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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The upset victory of Mohammad Khatami, a presidential candidate disfavored by much of the clerical establishment, changed the nature of the human rights debate in and about Iran. In May elections, Iranian voters gave Khatami more than twenty million votes compared to the seven million for Majles speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri. Human rights discourse then turned on a new question: Would the new president have the power and the will to fulfill campaign promises to guarantee the rights of citizens and institutionalize the rule of law?

The violations of human rights that continued in the months leading up to Khatami's inauguration on August 3 underlined the challenge facing him in this realm. Executions after unfair trials proliferated, protesters were arbitrary detained, and religious minorities, government critics, and independent thinkers were targeted for persecution. The authorities carried out mass arrests in response to popular unrest over economic problems in different parts of the country. Elements within the government continued to tolerate or encourage the activities of violent religious zealots known as Partisans of the Party of God (Ansar-e Hezbollah or Hezbollahi), who continued to assault and intimidate writers and intellectuals, disrupt gatherings critical of government policies and carry out violent raids on the offices of magazines and newspapers with which they disagreed.

The challenges facing Khatami were compounded by competition among centers of political power within the government. While the presidency is accorded considerable power under the constitution, he is subordinate to leader of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khamene'i. In addition, Khatami's predecessor as president, Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani, did not withdraw from the political scene. He was appointed head of the Council for the Determination of Exigencies, a body with loosely defined power to determine policy "in the best interests of society." Originally created in 1988 by Ayatollah Khomeini to override legislative gridlock between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, the Council for the Determination of Exigencies expanded its powers to take unilateral action on a number of occasions. In addition to the competition between these three centers of executive power, the parliament (Majles) and the Council of Guardians also exercised powers under the constitution.

The Council of Guardians, an appointed body responsible for upholding Islamic principles in government policy, vetted candidates wishing to run in the presidential elections. In all, of the 238 candidates who sought to run, the council approved only four, all from the country's clerical leadership. The council is charged, under the constitution, with assessing such factors as a candidate's wisdom and piety. It is not required to give reasons for excluding candidates, and those rejected have no right of appeal.

The constitution requires that the president be a Shi'a Muslim, thereby excluding the approximately 20 percent of the population who are Sunni Muslims or members of other religious minorities. Women are also ineligible to run for president.

Khatami's election campaign was itself disrupted by sometimes violent mobs of religious conservatives who created disturbances at rallies, shouting down speakers and beating those in attendance. Moreover, there were reports that hundreds of election workers were detained by elements within the security forces opposed to his platform.

The government repeatedly showed its intolerance of public gatherings critical of its policies. Following the death in disputed circumstances on December 2, 1996 of a prominent Sunni cleric, Mollah Mohammed Rabi'i, in Kermanshah, the major city in the province of Kurdestan, security forces broke up his funeral procession, sparking three days of violent clashes between Sunnis and the security forces. A police colonel was killed in these clashes. Accounts of the number of civilians killed range from an official count of four to a claim by a Kurdish opposition group of scores of civilian deaths. The demonstrators blamed the government for Mollah Rabi'i's death.

Even wholly peaceful memorial ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the death of the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, Mehdi Bazargan, were banned or disrupted. On January 31 a Hezbollahi-led group released ammonium chloride gas in a hall in Tehran where Bazargan's supporters had gathered. Attempts to hold similar gatherings in Hamadan, Qazvin and Zanjan were blocked by security police. Javad Ghanbari, one of the organizers of the Zanjan memorial ceremony, wrote an open letter to the Iranian authorities protesting his detention and ill-treatment by the security forces, who he said shot at him when arresting him.

On February 16, riot police broke up a protest by striking refinery workers outside the Oil Ministry in Tehran. The workers were protesting what they said was the government's failure to make good on promises to provide pay raises, food coupons and housing loans for workers. Detainees held after such incidents could be held indefinitely with no access to lawyers or family. While most were released quickly, some were held for longer periods and faced accusations of political offenses carrying heavy penalties. It was reported by opposition sources inside and outside Iran that four participants in the February oil workers demonstration were executed. Authorities did not release the names of those arrested or details of trials and sentences.

On August 14 clashes between demonstrators and police were reported in Neyriz, east of Shiraz. According to eyewitness reports the clashes erupted when police broke up a peaceful demonstration over administrative redistricting and arrested more than ninety demonstrators. Dozens of the protesters suffered injuries.

The government continued to make prominent announcements of the discovery of plots and espionage activities directed against it, thus seeking to discredit political criticism as hostile foreign interference. On January 16 the security forces announced the arrest of six "spies" in west Azarbaijan province. On March 3 fifty people were arrested in Orumieh in Western Azarbaijan and accused of espionage. On August 9, Mohammad Assadi, a seventy-year-old lawyer accused of involvement in a 1980 coup plot, was executed as a spy. Evidence cited in his trial included his having traveled to Israel before the 1979 revolution, when the two countries had diplomatic relations . He had been in prison for four years. His execution just days after President Khatami's inauguration was seen by many as an assertion of independence by the cleric-dominated judicial branch and a challenge to the new president's vows to protect rights. In September Siavash Bayani, a former army colonel who served in the Iran-Iraq war, was executed as an American spy. He had returned to Iran in 1995 after living for several years in the United States.

All espionage cases are tried before Revolutionary Courts, in which procedures fall far short of international standards for a fair trial. Defendants are denied access to legal counsel and may be held indefinitely incommunicado in pre-trial detention. Political offenders and accused drug traffickers are also tried before Revolutionary Courts. Scores of persons convicted for drug trafficking were executed in 1997, many in public.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the former designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as leader of the Islamic Republic, and several other senior Shi'ite clerical leaders in Qom and Mashhad, were constrained from expressing their views openly and subjected torestrictions on their movements and access to the outside world. Score of followers of clerical leaders critical of the government remained in prison, although the legal basis for their detention was not clear.

On March 14 the parliament approved a ten-year extension of the Law of Hodoud and Qissas, originally approved for a five-year trial period. The law provided for corporal punishments such as lashing and amputation as well as particularly cruel methods of execution like stoning. In August, the Iranian press reported that Zoleykhah Kadkhoda, a twenty-year-old woman, survived an attempt to stone her to death after she was convicted of adultery in Boukan. She was buried in a ditch from the waist down and pelted with stones, but revived after being carried unconscious to the morgue. Judicial authorities were deciding whether to reimpose the penalty on her, according to the press reports.

The banning of newspapers and magazines critical of the government and the prosecution of independent writers continued. In January, Karamollah Tavahodi, a Kurdish writer in Mashhad, was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison because of official objections to the content of volume five of his Historical Movement of Kurds in Khorasan .

On February 12, the 15 Khordad Foundation, an organization with close ties to the clerical leadership, announced an increase to U.S.$2.5 million in the reward for the murder of the British novelist Salman Rushdie. There was no official repudiation of this announcement, although President Rafsanjani did stress that the foundation was "nongovernmental," and that government policy remained "unchanged." The government did not condemn the threats to Mr. Rushdie's life stemming from the pronouncement by Ayatollah Khomeini that he should be killed for insulting Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses .

Faraj Sarkouhi, the editor of Adineh magazine, was arrested in February on charges of attempting to leave the country illegally. He was held for months without access to family members or his lawyer. Controversy surrounded his whereabouts during the six weeks preceding December 13, 1996, when Sarkouhi was presented at an unusual press conference at Tehran's Mehrabad airport in an apparent attempt by the authorities to refute accusations that they had been holding him during this period. At the press conference, Sarkouhi declared that he had been in Germany during this six-week period. This version of events was undermined by the publication abroad of a letter smuggled out of Iran in which Sarkouhi claimed that he was the victim of an elaborate plot orchestrated by the authorities, who had held him in detention during the period in question. In the letter, he claimed that throughout this period he had been subjected to interrogation and torture. In June, 1997 authorities announced that Sarkouhi was on trial for espionage, an offense that carried the death penalty. They seemed at the time to be seeking to use Sarkouhi as a bargaining chip with Germany following the May verdict of a Berlin court implicating the Iranian government in the killing of four of its political opponents in Berlin in 1992. The German authorities appeared to corroborate Sarkouhi's version of events by stating that he had not entered the country in late 1996 and that the German entry visa stamped in his passport appeared to be forged. In September, after the case had attracted concern internationally, it was reported that Sarkouhi had been sentenced to one year of imprisonment for circulating harmful propaganda, a charge that had not been mentioned prior to his trial. Although the sentence was unexpectedly light in view of the original espionage charge, the fact remains that Sarkouhi was the victim of arbitrary detention and unfair trial simply for exercising his right to peaceful expression. He was denied access to his lawyer, and his trial took place in secret, in violation of international standards.

Cases in addition to that of Sarkouhi cast a long shadow over the freedom of editors and writers throughout the year. In January, Professor Ahmad Tafazzoli of Tehran University was found dead in Punak, a suburb northwest of Tehran. He was known to have contacts with many Iranian academics working abroad, and many of his colleagues believed that the authorities were behind his death. While the precise circumstances remained unclear, Tafazzoli's death created a climate of fear at the university and discouraged criticism of the government.

In February, Ebrahim Zalzadeh, publisher of the independent magazine Mayar, "disappeared." His body was discovered in the Tehran morgue on March 29. Members of his family accused the authorities of responsibility for his death. Zalzadeh was one of eight writers and publishers who had offered to share in the punishment of Abbas Maroufi, editor of Gardoun magazine, who was sentenced to receive twenty-five lashes in February 1996 for writing an article critical of the government.

In April, Mohammad Sadegh Javadi-Hessar, the editor of Tous magazine, was convicted of "causing public confusion." He was banned from journalism for ten years and fined the equivalent of U.S. $1,000 for an article critical of higher education policy.

The program presented by President Khatami promised a brighter future for freedom of expression. Ata'ollah Mohajerani, his nominee for the key post of minister of culture and Islamic guidance, told the Iranian parliament prior to his confirmation, "I am in favor of cultural tolerance....We must create a climate in the Islamic Republic in which individuals will be able to express their views on various issues." He also condemned the activities of the Ansar-e Hezbollah, stating, "We must ultimately decide whether we are going to live under a system of law and order or not."

However, in an indication that writers' problems continued after Khatami's election, Hezbollahi militants ransacked the offices of Iran-e Farda magazine in August. Although no action was taken against the perpetrators, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance issued an unprecedented condemnation of the attack, stating,"This kind of action will lead to anarchy....All protests against the contents of a publication must be done through legal channels and in a rational manner." In September, the editor of Iran News , an English-language daily, Morteza Firouzi was arrested, following publication of articles advocating the release of foreign nationals held in Iranian prisons. He remained in detention and was accused of being a United States spy.

Iran's constitution provides only qualified commitments to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic identity. In practice, discrimination is widespread and institutionalized, and, in the case of Baha'is and evangelical Christians, amounts to outright persecution. In February, death sentences against Musa Talebi and Zabihollah Mahrami, two Baha'is convicted as spies by Revolutionary Courts, were approved by the Supreme Court. Allegations of espionage for Israel were often used by the government as a pretext for persecuting Baha'is. The headquarters of the Baha'i World Community was situated in Haifa, in Israel.

The Martyr Qudusi Judicial Center in Tehran, which handles prosecutions for dress code violations, issued new guidelines in February providing that women who wore a "thin or short scarf" or who otherwise violated the requirement to cover the hair and the back of the neck, would be subjected to fines, prison terms of up to three months, or up to seventy-four lashes. Security forces carried out mass arrests of violators of dress and other moral codes. For example, in December 1996 police in north Tehran announced the arrest of 130 young people who had participated in mixed-gender parties in private houses.

The Right to Monitor

There were no independent nongovernmental human rights organizations operating inside the country, although several semi-official organizations published mild criticism of government policies, indicating a slight opening in the public human rights debate. The government denied access to all independent international human rights organizations that applied to conduct field research, including Human Rights Watch. In June Human Rights Watch asked to send an observer to attend the trial of Faraj Sarkouhi but this too was denied. Maurice Copithorne, the U.N. special representative on the human rights situation in Iran, applied unsuccessfully to visit the country during 1997.

Government critic Habibullah Peyman was denied permission to attend an International environmental conference in Germany in February. Abbas Amir-Entezam, a former deputy prime minister who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1979, continued to speak out on human rights issues after he was released from prison. His movements continued to be restricted, and the authorities made clear that charges of espionage on which he had been convicted still stood. Prominent philosopher Abdol Karim Soroush, who speaks openly about the need for respect of basic freedoms, was denied permission to travel to numerous international conferences to which he had been invited after his return to Iran in April. His speaking and teaching in Iran was curtailed by threats from Hezbollahi mobs.

The Role of the

International Community

United Nations

Maurice Copithorne, the U.N. special representative on the human rights situation in Iran, submitted his third report to the Commission on Human Rights in April, concluding that "violations of generally accepted human rights norms are occurring in Iran and that in some cases, by act of commission or omission, the government must be responsible for them."

In April, the commission again condemned Iran for gross and systematic violations of human rights. The resolution emphasized government involvement in the killing of dissidents abroad and the continuing threats to the life of Salman Rushdie.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) officially suspended its policy of "critical dialogue" with the Iranian government in April, following the verdict of a German court holding "the Iranian political leadership" responsible for the murder of Sadeq Sharifkandi, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, an armed opposition group, and three companions in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant in 1992. While E.U. member states, with the exception of Greece, withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran, European leaders showed no eagerness to recast their relations with Tehran over the Mykonos verdict or other human rights issues.

Human rights was one area of Iranian policy that the "critical dialogue" explicitly aimed to improve. But commercial interests remained paramount both before and after the dialogue was suspended, and there was little evidence of European initiatives on human rights. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel made clear that for Germany there would be "no economic sanctions and no severing of relations." Following the election of Khatami as president, the E.U. reportedly initiated discussions with Tehran regarding the possible return of their ambassadors.

In July, the French government announced that it would insure a $500 million export loan provided to Iran by a French bank. In September, the French oil company Total announced a $2 billion dollar investment, in partnership with a Russian and a Malaysian firm, in the development of the Iranian offshore gas industry. The French company had the explicit support of its government and the E.U. in its decision to invest.

United States

The U.S. had no diplomatic relations with Iran, and maintained unilateral sanctions imposed in 1995 because of what the Clinton administration termed Iranian policies of "supporting international terrorism,"and "pursuing the creation of weapons of mass destruction." The Iranian government continued to deny these accusations.

The E.U. decision to suspend "critical dialogue" and the election of President Khatami were conducive to narrowing the gap between U.S. and E.U. policy toward Iran. While the E.U. signaled displeasure with Iran after the Mykonos verdict, prominent voices in the U.S. advocated reevaluating its call for multilateral economic sanctions against Iran in light of evidence that they had won scant international support and had achieved little in the areas of policy that the sanctions had been designed to change, including human rights. At the June summit of the group of eight industrialized countries in Denver, the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the major European powers were able to agree on common language "noting with interest" the election results and the "constructive role" of Iran in U.N. peace efforts in Tajikistan. These rare positive comments on Iran were coupled with a call for the Iranian government, "to respect the human rights of all Iranian citizens and to renounce the use of terrorism, including against Iranian citizens living abroad."

In June in a speech to the National Arab-American Association in Washington, D.C., Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch reiterated the five areas, including "lack of respect for international standards of human rights," in which the U.S. is demanding progress as a condition for improved relations. Welch welcomed "the sign that Iran will permit democratic expression," and noted that the U.S. "will continue to work with our allies to bring our approaches on Iran closer together." Also in June, appearing at a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Clinton referred to Khatami's election as "interesting and hopeful." On September 30, with reference to the French oil company Total's decision to lead a multi-billion dollar investment project in Iran despite U.S. sanctions, State Department spokesperson James Rubin said that Washington might forego moves to impose penalties on Total if France agreed to increase pressure on Iran to halt what he referred to as its support of terrorism and its accumulation of weapons of mass destruction. Many in the U.S. Congress, however, opposed any relaxation of the U.S. embargo of Iran. On July 23, for instance, 222 members of the House of Representatives wrote to President Clinton urging that sanctions against Iran be toughened.

The Iran chapter in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996 was generally accurate and comprehensive. But throughout the year human rights took a back seat to other issues in Washington's relations with Iran, including Iran's opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and concern that Iran was developing a mid-range ballistic missile capacity.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:

Iran-Religious and Ethnic Minorities: Discrimination in Law and Practice, 9/97

Iran-Leaving Human Rights Behind: The Context of the Presidential Elections, 5/97

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