(New York) - A notoriously abusive Iranian prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, has been put in charge of the investigation of detained reformist leaders and party officials amidst a widening security crackdown in Iran following the disputed June 12 election, Human Rights Watch said today. The role of Mortazavi, who has been implicated in past cases of torture, illegal detention, and coercion of false confessions, came to light as Iran's powerful security forces sought to quell post-election protests that have now continued for over a week.
"Iran is in the midst of a violent and arbitrary crackdown on reformist protesters that has already claimed lives and has led to over a thousand arrests," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The role of Mortazavi in the crackdown suggests that the authorities are preparing to bring trumped-up charges against its opponents."
Following an uncompromising demand by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, during his June 19 sermon that the protests against the country's disputed elections must end and that reformist political leaders would be blamed for any violence, Iran's security forces began a major crackdown on public protests starting Saturday, June 20.
Special riot police officers, Revolutionary Guards, and members of the volunteer Basij paramilitary deployed in overwhelming force throughout the capital Tehran and other Iranian cities, preventing protesters from gathering, and responded with immediate violence to any attempts by protesters to mount further demonstrations. In the ensuing clashes between the security forces and unarmed demonstrators, eyewitnesses said security forces used live ammunition as well as tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.
At least 10 people died in clashes between protesters and security forces on June 20, and at least 100 were wounded. Among the dead was 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, a philosophy student who was a bystander to the protests when she was shot in the chest on Kargar Street. At the time of the shooting, Agha-Soltan was not actively protesting, according to her relatives and eyewitnesses. She had been traveling in a private car stuck in traffic several kilometers from the main protests at Azadi Square, and had just stepped out of the car. Numerous witnesses have stated that there were no active clashes between protesters and security forces in the area where she was shot.
Agha-Soltan's death, captured on a mobile phone video, has been broadcast around the world. Pre-empting a post-mortem examination, the Iranian authorities ordered her family to carry out an immediate burial, and prohibited the family from holding any memorial services for her.
Further violent clashes took place on June 22, as armed riot police and Basij militias, many on motorcycles, sought to prevent demonstrators from taking to the streets in Hafte Tir Square and other locations in Tehran. Eyewitnesses reported further arrests.
Human Rights Watch said that the shooting dead of unarmed protesters must be investigated speedily and independently, and that those responsible for the deaths, including anyone who gave the orders, must be identified and prosecuted.
"Instead of coming clean about what happened on the streets of Tehran on June 20, Iran is busy covering up the responsibility of its security forces for the killings of demonstrators," said Whitson. "It is clear that Iran's supreme leader has sent a strong message to the security forces to end the protests, regardless of the level of violence involved."
The security forces have also intensified their nationwide campaign of arrests of opponents. According to state media, at least 457 protesters were detained during Saturday's violence in Tehran alone, but the number of persons arrested nationwide is now reported by opposition activists to be in the thousands. In addition to arresting those taking part in protests, the security forces have continued to arrest major reformist politicians and clerics, student leaders, local journalists and bloggers, officials of reformist parties, human rights lawyers and activists in Tehran and other cities, Human Rights Watch has been informed
Human Rights Watch has spoken to relatives of three persons detained since the disputed June 12 elections. They confirm that the investigation of those arrested is being led by Mortazavi, the prosecutor of the Islamic Revolutionary Court and prosecutor-general of Tehran. Human Rights Watch research has previously implicated Mortazavi in serious human rights abuses
In April 2000, Mortazavi, then a judge of the Public Court Branch 1410, led a crackdown to silence growing dissent in Iran, ordering the closure of more than 100 newspapers and journals. In June 2003, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died while in the custody of judiciary and security officers presided over by Mortazavi. Lawyers for her family have alleged her body showed signs of torture, including blows to the head, and that Mortazavi participated directly in her interrogation.
In 2004, Mortazavi organized the arbitrary detention of more than 20 bloggers and journalists, holding them in secret prisons. Human Rights Watch research established that Mortazavi was implicated in abuses of these detainees, including holding them in lengthy solitary confinement and coercing them to sign false confessions. The signings of the false confessions were later repeated in front of television cameras.
"The leading role of Saeed Mortazavi in the crackdown in Tehran should set off alarm bells for anyone familiar with his record," said Whitson.
According to relatives contacted by Human Rights Watch, many detainees are being held in incommunicado detention, without access to their lawyers or their families, and without formal charges against them, in violation of international human rights law that applies to Iran, which requires everyone arrested to be "promptly" informed of any charge against them. Relatives of detainees also report that limited communications that are usually allowed between prisoners held at Tehran's Evin prison, where many political prisoners are held, and their families have been closed down. The UN body of principles on detention states that everyone detained shall be entitled to notify or require the appropriate authority to notify their family of their arrest and place of detention, and have the right to communicate and consult with a lawyer.
The son of a detained reformist told Human Rights Watch:
"The immediate arrests of well-known reformists, particularly members of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Republic Party, show that these arrests had been planned before the election, and that the authorities used the excuse of the chaos after to election to arrest them. But we are gravely concerned that the authorities will force them to sign confession letters acknowledging that they played a leading role in the latest protests."
Many of those arrested have been prominent strategists and campaigners for the reformist presidential candidates.
One of the cases Human Rights Watch reviewed is the detention on June 15 of Amir Hussein Shemshadi, one of the leaders of the youth section of Mir Hussein Mousavi Mousavi's campaign in Tehran. He has been held in incommunicado detention since then, according to his father:
"Since his arrest eight days ago, there haven't been any calls or contact with my son. We don't know where he is. No one responds to our inquiries. When they detained him, they showed us no warrant and they didn't say what my son's crime had been. I have been to many prisons and jails, but he is nowhere to be found."
The wife of a leading reformist who was detained on June 13 told Human Rights Watch she had been unable to speak to her husband since his arrest and that his lawyer had been unable to meet with him. She explained to Human Rights Watch her fears that her husband would be pressured to confess to trumped-up charges:
"In the current situation, the authorities are constantly looking for people to blame for the chaos that has been going on, in order to justify their own roles in the current events. Hence, they are putting our loved ones under pressure. Anyone who has been to prison [in Iran] has experienced the pressure of having to confess. My husband told me, 'If I am arrested, anything I say while in detention should not be accepted by you, because I will be under pressure.' The judge told me, 'These people are the cause of the riots and we are reviewing the evidence against them.' I told him, 'There is no case, you are busy fabricating cases for them.'"
Iranian governments have a long and troubling history of jailing their critics and political opponents on trumped-up criminal charges. A significant number of those arrested during the current crackdown have been previously imprisoned by the Iranian authorities.
Iranian officials are engaged in what appears to be a coordinated attempt to deflect attention from their own role in repression by blaming the violence on local "terrorists" supported by foreign powers intent on destabilizing Iran.
Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottatki, in a speech to foreign diplomats in Tehran, blamed "an in-flooding of British intelligence officials ahead of the election" for a plot intended to destabilize Iran in the post-election period. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his Friday sermon demanding an end to the protests on June 19, both threatened the reformist politicians and blamed foreign diplomats for the protests:
"I would advise all of these gentlemen [reformist candidates], all of my brothers and friends: Just observe the hands of the enemy. They are hungry wolves, ambushing us and removing the diplomatic cover from their faces. Don't underestimate them. I tell you, the diplomats of other countries have in the past few days taken away their masks and shown their true image [intentions]. The most evil of them all is the British government."
In the face of the mounting arrests, and threats against reformist leaders, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the security forces will attempt to force detainees to make false confessions implicating reformist leaders. Leading Iranian officials have already threatened the reformist presidential candidate, Mousavi, with criminal charges. Ali Shahrokhi, the head of the Parliamentary Judicial Committee, stated that:
"Mousavi's calling for illegal protests and issuing provocative statements have been a source of recent unrest in Iran. Such criminal acts should be confronted firmly. The ground is paved to legally chase Mousavi."
"The Iranian authorities are intent on stopping the protests dead in their tracks by unleashing the security forces against the protesters," said Whitson. "But the deadly violence and mass arrests are only the first steps - next, we can expect trumped-up charges."