People in Iran are confronting multiple crises. A sustained economic crisis has harmed the livelihoods of millions of Iranians, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Broad US economic sanctions have caused serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threaten their right to health. At the center of Iranian residents’ struggles is an unaccountable and deeply repressive state. Iranian authorities ignore or punish peaceful dissent and have launched a sustained crackdown on civil society, from labor activists, lawyers and human rights defenders to journalists and even former senior political leaders. In November 2019, security forces used excessive and unlawful lethal force in confronting large-scale protests and have held no officials accountable while sentencing several people to death after unfair trials. Human Rights Watch’s Iran blog will use this space to highlight such official repression and civil society activists’ attempts to push for respect for human rights during this tumultuous period.
Authorities Order Dissolution of Prominent Charity Organization
The Interior Ministry reportedly ordered the dissolution of the Imam Ali Popular Student’s Relief Society (IAPSRS), one of the largest and most prominent civil society organizations in Iran, according to a statement by IAPSRS. The decision fits a broader pattern of repression faced by civil society, but with the targeting of IAPSRS, authorities are now even shuttering groups that have been officially registered with the government.
Iranian authorities arrested the organization’s founder, Sharmin Meymandinejad, along with two of his colleagues, on July 21, 2020, and charged him with “insulting the [Supreme] Leader and founder of the Islamic Republic.” Authorities also reportedly raided the IAPSRS’s main office in Tehran and confiscated its electronic devices and financial documents.
The Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) reported Meymandinejad’s release on bail from detention on October 27, 2020. According to IAPSRS’s statement, authorities held Meymaninejad in solitary confinement for the entire duration of his detention despite his deteriorating health.
This is not the first apparent attempt to restrict IAPSRS’s operations. A week after Meymandinejad’s arrest, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, released a statement on her “alarm” at authorities’ apparent "attempt to close down the organization.” She stressed that the authorities’ “unlawful” interference with the IAPSRS’s work constituted a “severe” restriction on freedom of association.
According IAPSRS, judicial authorities are set to review the Interior Ministry’s order on March 3, 2021.
IAPSRS focuses on poverty alleviation and other social protection programs. It gained special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council over 10 years ago.
Student Union Activist Leila Hosseinzadeh Receives a 5-Year Prison Sentence
On February 22, 2021, Branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced student union activist Leila Hosseinzadeh to five years in prison and a two-year ban from any cyber activities. Hosseinzadeh’s lawyer, Amir Raesian, announced Monday on his Twitter account that his client was charged with “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” He also shared images of what appear to be the revolutionary court’s verdict. Iranian authorities opened the case based on the pretext of Hosseinzadeh’s participation in a gathering in front of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran to celebrate Mohammad Sharifi Mogadam’s birthday. Mogadam is an imprisoned student activist. Raesian’s tweet included a picture of Hosseinzadeh and fellow students protesting peacefully with candles and pictures of Mogadam. The authorities claim that the group sang anthems by an outlawed communist party.
This is the second case against Hosseinzadeh, who was arrested along other students during a protest in early 2019. She was released on bail two weeks later. Branch 36 of the Tehran Court of Appeals later charged her with “propaganda against the regime” and “conspiracy against national security,” and sentenced her to 30 months in prison and banned from traveling for two years. In July 2019, she was arrested at her house to serve her sentence in the women’s ward of Evin Prison in Tehran. Hosseinzadeh was later pardoned and released in March of 2020 as part of a Nowruz (Persian new year) amnesty.
Women’s Rights Defenders Sentenced, Targeted for Marriage Rights Workshops
Iranian authorities recently sentenced women’s rights defenders Najmeh Vahedi and Hoda Amid to seven and eight years in prison, respectively, on charges related to their activities as workshop instructors on marriage rights.
On February 2, 2021, as reported by Iran International, an appeals court upheld an October 2020 ruling by branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court that sentenced the women on charges of collaboration with “the hostile government of the United States.” In addition to their prison sentences, Frontline Defenders reports the court banned the women from traveling, holding memberships in political parties and groups, and appearing in the media and press for two years. Amid, a lawyer, is also banned from practicing law for two years.
In September 2018, authorities arrested both activists at their homes and detained them in Ward 2A Evin Prison, which is run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization. HRANA announced their release on bail over two months later, pending a court hearing. Vahedi and Amid’s lawyers were reportedly denied access to review the case throughout the appeals process, according to Frontline Defenders.
Vahedi and Amid’s human rights work focuses on women and girls’ empowerment, including by teaching them how to protect their rights in marriage through educational workshops. Iranian authorities cited these workshops as evidence that the women were working “in line with the project of infiltration by weakening the foundation of the family with the aim of overthrowing [the Iranian government].”
In a Twitter thread, Vahedi alleged that during her September 2018 arrest she was held in solitary confinement and interrogated about emails she had on her computer regarding a job offer from an unnamed organization, which she did not accept. Interrogators believed the job offer was linked to the Washington, DC-based nonprofit International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX). Vahedi was consequently charged for collaboration with “the hostile government of the United States against the Islamic Republic on women and family issues.”
Iranian women continue to face discrimination in personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and decisions relating to children. A long-awaited draft law on violence against women remains stalled before parliament. In the past two years, authorities have prosecuted several women’s rights activists for their peaceful protesting against compulsory hijab laws.
Photojournalist Nooshin Jafari Imprisoned for a 4-Year Prison Sentence
On February 16, 2021, the Intelligence Organization of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested Nooshin Jafari, an Iranian photojournalist, without a summon or prior warning, and transferred her to Qarchak Prison, where she is expected to serve a 4-year prison sentence. Jafari’s lawyer, Amir Raesian, announced that his client has just received an Iranian appeal’s court verdict on Saturday, February 13, 2021, charging her with 5 years in prison for “insulting the sacred” and “propaganda against the state.” Under Iranian Law, she can serve her sentences concurrently, which amounts to 4 years.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Jafari was first arrested in August 2019 by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization. The authorities also entered her home and confiscated many of her personal items and intimidated her family. Three weeks after her arrest, a voice recording was circulated on social media platforms in which Jafari is heard being pressured by those on the voice recording to admit that she ran the Twitter account named “Yar Dabestani,” which hardliners twitter accounts claimed that it insulted religious values. However, the “Yar Dabestani” Twitter account posted a denial of the claim that Jafari runs the account. Jafari’s family also stated that she had no public or private social media accounts. Jafari was later released on bail in October of 2019. Authorities also briefly arrested Shahrzad Jafari, Nooshin’s sister, in September 2019 without a specific charge, after she had made a public plea for her sister’s release.
Raesian explained on Wednesday, February 17 that authorities said Jafari’s immediate arrest was precipitated by their claim that she might attempt to flee the country. However, Jafari’s lawyer dismissed these claims, citing that his client was working on a project at the time and had not made any attempts to flee while out on bail.
Jafari is the recipient of the 2016 National Photography Award for her film Lantouri. Iranian celebrities have responded to news of Jafari’s arrest by calling for her immediate release. Jafari’s unjust sentencing and imprisonment show the lengths intelligence establishment is willing to go to imprison members of the Iranian civil society on fabricated and overly broad charges.
Unjust Detention Continues for University Students
Ali Younesi and Amirhossein Moradi, two Iranian university students arrested in April 2020, remain unjustly imprisoned in Ward 209 of Evin Prison in Tehran after nearly 10 months. Detainees in Ward 209, which is notorious for the use of torture, are directly supervised by intelligence authorities. Authorities continue to deny Younesi and Moradi access to a lawyer, according to the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group.
Younesi and Moraid endured almost two months of solitary confinement, and several human rights groups warned they were at risk of torture and other ill-treatment in detention. Authorities claim both men have been transferred to a “general population prison” and deny allegations of torture and ill-treatment. However, in September 2020, Younesi’s sister alleged that he was being tortured and pressured into making a televised confession in exchange for commuting his potential death sentence to life in prison. Iranian authorities for decades have used televised forced confessions as a government propaganda tool.
Many political detainees are unjustly held in Evin Prison. Some have tested positive for the coronavirus while in detention, including Younesi, who reportedly contracted Covid-19 in June and became severely ill. Human Rights Watch has documented a lack of adequate medical care and overcrowding in Iran’s prisons, which, when compounded with the Covid-19 pandemic, seriously threaten prisoners’ health.
Last April, plainclothes officers arrested Younesi and Moradi and accused them of having ties to anti-revolutionary groups, including the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), and pursuing “destructive” actions. Younesi is reported to have been severely beaten at the time of his arrest. According to Younesi’s family, authorities used his parents’ former membership in the group to justify his and Moradi’s detention. Individuals with family members who have real or perceived ties to the MKO are frequently targeted by authorities, deprived of their due process rights during detention, and sentenced in unfair trials. It is a form of collective punishment prohibited under international law.
Human Rights Lawyer and Professor, Reza Eslami, Sentenced to 7 Years in Prison
In Iran, authorities treat even participation in a rule of law NGO training course as a national security crime. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), Iran’s judiciary sentenced Reza Eslami, 57, an Iranian-Canadian dual national, last week to seven years in prison after convicting him on the charge of “cooperating with a hostile state.” Eslami, a human rights lawyer and a law professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, was also banned from teaching and leaving the country.
The verdict by Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court comes after Eslami’s original arrest in May 2020. At the time of his arrest, Eslami’s house and office were searched, and his personal items were confiscated. According to credible sources, the charge has stemmed from Eslami’s participation in a rule of law training course that took place in the Czech Republic since the Czech NGO that held the training had received US government funding. Eslami has denied knowing about the connection between the NGO and any US government agencies.
Eslami’s case is only the latest indication of shrinking space for human rights work in Iran. Over the past 8 years the judicial authorities have increasingly used the charge “collaboration with the hostile state of the US”, despite the foreign ministry’s advisory opinion that the definition is limited to times of war and not application in the current situation, against those who have any real or perceived connection with the US academic, charity, or research institutions. There are currently several dual nationals including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, as well as several other Iranian members of the civil society such as environmental experts arrested in 2018 who have been convicted on this vaguely defined charge with no clear evidence.
Iran’s Continued Detention of Dual National Nahid Taghavi
In addition to Iran’s unrelenting crackdown on civil society activists and human rights defenders, authorities continue to target foreign and dual nationals. According to Amnesty International, Iran has arbitrarily detained German-Iranian dual national Nahid Taghavi, 66, in Evin prison in Tehran since October 2020. Iran’s prosecution has also denied her access to a lawyer, and said that she is only able to select a lawyer from a pre-approved government list. According to Amnesty International, Taghavi has several medical ailments, including diabetes, which means she faces serious health risks if she becomes infected with Covid-19.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented Iranian authorities targeting foreign and dual nationals over the past several years on vague charges, such as “cooperating with a hostile state.” Several commentators have described Iran’s targeting of dual and foreign nationals as taking “hostages,” given the vague charges, serial due process violations, and the use of foreign and dual nationals in negotiations with the US, EU member states, and other countries.
Iranian Authorities' January Crackdown on Kurdish Activists
Over the last month, Iranian authorities have carried out an expansive campaign of arbitrary arrests of Kurdish activists. According to information compiled by several rights groups working on Iran, at least 97 Iranian Kurds have been detained in “Mahabad, Marivan, Sardasht, Naqadeh, Rabat, Piranshahr, Saqqez, Sanandaj, Bukan, Saravabad, Karaj, Kermanshah, and Tehran.” A letter summarizing these abuses, signed by numerous rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, calls for Iran to “immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained and end the campaign of arbitrary arrests of Kurdish people,” as well as for the international community to raise these concerns with Iranian authorities.
Iranian authorities’ recent crackdown on Kurdish activists mirrors their broader repression of religious and ethnic minorities in the country, including Baha’is, Christian converts, and Kurdish, Arab, and Baluch communities.
Iran’s security agencies have a long history of violating detainees' due process rights and practicing torture with near-total impunity. Over the past three years alone, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of abuses by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization, including serious allegations of “psychological torture” by one of eight detained environmentalists, who have been imprisoned after numerous due process violations and unfair trials since January 2018. Iranian authorities should be urged to immediately end unconditionally release those arbitrarily detained and ensure those facing allegations of recognizable crimes have full access to their due process rights, including access to a lawyer of their choice.
Iranian Human Rights Activists’ Punishment Doesn’t End with Imprisonment
Iranian authorities have long cultivated a well-deserved reputation for treating civil society activists and dissidents with contempt and abuse. But as the recent cases of human rights defender Narges Mohammadi and women’s rights activist Saba Kordafshari show, authorities’ harassment is not limited to being prosecuted for “crimes” of peaceful dissent. With signs there might be potential for greater international engagement with Iran, it is critical that Iranian authorities feel international pressure to drop these abusive tactics.
Mohamadi is a prominent human rights defender who was released from Zanjan prison last October after serving sentences handed down by Tehran’s revolutionary court after flawed trials for charges such as “propaganda against the state” and “establishing an illegal group.” Yet according to the Iranian human rights group Hrana and family members, authorities are imposing an arbitrary travel ban on Mohamadi, preventing her from obtaining a passport and traveling abroad to visit her children who live in Paris despite her being released from prison for two months.
Kordafshari was sentenced in 2018 at the age of 19 to a total of 24 years in prison in an unfair trial, along with at least 23 protesters, on vaguely-defined national security charges. The only evidence presented against her were social media posts reporting on protests in Iran. Hrana reported on January 27 that Kordafshari suffered injuries after being beaten when she was transferred to Qarchak prison. Despite also having several digestive issues, Kordafshari has been denied access to adequate medical care. And this despite the fact she and other human rights defenders shouldn’t even be in jail in the first place for peaceful dissent. Kordafshari and others’ peaceful dissent shouldn’t have resulted in their jailing in the first place, much less this treatment.
New Iranian Judiciary Document Not Sufficient to Change Rampant Human Rights Abuses
On October 15, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, published a “document on judicial security” as part of the judiciary’s obligations under the country’s sixth development plan. Among other things, the document emphasizes several key human rights issues, including the prohibition on torture and arbitrary arrests and the right of access to a lawyer. The document also commits the judiciary to publishing final court opinions while respecting privacy rights. For over a decade, Iran’s revolutionary courts, which routinely run roughshod over defendants’ due process rights, have rarely shared a written copy of the verdict with those who sentenced.
The Iranian judiciary’s reaffirmation of its “commitment” to respecting fundamental rights is on its face a positive development. But the judiciary’s announcement should be greeted with skepticism and scrutiny given the reality that Iran’s courts systematically violate defendants’ due process rights, and the judiciary and the country’s intelligence apparatus – who are also empowered to act as judicial officers – regularly arbitrarily arrest and detain, and torture suspects. Moreover, defendants’ right to legal defense of their choice is often curtailed, especially when they are accused of vaguely defined national security offenses. And these abuses start at the very top of the judicial bureaucracy—Raeesi himself is a serious rights violator who was part of a four-person committee that ordered the execution of several thousand political prisoners in 1988.
Much more than redundant documents that do not add to existing legal protections, firm political will is needed to enforce those protections and hold perpetrators, including judges, prosecutors, and interrogators, to account when they violate detainees’ rights. Only then can we expect that the judiciary’s documents will have a meaningful impact on the situation of dozens of political prisoners and thousands of others who are enduring Iran’s abusive justice system.