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

In September 2022, Iranians took to the streets to protest the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman in the custody of the abusive “morality police,” as well as the autocratic government’s long track record of repression and impunity. The protest movement’s leading slogan of “woman, life, freedom” connects Iranians’ struggles for social and political freedoms across generations against an unaccountable and deeply repressive state. The authorities’ brutal repression of popular demands for fundamental change has included lethal and excessive force against protesters, arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists, and rights defenders, the torture and sexual assault of detainees, and executions of people after sham trials. Human Rights Watch’s Iran blog highlights the government’s vicious crackdown and civil society activists’ attempts to confront this oppression and achieve societal demands for fundamental improvements in human rights.

Journalist Kasra Nouri Remains Imprisoned

Kasra Nouri. © 2023 Private

Despite a recent government amnesty announcement, Iranian journalist and political activist Kasra Nouri, 32, remains imprisoned. His lawyer, Farshid Yadollahi, told the Shargh Daily paper that Nouri was granted amnesty in one legal case, while his new case is still with the Shiraz Prosecutor’s Office. In August 2022, Nouri was charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” for an unpublished statement, which he wrote with other activists such as Leila Hossein Zadeh, and it is this case that is still pending and preventing his release.

Authorities arrested Nouri in February 2018 when dozens of Dervish community members gathered on Golestan-e Haftom street in the Pasdaran neighborhood in north Tehran to protect the residence of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, whom they feared intelligence agencies planned to arrest. On February 19 and 20, 2018, authorities reportedly attacked the protestors, severely injuring dozens. Law enforcement agents also died in the clashes, including three who were struck by a bus.

In July 2018, branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced Nouri to 12 years in prison, 74 lashes, two years in exile, two years of deprived social rights, and a two-year travel ban on the charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disrupting public order,” “rebelling against officers on duty,” and “propaganda against the state.” Under article 134 of Iran’s criminal procedure law, Nouri had to serve seven years and six months. He has been held in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, which is hundreds of kilometers away from his family’s hometown in Tehran.

Authorities previously arrested and imprisoned Nouri several times, as well as detaining other family members, including his mother Shokoufeh Yadollahi and his brothers Amir Nouri and Pooria Nouri. According to BBC, Shokoufeh Yadollahi, Amir Nouri, and Pooria Nouri were physically and psychologically tortured. Following the 2018 Golestan-e Haftom street incident, revolutionary courts sentenced at least 208 members of the Dervish religious minority to prison terms and other punishments in unfair trials that violated their basic rights.

Nouri is a student at the University of Tehran and was the CEO of “majzooban-e-noor” website, which covers news about the Dervish religious community.

Kurdish Activist Zeynab Jalalian starts her 16th year in Iran’s Prisons

Zeynab Jalalian. © 2023 Private

March 2023 will mark 16 years of imprisonment for Iranian-Kurdish political activist Zeynab Jalalian. Jalalian, 40 years old, is the only female political activist in Iran with a lifetime sentence. Over the past 16 years, the authorities have subjected her to physical and psychological torture, and denied her access to medical care.

Iranian authorities arrested Jalalian in March 2008 for her social and political activities when she was a member of The Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). After being arrested, she was transferred to the unofficial detention center of the Kermanshah Intelligence Department, located in Naft Square, and spent more than three months in solitary confinement. During this period, she was subjected to severe torture including threats of rape, and she was denied the right to have contacts and visits from her family and lawyer.

In 2009, in a summary trial in which her lawyer was not even informed, a revolutionary court judge sentenced Jalalian to death on charges of “waging war against God” (moharebeh). In December 2011, her death sentence was changed to life imprisonment. In the last 16 years, authorities transferred her to several prisons across Iran: Kermanshah, Evin, Khoy, Gharchak, Kerman, and Yazd detention facilities.

During her imprisonment, Jalalian has suffered from illnesses, including oral candidiasis, pterygium of the eye, poor vision, tooth infection, kidney and digestive problems, and Covid-19. Despite her need for medical treatment outside the prison, prison officials have heavily restricted her transfer to hospitals, and used this to pressure her to confess to further charges. For the few times that they transferred her to a hospital outside the prison, they returned her to prison against the doctor’s recommendation of hospitalizing her.

As authorities have failed to show any evidence of Jalalian’s involvement in any violent act and she was only detained for her social and political activities for the rights of Kurdish women, her imprisonment is arbitrary and is a serious violation of her fundamental rights. Zeynab Jalalian should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Iranian-German National Receives a Death Sentence

Jamshid Sharmahd. © 2023 ISNA

On February 21, 2023, Jamshid Sharmahd, 67, was sentenced to death based on charges of “corruption on earth,” according to Mizan news agency. The Iranian authorities allege that he was a leader of an opposition group, the “Kingdom Assembly of Iran,” which was connected to multiple terror attacks, namely the 2008 bombing of a mosque in Shiraz, claims that Sharmahd denies. Iranian authorities regularly arrest activists and opposition figures with bogus charges and sentence people in unfair trials.

Sharmahd is a dual Iranian-German citizen who was residing in the United States at the time of his arrest. According to his family, Sharmahd went missing in July 2020 while transiting to India via Dubai on a business trip. It was later revealed through tracking his phone signals that he was forciblybrought into Iran via Oman. Similarly, in December 2020, prominent dissident and journalist, Rouhollah Zam, who was likely arrested in Iraq, was convicted in a grossly unfair trial and executed.

Iranian state television channels previously aired a series of Sharmahd’s likely coerced “confessions.” State TV regularly broadcasts video confessions of detainees obtained under torture and coercion. Authorities did not allow Sharmahd’s chosen lawyer access to his case file or to meet with him. Just last month, the Iranian authorities executed the former Iranian deputy defense minister, Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national for charges of spying, following a proceeding that did not meet fair trial standards. The German foreign minister has expressed high concern with the unfair court proceedings and the decision of the Iranian judiciary, and German authorities moved to expel two Iranian diplomats.

Authorities Still Detaining Saeed Madani, 62-Year-Old Sociologist on 9-Year Sentence

Iranian authorities have reportedly released hundreds of prisoners in recent weeks, including dozens of activists and human rights defenders, through amnesties and reduced punishments. However, Branch 36 of Tehran’s revolutionary appeals court continues to uphold a nine-year prison sentence against Saeed Madani, a prominent sociologist detained in Evin prison in Tehran.

In May 2022, authorities arrested Madani during a raid on his house in which they confiscated his electronic devices. On December 20, a court of first instance sentenced him to nine years in prison on vague charges that included “forming and managing antiestablishment groups” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Madani is a senior researcher and faculty member at Tehran University, and he has published several books on social issues in Iran such as violence against women, child abuse, prostitution, and poverty, as well as writing extensively about widespread protests over the past five years.

Authorities have arrested and imprisoned Madani several times before, and in 2016 he was exiled to Bandar Abbas. In January 2022, authorities prevented him from leaving Iran to start a research program at Yale University in the US. Several of Madani’s books have been banned in Iran.

Authorities Repress Women While Failing to Address Femicides

Iranian women walk down a street in the capital Tehran on February 7, 2018. © 2018 ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

In late January alone, according to women’s rights groups, at least three women were killed by male family members in Iran. 

On January 31, Rezwan Nadimi, 26, a mother of two from the Ziviyeh village of Kamyaran in Kurdistan province, was shot dead by a male relative the Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported. The same day, Zohre Landi, a makeup artist from Ahvaz in Khuzestan province was also reportedly killed by a male relative. According to Bidarzani, a women’s rights activists' website, her relative reportedly shot Zohre and her brother Yahya dead and then died by suicide.  

Firoozeh Moradi, 26, was also reportedly killed by a relative in Kermanshah in the last week of January. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, the relative allegedly killed her with a knife and a day later he confessed to the police. 

Earlier on January 23, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that Negin Rostami, 28, a resident of Ney village of Marivan in Kurdistan province was set on fire in her backyard by an unknown man. She subsequently died of her injuries on January 29 in Kowsar Hospital in Sanandaj.

Despite more than two decades of advocacy by women’s rights defenders, Iranian lawmakers have failed to reform laws that leave women exposed to violence or adopt comprehensive protection measures for survivors of domestic violence. A draft bill, “Protection, Dignity and Security of Women against Violence,” that still have gaps was approved by the government in 2021 but Parliament has yet to pass it into law.  

Under Iranian law, if the murdered victims’ families do not request qisas, a concept allowing retribution in kind that to a death sentence, authorities can still sentence a murderer to up to 10 years in prison. But in many femicide cases, families of the female victim are related to the murderer and do not press for longer penalties, and judges release such convicts after they spent only a few years in prison. 

Farhad Meysami’s Prolonged Hunger Strike

Imprisoned Iranian rights defender Farhad Meysami has reportedly lost a concerning amount of weight in detention that could pose a risk to his health. In a letter he wrote, published by BBC Persian’s website on February 2, Meysami said he will continue his hunger strike until authorities “halt the executions of protestors, release representatives of Iranian political prisoners, and stop government harassment to enforce hijab laws.”

© Wikimedia Commons

Since October 2, Meysami has refused to eat nutritious food and liquids to protest authorities’ brutal crackdown against the protest movement that started in September following the death of a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman in the custody of abusive morality police. Meysami is currently detained in Rajaishahr prison in Alborz province.

Meysami has been detained since 2018, and currently serving a 6-year imprisonment he received for charges of “spreading propaganda against the system,” “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” and “insulting Islamic sanctities.” This arbitrary sentence was due to his peaceful activism in support of women who oppose compulsory hijab. Under international law, detention is arbitrary if it results from the exercise of fundamental rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly. During his arrest, Ministry of Intelligence agents seized button pins with the texts, “I oppose compulsory hijab” and “I do not support compulsory hijab” written on them. 

The current protests movement with the leading slogan of “woman, life, freedom,” comes after authorities’ decades-long relentless repression of peaceful dissent and crackdown on human rights defenders and activists who stand up to the country’s authoritative rulers.

Accounts of Torture and Summary Trial of Javad Rouhi

Javad Rouhi © 2023 Tabnak

Iran’s Branch 1 revolutionary court of the city of Sari in Mazandaran province has sentenced at least three people to death on protest-related charges. The December 13 summary trial of 31-year-old Javad Rouhi, arrested on September 22 in Noshahr, Mazandaran province, lasted only 45 minutes. The court sentenced him to death three times on charges of “waging war against God,” “corruption on Earth,” and “apostasy.”

According to information Human Rights Watch obtained, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents arrested Rouhi and held him in solitary confinement for over 40 days. During this period, authorities refused to share any information about Rouhi’s situation or whereabouts with his family. While in detention, IRGC forces allegedly tortured Rouhi. According to an informed source, Rouhi was exposed to freezing temperatures in detention and had ice cubes put on his body and testicles for periods of 48 hours. He was also beaten severely with batons and whipped all over his body, including the soles of his feet, while tied to a pole. He reportedly lost control over his bowel movements, mobility in one of his legs, and experienced an impairment in speech, as a result of the torture. The court has refused to consider reports of Rouhi’s mental health condition and did not allow him access to a lawyer of his choice during the trial.

The egregious violations of due process rights and fair trial standards, and the torture and ill-treatment of detainees have been a systemic feature of the authorities’ crackdown against protests.

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.