Imprisonment of Opposition, Media Crackdown, Impunity Mar Prospects
May 24, 2013
How can Iran hold free elections when opposition leaders are behind bars and people can’t speak freely?
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Beirut) – Serious electoral flaws and human rights abuses by the Iranian government undermine any meaningful prospect of free and fair elections on June 14, 2013. Dozens of political activists and journalists detained during the violent government crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election remain in prison, two former presidential candidates are under house arrest, and authorities are already clamping down on access to the internet, having arbitrarily disqualified most registered presidential and local election candidates.

As the elections approach, authorities have tightened controls on information by severely cutting back internet speeds and blocking proxy servers and virtual private networks that Iranians use to circumvent government filtering of websites. The authorities have also gone after government critics, summoning, arresting, and jailing journalists and bloggers, while preventing opposition figures and parties aligned with Iran’s reformist movement from participating in the elections by banning or severely restricting their activities.

“Fair elections require a level playing field in which candidates can freely run and voters can make informed decisions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “How can Iran hold free elections when opposition leaders are behind bars and people can’t speak freely?”

The June 14 elections for Iran’s next president will take place alongside voting to fill more than 200,000 seats on city and village councils, with only officially approved candidates on the ballot in all cases. The registration period for presidential candidates closed on May 11. On May 21 Iranian state television announced that the Guardian Council had finished vetting more than 680 registered presidential candidates and accepted a final list of eight men. Well-known and prominent figures disqualified by the Guardian Council included a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s adviser Rahim Mashaei, former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, and former Foreign Affairs Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. 

The week before, authorities had disqualified several hundred candidates who had registered to run as city and village council election candidates. Some local council candidates have appealed their exclusion, but Iran’s electoral law makes no provision for appeals by disqualified presidential candidates. The Guardian Council does not, as a matter of practice, publicize the reasons why candidates are disqualified.

Between May 7 and 11, 686 candidates, including about 30 women, registered as presidential candidates. After the registration period closed, the Guardian Council, an unelected body of 12 religious jurists, began vetting the candidates, using a mix of criteria– some that are clear, such as those relating to age and educational qualifications, but others that are vague or open to interpretation and enable authorities to make sweeping and arbitrary decisions. The council has consistently ruled out female candidates because the constitution requires that the president be chosen from “pious and political men” despite debate among Iranian constitutionalists about whether it was intended that the term “men” should be given an exclusively male connotation. On May 16, Iran’s semi-official Mehr News Agency reported that Mohammad Yazdi, a clerical member of the Guardian Council, had said that the “law does not approve” of a woman in the presidency.

According to article 115 of the Iranian constitution, the president must be “elected from among pious and political men possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin, Iranian nationality, administrative capacity and resourcefulness, a good reputation, trustworthiness and piety, faith and a belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country, [Twelver Shiism].”

The current crop of presidential hopefuls includes several who have held very important government posts since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Some have been implicated in serious rights abuses, including when the authorities crushed the mass protests after the disputed election of Ahmadinejad in 2009. On May 15, reports from activists alleged that Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, recently bragged that he had played an important and critical role in repressing anti-government demonstrations in 2009 alongside security and intelligence forces. Qalibaf, seen as a likely leading candidate to be the next president, formerly held senior positions in both the Revolutionary Guards and the national police and is alleged to have directly participated in or supported violent repression of the student uprisings in 1999 and 2003.

Security forces continueto detain two leading opponents who ran against Ahmadinejad in the 2009election, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. They, together with Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, remain under house arrest. Authorities imposed house arrest after Mousavi and Karroubi called for peaceful demonstrations in solidarity with popular protests in Egypt and other countries affected by the Arab uprisings in February 2011.

An informed source close to Karroubi’s family told Human Rights Watch that Intelligence Ministry officials have confined him in an apartment building for over 20 months, allowing him to leave the complex only a few times, mostly to receive medical treatment at a nearby hospital. All family visits have to be conducted in the presence of security and intelligence officials.

The authorities have allowed Mousavi and Rahnavard to remain in their private residence under house arrest. None of the three have faced charges, nor have they had any means to challenge their internment before the courts or an independent tribunal.

The authorities are also detaining dozens of other government critics and opponents, including members of reformist parties, who were sentenced to prison as part of the crackdown following the 2009 election. In January 2013 authorities blocked plans by the Coordination Council of the Reformist Front, an umbrella group that coordinates the activities of reformist parties, including some that are banned, to convene meetings to discuss and decide on issues related to the upcoming presidential election.

A member of a reformist party, whose activities have been banned by the authorities, told Human Rights Watch that authorities informed the Coordination Council that it could proceed with meetings only if it accepted all the rules and regulations relating to elections, including those providing for Guardian Council vetting. The source also said authorities told the Coordination Council that it must not invite former President Mohammad Khatami and not allow the participation of banned reformist parties. Faced with these conditions, the Coordination Council felt compelled to cancel a meeting to discuss participation in the June 14 elections.

Authorities have also intensified restrictions on information, increasingly blocking internet sites considered objectionable, aggressively slowing down internet speeds, and summoning for questioning, harassing, and arresting journalists and bloggers. Dozensof journalists and bloggers are currently in prison, according to Reporters Without Bordersand the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Two journalists who spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity due to their fear of official reprisals said that the Intelligence Ministry, Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry,andthe Supreme National Security Council have all issued standing guidelines to the Iranian media warning them to beware of breaching the government’s “red lines” when covering elections. These include reporting about Mousavi and Karroubi and banned political parties such as the Islamic Participation Front and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution.

Kaleme, a reformist website, said that the Intelligence Ministry called in representatives of various newspapers in the week of April 15 to reinforce that warning. Kaleme reported that the “red lines” included untoward criticism of the presidential candidates. It said that Intelligence Ministry officials made clear that they would not consider criticism of Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third consecutive term, as breaching the “red line” although the judiciary has previously jailed dozens of journalists, such as Bahman Ahamdi-Amoui, on charges of “insulting the president” since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.

In February, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued guidelines identifying “criminal content” forbidden from publication in connection with the elections, including any calls for a boycott of the vote or for unlicensed demonstrations. The guidelines and existing law also criminalize any content that “disturbs the public mind” in the view of the authorities or creates tension between social classes on the basis of race, ethnicity, or other factors; “insults” candidates or government officials; or is “untruthful” when reporting on official vetting of candidates or the election results.

Internet users in Iran reported that they have encountered increasing difficulty accessing filtered websites using virtual private networks – often used by businesses and individuals to secure their internet traffic from monitoring and evade internet filtering – and other circumvention tools since May 4, although authorities have systematically blocked websites, slowed internet speeds, and jammed foreign satellite broadcasts since 2009. One Iranian information technology expert told Human Rights Watch that government methods of restricting access to information appear now to be “more developed and smarter” than in the past, with the blocking of virtual private network sites as part of its efforts to develop a “halal,” or national, internet. The authorities say they are seeking to develop a national internet to protect users from socially and morally corrupt content, and to defend against virus or malware attacks from foreign sources.

On May 17, Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, reported that authorities had filtered four websites linked to supporters of Mashaei, the presidential hopeful and close ally of Ahmadinejad who was disqualified by the Guardian Council on May 21. In recent years many clerics and politicians otherwise closely allied to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have been highly critical of Ahmadinejad’s support for Mashaei and his candidacy, referring to the duo as the heads of a “deviant current.”

“As things stand, it is hard to see how the forthcoming elections can be considered free as the authorities continue to roll the dice in the direction they favor while cynically curtailing dissent,” Whitson said.“Iranian voters are being cheated of their right to elect a president and other representatives of their choice, while those responsible for the gross human rights abuses that followed the 2009 election walk free.”

Imprisonment of Government Critics and Opponents
Dozens of members of reformist parties and other government opponents are serving sentences stemming from the crackdown after the 2009 election. Many had unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts, whose judges fail to ensure basic due process standards. Courts sentenced some after mass show trials during which they were indicted on patently politically motivated charges such as “actions against the national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” “membership in illegal groups,” and “disturbing public order.”

Some defendants were made to confess in front of television cameras, in violation of the right under international law to not be compelled to testify against oneself.

Behzad Nabavi, a former parliament member and high-ranking member of the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, a banned reformist party, is in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Security forces arrested Nabavi on June 13, 2009, the day after the last presidential election, then held him in solitary confinement for months and forced him to confess on television to crimes against national security. A Revolutionary Court sentenced Nabavi to six years in prison in February 2010.

An informed source close to Mohsen Mirdamadi, the head of another banned reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, told Human Rights Watch that authorities constantly monitor and harass members of the party and prevent them from holding gatherings. He said that government officials locked the party’s offices after the 2009 election and they have not had access since.

Mirdamadi is also in Evin Prison, serving a six-year sentence for breaching national security. Security forces arrested Mirdamadi soon after the 2009 presidential election without producing a valid warrant and then held him in solitary confinement for 110 days before parading him before television cameras at one of the show trials. Mostafa Tajzadeh, another leading member of the party and a critic of the government is also serving a term in Evin Prison.

On September 27, 2010, the general prosecutor and judiciary spokesman announced a court order dissolving both the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution. Authorities have also prevented members of other opposition groups, like the Freedom Movement party, from holding gatherings.

Restrictions on Access to Information
The authorities’ “red line” warnings to journalists and media outlets prior to the elections are particularly worrying given the lack of accountability that surrounds arrests, torture, and other ill-treatment of journalists and bloggers by Iranian security forces. On November 6, 2012, authorities informed the family of Sattar Beheshti, a blogger, who had died in custody after police from a special “cyber” unit arrested him on October 30. In January, a parliamentary committee announced that the authorities had made several arrests in connection with Beheshti’s death but declared his initial arrest lawful and warranted. No one has been held accountable for Beheshti’s death.

Since late 2012, the authorities have exhibited increased sensitivity to reporting by journalists working for Iranian media and those working for foreign-based Persian-language outlets. On December 28, Iran’s Supreme Leader publicly warned journalists and others against suggesting that Iran’s elections would not be free. On January 21, 2013, Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi claimed during a news conference that he had evidence that “certain journalists in Iran are collaborating with Westerners and counter-revolutionaries based abroad” and that security forces would soon arrest them.

Days later, authorities arrested more than a dozen journalists at their homes or offices, apparently in connection with their coverage of the upcoming election, subsequently releasing most of them. An informed source who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that Intelligence Ministry officials had extracted commitments from some of the journalists that they would not write sensitive or critical comments during the election period. Human Rights Watch documented a similar crackdown on journalists and bloggers prior to the March 2, 2012 parliamentary elections.

A journalist employed by Voice of America’s Persian language service told Human Rights Watch that authorities recently confiscated her father’s passport when he returned to Iran from a trip abroad. The authorities had previously searched his home and called him in for questioning about his daughter’s work at VOA Persian, warning him that she should stop working as a journalist there.

In 2012 Human Rights Watch documented similar harassment against family members of journalists working for BBC Persian.

Lack of Accountability for Post-2009 Abuses
During and following the mass protests after the 2009 presidential election, Iran’s security forces killed dozens of anti-government protesters and arbitrarily arrested, and in some cases tortured, thousands of peaceful demonstrators. Revolutionary Courts conducted mass show trials, with numerous serious violations of basic fair trial rights, leading to the conviction and imprisonment of hundreds of protesters, civil society activists, and political opposition members. Four years on, the authorities have yet to hold any high-ranking government official to account for the serious and widespread rights abuses by the security forces.

On January 21, Prosecutor General Ejei said that the judiciary would initiate criminal proceedings on February 26 against Saeed Mortazavi, a former Tehran prosecutor general and current head of Iran’s Social Security Organization, and two of his judicial assistants in connection with alleged abuses at Kahrizak detention facility, including the deaths of at least five people, following the 2009 election.A 2010 parliamentary investigation had presented evidence that Mortazavi had been a leading figure in the Kahrizak abuses. His trial is under way behind closed doors.

In December 2009, a military court brought murder charges against 11 mostly low ranking police officers and a private citizen who had allegedly collaborated with the police in connection with the deaths of detainees at Kahrizak. The court subsequently convicted most of the accused but acquitted the highest-ranking defendant, Gen. Azizollah Rajabzadeh, who had headed Tehran’s police at the time of the detainees’ deaths.

Candidates Implicated in Serious Rights Abuses
In addition to the statements cited above, Human Rights Watch has reviewed a two-hour audio recording in which the voice allegedly is Qalibaf’s during an address he recently made to a group of Basij students at a private function. The speaker talks about the 1999 student protests and says that he was a Revolutionary Guard Air Force commander at that time, and was responsible for writing a letter to then-President Mohammad Khatami criticizing him for not standing up to student protesters at Tehran University. The speaker goes on to say that that during the protests he was personally responsible for using a baton to clear the streets of student protesters.

The 1999 government crackdown on the Tehran University dormitory and demonstrations throughout the country led to the deaths of at least four people, and the arrests and disappearances of hundreds of others.

Minutes later, the voice that is allegedly Qalibaf’s tells the Basij students that as the head of Iran’s national police, he strongly objected at an Interior Ministry meeting, where he strong-armed the authorities to give him written permission to enter Tehran University where students had been protesting for weeks during the summer of 2003, and to use live ammunition if necessary. He goes on to say that his decision to stand firm before authorities he felt were responsible for fanning the flames of protests in Tehran ultimately forced the protesters to stand down, and that there was no need for him to use the authority given to him. Security forces nonetheless used violence and the assistance of pro-government vigilante and paramilitary forces to beat, harass, and arrest student protesters.

Other current presidential candidates who have been implicated in serious abuses include Mohsen Rezaei and Ali Akbar Velayati. In 2006, an Argentinian judge indicted the two, along with disqualified candidates Ali Fallahian and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 people. Interpol arrest warrants are currently in force against both Rezaei and Fallahian.

In January the governments of Iran and Argentina agreed to set up a “truth commission” of international legal experts to analyze evidence relating to the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires. On February 28, Argentina’s congress approved the agreement, which provides for officials to travel to Tehran and interview Iranians with Interpol arrest warrants issued in connection with the attack. On May 20, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that Ahmadinejad’s government has approved a memorandum of understanding with Argentina on forming the truth commission without waiting for approval from Iran’s parliament.