Addressed to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, the letter voices extreme concern about the case of Xiyue Wang, the Princeton University graduate student who was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison based on false charges of espionage.
The letter also comments more generally on the human rights issues that Wang’s case represents, and it calls upon the working group “to investigate the plight of Iranian political prisoners and urge the international community to condemn the egregious violations of human rights in Iran and demand immediate release of all political prisoners.”
Of course, the UN body has already focused some of its attention on Wang’s case and that of other political prisoners, and it recently made the public declaration that there was “no legal basis” for his imprisonment. There is little doubt that the working group will follow up on the letter in some fashion, especially considering that it is only one example of broader, ongoing efforts by Iranian expatriates and human rights advocates to put pressure on the Iranian regime over such issues.
At the same time, it is clear that these efforts constitute a steep uphill battle. In fact, the Iranian regime has apparently been growing more defiant of international human rights norms in recent months and years.
This fact was on display on Tuesday when it was reported that the execution had been carried out for Zeinab Sekaanvand despited concerted efforts by Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations to halt it.
The passage and implementation of her sentence are relevant to at least three familiar areas of Iranian human rights abuses: deprivation of women’s and minority rights, especially in a court of law, and the ongoing use of the death penalty in cases where the accused was below the age of 18 at the time of the crime.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child both prohibit such executions and Iran is a signatory to both documents. Yet the Iranian judiciary routinely upholds death sentences for juvenile offenders after declaring them to have been sufficiently mature at the time of their crimes.
Iranian law regards children as young as nine as having reached the age of majority.
The Amnesty report on Sekaanvand’s execution notes that she is at least the fifth juvenile offender to be put to death in Iran this year alone, having been arrested at 17 and charged with murdering her abusive husband.
The report notes that she was evidently convicted on the basis of a forced confession, elicited through physical beatings and in absence of legal representation. The judiciary’s neglect of international criticisms in this and the four preceding cases brings attention to the fact that these sorts of executions appear to be growing more frequent.
But this is arguably only a symptom of a much more general escalation of human rights abuses and social repression. To the extent that the Sekaanvand case represents repression of the rights of women, it has parallels throughout society.
Indeed, a report published on Monday by IranWire called attention to the ongoing detention, without charge, of four prominent women’s rights activists who were arrested in September. It declared that these and other recent cases indicate that “the arrests and the persecution of women’s right activists have intensified.”
Meanwhile, another IranWire report suggests that these judicial assaults on women’s rights are being supported by greater social pressures as regime officials strive to reinforce their traditional vision of gender roles, involving forced veiling, the separation of men and women in public spaces, and so on.
The report focuses on the fact that security cameras have proliferated around Tehran’s Azadi Stadium – from fewer than 20 to more than 500 – in recent years, for the express purpose of identifying and obstructing women who attempt to gain access to sporting events while dressed as men.
These sorts of crackdowns are nothing new, and institutionalized gender discrimination has grown in various ways as the regime pushes back against both domestic and international pressures in favor of reform. But such crackdowns also generate counter-trends, as has been evident in the “Revolution Women” protests against forced veiling, as well as other recent women’s rights demonstrations.
The growing polarization of Iranian society can also be seen in various other areas, especially since the nationwide uprising that began in December and continued through much of January. Protests have continued to break out in various localities, with a focus on various social, political, and economic issues ever since.
As one example, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported on Tuesday that a strike by workers in the trucking industry had spread into its second week and had come to encompass every province in the country.
However, that report also noted that at least 150 people have been arrested in connection with the demonstrations. And the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that 35 individuals were arrested on September 28 alone.
What’s more, the detainees and those who are still protesting continue to be threatened with charges like “banditry” and “spreading corruption” that could result in the death penalty. Meanwhile, repressive institutions like the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards persist in efforts to silence dissent in cyberspace and the public sphere.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency reported on Tuesday that a well-known Iranian actor had been summoned to appear before the Intelligence Ministry over comments published online, thus demonstrating that the regime’s repressive efforts are not hampered by any target’s popularity, wealth, or social status.
This in turn goes to show that the regime remains defiant of domestic pressure at the same time that it is pushing back against international pressure. But many critics of that regime believe that these dual forms of pressure are working in tandem, and that international support for a domestic resistance movement will ultimately stretch Tehran’s propaganda and repressive infrastructure to their breaking points.