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.

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.

Renewed Calls to Free Jailed Environmental Activists

A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.  © 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign

On June 5, World Environment Day, nine former prisoners who had been detained together with imprisoned environmental activists Sepideh Kashani and Niloufar Bayani called for their release in an open statement they published on social media. On the same day, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN environmental program (UNEP), called for the release of her “former colleague and conservationist Niloufar Bayani and other conservationists imprisoned in Iran.” 

In 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization arrested Bayani and Kashani together with Kavous Seyed Emami, Amir-Hossein Khaleghi, Morad Tahbaz, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh. All eight were members of the local Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a group focused on preserving biodiversity in Iran.

Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian sociology professor, died in custody under suspicious circumstances. Judicial authorities accused the group of using environmental projects as a cover for espionage but have failed to provide any evidence into such allegations. Over the past four years authorities violated their due process rights and deprived them of the right to a fair trial. Bayani has alleged in court that she and others in the group have been subject to torture while in detention. In February, the BBC Persian website published a detailed account of the alleged mistreatment of Bayani by prison authorities based on her letters, including “1,200 hours of interrogations,” “long hours of interrogation while standing,” “threatening with a hallucinogenic injection,” and “sexual insults.”

On February 18, 2020, a court of appeal upheld sentences ranging from 6 to 10 years in prison against all the activists on the charge of “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” The court also upheld a 4-year prison sentence against Kouhpayeh on the charge of “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” Kouhpayeh is the only one who has been released in 2020, apart from Emami who died in custody, and the other six are still in custody.

Building Collapse in Abadan

The site of a ten-story building collapse in Abadan, Iran, on May 23, 2022.  © 2022 WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

The collapse of the 10-story Metropol building under construction in the Khuzestan province city of Abadan on May 23 caused the death of at least 24 people and injured dozens more. Reports indicate that many more could still be trapped beneath the rubble.

Several local authorities alleged that the building failed to meet official construction standards. On the day of the collapse, Sadegh Jafari Changi, the Khuzestan Province prosecutor, said that 10 people, including the mayor of Abadan and two former mayors, had been arrested in connection with the incident.

On May 24, Khuzestan governor Sadegh Khalilian claimed that "non-compliance with laws, regulations and technical principles in the construction" was behind the collapse. On the same day, Siamak Sadeghi, the head of the Association of Housing and Building in Khuzestan, told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) that the building was initially supposed to be seven stories but that three stories were added, increasing the stress on the foundation and which could have contributed to the collapse.

The Human Rights Activist News Agency reports residents of Abadan and several other cities gathered in the streets to demand accountability for the collapse. Reports on social media indicate that internet access on cell phones in Abadan has been disrupted.

Iranian authorities should commit to a transparent and impartial investigation to determine the causes behind the collapse and the resulting deaths and injuries, as part of its duty under human rights law to protect the right to life, and provide compensation for those affected. It should also ensure that those affected have access to adequate medical care and take steps to enforce regulations to ensure buildings are safe.

To read this blog post in Farsi, click here

Court-Ordered Closure of Prominent Civil Society Group

Members of the "Imam Ali Association" hold a banner with the association's logo and name. © 2014 إيرنا

On May 24, the NGO Imam Ali’s Popular Student Relief Society (IAPSRS) posted on their Twitter account that the Branch 28 court of appeals upheld a March 2021 sentence shutting the group down. The IAPSRS is one of most prominent Iranian NGOs working on poverty reduction, child marriage, and the child death penalty. 

On March 5, 2021, Branch 55 of the international relations court at Shahid Beheshti Judicial Complex ordered the dissolution of the group, accepting the Interior Ministry’s assessment that IAPSRS had “deviated” from its original mission and "insulted religious beliefs." The court cited “questioning Islamic rulings” and “promoting falsehood by publishing statements against the Islamic Republic of Iran” as evidence of “deviation.”

The closure followed the July 21, 2020 arrest of the organization’s founder, Sharmin Meymandinejad, along with two of his colleagues, on charges of “insulting the [Supreme] Leader and founder of the Islamic Republic.” The authorities released Sharmin on bail in October 2020.

The appeal court’s ruling on IAPSRS comes amidst a broader crackdown on civil society groups and activists in Iran.  In May alone authorities have arrested at least six civil rights activists.

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.