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(Beirut) – Serious electoral flaws are restricting the rights of Iranians to run for office and damaging prospects for free and fair parliamentary elections on February 26, 2016.

The Iranian authorities have disqualified the majority of reform candidates based on discriminatory and arbitrary criteria. And dozens of political activists and journalists remain in prison for exercising their rights.

“The Iranian electoral system suffers from serious structural problems that undermine free and fair elections,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “Not only are candidates being disqualified on the basis of fundamentally flawed laws, but certain officials arbitrarily act beyond their legal powers to leave virtually no alternative candidates for people to vote for.”

The Iranian electoral system suffers from serious structural problems that undermine free and fair elections. Not only are candidates being disqualified on the basis of fundamentally flawed laws, but certain officials arbitrarily act beyond their legal powers to leave virtually no alternative candidates for people to vote for.
Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East director

On January 17, the Guardian Council, an appointed body of 12 Islamic jurists who are in charge of monitoring Iranian parliamentary and presidential elections, announced the approved list of candidates. According to the Iranian state television channel IRIB News, the council approved only about 40 percent of 12,123 registered candidates. Disqualified candidates could file complaints before the same council within five days of the announcement.

The Guardian Council disqualified more than 6,500 candidates although the Interior Ministry’s executive boards, which are in charge of initial vetting, had previously determined that 90 percent of candidates met the qualifications laid out in the elections law. These rules stipulate that candidates must not have a criminal record and must pledge to adhere to the state’s governing ideology of “guardianship of the jurist” and the constitution. The doctrine places ultimate temporal and spiritual power in the hands of the supreme leader, who is supposed to be the country’s most qualified religious scholar.

The Guardian Council has arbitrary powers allowing it to disqualify candidates even if they meet the discriminatory criteria stated in the election laws. In recent years, the Guardian Council has expanded the scope of its “approbatory supervision,” using arbitrary measures, including information gathered from undisclosed sources, to disqualify candidates.

The Iranian government appears to have disqualified a high percentage of candidates associated with certain political groups. Seyed Hossein Marashi, a member of the reformists’ policy committee, said on January 17 in an interview with the semi-official Ilna website, “that only 30 candidates from the 3,000 reformist candidates were approved by the Guardian Council, which is about 1 percent.”

Among those disqualified are Rasoul Montajabnia, the vice-president of the pro-reform Etemad Melli Party founded by Mehdi Karoubi, one of the two reformist candidates during the 2009 presidential candidates. Others disqualified are Majid Farahani, the head of the pro-reform Nedaye Iranian Party, and Akbar Alami, a former reformist member of parliament. A letter issued by the youth branch of Etemad Melli Party said that the Guardian Council has not approved any of the party’s 10 candidates registered to run in the parliamentary elections from Tehran. Hossein Marashi, the spokesman for the Kargozaran party, also said, in an interview with Insa News agency on January 18, 2016, that none of the 100 members of his party who registered for the elections were found qualified.

Documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch show that significant numbers of candidates were disqualified for their political opinions. Several disqualified candidates who spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity due to their fear of official reprisals said that they provided all the necessary procedural documents and that their disqualifications were due to their political beliefs or their prior convictions or imprisonments for national security crimes that stemmed from legitimate activities.

Under Iranian law, each candidate must demonstrate a “practical belief in the Islamic faith and the sacred order of the Islamic Republic of Iran” and declare loyalty to “the progressive principle of the absolute rule of the guardianship of the jurist doctrine and to the constitution.” The law also prohibits the supporters of illegal political parties and groups and individuals convicted of acting against national security from running for election. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report documented how the election laws prevent candidates outside the ruling elite from running for high public office.

During the violent government crackdown that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, hundreds of political activists and peaceful protesters were arrested, detained, and convicted on national security charges in trials that fell far short of international standards. Some of them, such as Mostafa Tajzadeh, a reformist politician, and Bahareh Hedayat, a human rights defender, remain in prison. Iranian law effectively bars all of them from running for office.

On December 27, 2015, Nejatollah Ebrahimiam, the Guardian Council’s spokesperson, stated in an interview with the Iranian Tasnim news agency that candidates running for elections are required to have clear boundaries [separating them] from the 2009 “sedition” – a term used by some officials to describe the post-2009 election protests.

In 2010, a branch of the revolutionary court ordered the dissolution of the prominent pro-reform parties Mosharekat-E-Eslami and Mojahedin-Enghelab, in part because their leaders and members were involved in the 2009 post-election protests.

Since 2011, Iranian authorities have kept the prominent opposition figures Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi, and Zahra Rahnavard, who is Mir Hossein’s wife, under house arrest without any judicial orders. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the release of these figures, whose detentions were deemed arbitrary by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

“Iran’s electoral system lacks independent oversight, significantly impairing access to the political process and citizens’ freedom of choice,” Whitson said. “When the system scarcely tolerates peaceful dissent even in the electoral process, the Iranian government robs its own citizens of a voice in governing their own affairs.”

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