Steady Stream Seeking Refuge Abroad
December 14, 2012

(Beirut) – The space in Iran for civil society has been shrinking since the crackdown following the disputed presidential election in 2009, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Three-and-a-half years after government forces brutally suppressed largely peaceful anti-government demonstrations, hundreds of activists have sought temporary refuge and an uncertain future in neighboring Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in the face of harassment and detention at home.

The 60-page report, “Why they Left: Stories of Iranian Activists in Exile,” documents the experiences of dozens of rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and lawyers whom security and intelligence forces targeted because they spoke out against the government. Some who took part in anti-government protests after the 2009 election had never been politically active before, but suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of security and intelligence forces.

“The post-2009 crackdown has profoundly affected civil society in Iran,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The images of police beating protesters mercilessly may have faded from television and computer screens, but many Iranian activists continue to make the painful choice to abandon homes and families.”

No truly independent rights organizations can openly operate in Iran’s current political climate. Many prominent human rights defenders and journalists are in prison or exile, and other activists face constant harassment and arbitrary arrest.

Since 2009, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of civil society activists who have applied for asylum and resettlement to third countries. According to statistics compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Iranians filed 11,537 new asylum applications to 44 countries in 2009; 15,185 in 2010; and 18,128 in 2011.

The largestnumber of new asylum applications was lodged in neighboring Turkey, where there was a 72 percent increase in the number of Iranian asylum seekers between 2009 and 2011. Due to its proximity to Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan is also a significant recipient of Iranian asylum seekers, especially those from the Kurdish minority. The testimony of these activists, many of whom remain politically active as refugees in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan,shed light on the unprecedented pressures on civil society in Iran that began during the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Human Rights Watch said.

Many Iranian refugees and asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights Watch described difficult conditions and long processing times for their asylum applications during their stay in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The main concerns of those in Turkey included restrictions on their freedom of movement, burdensome residency fees, their inability to acquire work permits, and lack of access to health services. Refugees and asylum seekers in Iraqi Kurdistan also expressed concern about restrictions on their movements, threats, harassment, and arbitrary regulations imposed on them by Kurdish Regional Government authorities, often because of their continued political activities.

The Turkish government has so far refused the request of Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, to visit the country in his official capacity to meet with and interview these asylum seekers and refugees. Dr. Shaheed’s position was established under a UN Human Rights Council resolution in March 2011.

Human Rights Watch called on Ankara to immediately allow Shaheed access to the country so he can carry out his UN mandate. Human Rights Watch also called on the Turkish government to create conditions that will allow registered refugees and asylum seekers to live and work comfortably while they await resettlement to a third country.

Human Rights Watch urged the Kurdish Regional Government to protect the safety and welfare of Iranian refugees and refrain from threats or harassment against those who continue to pursue nonviolent political or rights activities during their time as refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The countries in the region need to protect the refugees from Iran and treat them with compassion and dignity,” Stork said. “Countries outside the region should offer generous resettlement opportunities for Iranian refugees who urgently need to leave the region and have no other options for durable asylum, and speedily process their claims.”

Please see selected cases below.  

Selected cases from the report

Abbas Khorsandi, a blogger and political activist, founded the Iran Democratic Party, a small unregistered political party with a handful of members who publish articles on the internet. The group operated openly until Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Khorsandi in January 2005 and accused him of forming an illegal party. Khorsandi told Human Rights Watch that after three months in prison he was released and ordered to dissolve the party. He refused and continued his activities with the group underground.

On September 9, 2007, intelligence agents arrested Khorsandi in Firuzkuh, a small town 140 kilometers east of Tehran. Authorities held him at Evin prison for approximately three months, without access to his lawyer or family members. He told Human Rights Watch that authorities transferred him to section 209 of Evin prison, which is under the control of the Intelligence Ministry, soon after his arrest. He said he faced two rounds of interrogations, including severe physical and psychological abuse amounting to torture. He was eventually forced to sign confessions regarding his activities as the secretary-general of the Iran Democratic Party. Based on these confessions, authorities charged him with “acting against the national security” and “forming an illegal organization.”

He was tried in Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court and sentenced to eight years in prison on March 17, 2008. Branch 36 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court confirmed the sentence on appeal on July 12, 2008. In prison he suffered from several serious health ailments including heart disease, internal bleeding, and diabetes, and was denied proper medical care. He told Human Rights Watch that on May 18, 2009, he received a 10-day medical leave but stayed out of prison until late August 2009, when the Judiciary ordered him to return. In October 2009, Khorsandi was transferred to a hospital, where his doctors told him that if he returned to prison his life would be in serious jeopardy.

Khorsandi eventually decided to flee Iran while on medical leave. He entered Iraqi Kurdistan on February 17, 2010. His wife and two children joined him there in January 2012. He now lives in Germany with his family.

Rebin Rahmani, a Kurdish rights activist, told Human Rights Watch that security forces arrested him on November 19, 2006, in Kermanshah, the capital of the western Iranian province of the same name. He had been researching the prevalence of drug addiction and HIV infections in Kermanshah province. Rahmani spent two months in detention facilities run by the Intelligence Ministry, and was interrogated by intelligence agents in both Kermanshah and Sanandaj, the main city in the adjacent Iranian province of Kurdistan. He told Human Rights Watch that during his time in both facilities, he was subjected to several rounds of interrogation accompanied by physical and psychological torture.

In January 2007, a revolutionary court sentenced Rahmani to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state.” The sentence was handed down after a 15-minute trial during which Rahmani had no access to a lawyer. In March 2007 his sentence was reduced to two years on appeal.

Rahmani told Human Rights Watch that during his interrogations after sentencing he was again subjected to physical and mental abuse amounting to torture, and kept in solitary confinement for long periods in an attempt to force him to falsely confess to links to armed Kurdish separatist groups. Interrogators also threatened to arrest his family members, and eventually arrested his brother in June 2008, in part he said to put pressure on Rahmani.

Upon his release in the latter part of 2008, Rahmani learned that he had been dismissed from the university and could not continue his education. He told Human Rights Watch that he decided to join the local rights group, Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), but used a pseudonym to avoid being rearrested. Rahmani interviewed victims and their families and prepared reports for the group; most focused on rights violations by the government in Iran’s Kurdish regions. He also was in charge of Kurdish-language content on the group’s website.

During the crackdown in March 2010 against rights groups including the HRA in Tehran and other major cities, Rahmani escaped arrest because he was not identified as an active member. But in May 2010, after he took part in a rally against the execution of several Kurdish political prisoners, local authorities put Rahmani under surveillance. In December 2010, security forces raided his house shortly after he attended a gathering outside Sanandaj prison to protest the imminent execution of the Kurdish activist Habibollah Latifi.

Because of the harassments of him and his family, Rahmani felt forced to escape to Iraqi Kurdistan and registered with the UNHCR office in Erbil on March 6, 2011.He is living in France.

Shahram Bolouri, 27, participated in protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election. He told Human Rights Watch that he documented violence against peaceful protesters by security forces. He disseminated photographs and videos of the post-election violence and provided witness accounts to various media outlets. Prior to his 2009 election activities, Bolouri was a member of the Kurdish Society, a nongovernmental group in Tehran, and cooperated with other civil society organizations.

On June 23, 2009, security and intelligence agents raided his home in Tehran and arrested him. They held him in Evin prison for almost eight months, including 45 days in solitary confinement. Bolouri told Human Rights Watch that authorities kept him in wards 209 and 240, controlled by the Intelligence Ministry, before transferring him to the general ward. Bolouri said interrogators and prison guards subjected him to severe psychological as well as physical ill-treatment and torture:

My solitary cell [in Ward 240] measured 2.5 by 1 meter. It had a toilet and no windows. Prison guards would often come in and order me to stand, sit, and perform odd tasks just because they could. One of them once said to me, “You look like an athlete. Select your sport. Stand up and sit down for me. One hundred times, and make sure you count!” He made me do this several times even though I had a busted leg. I was sweating profusely but they didn’t let me shower. After two weeks the same guy opened the door to my cell and said, “Why does it smell like shit in here?” He ordered me to go take a shower and wash my clothes.

On February 16, 2010, more than six months after he was detained, authorities released Bolouri on an unusually high US$200,000 bail after preventing his family from posting the amount for weeks. Bolouri said that the financial and psychological pressure authorities put on his family was sometimes worse than what he endured in prison. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous other instances in which authorities required families to post unusually high bail as part of a systematic strategy to harass detainees and their families.

In October 2010, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Bolouri to four years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against the regime by participating in protests and communicating with foreign broadcasts and disseminating news.” Bolouri appealed, but in June 2011, the Judiciary issued another ruling increasing his sentence to four years and six months. Bolouri decided to leave Iran after increasing pressures and harassment against him and his family following the appeals court ruling. He lodged a refugee claim with the UNHCR field office in Iraq on July 15, 2011, and is now seeking refugee status and resettlement in a third country.

Mohammad Oliyaeifard, a defense lawyer, left Iran in January 2012. He is one of at least 42 lawyers who have faced government persecution since 2009. Several lawyers are serving prison sentences on politically motivated charges, while others like the Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi have effectively been forced into exile.

Olyaeifard served a prison sentence for speaking out against the execution of one of his clients during interviews with international media. Branch 26 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court convicted and sentenced him to one year in prison in February 2010 for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic by conducting an interview with Voice of America’s foreign service.”

Olyaeifard served his sentence in Ward 350 of Evin prison from March 2010 until April 2011. His client, Behnoud Shojaee, had been hanged for a murder he allegedly committed when he was 17 years old.

Olyaeifard told Human Rights Watch that during the past few years authorities have intensified their pressure against defense lawyers by relying on various provisions of the Islamic Penal Code to silence them and prevent them from effectively representing their clients. In addition to propaganda against the state, authorities have increasingly brought charges against prominent defense lawyers such as “publication of lies in an attempt to create public anxiety” and defamation, and banned lawyers from practicing in addition to imprisonment.