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Human Rights Watch today condemned the decision by Iran's Council of Guardians to veto a parliamentary bill designed to discourage torture.

In March 2002, Iran's parliament (Majles) passed a bill aimed at limiting the widespread practice of torture and the use of forced confessions in criminal trials. On Sunday June 9, the bill was rejected by the Council of Guardians, a body of twelve senior clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene'i, whose role is to ensure that all laws passed by the Majles are compatible, in their view, with Islam. The Council argued that the bill would limit the authority of judges to adjudicate on the admissibility of confessions and therefore ruled that the bill was against the principles of Islam. The bill was subsequently sent back to parliament for revision, and will now be reviewed by the legal and judicial affairs committee of the parliament.

The Council's ruling disregards clear prohibitions in Iranian and international law on the use of torture to extract confessions," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "It would permit judges to admit confessions as evidence in criminal trials, even when it was clear that they had been extracted under torture."

The Council's decision is contrary to Iran's obligations as a State Party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 2 (1) of the Convention requires that states take effective legislative measures to prevent torture. Article 4 (1) requires that states ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The ruling also disregards clear prohibitions under Iran's constitution on the use of torture to extract confessions.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the prohibition on torture that currently exists in Iranian law is limited, and is in need of strengthening and clarification in order to meet international standards. For example, Article 38 of the constitution only prohibits the torture of detainees to extract confessions. The use of torture as a punishment or for other purposes is not specifically prohibited.

Torture has been widespread in Iran, in part because of the lack of a definitive legal prohibition on its use. The parliamentary bill vetoed by the Council of Guardians did not close the loopholes in the existing law. For example, the bill did not uphold the right of detainees charged with a criminal offense to have prompt access to legal counsel, nor did it set limits on the permitted length of time that a detainee may be detained incommunicado. Both practices have long facilitated the use of torture by the authorities. The bill also stipulated that certain categories of suspects are exempted from the safeguards contained in the bill. These include: members of apostate groups, a definition that could include members of the Bahai religious minority; Mohareb (those at war with God), a term that is applied to many types of dissident and government critics; and those accused of espionage, another charge with a very loose definition in Iranian penal law. As drafted, the bill would not have provided sufficient safeguards against torture and falls far short of Iran's international obligations.

"Now that the bill is back to the legal and judicial affairs committee of the parliament there is another opportunity for legislators to draft a bill that would significantly enhance safeguards against torture in Iranian law," said Megally. "Legislation in the area of torture prevention is rightly a priority. Parliamentarians should meet the challenge of proposing legislation that would better protect Iranian citizens from torture by state officials."

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