The Iranian Judiciary should prosecute officials responsible for the arbitrary detention and alleged torture of several bloggers in 2004, instead of prosecuting the bloggers for expressing their opinions, Human Rights Watch said today.
On December 3, branch 1059 of Tehran’s Judiciary commenced a trial against four men, Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, Shahram Rafizadeh, Omid Memarian, and Javad Gholam Tamimi, on charges of “participation in formation of groups to disturb national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “dissemination of disinformation to disturb public opinion by writing articles for newspapers and illegal internet sites,” and “interviews with foreign radio broadcasts.” The court has held one closed-door session, and the trial is scheduled to resume on December 17.
“The Iranian judiciary is trying to prosecute government critics using vague, overbroad laws whose very terms restrict free expression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should be prosecuting the officials accused of torture, not the bloggers accused of holding opinions.”
Human Rights Watch said the laws on which the government has based its case are themselves incompatible with international human rights law. The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (1995) provide that “no one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials, or a foreign nation, state or its symbols, government [or] agency.” Compiled by experts in international law, national security and human rights, the Principles are based on international law and standards and have come to be widely recognized as an authoritative interpretation of the relationship between legitimate national security interests and the rights of free expression and to information.
The detention of the men by Iranian security forces has been fraught with allegations of serious abuse. In September and October 2004, Tehran’s prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, orchestrated the secret detentions and alleged torture of 21 bloggers and staff of internet news sites known to be critical of the government. Following domestic and international protests, the authorities ordered the release of all the detainees. But the release order came only after Mortazavi had personally coerced the four bloggers now on trial to sign written confessions as a condition for their release, they said. While the Judiciary dropped the charges against the 17 others, it prosecuted those four.
According to the bloggers and their lawyers, the prosecution’s evidence for the most serious charges – conspiring with others to disturb national security – rests primarily on their false coerced confessions. In their confession letters, made public shortly after their release, the bloggers stated that they were part of a “dreadful network operating inside and directed from outside the country” that instructed them to write articles aimed at “sabotaging the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran” by portraying government actions as “anti-human rights.”
Tamimi remains in Iran, but the other three men currently reside outside Iran, represented in absentia by their lawyers.
Immediately after their release in 2004, the bloggers renounced their confessions as false and forced, and gave public statements about the conditions of their detention. On January 1, 2005, Mirebrahimi and Memarian appeared before a presidential commission set up by the former president Mohammad Khatami to investigate their detention. They detailed their arrest, solitary confinement in a secret prison, and torture at the hands of their interrogators.
Mirebrahimi, Memarian and Rafizadeh also met with the head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahrudi, on January 10, 2005 and briefed him on the conditions of their detention. Two days later, the Judiciary’s spokesperson, Jamal Karimirad, said: “Ayatollah Shahrudi has issued a special order to investigate and probe these [detentions]. If any of the detainees’ allegations, at any level, are true then we will prosecute the violators.”
On April 20, 2005, Karimirad announced that, “following our investigation, it has been established that the interrogators and prosecutors committed a series of negligent and careless acts in this case that led to the abuse of the detainees’ words and writings in producing the confession letters.” The Judiciary did not release a report on its findings and has not held anyone accountable. Human Rights Watch called on the government to make the full findings of its investigation public.
“The Judiciary has no business prosecuting writers based on confessions it admits were coerced,” said Whitson. “Its first task should be to bring to justice those men responsible for the torture and abuse of these bloggers.”
Human Rights Watch recently collected detailed testimonies from three of the bloggers who are currently on trial.
“I was held in solitary confinement in a secret prison for 86 days,” Rafizadeh told Human Rights Watch. “My cell measured barely 5 feet by 6 feet. The magistrate, Mr. Mehdipoor, was present in the detention center. He threatened me with execution if I didn’t confess to what he dictated. He told the interrogator, known as Mr. Keshavarz, he can do whatever he wants to me, such as ‘peeling the skin off my head.’ The interrogator beat me mercilessly while I was handcuffed and blindfolded. Interrogations continued under these circumstances for more than 40 days.”
Another former detainee, Mirebrahimi, told Human Rights Watch: “After 60 days of solitary confinement and ill-treatment, the interrogator informed me that I will be released if I sign a confession letter and publicly release it. One day after my release, I was summoned by Mr. Mortazavi’s office and he told me: ‘The release of your friends is dependent on publishing your confession letter. If you don’t do it, not only will they not be released, but we will put you back in prison.’ I was forced to send the confession letter, which Mortazavi dictated, to the news agencies.”
Memarian told Human Rights Watch that during their meeting with the head of Judiciary, Ayatollah Shahrudi told them “confessions in prison without the presence of your lawyers are not valid.”
“In any other country, we could file a law suit against the violators. Despite the admission by the head of the Judiciary that our detention and treatment was against the law, we are being prosecuted, not the violators,” Memarian added.