorities had promised to address his concerns.
Shirzad’s case is distinct from those of Sadeghi, Daemi, and others because his efforts were explicitly aimed at improving the overall conditions for inmates in the political ward of Rajai Shahr Prison. As part of his protest, he sewed his own lips shut and vowed to continue his hunger strike to the point of death, if need be. The prison’s supervising judge and a prosecutor’s representative responded to these threats after Shirzad had been hospitalized for the health effects of his protest, and they provided assurances that beatings and insults of political prisoners would cease and that the overall conditions would be re-evaluated.
It remains to be seen whether and how authorities will actually follow up on these assurances, but Shirzad has promised to renew his hunger strike if the authorities renege. Still, there is little reason for confidence in changes to prison conditions, especially throughout the country’s entire system. Political prisoners continue to be subject to arbitrary additional pressures, including physical and psychological abuse, and the denial of access to medical treatment.
This latter fate is presently being suffered by, among others, the Kurdish filmmaker Keyvan Karimi. His undiagnosed medical condition has grown so severe that he has begun vomiting blood, and yet authorities persist in refusing to grant him furlough. He is serving a six year sentence for making a film on the topic of graffiti in Tehran, and the International Campaign speculates that he is also being targeted by prison authorities because of his ethnic identity.
Barring highly significant changes or drastic actions by the judiciary, it stands to reason that reports of hunger strikes and other protests will continue to accumulate in the midst of this ongoing surge. Indeed, the International Campaign reported that as recently as the end of last week, the imprisoned journalist Issa Saharkhiz initiated a hunger strike and laid out plans for the future escalation of his protest over the imposition of an additional, punitive six month sentence for “slandering the supreme leader.”
Saharkhiz was among several journalists caught up in mass arrests of journalists beginning in November 2015. His new protest can now be seen as making him part of another mass action – this one opposing the escalation repression of the Iranian regime. That interpretation is underscored by the fact that while Judiciary chief Larijani’s is calling for steadfastness among judges, some political prisoners are issuing public statements praising the solidarity of their fellow inmates.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran provided an example of this on Friday when it published a letter written by Arzhang Davoudi, who compared the current population of political prisoners to those incarcerated alongside Masoud Rajavi, the founder of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, in 1979. Davoudi described how Rajavi had refused to leave prison until all other political prisoners were permitted to leave with him, suggesting that a similar outcome might lay ahead in present-day circumstances.