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(Beirut)– Iran’s incoming government should take concrete steps to improve the country’s dreadful human rights record, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to President-elect Hassan Rouhani. The letter identified key reform areas, ranging from freeing political prisoners to cooperating with UN rights bodies, that Rouhani and his new administration should take on during their next four years in office.

Rouhani will be sworn in as the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran during an inauguration ceremony on August 4, 2013. Rouhani, who ran on a campaign of “hope” and “moderation” in the June 14 elections and received 50.7 percent of the votes, made numerous promises to the Iranian people regarding respect for individual rights. After officials announced the election results, many people came into the streets to celebrate, some calling for the release of political prisoners and chanting slogans in memory of those who died during the government’s crackdown following the disputed 2009 presidential election.

“During his presidential campaign, Rouhani appealed to the Iranian voters’ desire for change by promising to expand personal freedoms and respect human rights,” said Tamara Alrifai, Middle East advocacy director. “Now that he has a mandate from the people to push through necessary reforms, he needs to prove that his presidency is more than just campaign promises.”

In its letter, Human Rights Watch urged Rouhani and his administration to take the following steps:

  • Free political prisoners:Push for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including hundreds of political and civic activists, journalists, lawyers, and rights defenders, and allow them to continue their peaceful activities upon release. Rouhani should also work towards ending the house arrest of leading opposition figures.
  • Support a moratorium on executions: Push for a moratorium on executions, followed by a review of the death penalty with a view to abolishing it. The vast majority of executions in Iran are for crimes such as drug trafficking, which international law does not consider serious enough to warrant the death penalty, and in other cases, numerous due process violations taint the verdicts. Since Rouhani’s election, sources have reported several dozen executions. During the past few years, Iran has had the second largest number of executions in the world, behind only China.
  • Remove media restrictions:Carry out policies that encourage, not prohibit, freedom of the press and the Internet. The administration’s priority should be to remove the dizzying array of censorship regulations and “red lines” that Iranians must navigate to avoid risking arrest, detention, and conviction. As of June 2013, there were more than 50 journalists and bloggers behind bars in Iran.
  • Expand academic freedom: Eliminate barriers to academic freedom imposed during the last eight years, including reinstating dozens of professors forced out because of their views, restricting the influence of security forces on campuses, removing disciplinary boards that unlawfully monitor students’ activities, rolling back regressive gender-based policies that limit access by women and men to certain areas of study, and allowing student organizations to resume operating.
  • Unshackle civil society: Remove unnecessary burdens on nongovernmental groups, and allow groups such as independent trade and labor unions, the Iranian Bar Association, Shirin Ebadi’s Center for Human Rights Defenders, and the House of Cinema, to operate without interference.
  • Respect women’s rights: Appoint officials in ministries or positions of power, including women, who favor policies intended to improve women’s rights; initiate a national dialogue aimed at reforming discriminatory legislation such as personal status laws; and support women’s groups in their efforts to change these laws. Rouhani’s administrations should also reverse restrictions on population control programs, oppose regressive gender-based policies in universities and public spaces, and end security crackdowns on women who are deemed not to abide by the strict dress code.
  • Guarantee minority rights: Implement policies that ensure equal protection of the law for all Iranians, irrespective of ethnicity and faith. Ethnic and religious minorities are regularly subjected to legal and effective discrimination in their political participation, employment, and the exercise of their religious, social, and cultural rights. 
  • Push for the eradication of inhumane practices: Revive the national debate on banning inhumane practices and punishments such as stoning and executions of child offenders.
  • Cooperate with UN rights bodies: Reverse the government’s failure to cooperate with international institutions, particularly United Nations human rights mechanisms, by allowing access to the UN special rapporteur on Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, and other thematic special procedures of the Human Rights Council. Carry out recommendations by the General Assembly, UN expert bodies, and member states during the 2009 Universal Periodic Review debate, many of which call for accountability for torture and killings by Iranian officials during the crackdown following the 2009 presidential election.

Rouhani and his government should also allow staff of Human Rights Watch to visit Iran to discuss these issues with the new administration. “We sincerely hope that your inauguration signals a new willingness on the part of the Iranian government to engage with international human rights organizations,” the Human Rights Watch letter said.

Rouhani was elected president despite serious restrictions and rights abuses that prevented free and fair elections. There were no serious reports of voter irregularities at the pollsor incidents following this year’s election.

“Safeguarding the rights of all Iranians is absolutely essential to effective and responsible leadership,” Alrifai said.“If Rouhani wants to steer the country out of the morass of the last eight years, he’s going to have to address past and ongoing human rights abuses by the government.”


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