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.
Iranian Authorities Send Iranian-French Researcher Back to Prison
Iranian authorities reincarcerated prominent French-Iranian prominent academic Fariba Adelkhah, the Fariba Adelkhah Support Committee reported on January 12. In October 2020, authorities had released Adelkhah, who had been detained in Evin prison since July 2019, to house arrest with an electronic tag.
The Iranian authorities have claimed that Adelkhah had failed to comply with the rules of her house arrest without providing any additional details. In June 2020, an Iranian court upheld a 5-year prison sentence against Adelkhah, an anthropologist at the Sciences Po university, on vague national security charges.
Adelkhah’s case is one of the several known instances of Iranian dual nationals who are detained in Iran on vaguely defined national security charges with authorities failing to provide any convincing evidence for their charges. Human Rights Watch has documented the pattern of Iranian authorities’ targeting of foreign and dual nationals with unfounded charges and using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with western countries.
The reimprisonment of Fariba Adelkah once again shows the cynicism and cruelty of this policy. Authorities should immediately release her.
Baktash Abtin Hospitalized and in a Critical Condition
The Iranian Writer’s Association (IWA) reported on January 2, 2022, that the health conditions of one of their imprisoned members, the poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin, has rapidly deteriorated after contracting Covid-19 for the second time in Evin Prison. In their statement, the Association stated that Abtin has been put in an induced coma. Since October 2020, Abtin was serving a 6-year sentence he had received for abusive charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
The IWA statement blamed Abtin’s critical condition on the government delayed response in providing him with the appropriate medical treatment. As the Association describes it, Abtin did not receive medical care for four days in prison before being transferred to Taleghani hospital overnight. His family was kept unaware of his medical condition until much later. Since the beginning of his sentence, Abtin has unsuccessfully applied for medical leave due to his underlying health issues that could be exacerbated by Covid-19. He was hospitalized in April 2021 when he contracted the virus for the first time.
Three years into the pandemic, Iranian authorities continue to arbitrarily detain dozens of rights defenders despite the heightened risk and have failed to provide adequate medical care to several during the pandemic.
Violent Arrest of Educator Rasoul Bodaghi in the wake of nationwide teachers protests
On December 11, Iranian security forces arrested Rasoul Bodaghi, a member of the Board of Directors of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA), the ITTA’s spokesperson reported. The arrest came as teachers have been organizing a nationwide strike to demand better compensations including adjusting pay grades for teachers.
Bodaghi’s relatives reported that his Saturday arrest was accompanied by beating. They also said that all his communication devices were confiscated, including his wife’s phone. The Coordinating Council of Iranian Cultural Associations released a statement confirming the arrest and described it as “violent and insulting”.
Rasoul Bodaghi was arrested in 2009 in a crackdown on teachers speaking out against the government. He was sentenced by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court to six years in prison for charges of “colliding and assembly with the intent of disrupting national security” and “propaganda against the state.” At the end of his sentence in 2015, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him again to another three years for “insulting Imam Khomeini and the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda against the state.” However, he was released in April 2016.
On December 13, thousands of teachers joined protests in dozens of cities to echo their demands for better working conditions, as well as demanding Rasoul’s release. A video circulated on Twitter showed security forces attempting to violently disperse the protestors in front of the parliament. The whereabouts of and the charges against Bodaghi remain unknown.
Student Activist Leila Hosseinzadeh Arrested
On December 7, armed government security forces arrested student activist Leila Hosseinzadeh in the city of Shiraz, as reported by the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA). Hosseinzadeh’s lawyer, Amir Raesian, tweeted that authorities are holding her in an undisclosed location without access to legal counsel.
Hosseinzadeh’s arrest comes two days after an appeals court upheld a five-year prison sentence handed to her in February 2021 for “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” Authorities were initially allegedly motivated to arrest Hosseinzadeh for her participation in a peaceful gathering at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which was celebrating an imprisoned student activist’s birthday.
Hosseinzadeh’s arrest and treatment carry a cruel irony, as December 7 – National Student Day in Iran – is meant to commemorate the killing of three University of Tehran students by Iranian security forces in 1953. Her case also underscores the sustained government repression of peaceful student activists in recent years. Some, like Hosseinzadeh, face harsh prison terms and subsequent restrictions on their peaceful activities – which an Iranian parliamentarian once described as a “preventative” measure. Others have been threatened with being barred from pursuing their education any further.
Authorities should immediately disclose Hosseinzadeh’s location and provide her with access to legal counsel and contact with her family. The government should stop repressing peaceful dissent.
Prominent Human Rights Defender Faces New Imprisonment and Flogging
Iranian authorities arrested Narges Mohammadi, a veteran human rights defender, in Karaj on November 16 while attending a memorial service for one of the 2019 protests victims, Ebrahim Katabdar. In May 2021, Mohammadi announced that she was sentenced to 30 months in prison and 80 lashes for “propaganda against the political system… [and] slander and rebellion against the prison administration” relating to allegations against her over events during her last imprisonment. Mohammadi refused to present herself to serve. Her husband, Taghi Rahmani, tweeted on November 17 that Mohammadi informed him via a phone call that the authorities intend to move forward with her latest prison sentence.
Mohammadi also told him that authorities want to implement her flogging sentence. Iran’s penal code prescribes the inhumane punishment of flogging for more than 100 offenses, including “disrupting public order,” a charge that has been used against activists and protestors.
Mohammadi was previously arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2015 for “establishing an illegal group,” “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” and “propaganda against the state.” Authorities arrested Mohammadi after her meeting with the EU official, Catherine Ashton in Tehran. During her imprisonment in Tehran’s Evin Prison, she reported the prison director Gholamresa Siaei to authorities for physical abuse. Mohammadi, who suffers from a serious neurological disease that causes muscular paralysis, was released from prison in October 2020 after her sentence was reduced but was denied a passport, which effectively barred her from uniting with her family in France.
Student Activist’s Sentence Upheld for Holding Flight 752 Vigil
On October 25, lawyer Amir Raesian tweeted that Branch 36 of the Court of Appeals in Tehran upheld the one-year prison sentence his client student activist Zia Nabavi had received. Authorities are punishing Nabavi for his involvement in student organizations and his role in holding a vigil to honor the victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. Nabavi was convicted on the charge of “propaganda against the regime.”
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Flight 752, killing all 176 civilians on board, in January 2020. After Iranian authorities admitted responsibility for downing the aircraft, protests broke out across several Iranian cities. To this date, Iranian authorities have failed to conduct a credible and transparent investigation into the incident. Instead, Iranian courts have sentenced at least 20 people in connection with their participation in these protests.
Nabavi previously served nine years out of a 10-year prison term for his involvement in student activist groups. His most recent sentence reflects the ongoing restrictions on peaceful dissent in Iran. Iranian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Navi and all others who are imprisoned for peaceful dissent and protest.
Iranian Writer Taken Into Custody
On November 1, Iranian authorities took into custody Arash Ganji, a writer and a translator, and transferred him to prison to serve the five-year sentence he had received in connection with his translation of a book about Kurds in the Syrian civil war. The government alleged that the translation of the book, A Small Key Can Open a Big Door: The Rojava Revolution, poses a threat to national security.
Authorities had arrested Ganji, a board member and former secretary of the Iranian Writer’s Association (IWA), in December 2019. In December 2020, a revolutionary court sentenced him to a total of 11 years in prison: five years for “conspiracy to act against national security,” five years for “membership and cooperation with an anti-regime group,” and one year for “propaganda against the regime.” An appeals court upheld the charges in February 2021. Under Iran’s criminal procedure he must serve the maximum sentence of the three charges, equal to five years in prison.
Ganji’s prosecution represents a broader trend of targeted attacks on journalists and freedom of expression in Iran, particularly when it involves discussion of Kurdish peoples’ rights. Ganji is the fourth senior member of the IWA to be prosecuted by Iranian authorities since 2019. The IWA, which plays an important role in challenging censorship in Iran, has long been under severe crackdown by officials.
Ganji has serious health issues and requires medical care for a heart condition and deteriorating vision, conditions that may be dangerously worsened in prison. The Iranian authorities should respect the right to freedom of expression, strike down Ganji’s prison sentence for translating a book, and cease criminalizing the work of journalists and writers.
Increased Pressure on Teachers Amidst Nationwide Protests
Today, on World Teachers’ Day, Mohammad Habibi, the spokesperson for the Iranian Teachers Union, tweeted that yesterday authorities at the education ministry informed him of their unappealable decision to fire him from his job. Habibi has previously spent close to 30 months in detention for his activism.
Last month, security forces arrested Aziz Ghasemzadeh, a teacher, at his parent’s home and have denied him access to a lawyer, phone calls, and visits ever since, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Ghasemzadeh, a member of the Gilan Teachers Union, filmed his arrest in a video now widely circulated on social media. The reason for his arrest and the charges against him remain unclear.
Increased pressure on teachers and Ghasemzadeh’s arrest coincide with nationwide protests organized by the Council for Coordination among Teachers Unions. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, protesters are expressing grievances after President Raeesi blocked previously promised wage increases for teachers.
Authorities should immediately release Ghasemzadeh and drop any charges held against him unless authorities can provide evidence he should be charged with a recognizable crime.
Peaceful protests by teachers in 2018 and 2015 were followed by authorities’ increased targeting, harassment, and arrests of teachers and other education activists. Another prominent member of the teachers union, Ismael Abdi, has been imprisoned since 2016 on a 10-year prison sentence that was previously suspended by authorities.
UNICEF Retiree Under Travel Ban in Urgent Need of Critical Care
An 84-year-old Iranian American citizen, Baquer Namazi, is in urgent need of "immediate surgery for a 95–97% blockage in one of his internal carotid arteries — the pair of main arteries that supply blood to the brain,” his lawyer announced on October 4.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization arrested Namazi, a UNICEF retiree, in February 2016, when he went to Iran to follow up on Iranian authorities’ arrest of his son Siamak, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in an unfair trial and has remained unjustly behind bars.
Baquer was released from prison on medical grounds in February 2018, but he has remained under a travel ban. “My father has already lost so much precious time. I am begging Iran to let him spend whatever small amount of time he has left with his family, my brother Siamak included,” Baquer’s other son Babak said during a press conference on October 4.
Human Rights Watch has documented the pattern of Iranian authorities’ targeting of foreign and dual nationals with vaguely defined national security charges and using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with western countries, in particular the United States.
Witness to Prisoner Torture Reported Dead
On September 23, the Iranian judiciary confirmed the death of Shahin Nasseri, a prisoner detained in the Greater Tehran Central prison who allegedly witnessed the torture and forced confession of former fellow inmate Navid Afkari, who was executed last year, when they were both detained in Shiraz prison.
The judiciary said that Nasseri died “45 minutes after being taken to a health clinic and the cause of death is under investigation.” A source in Tehran prison reported Nasseri’s death on September 21. Nasseri had apparently been transferred to solitary confinement on the anniversary of Afkari’s death.
According to tweets by Babak Paknia, Nasseri’s former lawyer, Nasseri had called him multiple times on September 20 asking for representation. An audio file circulated on social media this month, allegedly of Nasseri’s voice, details how Nasseri’s interrogators threatened him with physical violence.
In a handwritten letter published in September 2019, Afkari detailed the torture he experienced in two Shiraz detention centers, including beatings and near suffocation by detention authorities. A handwritten letter by Nasseri testifying that he witnessed Afkari being beaten by his interrogators was also among the documents Afkari’s defense team had submitted to authorities for the investigation into Afkari’s torture. An appeals court dismissed Afkari’s torture allegations in April 2020 and the state executed him in September 2020.
Afkari and his brother Vahid Afkari were arrested in September 2018 on charges including murder as well as participation in illegal demonstrations, insulting Iran’s supreme leader, robbery, and “enmity against God.” Afkari’s brother has remained in solitary confinement since last year.
According to Amnesty International, since 2010, at least 72 people have died in custody in Iranian prisons, while authorities have failed to provide accountability despite credible reports of torture and ill-treatment.