(Beirut) – Iran’s judiciary should conclude a speedy, independent, and transparent criminal investigation followed by prosecution of those believed responsible for the death of the blogger Sattar Behesht. Beheshti died in the custody of Tehran’s cyber police in November 2012. Iranian officials should stop harassing his family and hampering their efforts to seek justice and ensure that those responsible for the blogger’s death are held to account.
Although Beheshti died almost four months ago, there is no indication that the judiciary has concluded the criminal investigation into the officers accused of responsibility for his death, despite promises by officials that the case would be sent to the courts for prosecution before mid-February. Security officials have put his mother and other family members under close surveillance and have told them not to speak to the media or international rights organizations about the case, Human Rights Watch has learned.
“Four months after a blogger died in police custody, even his grieving family doesn’t know what happened to him,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to reveal what happened to Sattar Beheshti and start prosecuting those responsible, not to mention harassment of his family, suggests a cover-up.”
Officials informed the family of Beheshti’s death on November 6, seven days after cyber police raided his mother’s home at Robat Karim, near Tehran, and arrested him. The police unit, also known as “FATA,” was established in January 2011 to enforce laws aimed at regulating online speech and content considered to violate Iran’s national security or moral legislation.
Gohar Eshghi, Beheshti’s mother, told Human Rights Watch that an investigator from the prosecutor’s office visited her at her home on February 2. It was the first such visit to her home. The investigator said he was there to discuss the case, although the family has engaged a lawyer to represent them.
The investigator warned Eshgi against speaking to the media or others about her son’s death. He told her the case had been delayed partly because the authorities maintained that Beheshti’s father had not been “of sound mind” when he hired Giti Pourfazel as the family’s lawyer, which Eshgi said is untrue. She said the investigator’s contention appeared to be a delaying tactic to justify the authorities’ failure to deliver on promises they had made to the family about pursuing the legal case.
Pourfazel told Iran’s official Iranian Students’ News Agency in February that despite assurances by judiciary officials that the case would be transferred to the courts in mid-February, nothing had happened, and that the relevant authorities had so far failed to provide any information about where the case stands.
Eshghi told Human Rights Watch that she had initially followed the authorities’ instruction not to talk to the media about her son’s case but that she is no longer willing to remain silent in the face of the judiciary’s inaction. “All I want is for my son’s case to be taken up by the courts in an open trial,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I don’t want my son’s blood to have been spilled in vain.”
A parliamentary committee that investigated Baheshti’s death reported on January 7 that Tehran’s cyber police had arrested him lawfully but then detained him unlawfully in an unauthorized and substandard facility. The committee said that evidence from a forensic medical examination of his body indicated that he had bruises on his shoulder, legs, and back, but did not reach a conclusion about the cause of death. It called for the judiciary to conduct a further investigation.
Days after the news of Beheshti’s death broke, other prisoners in Ward 350 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, where many political prisoners are held, wrote to the authorities to say they had seen Beheshti before he died and that he had injuries that appeared to have been caused by beatings.
In December, amid international concern over Beheshti’s death, the authorities first removed the chief of Tehran’s cyber police from his post and later announced that they had made three arrests. Eshghi told Human Rights Watch that she believes these three are all still being detained. She said officials told her one of them was directly responsible for her son’s death.
On February 26, Ayatollah Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, signed new regulations into law tightening oversight over detention facilities operated by police forces. Among other things, the new rules require regular inspections of such facilities by Iran’s State Prison Organization and accurate records of the admission and discharge of detainees. They prohibit interrogations in police stations and detention facilities. A few days later, Tehran’s prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, announced that new measures would be taken to improve official oversight over detention facilities operated by the police in Tehran province.
Both the United Nations secretary-general and the UN’s expert on Iran, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, have expressed concern over Beheshti’s death. Citing a confidential source, the special rapporteur reported on February 28 that cyber police had tortured Beheshti “for the purpose of retrieving his Facebook user name and password” and said he had been repeatedly threatened with death during his interrogation and “beaten in the face and torso with a baton.”
The special rapporteur expressed concern also about official harassment of members of Beheshti’s family, including physical assaults, during a memorial service on the 40th day after Beheshti’s death.
“Sattar Beheshti and his family deserve justice, and they deserve it now,” Houry said. “The judiciary should stop lying and bring those responsible for his death to justice. They need to send a clear message to all who torture or harm prisoners that they will be held fully accountable.”