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.

Horrific Death of a Woman in Kurdistan Province Sparks Protests

On September 3, Shelir Rasouli, 36, a wife and a mother of two, jumped out of a window on the second floor of her building in the city of Marivan, apparently in an attempt to escape being raped. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, Rasouli’s neighbor allegedly had threatened to assault her at gunpoint, and she had no other way to escape. Her two children who went to seek help witnessed her fall. Rasouli was brought to a hospital after she jumped but passed away on September 8 from injuries sustained from the fall.

Women in Marivan and in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Province in Iran, took to the streets following the news of the incident and during Rassouli’s funeral carrying placards and chanting demands for more protections for women’s rights and safety. On September 10, a group of women protested in front of the local judiciary building and also released a statement mourning the death of Rasouli and blaming it on systemic violence against women. The statement denounced the normalization of violence against woman and demanded stricter laws to punish aggressors.

Instead of commenting on the protesters’ demands, the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, Ensieh Khazali, tweeted praising Rasouli for choosing to protect her honor at the cost of her own life. Several women’s rights defenders criticized Khazali’s tweet. President Raeesi’s administration and the parliament are yet to take action on a draft law entitled “Protection, Dignity and Security of Women against Violence” that was finalized by the previous administration at the end of 2020.

Families Gather to Protest Death Penalty

Over the past week, families of prisoners on death row have gathered in front of prisons in Tehran and Karaj to peacefully protest what appears to be a rise in the number of executions over the past four months.

Since March 21, 2022, at the beginning of Iranian New Year, Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) has documented 306 executions, 130 of them for drug-related charges and 151 of them based on the Islamic principle of qisas, or “retribution in kind” punishments. Between May 21 and June 21 alone, the group documented 99 executions. After the implementation of reforms in the country’s drug law in 2017, there was a substantial reduction in the number of drug-related executions, but the recent increase has raised concerns among those on death row and their families, HRANA reported.

HRANA also said that on September 11, security forces disrupted protests of family members of death row prisoners and arrested 30 people gathered outside the judiciary building in Tehran.

The Iranian government remains one of the leading implementers of the death penalty in the world. This includes carrying out capital punishment of those convicted of alleged crimes as children, as well as under vaguely defined national security charges and occasionally non-violent offenses.

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, in his latest report to the General Assembly, also raised concerns over the increase in drug-related executions.

Human Rights Watch opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.  

25 Arrested in Peaceful Water Protests in Hamedan Province

On September 8, the governor of Hamedan, Mohammed Ali Mohammadi, announced the arrests of 25 citizens during protests about the ongoing water crisis. Mohammadi claimed that the protests were illegal, and the fact that 20 of the arrested protesters were not from Hamedan city indicated that they were present “to incite terror.”

People in Hamedan province have been experiencing such accute difficulties over several weeks accessing water, with long hours of plumbing shutoffs, that authorities have set up tanks on streets to help mitigate the shortages. The protests, which began in late August in front of the governor’s office, were led by citizens demonstrating against the severe shortages in drinking water supplies and the officials’ failure to address the crisis. On August 24, a video was circulated of a woman being beaten by security forces at one of the protests.

The Hamedan governor claimed that a resolution will come in the next two weeks. According to the Human Rights Group News Agency (HRANA), water from the Talwar Dam is supposed to be transferred to help with the immediate response. However, the Hamedan Province Lawyers Association reportedly wrote a recent letter to the prosecutor’s office outlining concerns about the high levels of arsenic in the Talwar Dam water.

In the past year, there has been a spate of water protests across the country against increasing droughts and the government’s mismanagement of water resources, to which the authorities have responded with arrests and violence. In July, in a protest against the lack of action to protect Lake Urmia, police arrested protestors for “destroying public property” and “disturbing the security of the population.” Last year, it was reported that Iranian authorities used excessive force in quashing water protests in Khuzestan province, which has led to the death of three protestors. 

Climate change is expected to exacerbate access to water in Iran. Authorities must move quickly to address the issue and protect their citizens’ right to water, instead of employing violence and arresting citizens.

The UN special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation stated in a 2014 report that violations of the right to water may result from action or may be the result of the unintended consequences of policies, programs and other measures as well.

Appeals Court Upholds Sentence for Rights Defenders Seeking Government Accountability

On August 16, an appeals court upheld a decision issued against five human rights defenders charged with “establishing an illegal group” and “propaganda against the state” for attempting to hold the government accountable for its mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, Mostafa Nili, a human rights lawyer and one of the defendants, tweeted.

Branch 36 of Tehran’s revolutionary court ultimately sentenced Nili, as well as Mehdi Mahmoudian, to four years’ imprisonment, and a two-year ban from practicing law and a two-year ban from using social media, respectively. The court also sentenced Arash Keykhosravi, Mohammad Reza Fahighi, and Maryam Afrafaraz to one year in prison and a one-year ban from practicing law, 6 months in prison, and 95 days in prison, respectively.

Authorities arrested seven human rights defenders on August 14, 2021. Two rights defenders, Leila Heydari and Mohammad Hadi Erfanian, were released without charge after a few hours. Afrafaraz and Faghihi were released on bail on August 29, 2021.

However, authorities continued to hold Keykhosravi and Nili until December 2021. Mahmoudian is currently serving a four-year prison sentence he previously received on politically motivated charges of “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” In an open letter, the three of them described rights violations they experienced in detention, including being placed in solitary confinement for over a month and denied access to their lawyers and families.

Before their arrest, all seven rights defenders were preparing to file a complaint against the country’s national task force against Covid-19, which included Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for its mismanagement of the pandemic response. Articles 170 and 173 of the constitution protect every citizen’s right to complain before a court when regulation of the government conflicts with laws or norms.

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here

Authorities Further Police Iranian Women’s Dress Code

Women wait for a bus in central Tehran, Iran, August 24, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

In the past month, Iranian authorities have sought to implement new restrictions on women’s dress code and that further enforce he hijab and chastity laws. While according to Mohammad Saleh Hashemi Golpaygani, the head of the headquarters to promote virtue, the new policy will change not wearing proper hijab from a criminal offense to a fine, women who post pictures of themselves without a hijab online, according to the new policy, can face serious repercussions. For example, female government employees must have profile pictures that conform to laws on compulsory hijab or risk being fired. These changes come as authorities launch a renewed crackdown against women’s efforts to push back on compulsory hijab laws and women’s rights activists in Iran.

Over the past months, several videos in which security forces or other people use violence against women who do not comply with hijab laws have become viral on social media.

In one, two women are seen arguing over what appears to be one of them trying to force the other to comply with hijab laws. Following the publication of the video, on July 16 authorities arrested Sepide Rashno, the woman who was subjected to the harassment for not complying with compulsory hijab laws. On July 30, Rashno appeared on State TV apologizing to the other woman while looking pale and unwell. HRA reported prior to the televised confession, Rashno was taken to the hospital for internal bleeding. Iranian authorities have a long record of coercing detainees into making false televised confessions.

Authorities’ detention of Rashno and other women for their choice of dress has drawn widespread criticism and condemnation with hundreds of thousands of Instagram users posting their photos with the phrase: “Join us in unity: We oppose compulsory hijab.” 

The recent clamp-down on women’s dress code is a stark contrast to the lack of action by the Iranian government to address key issues such as domestic abuse and the increase in femicides. The Iranian parliament has yet to adopt the draft law on “Protection, Dignity and Security of Women against Violence.”

Iranian Authorities Ramp Up Persecution of Baha’is


Home demolitions in the village of Roshankouh, in Mazandaran province. © 2022 Baha'i International Community

Over the past week, Iranian authorities have dramatically increased their crackdown against the country’s Baha’i religious minority. On August 2, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that 200 Iranian government agents sealed off the village of Roshankouh, in the northern province of Mazandaran. The agents allegedly destroyed six homes and confiscated 20 hectares of land, used pepper spray and gunshots to disperse people, confiscated mobile devices, and arrested any protesters. This incident comes just days after authorities raided the homes and businesses of Baha'is across Iran.

On August 1, BIC reported that 13 individuals were arrested, including prominent community members. The Ministry of Intelligence justified its actions by accusing Baha’is of belonging to an “espionage party” that is spying for Israel. Their statement added that those arrested were “propagating the teachings of fabricated Baha'is colonialism and infiltrating educational environments.” Iranian authorities regularly use the false pretext of “spying” to arrest people in Iran, and the Baha’i International Community described the government’s claims as “a brazen example of the worst kind of hate speech.”

Iranian authorities appear to be a undertaking a new wave of attacks against Baha’is in recent months. In June, 44 Baha’is were detained, arraigned, or imprisoned. In July, 20 Baha’is were arrested, jailed, or subjected to home searches and business closures. This repression comes at a time of overlapping political, economic, diplomatic, and security crises that Iranian authorities have failed to address.

Baha’is are not recognized as a religious minority in the Iranian constitution and have been targeted for decades. Iranian authorities should immediately end their campaign of harassment and targeting of Baha'is and release all those who have been detained for their faith.  

Arrests of Family Members of November 2019 Crackdown Victims

Iranian protesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019.  © AFP/Getty Images

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), on July 12, Iranian authorities arrested at least seven family members of people killed during the bloody 2019 government crackdown on widespread protests triggered by economic failures and an abrupt increase in fuel prices.

According to HRANA, Nahid Shirpishe, Mehdrad Bakhtirary, Sakineh Ahmadi, Rahimeh Yousefzedeh, Mahboubeh Ramezani, Saeed Damvar, and Somaye Jafar Panah were among those arrested. All seven lost a member of their families during the November 2019 crackdown. As of July 13, there is no information about the accusations these individuals are facing.

A few hours after the arrests, Fars News Agency, which is close to intelligence services in Iran, reported that a group of people was arrested for "spying for foreigners" under the cover of "demanding justice." Iran regularly falsely accuses activists and peaceful dissidents of “spying.”

Widespread protests in November 2019 quickly transformed into a broader expression of popular discontent with the government’s repression and perceived corruption. In response, the government imposed a near-total internet shutdown from November 15-19, 2019, and embarked on the most brutal crackdown against protesters in decades. According to Amnesty International, more than 300 people were killed during the 2019 protests.

The Iranian government has a long history of prosecuting families of victims and activists. The families of the victims of the November 2019 protests have demanded justice for the killing of their loved ones, but instead of having their calls for accountability met, they too face prosecution, detention, and harassment.

New Wave of Arrests of Journalists and Activists

Exterior view of Evin prison. © Wikipedia

During the last week of June, Iranian authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society with a new wave of politically-motivated arrests and sentences against journalists and activists, including Vida Rabani, Ahmad Reza Haeri, Amir Salar Davoudi, and Masoud Bastani.

On July 4, Emtedad news outlet reported that the Evin prosecutor's office summoned Masoud Bastani, a journalist. Two days earlier, on July 2, security agents searched Masoud's home and confiscated his personal belongings and the laptop of his wife Mira Ghorbanifar, who is also a journalist.

On June 29, Vida Rabani, a journalist, posted on her Twitter that a court had sentenced her to five years in prison and a five-year ban from professional activities and media appearances on charges of "insulting the sacred" because of a poem she posted on social media and "assembly and collusion against national security," because she shared tweets from two other Iranian activists, Zia Nabavi and Mostafa Tajzadeh.

Two days earlier, on June 27, authorities arrested Ahmad Reza Haeri, a human rights defender and former political prisoner, at his home, Emtedad news outlet reported. This arrest was based on the order of Branch 3 of the Evin prosecutor's office. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), on June 1, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s intelligence agents searched Haeri's home, took his personal belongings, and told him to report to the Evin prosecutor’s office. Haeri had previously been summoned by the cybercrime prosecutor's office in November and December 2021 as part of a complaint against him by the Tehran General Directorate of Prisons.

HRANA also reported that on June 26 the Evin prosecutor's office arrested Amir Salar Davoudi, a human rights lawyer, to serve a 10-year prison sentence he received in 2021. In December 2021, Branch 36 of the Tehran Court of Appeals upheld Davoudi’s sentence of two years in prison for “insulting the supreme leader,” two years for “disturbing public opinion,” and ten years for “forming a group to act against national security.” Under article 134 of Iran’s penal code, he has to serve the longest sentence, which is 10 years.

In recent months, Iranian authorities have escalated arrests of prominent members of teachers' unions and labor activists on baseless accusations in an attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country.

Sister of Slain Protester Arrested

Shahnaz Karimbeigi standing next to her son's photo.  © 2015 Private

On June 14, Iranian Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Maryam Karimbeigi, a 34-year-old sociology student and civil rights activist, according to tweets by her mother, Shahnaz Akmali. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, Maryam is being held in Ward 209 at Evin Prison. Ward 209 is operated by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and Human Rights Watch has documented the use of torture there.  

On June 15, Shahnaz posted on Twitter that the prosecutor’s office at Evin prison had refused to release Maryam on bail despite having promised to do so. Shahnaz also said on Twitter that the prosecutor’s office added a new charge of "assembly and collusion against national security” against Maryam in addition to the "acting against national security" charge that she previously faced, adding that after being detained, Maryam started a hunger strike.

Maryam is the sister of Mostafa Karimbeigi, a 26-year-old protestor who died after he was shot in the head at a protest in Tehran in 2009. The protest was linked to the disputed 2009 presidential elections. Shahnaz, who has also been active in demanding justice for her son’s killing, was arrested herself in 2017 and sentenced to one year in prison.

The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence service filed a complaint against Maryam a few months ago, and security agents interrogated her several times during the past month, a person familiar with the case told Human Rights Watch. In February 2022, security agents also reportedly raided Maryam and Shahnaz’s home and took their personal items, including pictures of Mostafa, their phones, and laptops. The source told Human Rights Watch that after the raid, Maryam was interrogated several times before being charged and detained.

The Iranian government has a long history of prosecuting families of victims and activists. The Karimbeigi family has spoken out to demand justice for the killing of their son, but instead of having their calls for accountability met, they face prosecution, detention, and harassment.

Abusive Detention of Labor Activists

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

Almost a month after their arrest, labor activists Anisha Assadollahi and Keyvan Mohtadi, and Reza Shahabi, a member of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC), continue to be detained without any clear legal basis. They are being held in Ward 209 of Evin prison in Tehran, under the supervision of Iran's Intelligence Ministry.

On May 9, authorities arrested Assadollahi and Mohtadi after raiding their home. On May 12, intelligence agents arrested Shahabi, a member of the SWTSBC governing board. On May 19, Amir Raisian, the three detainees’ lawyer, told the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) that he was not allowed access to details of their cases, which undermines their right to a fair trial.  Raisian told HRANA that authorities at the second branch of the security prosecutors’ office only said that his clients had been arrested for national security reasons.

On May 15, Telegram channels close to Iran’s intelligence services claimed that Shahabi and Assadollahi were arrested on the charges of “cooperating with a foreign team intending to overthrow” the government, without providing evidence for this accusation. Iranian intelligence agencies regularly arrest individuals on vague charges, and Iranian courts, especially revolutionary courts, regularly fall far short of providing fair trials.

Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to liberty. The UN Human Rights Committee has explained that deprivation of liberty is arbitrary when it results from the exercise of fundamental rights under the convention, including free expression and association.

In recent years, Iranian authorities have responded to an increase in labor protests and related actions with arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of labor rights activists. Over the past 12 months, at least 69 workers have been arrested, and dozens more have been summoned for interrogations.