Iranian Society under Crackdown

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017.
Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. © 2017 Getty Images

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.

Another Internet Disruption in Khuzestan 

© Human Rights Watch

Since May 6, the Iranian authorities have imposed a near-total shutdown of mobile and home broadband data in some cities in Khuzestan Province, amid reported street protests against a potential hike in the price of bread, Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA)  reported. According to HRANA, authorities have arrested at least 10 people in connection with the protests in the cities of Susangerd, Hamidieh, and Ahvaz.   

During the past weeks, rising flour prices have stoked concerns about the price of bread.  On May 9, in a live speech on national television, President Ebrahim Raisi announced plans to ration bread. According to the Emtedad new agency, the recent protests started in the cities of Susangerd, Izeh, and Shadegan on May 6, the day that the internet disruptions began.   

Since December 2018, Iran has reportedly shut down the internet at least eight times in direct response to protests, including during the November 2019 protests that were violently repressed and during July 2021 protests against a water shortage in Khuzestan Province. Iranians rely on messaging apps and social media platforms to share information and opinions in the face of serious restrictions on their freedom to assemble and associate with one another.   

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here

Human Rights Defender in Dire Condition

Imprisoned human rights defender Behnam Mousivand has been hospitalized at Taleghani hospital in Tehran since April 29, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (Hrana) reported. According to Hrana, Mousivand was on a hunger strike from April 19 to May 5 to protest his detention conditions. On the day Mousivand began his hunger strike, Rajai Shahr prison officials reportedly beat him for refusing to wear handcuffs.

According to HRANA, Iranian intelligence agents arrested Mousivand at his home on February 1, 2018, and detained him in ward 209 of Evin prison. Mousivand was released on bail on March 19, 2018. In September 2019, Branch 28 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced him to five years in prison on charges of "conspiracy to act against national security" and one year in prison for "propaganda activities against the regime."

According to HRANA, authorities arrested Mousivand in June 2020 to serve his sentence in Evin prison, and in September 2020, authorities transferred him to Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj. After he embarked on a hunger strike on April 19, 2022, authorities transferred him back to Evin prison on April 25.

On April 28, over 300 Iranian activists expressed their concerns at the state of Mousivand’s health and ongoing detention in a joint statement. Iranian authorities regularly fail to provide prisoners with adequate access to medical care, putting their health and lives at risk. At least three detainees have died in custody since the beginning of 2022, allegedly due to authorities failing to provide adequate timely access to medical care.  

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here

Students Sentenced to Lengthy Prison Term

Ali Younesi during an interview with Iranian Student News Agency after winning a gold medal as a member of Iran’s national team during the 12th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics. © 2019 ISNA News 

On April 25, Mostafa Nili, the lawyer of imprisoned students Ali Younesi and Amir Hossein Moradi, told Emtedad news that branch 29 Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced his clients to 16 years in prison. According to Nili, the court charges against Younesi and Moradi included “sowing corruption on earth,” “assembly and collusion” to act against national security, and “propaganda against the state.”

Iranian authorities arrested Younesi and Moradi in April 2020 and kept them in solitary confinement in Ward 209 of Evin Prison for at least 50 days, denying them access to a lawyer during this time. In May 2020, Gholamhossein Esmaili, the judiciary's spokesperson, accused the two students, without citing any evidence, of having ties to anti-revolutionary groups, including the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), and of pursuing “destructive” actions.

Article 48 of Iran's criminal procedure law limits access to a lawyer for those who face national security charges to a list of lawyers approved by the judiciary. International law guarantees anyone accused of a crime access to a lawyer of their choice at all stages of criminal proceedings, including during the investigation, the pretrial proceedings, and during the trial itself.

Iranian authorities have a history of targeting dissidents’ family members, particularly members of MKO, on vague charges, and they have committed numerous violations of Younesi and Moradi’s rights to due process and receiving a fair trial.

Authorities Block Public Hearing for Human Rights Defenders on Trial

Mehdi Mahmoudian, civil rights activist, attends an interview in Tehran, Iran on June 14, 2021.  © 2021 The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images 

On April 16, Branch 29 of the Tehran revolutionary court held the second trial for human rights defenders arrested for attempting to file a complaint against the authorities for mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis. According, to Babak Paknia, who represents Mehdi Mahmoudian, detained since August 2021, the judge dropped the previous charges but added a new charge of "conspiracy assembly and collusion against national security" that can carry up to five years of imprisonment.

On August 14, 2021, Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested seven human rights defenders as they prepared to file a complaint against the country’s National Task Force against Coronavirus, including the minister of health and other officials responsible for what they alleged to be mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis. Two lawyers, Leila Heydari and Mohammad Hadi Erfanian, were released without charge after a few hours. From the five facing charges, Keykhosravi, Nili, Faghihi and Afrafaraz have been released, on bail while Mahmoudian remains in prison.

Under Iran’s criminal procedure law, court hearings should be public unless if they are for “forgivable crimes,” such as certain categories of robbery, harassment, and intentional harm to property, or those that "disturb public safety or religious or ethnic sentiments.” The health rights defenders had requested that authorities allow journalists and activists to attend, but authorities held the trial in private with no outside observers.

Iran has been hit hard by Covid-19 with more than 140,000 deaths. Yet the government response has been so far mired in lack of transparency and politicization. These private trials just go to show the Iranian government is more concerned with silencing critics than it is with an effective response to Covid-19.

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here. 

Another Death in Custody

Rajai Shahr Prison, Karaj, Iran. © 2004 Private

On April 14, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an independent human rights nongovernmental organization, reported that Mehdi Salehi, a 38-year-old prisoner on death row for his alleged role in protests in the city of Khomeini Shahr, Isfahan province, in December 2017 and January 2018, has died in prison. According to HRANA, authorities have not provided information about the cause of his death to his family yet and pressured the family to bury his body on April 15.

A person familiar with the case told Human Rights Watch that Salehi was transferred to the hospital for a heart condition in January 2022. HRANA reported that the reason for Salehi’s transfer was a stroke. 

In 2020, Branch 2 of Isfahan’s revolutionary court sentenced Salehi and four others to death on charges of “armed rebellion and enmity against God through the use of firearms,” and to five years in prison on the charge of “corruption on earth through disrupting public and private security.” All defendants appear to have been acquaintances of Asghar Haroon al-Rashidi, a man shot to death during the protests in Khomeini Shahr. The verdict, reviewed by Human Right Watch, fails to attribute responsibility for the commission of a specific crime to each defendant individually.

Iranian prison authorities regularly fail to provide prisoners with adequate access to medical care. Salehi is the third prisoner to have died in custody in Iran since the beginning of 2022. In January, Abtin Bektash, the writer and poet, and Kian Adelpour, a prisoner in Ahvaz, died under unclear circumstances. Their families allege that prison authorities delayed or restricted their access to health care. On April 12, Amnesty International published a report documenting the apparent deliberate denial of access to medical care in the case of more than 90 prisoners over the past 10 years. 

Given the repeated failure to investigate, Iranian authorities should immediately allow for an independent and transparent investigation into the death of Salehi and others who recently died in custody.

Narges Mohammadi Forcibly Returned to Evin Prison

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, at the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran, June 25, 2007.  © 2007 AFP/Getty Images

On April 12, security officers forcibly arrested Narges Mohammadi, prominent human rights defender and the vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, at her home and returned her to Garchak Prison, her husband Taghi Rahmani reported on Twitter. This came despite Mohammadi’s announcement that she would comply with the summons to serve her latest sentence after being on a temporary release on medical grounds. According to Radio Farda, authorities also arrested photographer and women’s rights defender, Alieh Motalebzadeh, who was at Mohammadi’s house at the time.

In January 2022, branch 26 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court had sentenced Mohammadi to six years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” and to two years in prison and 74 lashes for “acting against national security and disrupting public order.” Security officers arrested Mohammadi in November 2021 while she attended a memorial service for a victim of the November 2019 protests that errupted after the abrupt rise in fuel prices. She had previously spent more than five years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” and for “establishing an illegal group,” before being released in October 2020.

Mohammadi’s forced return to prison raises serious concerns about her health. Her husband, had tweeted on February 22, 2022, that she had underwent an open-heart surgery and later told Radio Farda that her recovery requires at least 6 to 12 weeks of rest.

In an interview with the Washington Post on April 6, Mohammadi made a plea to the international community to prioritize human rights in their negotiations with the Iranian government. She also warned that broad untargeted sanctions have negatively impacted Iranians and Iranian civil society, while strengthening the Iranian government and its hardliner supporters.

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here

New Restrictions on Women in University of Tehran Dormitories

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. © 2017 Getty Images

On April 2, the University of Tehran released a new set of regulations for university dormitories that placed greater restrictions on women students. Many of these restrictions already existed in the university dormitories’ bylaws, but now the authorities at the university’s Department of Dormitory Affairs added two new discriminatory restrictions.

According to the new rules, married women can leave or return to their dormitories after the university-imposed curfew of one hour after sunset only if they are accompanied by their husbands. In addition, women dormitory residents need their parents' permission to stay only two nights a week at their relatives' homes. These restrictions came on top of the university further limiting exit and entrance hours earlier this year, allowing women to leave their dorms only between 6 a.m. and one hour after sunset.  

Student activists across the country have spoken up against these rules. Several women students described how humiliating and demeaning it was to live under such restrictions.

Women students also reported that university security officials have pressured women to wear a stricter form of hijab that more fully covers the hair and neck now that classes are being hosted in person again on campus.

Although universities in Iran each have their own sets of rules for their dorms, historically, women's dormitories always imposed more restrictions on women’s movement than men's, including more restrictive curfew hours. This year, such rules have become even stricter, and infringe on women students’ agency to make simple decisions for their lives.

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here

Increased Harassment Against Teachers’ Movement

Thousands of Iranian teachers took to the streets in 28 cities across the country, demanding better labor protections, February 2015. © 2015 Siavosh Hosseini, Sipa via AP Images

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), on April 6, the third branch of the revolutionary court in the town of Lordegan, in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, summoned nine teachers who participated in December 2021 nationwide protests organized by the Iranian Teachers Trade Association (ITTA). The teachers were charged with "spreading lies on social media against the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

The nine teachers summoned to the revolutionary court on March 12, according to HRANA, were: Nader Sharifi, Kourosh Ghanbari, Zadali Mahmoudi, Mohammad Saidi Abueshaghi, Kourosh Sharifi, Hamid Eshaghi, Mohammad Amiri, Gholam Hossein Mousavi, and Ali Babamir.

The teachers’ association in Iran has been leading nationwide protests against low wages over the past two years. In response, Iranian authorities have summoned, arrested, and detained teachers’ union activists. On April 4, only two days after Iran's Nowruz holidays, Branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court held a trial for two prominent members of the ITTA, Rasoul Badaghi, and Hamid Ghandari.

Despite pressure from authorities, in recent years, a grassroots teachers’ rights movement has become one of the most organized labor movements in Iran. On December 13, 2021, thousands of teachers protested in the streets across hundreds of cities and towns, including Darab, Shiraz, and Tehran, raising their long-held demands for fair wages, better healthcare, and the release of jailed teachers. Prominent association members such as Ismael Abdi have been detained for the past six years.

Iranian Authorities Arrests Organizers of Nowruz Celebration

A group of Iranian-Kurds dance in a ceremony to mark Nowruz in Tehran, Iran, March 14, 2022. © 2022 Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AP

On March 23, 2022, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported that Iranian authorities arrested at least 20 people after organizing a Nowruz celebration in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province, on March 21. A day later, the Ministry of Intelligence office in Sanandaj summoned at least 10 more Kurdish activists and others for participating in the ceremony and detained at least one other person. 

The holiday of Nowruz marks the first day of spring and is celebrated in Iran as the beginning of the new year. Several other communities in the region, including Kurds, celebrate the day as well.

According to KHRN, prior to Nowruz, Iranian security agencies in Kurdistan announced that any public Nowruz celebrations must have official permission from the governorates and have a flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran during the ceremonies. Additionally, authorities requested organizers to sign pledges that they would not use Kurdish symbols, such as red roses or white scarves, in their celebrations. 

Following these arrests, a group of Kurdish activists, in a public statement on March 24, called on the government for the immediate release of all the detainees to respect people's culture and traditions and remove the "official and unofficial bans." 

The Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) reported that older people and children were among those arrested, including a 75-year-old and a 14-year-old, who were later released on bail. 

Iranian authorities restrict the cultural rights of ethnic minorities, including Kurds, on vague allegations of national security threats.

Release Unfairly Detained Prisoners for Nowruz Holiday

While people in Iran are getting ready to celebrate the Nowruz, the Iranian new year, on March 21, the list of prisoners who are spending another holiday away from their families and loved ones gets longer. Dozens of human rights defenders, including labor rights activists, minorities rights defenders, and women rights defenders are at risk of spending another Iranian new year in prison. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the past two years have been particularly difficult for prisoners in Iran. At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Iranian authorities temporarily released thousands of prisoners, but many of those imprisoned for peaceful dissent were excluded.  

Yet over the past two years, dozens of activists have contracted Covid-19, including some whose health deteriorated to a critical condition. On January 8, 2022, Baktash Abtin died from complications of Covid-19 while he was in custody, and authorities allegedly denied the care he needed the most. Additionally, as a form of punishment, according to the latest report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, many defenders have been transferred to prisons far from their homes during the pandemic.  

As Iranians and other communities await to celebrate the arrival of spring, let’s not forget those who are only welcoming in the new year from behind the bars due to Iranian authorities' unjust imprisonment of them.