9 October 2003
Minister Franco Frattini,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Republic of Italy
Commissioner for External Relations
President of the European Parliament
Human Rights Watch is writing to express grave concern about the status of persons currently detained in Iran for exercising their right to peaceful criticism of government policies or practices.
In the past week, while the European Union sat with Iranian officials for a dialogue on freedom of expression, there have been several serious developments that highlight the continued dangers of expressing one's views in Iran:
Mohsen Sazgara, an outspoken critic of the government and a prominent journalist and publisher, nearly died over the weekend after being held since June 15 for writing an open letter strongly criticizing the government.
The families of three political prisoners held for the peaceful expression of their views since June have pleaded that their relatives be released from solitary confinement and receive medical care.
On October 6, the editors of three newspapers, Yas-e-Nau, Sharq, Kar o Kargar, were called before a Tehran prosecutor to answer questions.
Also on October 6, a member of parliament from Ahvaz was reportedly called to court to respond to charges of "spreading lies" and "endangering national security" after giving a speech supporting Prof. Hashem Aghajari. Aghajari, the writer and professor who was sentenced to death in November 2002 after openly criticizing some aspects of clerical rule. (While the sentence has since been commuted, Aghajari's fate remains unclear).
These cases show the limitations of the dialogue process if it is not backed up with sustained pressure from the E.U. and insistence on concrete results from Tehran. The E.U. must raise these specific cases and insist that the Iranian government respect its obligations under international human rights law. The E.U. should seek information regarding the names and condition of persons in detention for exercising their right to peaceful dissent. It should call for those persons currently in prison solely for peaceful expression of their views to be released, or to be charged with an internationally recognizable criminal offense and accorded a trial that meets international fair trial standards.
The E.U.'s intervention on these cases will lend support to those officials and members of parliament who are struggling within the Iranian system to end systematic human rights violations of this kind. In this regard, it is most regrettable that the Iranian delegation to this week's dialogue included no representatives from the Office of the Supreme Leader or the Guardian Council, as it is these officials who control the branches of the government leading the aggressive assault on freedom of expression.
In its Conclusions of July 21, 2003, the E.U. General Affairs and External Relations Council called for "rapid progress" relating to the "arrests of students, journalists and others." It further "reaffirmed the need for concrete results in the framework of the current E.U.-Iran human rights dialogue." Many of those in jail then remain in today. Many arrested for peacefully expressing their views have been held in solitary confinement, are on hunger strike, do not know the charges against them, and do not have trial dates. It is time for the E.U. to press for the concrete results urged by the Council.
The E.U. Guidelines on Human Rights Dialogues, agreed upon by the Council in 2001, state that the dialogues may serve the objective of "registering the concern felt by the E.U. at the human rights situation, information gathering and endeavoring to improve the human rights situation in that country."
Information on the status of persons detained for attempting to exercise their right to peaceful dissent, the duration of their detention, their mental and physical health, and the legal cases against them, is virtually nonexistent. Further, the boundaries between legal and illegal expression - the rules that control what Iranian journalists, writers, and activists are and are not allowed to say - are constantly fluctuating.
The Guidelines also observe that "dialogues can identify at an early stage problems likely to lead to conflict in the future." We are concerned that Iran's systematic and often violent suppression of freedom of expression poses just such a threat. The last-minute release from prison this week of Mohsen Sazgara, appears to reflect the government's realization that his death in custody might provoke even greater disturbances among students and other activists, because student activists see him as a champion of greater freedom of expression.
It is also critical that the E.U. use the issue of freedom of expression to highlight the broader problems of arbitrary detention and torture in Iran. In its recent report, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention led by jurist Louis Joinet notes that "situations of arbitrary detention [in Iran] were essentially related to infringements of freedom of opinion and expression and many malfunctions in the administration of justice, in particular concerning due process of law, [and] abuse of 'solitary confinement'."
Hardliners in the government have recently turned to other tactics to limit freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch recently criticized the use of university disciplinary committees in universities around the country to punish and intimidate student activists who allegedly participated in the November and June protests. We have received reports that additional hearings of student activists are scheduled for this week.
We urge the E.U. to make clear to the Iranian government that failure to address these serious and systematic violations of basic human rights will have negative consequences for other areas of potential E.U.-Iranian cooperation, and to call on the government of Iran to take the following steps as matters of urgency:
Release Reza Alijani, Taqi Rahmani, Hoda Saber, Akbar Ganji, Hassan Yousefi-Eshkevari, all journalists and writers who have been imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Some are being held in solitary confinement and their families have expressed great concern for their health.
Provide the names, locations, and condition of detention of those activists and protesters arrested in June 2003 who remain unaccounted for.
Call a moratorium on any further hearings of student activists by university disciplinary committees, and allow for review of existing judgments by the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology. This ministry is responsible for overseeing Iran's university system.
Release immediately all persons being held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. For all persons not released immediately file internationally recognizable criminal charges and provide them with a judicial hearing that meets all international fair trial standards.
Finally, the E.U. Guidelines state "the fact there is a human rights dialogue between the E.U. and a third country will not prevent the E.U. either from submitting a Resolution on the human rights situation in that country or from providing support for an initiative by a third country." Over the past year the E.U has given Iran the benefit of the doubt regarding its human rights record. But the human rights dialogue with Iran has not achieved any significant positive change, and very serious human rights violations continue unabated. We therefore call on the E.U. to sponsor a resolution on Iran at the upcoming Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Iranian pro-democracy and human rights activists, students, and journalists deserve to hear that the international community has not forgotten them and stands ready to confront the Iranian government with its abusive conduct.
We thank you for your attention to these important matters.
Acting Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division