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Parliamentary Elections in Iran
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder
(New York, February 15, 2000) -- Since the election of President Khatami in May 1997, Iranian reformists have spoken openly of respecting basic freedoms and the rule of law. In Iranian society generally, many petty social restrictions have been eased. The atmosphere surrounding the current parliamentary election campaign in Iran is notably freer than the last time around, in March 1996. But a number of human rights issues still impede a truly free and fair election in the Islamic Republic, and little has changed in the legal framework by which rights are protected in Iran.

The atmosphere surrounding the current parliamentary election campaign in Iran is notably freer than the last time around, in March 1996. But a number of human rights issues still impede a truly free and fair election in the Islamic Republic, and little has changed in the legal framework by which rights are protected in Iran.

The human rights issues include:

Freedom of Association

Few political groups from outside the clerical circles of power are able even to operate in Iran. Those that do, such as the liberal Islamist Iran Freedom Movement, find their candidates excluded from standing for office. Several prominent figures in the Freedom Movement served as ministers in Iran's first post-revolutionary government in 1979, including the present leader, Ibrahim Yazdi. Dr. Yazdi was excluded from standing as a candidate in Tehran on the spurious grounds that he did not hold a higher education degree. (He in fact holds a Ph.D.) Ezatollah Sahabi, a former minister and an outspoken critic of the government was rejected for being a member of a prohibited political party. He is not in fact a member of any political party. Parviz Varjavand, also a former minister and a member of the National Front party, was excluded as a member of an illegal organization. There have never been any legal proceedings establishing the illegality of these political parties. The Freedom Movement lodged a formal complaint with the Ministry of Interior, but has had no effective redress.

The most popular reformist figure, the impeached former minister of the interior, Abdullah Nouri, was prevented from standing for the parliament because of his previous conviction. Abdullah Nouri was convicted by a Special Court for the Clergy for propagating heretical ideas at the end of 1999. Nouri would have been a popular figurehead for the reformists. However, because the vast majority of nominees have survived the screening process, voters are assured of having a range of reform-minded candidates in almost all constituencies.

Various attempts by opposition parties to hold election rallies were broken up by groups of conservative extremists whose actions were not prevented by the security forces.

In March 1996, the government-appointed Council of Guardians summarily vetoed some 44% of the nominated candidates, ensuring a victory for conservatives. This year, fewer than 8% of the 6,858 candidates who presented themselves as candidates for the 290 seats were barred from running by the screening process. But there has been no change in the essentially arbitrary process of excluding candidates on the basis of their religious or political beliefs. Such a process runs directly contrary to Iran's obligations under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [of the Covenant, these are: race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.] and without unreasonable restrictions:

a. To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

b. To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

Athough this time around Iran's parliamentary elections offer more of a choice to the voters, albeit within the narrow confines of clerical rule, there has been no substantial improvement in legal protection of the right to take part in public affairs.

Freedom of Expression

Newspapers are the primary mobilizing tool of reformists. Many newspapers today take independent editorial positions and hold all parts of the government up to scrutiny and criticism.

However, the relative autonomy that the Iranian press currently enjoys does not rest on any firm basis of legal protection of the right to freedom of expression, nor even of respect for Iran's own press laws. Opposition newspapers have been repeatedly subjected to arbitrary closures. Publishers, editors and journalists have been prosecuted for expressing their opinions. Some have been targeted for political violence by vigilante groups. Writers were among those killed in a wave of as yet unresolved political killings at the end of 1998. Editors, publishers and journalists have also faced prosecutions by exceptional courts. For example, Abdullah Nouri, who like many prominent political figures had taken to publishing a newspaper, Khordad, was prosecuted by a Special Court for the Clergy because of the views expressed in that publication.

Despite the vulnerable situation of journalists in Iran, the press has continued to be an engine of change in the months leading up to the elections. The opposition press has given much attention to the screening process of parliamentary candidates, for example. That only a relatively small percentage of potential candidates was excluded from the poll may in part be attributed to the campaigning efforts of the independent press. One indicator of the increasing freedom of the Iranian press is that four years ago newspapers were not even permitted to carry an announcement for a memorial service on the first anniversary of the death of the leader of the Iran Freedom Movement, Mehdi Bazargan, the Islamic Republic's first prime minister who died in January 1995. This year many newspapers not only carried announcements, but also carried extensive reports on speeches made at the ceremony.

Freedom of the press in Iran remains limited. Those overtly opposed to clerical rule have no place in public debate, although much criticism of the clerics' political performance is now commonplace. The place of the Supreme Leader and the institution of velayat-e faqih (rule by the pre-eminent religious jurist) remains sacrosanct.

Persecution of Dissidents

Dissidents and critics still face arbitrary detention, unfair trial and other restrictions in Iran. Hundreds of students who took part in massive demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities in July 1999 remain unaccounted for, and it is believed that many of them are being held in detention. One student activist, Akbar Mohammadi, has been sentenced to death for his part in the disturbances.

Many other dissidents are still being detained. Bahram Namazi, Khossro Seif, and Farzin Mokhber, all leaders of Iran's Nation Party who are over 60 years of age, have been in detention since July 1999. The former designated successor to the leader of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Montazeri, who is an outspoken critic of Ayatollah Khamene'i, continues to live under house arrest in Qom. Scores of his supporters are detained. Many have faced prosecution in Special Courts for the Clergy for their heretical religious views, questioning the authority of the Leader.

In February 1999, a legal scholar, Mohssen Kadivar was detained and a case brought against him in a Special Court for the Clergy because of his outspoken writing. Former deputy-prime minister Abbas Amir Entezam, one the longest serving political prisoners in Iran, was returned to detention in October 1999 after giving a public interview. He had been conditionally released on medical grounds. Abdullah Nouri, tipped by many to emerge as Speaker in the new parliament, is instead serving a five year prison sentence. The prominent philosopher Abdol Karim Soroush continues to be prevented from teaching or delivering public lectures by violent extremists, although his ideas continue to inspire the reform movement.

The conflict between political factions has worsened the persecution of to religious minorities. Thirteen Jews accused of espionage have remained in detention for almost a year without any public judicial proceedings. Three of the thirteen were released from detention two weeks ago. but the threat of an as yet unscheduled trial continues to hang over them. The death sentences of three Bahais in Mashhad last week were referred to the Supreme Court. One had been arrested in July 1999; two others were detained in 1997 for holding unauthorized meetings.

For more information contact:
Elahe S. Hicks (NY) 212-216-1233