End Violent Attacks on Protesters, Arrests of Critics
June 19, 2009
Peaceful protests are a fundamental right. The government needs to stop its harassment and intimidation of its critics, including peaceful demonstrators.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The Iranian government should immediately end its nationwide crackdown on opposition activity, Human Rights Watch said today. The scale of the crackdown is apparent in the arrest of scores of reformist politicians, intellectuals, and journalists across Iran on June 17 and 18, together with violent attacks by police and state-sponsored militias against largely peaceful demonstrators, Human Rights Watch said.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on June 19 issued a warning that protests against the country's disputed presidential election results must end and that political leaders would be blamed for any violence. Ayatollah Khamenei's remarks followed several public statements by leading officials in the past week threatening a crackdown against protesters.

"Peaceful protests are a fundamental right," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to stop its harassment and intimidation of its critics, including peaceful demonstrators."

Other signs of the nationwide crackdown include attacks by security forces and state-sponsored militias on university student dormitories (a traditional stronghold of opposition protesters), the severe disruption of internet and mobile telephone communications, and restrictions on international and domestic media reporting on the protests against alleged election fraud.

In past years, peaceful student protests, as well as labor unrest and protests by ethnic minorities, have been met with a harsh crackdown from the authorities including physical attacks by security forces and pro-government Basij militias on protesters, mass arrests, and the torture of some detainees. The last major round of student protests in Tehran occurred in 1999, but this week's demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities appear to be by far the biggest since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Iran is bound by international human rights law, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1975. Under the covenant, Iran is required to recognize and protect key human rights, including peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Widespread Arbitrary Arrests

Since protests started on June 13, following the release of the disputed results of the June 12 election, Human Rights Watch has confirmed from sources across Iran the arrest of hundreds of opposition and reformist activists. Those arrested include prominent political and religious leaders on the reforming wing of the political establishment as well as leading intellectuals, journalists, and students. The arrest of hundreds of protesters, including university students in Tehran and Mashhad, has been reported by unofficial Iranian internet news sites.

According to reliable reports, beginning on June 13, security forces began arresting leading reformers, including: Mohammad Reza Khatami, member of the Central Committee of the leading reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the brother of former President Mohammad Khatami; Behzad Nabavi, founding member of the reformist Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Party; Mohsen Mirdamadi, secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Participation Front; Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading strategist in the Islamic Iran Participation Front and former deputy interior minister; and Shaeed Shariati, a member of the Central Committee of the Islamic Iran Participation Front. The following day three, leading opposition journalists - Taghi Rahmani, Reza Alijani, and Hoda Saberi - were arrested, but were released within 48 hours.

On June 16, the security forces arrested: Saeed Hajjarian, a former adviser to former President Khatami who was severely disabled in a March 2000 assassination attempt; Mohammad Ali Abtahi, also known as "the blogging Mullah," a leading adviser to the reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi who chairs the Institute for Religious Dialogue and sits on the central council of the reformist-oriented Association of Combatant Clerics; and Abdolfattah Soltani, a leading human rights lawyer who directs the Defenders of Human Rights Center and had previously been detained from July 2005 until March 2006.

On June 17, security forces detained Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran's first foreign minister after the revolution and secretary-general of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran, at Pars Hospital, where he was undergoing medical treatment. He was later returned to the hospital from Evin prison, but remains under guard. Saeed Laylaz, the prominent economist and business reporter for Sarmayeh newspaper who is one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's most outspoken critics, was arrested on June 17 at his home.

Among other prominent figures reported to have been detained are Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, the spokesperson during the Khatami presidency and a leading member of the Islamic Iran Participation Front: Bagher Oskouiee, a leading campaign official for Karroubi; Amir Mardani, a member of Karroubi's campaign staff; Mohsen Aminzadeh, former deputy minister of foreign affairs and a supporter of the reformist presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi; Mohammad Atrianfar, an opposition journalist and senior adviser to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; and Mohammad Tavasoli, the director of the political office of the Freedom Movement of Iran. It is also reported that other members of the Karroubi campaign staff have also been arrested in Tehran and Tabriz. Dozens of other arrests of lesser-known activists, students, and politicians have also been reported to Human Rights Watch.

Although Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the circumstances of all of these arrests, in none of the cases it has examined did the authorities provide any document or warrant at the time of arrest. Associates of some of those detained contacted by Human Rights Watch indicated that their families have not heard from them since their arrests.

The wife of one of those arrested told Human Rights Watch that the arresting authorities presented no summons or other legal documents when taking her husband into custody. Since then, she said: "for five days, we have not received any information on where he is and his health condition. That makes us very concerned."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 9, states that "no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention." It requires Iran, as a state party, to ensure that everyone arrested is informed at the time of their arrest of the reasons for their detention, as well as any criminal charges against them, and brought before a judge or judicial officer to review their detention.

A Violent Crackdown by State-Sponsored Militias and Security Forces

Since the protests began last week, units of the state-sponsored Basij paramilitary militia and government security forces have engaged in sporadic violence against demonstrators and opposition activists. On a number of occasions, the Basij militia, which was founded during the 1979 revolution and is subordinate to the Revolutionary Guards, has attacked student dormitories, beating the students and ransacking their rooms. Basij militia members have arrived in large groups at mass demonstrations, normally on motorcycles, to attack protesters.

In Tehran, official media reported that seven people were killed at an incident at a Basij base on June 15 in the Azadi Square district, although it has not elaborated on the circumstances of those killings. Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into the incident.

In another incident reported by local and foreign media, including the Amirkabir University newsletter, Basij forces invaded dormitories at Tehran University on June 14, attacking students and burning some of their rooms. Amateur film footage of that attack appears to show black-clothed Basij militia members armed with sticks and other weapons chasing students. There have also been reports of violent attacks by security forces on demonstrators and students in the provincial towns of Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Bandar Abbas, and Mashhad. The Iranian government has attempted to suppress news from those towns by shutting down communication networks and banning reporters from traveling outside Tehran. International journalists who were present in provincial capitals such as Isfahan say that the crackdown in those towns has been even more violent than in Tehran.

Throughout the week, residents of Tehran and other Iranian cities have reported sightings of Basij militia armed with clubs and chains patrolling the streets, stopping passers-by and beating up those suspected of involvement in anti-government protests. Many protesters can be identified by their green clothes or armbands, as that color has become the symbol of support for Mousavi.

Mousavi filed a complaint with Iran's state national security council that plainclothes agents used sticks, metal rods, and firearms to "attack the lines of peaceful participants before the arrival of the security forces."

One resident of Tehran told Human Rights Watch that he had seen Basij militia members operating in various parts of the city, including Vanak Square, the focal point of many reformist gatherings. The Basij moved about in groups of about 20 on motorcycles, beating and harassing protestors with batons. "People were coming through peacefully, chanting, but not provoking the Basji militia members," he said. "But they [the militia members] came forward and beat people." Human Rights Watch has received similar reports of unprovoked violence by the Basij militia and Iranian security forces from other parts of Tehran and other Iranian cities.

The Iranian Parliament has taken some steps to investigate violent attacks. On June 16, Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, created a committee to investigate "unfortunate incidents" at a Tehran University student dormitory on June 14, in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election. The following day the deputy speaker of parliament, Mostafa Abutorabi, said that "plainclothes individuals entered the dormitory without being on a mission from their responsible institutions."

In the past, the Iranian government has failed to hold the Basij militias accountable for violent attacks on opposition activists and protesters. During some of the violent attacks against protesters by Basij militias this week, witnesses have reported that police and other formal uniformed security forces were often present but failed to intervene.

Warnings of a Crackdown on ‘Criminal' Protests

Government officials also appear to be engaged in an organized campaign to discredit and criminalize those engaging in peaceful protest. Leading government and pro-government figures have claimed the latest protests are a result of a Western-sponsored conspiracy.

On June 11, the eve of the election, Yadollah Javani Mousavi, political head of the Revolutionary Guard, warned that authorities would crush any attempt at a popular "revolution" and said they would not tolerate the formation of a post-election political force under the banner of the candidate Mousavi's "green movement."

On June 15, the Revolutionary Guard's "Center for Review of Organized Crime" issued a statement accusing several Iranian blogs and websites of promoting "street riots" and "rebellious behavior," warning that "our legal action against them will cost them dearly."

On June 18, Mohammadreza Habibi, the prosecutor-general of the province of Isfahan, threatened protesters "controlled by foreigners" that they could face the death penalty, stating that the punishment for "waging war against God is execution."

On June 19, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave a sermon following Friday prayers at Tehran University, again endorsing Ahmadinejad as the winner of the disputed presidential elections and demanding an end to the street protests, ominously warning that "if there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible." The sermon could give the green light to a broader, more violent crackdown on the opposition.

Attempts to Shut Down the Media and Communications in Iran

The government has sought to disrupt the flow of information about the demonstrations, banning the foreign and domestic media from reporting on unauthorized protests and rallies, intimidating bloggers, and seeking to block websites that have been a vital tool for the opposition movement.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has refused to extend the short-duration work visas of foreign journalists currently in Iran, and has ordered them not to attend or report on unauthorized opposition protests and rallies without permission from the ministry, which has not been granted.

Authorities have also placed the domestic press under severe censorship: on June 17, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance ordered two major opposition dailies, Hayat e No and Aftab e Yazd, not to publish, stating this was because of their prominent coverage of the peaceful opposition protests. Mohammad Atryanfar, the publisher of a number of opposition newspapers including Hamshary, Shargh, and Shahrvand Emrouz, was detained on June 15 and remains in detention.

Mobile phone and text messaging networks have also been switched off sporadically. Since June 12 censorship and filtering of websites has intensified. In the past three days Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, and other internet-based communication tools have been blocked or interrupted by the Iranian authorities. Several Iranian journalists in Tehran told Human Rights Watch that slowed internet connections, blockage of websites, and disruption of mobile phone and text networks have severely hampered their ability to report on events.

International law, in particular article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires Iran to protect freedom of expression. The covenant states that this right specifically includes the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or through any media."

Human Rights Watch called on the Iranian government to stop arresting peaceful protesters and opposition supporters, and to free those it has already detained. It should allow all Iranians to exercise their rights to demonstrate peacefully and to express and receive information freely from any source. Authorities should end all harassment, especially acts of the violence by security forces and Basij militias against peaceful protesters. The acts of violence by security forces that have taken place should be immediately investigated, and perpetrators of unlawful violence should be prosecuted.