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.
Imprisoned Poet Baktash Abtin Hospitalized for Covid-19
The Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) confirmed that Baktash Abtin was admitted to the health clinic at Evin Prison on April 4, 2021, due to the worsening of his Covid-19 symptoms. The poet and IWA association member had tested negative for the virus two days earlier, but a lung scan on April 4 showed symptoms of the virus.
Additionally, Mostafa Nili, Keyvan Samimi’s lawyer, announced on Twitter that his client Samimi and Reza Khandan Mahabadi—who are also detained in Ward 8 of Evin Prison with Abtin—have also begun to present Covid-19 symptoms. Nili said that the prison authorities are yet to test Samimi and Khandan Mahabadi. Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi have applied previously for medical leaves, but Iran’s judiciary have denied their requests despite health issues both of them have that could be exacerbated by Covid-19.
Baktash Abtin and Reza Khandan Mahabadi were convicted in May 2019 on counts of “propaganda against the regime” and “assembly and collusion against national security.” Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran convicted the writers to 6 years in prison based on their joint authorship of a book that documents the history of the IWA, publishing internal IWA publications, and organizing memorials for murdered IWA members by state agents. At the time of the verdict, the IWA issued a statement that called the charges “irrelevant” and “baseless.” Iranian authorities regularly prosecute activists, journalists, and others for peaceful dissent. They were summoned to begin their sentence in October 2020.
Authorities arrested Keyvan Samimi, a veteran journalist, during a demonstration on May 1, 2019 in front of the Iranian parliament. On June 14, a revolutionary court sentenced him to 3 years in prison on assembly and collusion to disrupt national security. The 72-year-old journalist began serving his sentence on December 7.
On October 6, the UN Human Rights Commissioner urged Iranian authorities to release all political prisoners and human rights defenders during the pandemic based on concerns of prisons’ overcrowding and the inability to implement COVID-19 preventative measures inside the prisons.
Three Unjustly Imprisoned Environmental Activists Given Short Leave
On March 29 authorities temporarily released Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, and Amir Hossein Khalegi, three of the eight imprisoned members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a local environmental conservation nonprofit, on a short leave according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). They were temporarily released from Evin prison on the 9th day of the Iranian new year holiday, where they are serving an unjust 6-year sentence for the charge of “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” This is the first time authorities have granted Kashani and Khalegi a temporary release since the beginning of their imprisonment in January 2018.
The three activists were originally arrested along with five other members of the foundation on accusations that of “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.” One of the defendants, Kavous Seyed Emami, died in detention under suspicious circumstances in February of 2018. Instead of conducting a transparent investigation into Seyed Emami’s death, authorities harassed his family and placed his wife under a travel ban for one and a half years. During the trial that began in January 2019 and was halted several times, Niloufar Bayani, another member of the group, alleged that as she was subjected by authorities to psychological torture and was coerced to make false confessions. Authorities sentenced her to 10 years in prison.
In February 2020, BBC Persian also published a detailed account of Bayani’s 1,200 hours of interrogations based on the letters she had written from prison. Over the past three years, several government bodies and representatives, including a committee established by President Rouhani, haves said that there is no evidence against these environmentalists. Despite these serious allegations of mistreatment and lack of evidence for the spying charge brought against the activists, the court of appeals upheld the 6 to 10 year sentences against the defendants by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran.
Baha’i Writer Touraj Amini’s Unjust Prison Sentence
Iranian Baha’i historian and writer Touraj Amini is currently serving a 6-month prison sentence that began at the end of January 2021. Iran’s security forces first searched Amini’s house in August 2019 and confiscated many of his books and his personal laptop. He subsequently was summoned to the Karaj Intelligence Office for further investigation. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), the Karaj Revolutionary Court issued a verdict in June 2020 that sentenced Amini to a one year of imprisonment and two years in domestic exile for “propaganda against the state” based on his writings. The Alborz Provincial Court of Appeals later reduced his sentence to six months in prison and rescinded his exile sentence.
Amini’s current sentence is highly concerning considering the charges against him being based on his writings and the high rates of COVID-19 infection in Iranian prisons. A letter by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to Iranian authorities on March 15 called for dismissing “the charges against Mr. Amini and to free him without delay.” MESA also called on the government of Iran to ends its abusive targeting of Baha’i citizens, like Amini, a religious minority group in Iran who authorities have relentlessly persecuted solely for their beliefs. Touraj Amini is a historian who specializes in the history of Iranian religious minorities during the Qajar (1789-1925) and the Pahlavi (1925-1979) eras.
Authorities Should Provide Temporary Release or Clemency for Prisoners
Ahead of Nowruz, a celebration marking the beginning of the new solar year, prison authorities should offer temporary release or clemency to dozens of prisoners who are detained for their peaceful dissent or exercise of their fundamental rights, including Sepideh Gholian, Arash Ganji, Leila Hosseinzadeh, Niloufar Bayani, Atena Daemi, and many others. Prison authorities historically have offered temporary release or clemency to hundreds of prisoners ahead of Nowruz, which falls on March 20 this year.
In March 2020, when the country was experiencing its first wave of Covid-19 infections, the Iranian judiciary reportedly ordered the temporary release of 70,000 prisoners for Nowruz, though dozens of human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents remained in prison, and remain still.
At the time, the government called for releasing prisoners sentenced to less than five years, leaving out a significant population of political prisoners, including those with serious health concerns. Some activists temporarily released due to Covid-19 concerns, including Sepideh Gholian, have since been rearrested and imprisoned. She, along with many others, should not even be imprisoned in the first place, much less returned to jail.
Now, a year later, despite the continued spread of Covid-19 in Iran’s overcrowded prisons that underscores the ever-urgent need for authorities to facilitate temporary releases or clemency for those who are eligible, authorities have been transferring several prisoners to prisons far away from their families.
On March 17, authorities reportedly temporarily released Nasrin Satoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer. Satoudeh was sentenced in March 2019 to a total of 38 years on vaguely-defined national security charges. Nooshin Jafari, currently serving a four-year prison sentence, was also reportedly released.
While these temporary releases are welcome, the situation will remain wholly unsatisfactory until all prisoners unjustly detained join them.
Authorities Transfer Prisoners Far Away From Their Families
Last week, Iranian prison authorities transferred prisoners Maryam Akbari-Monfared and Sepideh Gholian from Evin Prison in Tehran to Semnan and Bushehr Prisons, far from where their families live. Semnan Prison is located about 350 kilometers east of Tehran, where Akbari-Monfared’s family lives; Bushehr Prison is over 550 kilometers south of Dezful, where Gholian’s family lives.
In recent months, authorities have transferred at least 9 other women serving sentences from Evin prison to other prisons. Disrupting family life by making visitations impossible or extremely difficult when they were previously regular constitutes a violation of prisoners’ rights.
Between 2018 and 2020, authorities arrested and rearrested Sepideh Gholian, a labor activist, in a series of reprisals against her for her activism. Gholian was initially detained in November 2018 for her participation in a peaceful protest that same month; she was released on bail in December 2018. Authorities arrested Gholian again in January 2019 after she spoke about being tortured in detention. Authorities ultimately sentenced Gholian to 5 years in prison on charges that stemmed from her peaceful activism.
The Human Rights Activists’ News Agency reported that Gholian allegedly requested a transfer to Sepidar Prison, instead of Bushehr, so that she could remain as close as possible to her family.
According to Amnesty International, following a grossly unfair trial, Akbari-Monfared was sentenced to 15 years in prison in May 2010 on charges including “enmity against God” due to alleged membership in the banned opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). This allegation is based only on a visit and phone calls she made to family members who are MEK members.
Akbari-Monfared’s transfer follows a series of reprisals and threats against her by prison authorities after she filed a formal complaint that seeks an official investigation into the mass executions of political prisoners, including her siblings, in the summer of 1988. Officials canceled her medical care arrangements restricted visits from her family, including her three children, in retaliation.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Released, but Not Free
On March 7, 2021, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen, completed her 5-year sentence, but authorities informed her that she is now facing new charges. A project manager for the Thomas Reuters Foundation, she was first arrested at Tehran Airport in April 2016, after a trip to Iran to visit her family. She was convicted under vague national security charges and sentenced to five years in prison. Zaghari-Ratcliffe served the majority of her sentence in Evin Prison, until she was released last year due to Covid-19 concerns and kept under house arrest. An ankle monitor that was used to track her movement was removed on March 7. However, she is still banned from leaving the country.
Hojjat Kermani, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s lawyer, said that she is now facing new charges of “propaganda activities against the regime” for participating in a rally in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 and giving an interview to the BBC Persian Channel. Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran has set March 14, 2021 as the hearing date to review her case.
The unjust imprisonment of dual citizens based on vague charges continues to be a tactic by the Iranian regime to influence negotiations with the EU, UK, and US. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted on Sunday calling for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s permanent release. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case has been described by many as a “bargaining chip” case, as Iranian authorities have used her case and many other dual and foreign nationals to pressure other states, including the UK. Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, claims that Iran has sought to pressure the UK through arresting dual nationals to pay back money for a weapons deal to Iran decades ago that the UK never completed.
Iran Should Pass Comprehensive Law on Gender-Based Violence
This International Women’s Day, the Iranian government should commit to enacting strong legislation to protect women and girls from gender-based violence and repeal discriminatory laws that heighten their risk of domestic violence.
A draft law on violence against women was finally sent to parliament in December and has some positive aspects. If passed, police would prioritize received complaints of gender-based violence, protect the identity of women who file them, and allow women to file restraining orders against those threatening them.
But serious gaps remain. Consensual, extramarital relationships in Iran remain a criminal offense, which can make it difficult for women to report violence and allow the authorities to punish those who do. The bill also does not define or criminalize marital rape. Further, one provision will make it unlawful to invite women to mixed gender parties or other places of “corruption or prostitution,” which could result in charges carrying up to 10 years in prison.
In 2020, amid a string of gruesome femicides, dozens of Iranian women on social media bravely shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, igniting a #MeToo movement. Their stories underscore the urgent and ever-present need to pass a strong law.
Women’s rights activists in Iran have long campaigned for comprehensive legislation against gender-based violence. Many have faced persecution, and the government’s repression of civil society has made it difficult to for them to push for reforms.
Laws that provide for male guardian control over women and girls’ freedom of movement, as well as control over decisions related to marriage and discrimination in relation to divorce, put them at added risk of domestic violence.
Too many women and girls have been denied control over their own lives, beaten and even killed by those close to them. Parliament should strengthen the draft law by removing discriminatory provisions, adding others to better protect all women and girls from violence, and then swiftly pass it.
International Women’s Day would also be a fitting time to release all women’s rights defenders unjustly sentenced for their peaceful activism related to discrimination against women, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, Najmeh Vahedi, Hoda Amid, Yasaman Ariayi, and many others.
Appeals Court Upholds Arash Ganji’s 11-Year Prison Sentence
On February 27, 2021, the Tehran Court of Appeals upheld the lower courts sentence of Arash Ganji to a total of 11 years in prison. Ganji is a writer, translator, and prominent member of the Writers’ Association of Iran. Authorities first arrested him at his home in December 2019 and detained him for a month in Ward 209 of Evin Prison before releasing him on bail. Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran convicted him in December 2020 and sentenced him to 5 years in prison on charges of “collaboration to act against national security,” another 5 years for “membership and cooperation with an opposition group,” and another year for “propaganda against the regime.” Under Iranian law, he will serve his sentences concurrently and spend 5 years in prison.
According to Ganji’s lawyer, his arrest was prompted by the accusation that he translated a book titled, “The Small Key to the Big Gate” that discusses developments in the Kurdish areas of Syria. Ganji is also a secretary in the board of directors of the Writers’ Association of Iran whose members were targeted by the Ministry of Intelligence in 1990s. Many were killed during what was known as the Chain Murders of Iran. The Association is a non-governmental organization established in 1968 as a chapter of the World Writers’ Association and hosts Iranian writers, translators, and editors. The Writers’ Association has become an important body in challenging censorship in Iran and several of its members have been targeted by the authorities.
Activists File a Complaint against the Practice of Solitary Confinement
On March 1, a group of prominent Iranian human rights defenders and civil society activists, such as Narges Mohammadi and Zia Nabavi, filed a complaint against Iranian judicial authorities’ abusive practice of detaining people in solitary confinement at the Office of Judicial Electronic Services in Tehran.
According to the Emtedad news website, Iranian civil society activists said in their complaint that solitary confinement is against international and domestic standards of due process rights, and authorities should hold officials who carry out this practice accountable.
For decades, Human Rights Watch has documented Iranian authorities’ prolonged detention of activists, journalists, human rights lawyers and dual and foreign nationals arrested on vaguely defined national security charges languish in solitary confinement. These prison wards are often under the supervision of intelligence services, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization and Ministry of Intelligence, where those detained are often deprived of other rights, including access to a lawyer.
International treaty bodies and United Nations special rapporteurs on torture have concluded that prolonged solitary confinement may amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment that violates human rights. Iranian authorities have a dismal record of investigating allegations of abuse and have even launched reprisals against those who reported them. Yet despite all the government’s threats and repression, members of Iranian civil society continue to push to end these abusive practices.
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.