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Iran Media Crackdown Condemned
Top Official Urged to End Punitive Detentions, Publication Bans
(New York, April 25, 2000)
In a letter sent last night to Iran's top judicial authority, Human Rights Watch condemned the escalating harassment, intimidation and punishment of the country's independent journalists and publishers.
In April, writer Akbar Ganji and publishers Mashallah Shamsol-Vaezin and Latif Safari have been imprisoned for articles they wrote or published. The Human Rights Watch letter lists the names of numerous others who have been summoned to appear before the press court and other official bodies, beginning with Mohamed Reza Khatami, brother of Iran's president, on March 30.
Megally noted that the crackdown may be related to upcoming run-off elections for those parliamentary seats that were not decided in February. "This crackdown appears to be an effort to punish the vast majority who voted in February for political reform," he said.
The letter was addressed to Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the Head of the Judiciary. The courts and officials which have ordered the closures and prison terms come under his authority.
A copy of the letter is available below.
April 24, 2000
His Excellency Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
Human Rights Watch is writing to express grave concern about the escalating harassment and intimidation of independent journalists and publishers in Iran. We are particularly alarmed at the rising number of judicial proceedings since the beginning of Iran's new year just one month ago. Speaking publicly last Thursday, April 20, the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, harshly criticized some publications, which he did not name, but endorsed "the free flow of information" and the principle of press diversity. The events of the past few days, however, with the government closure of twelve additional publications and the jailing of another prominent journalist, have worsened an already very bad situation.
These closures and prosecutions, undertaken by officials and offices falling under your authority, appear to be politically motivated rather than stemming from legitimate concern to enforce the law impartially. They clearly violate Iran's legal obligation to uphold international freedom of expression and fair trial standards. In some cases they appear to be in violation of the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran as well.
In the latest developments, Akbar Ganji, a staff writer for the daily Fath, appeared before the Tehran Press Court on Saturday, April 22. At the hearing, the head of the court, Said Mortazavi, disclosed ten charges, mostly based on complaints from the joint chiefs of staff of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and other security agencies following articles Ganji wrote about possible official involvement in the murders of several leading dissidents and writers in late 1998 and in the March 12 attempted assassination of Said Hajjarian, a writer and key adviser to President Mohamed Khatami. Following several hours of interrogation, Ganji was ordered detained "temporarily" and is now believed to be in Evin prison.
The following day, April 23, Latif Safari, publisher of the banned daily Neshat, was imprisoned for two-and-a-half years despite his appeal to the Supreme Court to void his press court conviction of last September. On April 10, Mashallah Shamsol-Vaezin, former chief editor of the banned daily Neshat, also began a two-and-a-half year prison sentence for publishing an article criticizing the death penalty. Shamsol-Vaezin was apprehended without being informed that his appeal had been turned down.
Today, April 24, the Tehran Justice Department, which comes under your authority, ordered the closure of Akbar-e Iktisad, a Tehran daily. This followed yesterday's closure orders against eight daily and three weekly newspapers and one monthly journal, Iran-e Farda. The banned dailies are Asr-e Azadegan, Bamdad-e Now, Aftab-e Emruz, Payam-e Azadi, Fath, Arya, Azad, and Gozaresh-e Rouz. The banned weeklies are Payam-e Hajar, Aban, and Arzesh.
These developments are all the more alarming in light of earlier steps to intimidate and silence critical and dissenting voices. On April 11, Emadeddin Baqi, also a Fath staff writer, had been indicted on charges similar to those brought against Ganji following complaints by the intelligence ministry, the Revolutionary Guards, and the state broadcasting organization. Baqi, like Ganji, had also criticized the house arrest of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the country's foremost senior dissident cleric, and the imprisonment of a number of Ayatollah Montazeri's followers.
Your excellency, speaking last week to a group of high judiciary officials, you addressed the critical responsibility of the judiciary "to protect and implement the law. It is our legal obligation to do this." We strongly urge you, in the spirit of these remarks, to take all steps within your power to bring an end to the unjust detention of Akbar Ganji, Latif Safari, Mashallah Shamsol-Vaezin, and other wrongfully imprisoned writers, to terminate the closure orders against all banned publications, and to insure that the bodies operating under your authority are no longer used to harass, intimidate, or punish individuals for attempting to exercise their right to freedom of expression.
Human Rights Watch ‘s October 1999 report, "As Fragile as a Crystal Glass: Press Freedom in Iran," detailed the background to these developments. This latest crackdown against Iranian writers, editors, and publishers dates from March 30, when Mohamed Reza Khatami, managing director of Mosharekat and recipient of the highest number of votes in Tehran in the February parliamentary elections, was summoned to a press court for questioning. Khatami is currently awaiting trial in a closed court on charges that have not been made public. On April 9, Fereidoun Verdinejad, managing director of the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), was summoned to the press court for a second time on the basis of complaints from the security forces and others regarding IRNA's news coverage.
Your excellency, numerous other writers, editors, and publishers have recently been summoned to appear before the Press Court or other official bodies solely in connection with their attempts to exercise their right to freedom of expression. These include: Reza Ansarirad, a young clergyman who wrote about Ayatollah Montazeri in Aftab-e Emrouz; Nikeahang Kossar, a cartoonist for Azad; Fatemeh Govarei, a writer who faces a court hearing after attending a gathering involving Ebrahim Yazdi; Mujtaba Badei, writer and professor; Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, former minister of interior and now publisher of Ayyam; Hojatoleslam Hadi Khamene'i, publisher of Hayat-e Noh and brother of Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i; Morteza Alviri, publisher of Hamshahri and mayor of Tehran municipality; Yadollah Eslami, publisher of Fath; and Mohamed Reza Yazdanpanah, publisher of Azad. Mohamed Ghouchani was summoned to the Ministry of Information following his article about the Hajjarian attack in Asr-e Azadegan; and Mahdavi Khorami, publisher of Gozaresh-e Rouz, received a warning from the Ministry of Culture.
Human Rights Watch strongly protests the steps taken against these individuals whose sole offense has been to exercise their right to freedom of expression. We ask that you use your office as Head of the Judiciary to ensure that judicial bodies, such as the Press Court as well as other courts, are no longer complicit in this process, and that the judges and other officials working under your direction be instructed to exercise their responsibilities in a manner consistent with Iran's obligation as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and to fair and impartial judicial proceedings.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your early response.
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