(New York) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York this week to attend a UN non-proliferation conference, prompting a fresh round of worrying speculation over the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The focus on that potential danger should not obscure the fact that thousands of people are currently experiencing not just a threat of violence from the Iranian government, but the everyday dispensing of it. Opposition supporters, journalists, human rights defenders, ethnic and religious minorities, union members and even teachers inside Iran regularly endure harassment, surveillance, interrogations, nighttime raids, imprisonment, and torture.
Nearly one year after the flawed presidential election that kicked off the biggest and most sustained anti-government demonstrations since the Islamic Republic's founding, the human rights situation remains devastating. This past weekend, a massive police presence in Tehran and other cities prevented demonstrations by union members commemorating the May 1 workers' holiday. The crackdown comes after a wave of attacks and arrests against union members, especially teachers' trade associations.
Many influential trade union leaders, including Ebrahim Madadi, Ali Nejati, and Mansour Osanloo, continue to serve time in Iran's prisons for advocating for the right to establish independent trade unions.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad visits New York on World Press Freedom Day. This less than a month after the Committee to Protect Journalists called Iran "the world's worst jailer of the press." At least 34 journalists were in prison in Iran on April 1, with an additional 18 on temporary leave from prison so they could spend the arrival of the Persian New Year with their families. An even greater number of journalists have fled the country, the largest exodus of journalists since the 1979 revolution.
The situation is just as bad for Iran's human rights defenders. This year, the judiciary, the security forces, and the state-owned media opened a coordinated attack on human rights groups under the guise of defending the nation against "cyber warfare." The authorities arrested scores of rights defenders, shut down websites run by human rights groups, and accused civil society organizations of collaborating with foreign intelligence agencies and terrorists.
According to Amnesty International, Iran executed 388 people in 2009 - the highest number of executions carried out by Tehran in recent years. At least nine people are currently on death row allegedly for participating in demonstrations following the disputed June 2009 elections; two have been executed so far. Those on death row are often charged with the crime of moharebeh - a vaguely defined offense meaning "enmity with God." A Revolutionary Court judge sentenced Mohammad Amin Valian to death for this crime after finding that he threw three rocks at security forces and chanted "death to the dictator" at a demonstration.
The Iranian government's use of the death penalty (and the charge of moharebeh) is particularly egregious in the country's ethnic areas. There are currently more than 17 activists from the country's Kurdish minority on death row.
Last month, Iran withdrew its bid to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council - a post it clearly sought in order to prevent criticism of its record, not to further the goal of universal human rights. Does that kind of public embarrassment matter? Yes. The fact that the government lobbied so hard to win a seat on the Council is evidence that it does care about global opinion.
The United States and other countries need to keep up the pressure. Next month in Geneva, Iran's record will come up before the Human Rights Council again. The fact that it hasn't made critical reforms called for by members of the Council - it hasn't reformed its penal code, or allowed the UN's special rapporteur on torture to visit the country, or halted the execution of juveniles and political prisoners - should be more sharply and unambiguously criticized than before. And hopefully, by an ever larger number of states. That's how the people of Iran will know that the world has not forgotten them.