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(New York) – Iranian authorities should immediately release dozens of labor and independent trade union activists imprisoned for speaking out peacefully in defense of workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Convictions solely for the peaceful exercise of freedom of association and assembly should be quashed, and charges should be dropped against others facing prosecution for these reasons, Human Rights Watch said.

The latest round of arrests took place in Iran’s Tehran, East Azerbaijan and Kurdistan provinces. The authorities summoned four activists in mid-January 2012 to begin serving long sentences imposed in 2011. On January 28, authorities arrested Alireza Akhavan, a teacher and labor rights activist, in his home in Tehran. It is not known where he is currently being held. On January 18, security forces arrested Mohammad Jarrahi in his home in Tabriz. Three days earlier, intelligence agents arrested Shahrokh Zamani, another Tabriz labor rights leader, and summoned two others also in Tabriz. Authorities also arrested Shays Amani, a prominent rights activist and member of an independent trade union in the city of Sanandaj on January 16. Earlier in the month authorities detained Mehdi Shandeez and transferred to Ward 350 of Evin prison in Tehran. All those arrested are labor activists or members of independent trade unions not authorized by the government.

“Independent trade unions have played a critical role in protecting workers’ rights under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This latest round of arrests continues a long and ugly tradition of targeting independent trade unions to enforce full state control over these groups.”

Authorities initially arrested Zamani on June 7, 2011, in connection with his activities as a member of an independent painters’ syndicate and a board member of the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Labor Unions. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court in Tabriz sentenced him to 11 years in prison for “participating in the organization of an unlawful group opposing the state … with the aim of disrupting national security by way of workers’ strikes and armed rebellion,” “assembly and collusion to further illegal activities,” and “propaganda against the regime.”

In the same case, the court sentenced Jarrahi, who was arrested on June 20, to five years in prison for organizing an “unlawful” group called the Democratic Workers Movement, and Nima Pouryaghoub to five years on the same charge plus an additional year for “propaganda against the regime.” Sassan Vahebivash was sentenced to six months for related activities. Pouryaghoub and Vahebivash are engineering students at Tabriz’s Azad University.

Authorities freed the four defendants after they posted bail, but, in November 2011, Branch 6 of the East Azerbaijan appeals’ court confirmed the original sentences handed down by the trial court. Authorities did not summon the defendants to serve their prison terms until this year.

According to Iranian media reports, Amani, a prominent labor rights activist in Sanandaj (Kurdistan province) and a board member of the Iran Free Workers’ Union (IFWU), was arrested after he went to the prosecutor’s office in Sanandaj to inquire about the status of two other activists who had been detained earlier in January.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the well-being of several other prominent labor and trade union activists currently serving prison sentences, including Reza Shahabi, Ali Nejati, Ebrahim Madadi, and Behnam Ebrahimzadeh. Madadi is vice-president and Shahabi is treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC). Madadi is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence on charges of endangering national security. Shahabi was arrested on June 12, 2010. A revolutionary court in Tehran tried him of endangering national security and “propaganda against the state” on May 25, 2011, but there has been no ruling in his case yet.

According to a source familiar with his case, Shahabi spent 18 months in Tehran’s Evin prison without charge, including several months in solitary confinement, and suffers from serious neck and back pain. Shahabi is in Imam Khomeini hospital in Tehran after ending a 30-day hunger strike on December 22 to protest his detention and the authorities’ refusal to provide proper medical care.

Two other activists, Ali Nejati and Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, who are serving one and five-year prison terms, respectively, on national security charges related to their independent trade union activities, also suffer from serious medical conditions. According to information received by Human Rights Watch, both Nejati and Ebrahimzadeh asked for long-term furloughs from prison so they could seek proper medical care, but judicial officials have denied their requests.

Nejati is a former president and current board member of the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Workers’ Syndicate (HTSCW), and is in Ahvaz’s Dezful prison in southwest Iran. Ebrahimzadeh is in Evin prison.

The IFWU and the bus workers’ and sugar cane workers’ unions, are among the largest and most active independent trade unions in Iran. Iran’s labor law does not recognize the right to create labor unions independent of government-sanctioned groups. Since 2005, authorities have repeatedly harassed, summoned, arrested, convicted, and sentenced workers who are affiliated with these independent trade unions and harassed their families.
Most of these arrests have taken place during International Workers’ Day celebrations or strikes the unions have called, often for back wages that have not been paid for months. Mansour Osanlou, the current president of the bus workers’ group, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against the national security” and “propaganda against the state” following several arrests between 2005 and 2007. Authorities allowed Osanlou to leave Evin prison in June after he had served about four years of his sentence, but could still summon him to serve the rest. Human Rights Watch called on the judiciary to quash Osanlou’s sentence.

Independent unions have protested amendments to the current labor law introduced by President Ahmadinejad. The amendments, currently being reviewed by Iran’s parliament, make it easier for employers to fire workers and reduce workers’ benefits such as annual vacation days.

Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) protect the right to form and join labor unions. Iran is a signatory to both of these treaties. Iran is also a member of International Labour Organization (ILO), but has so far refused to sign covenants 87 (Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organize Convention) and 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention) of the ILO treaty.

“Labor activists have been at the forefront of the struggle for freedom of association and assembly in Iran, and they have paid a heavy price,” Stork said. “Iranian law should recognize the right to organize independent unions and release activists who have committed no crime other than representing the interests of their constituents.” 

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