Opposition Imprisoned, Barred from Running in Parliamentary Elections
March 1, 2012
Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement.There is no transparency surrounding the vetting and selection of candidates.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(NewYork) – Iran’s parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2, 2012, will be grossly unfair because of arbitrary disqualifications and other restrictions,Human Rights Watch said today. The voting for 290 parliamentary seats follows the disqualification of hundreds of candidates based on vague and ill-defined criteria, and opposition leaders are either barred from participating, serving unjust prison sentences, or refusing to participate in what they consider sham elections.

On February 21, the Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 religious jurists, announced that fewer than 3,500 of the approximately 5,400 candidates running for seats in the majlis, Iran’s parliament, had been approved to run. The Interior Ministry had earlier disqualified about 750 candidates. At least 35 of those disqualified by the Guardian Council are current members of parliament. In response to these and other state actions, Iran’s opposition and reformist movement have called for an election boycott.

“Iranian authorities have stacked the deck by disqualifying candidates and arbitrarily jailing key members of the reform movement,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.“There is no transparency surrounding the vetting and selection of candidates.”

Iran’s vetting process for both parliamentary and presidential candidates involves several stages. The Interior Ministry conducts a first cut of applicants based on criteria set by the election laws. While some of these criteria are concrete, such as age limits and educational requirements, most are extremely vague, enabling authorities to make sweeping and arbitrary decisions. Candidates have four days to appeal the Interior Ministry’s initial decision. Once the ministry compiles its list of “qualified” candidates, the Guardian Council makes the final decision on who may run for election.

On January 10, the Interior Ministry’s election commission disqualified several dozen candidates because of their “lack of adherence to Islam and the Constitution.” The disqualified candidates include several incumbents who were critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. One of the disqualified candidates told Human Rights Watch that he received a note from local government authorities on January 10, informing him that he had been disqualified because he was allegedly affiliated with or supportive of “illegal” parties, organizations, or groups. He said the authorities gave him no additional information regarding the reasons for his disqualification, and he decided not to appeal the decision.

Human Rights Watch has learned that the latest list of candidates disqualified by the Guardian Council includes several members of the 15 members of the Sunni bloc in parliament. Among those who will no longer be members of parliament are Jalal Mahmoudzadeh and Eqbal Mohammadi, the former and current leaders of the bloc. On December 19, 2011, the faction had sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking him to protect the political and social rights of Iran’s Sunni minority.

Over the past few years, authorities have banned some reformist parties and severely restricted the activities of others. On September 27, 2010, the general prosecutor and judiciary spokesman announced a court order dissolving two reformist political parties, the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution. Authorities prevent members of other pro-reform groups, like the Freedom Movement party, from holding gatherings.

The Guardian Council disqualifications came after reformist and opposition activists, some of whom are currently serving prison terms, denounced the upcoming elections and concluded that there was no reason to field candidates. On December 26, Fatemeh Karroubi relayed a message from her husband, Mehdi Karroubi, a former presidential candidate who has been under house arrest, calling the elections “a sham.” Several days later, the Iranian judiciary announced that calls for a boycott of the elections constituted “a crime.” On January 17, Saham News, a website affiliated with Karroubi’s Etemad-e Melli party, said that authorities were holding Karroubi incommunicadoand preventing him from seeing his family in retaliation for his criticisms of the upcoming elections.

Authorities continue to hold the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard, as well as Karroubi, under house arrest more than a year after they called for demonstrations in support of wide-scale protests following the disputed June 2009 presidential election. Dozens of other opposition figures are in prison after being unfairly tried for such offenses as “acting against the national security” and “propaganda against the regime.”

“Almost three years ago, following contested presidential elections, millions of Iranians marched through the streets chanting ‘Where’s my vote?’” Stork said. “Today those words still reverberate, reminding us of the government’s determination to deny its people the right to decide their own future.”