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We write on the occasion of the inaugural Australia-Iran human rights dialogue, to be held in Canberra in August 2017. Australia should raise pressing human rights issues in an unambiguous manner, set clear benchmarks for improvements, and make the outcome of the discussions public.

In June 2017, President Hassan Rouhani secured his second and final term in office with a strong margin of victory. His election campaign featured sharp criticism of the government’s gender discrimination, security forces’ crackdown against journalists, and the conduct of those “who have only known imprisonment and execution of dissidents for the past 38 years,” a clear reference to his opponent’s record of complicity in serious human rights violations.[1]

Yet in electing his new cabinet members, it appears that President Rouhani has sought to reduce tension and avoid confrontation with hardliners. For instance, he did not introduce any female ministers to his cabinet, a clear demand of civil society and 157 members of parliament.[2]

Security forces, particularly in the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, and judiciary officials who oversee the revolutionary courts, continue to be the main perpetrators of civil and political rights violations. These institutions are responsible for arresting and prosecuting hundreds of individuals based solely on the legitimate exercise of their rights.

Executions, especially for drug-related offenses, continue to take place at a high rate. Several draft laws are before parliament that, if passed, could reduce the number of individuals on death row or have a positive impact in addressing the discriminatory legal framework against women. These legislative initiatives include draft laws to reform the country’s drug law and amend the passport law to ease travel restrictions for women. Iran’s parliament is also attempting to create a path to citizenship for the children of Iranian women married to foreign men.

The government of Australia should use the bilateral human rights dialogue to address the most pressing issues regarding the situation of human rights in Iran and work towards building a working-level relationship with Iranian counterparts in order to do so. The list of issues in this briefing is by no means comprehensive but Human Rights Watch believes the following issues are human rights priorities that could offer a path for dialogue with Iran: executions, lack of fair trials and due process, and torture and impunity.

Australia’s human rights dialogue with Iran should also be an opportunity to raise specific individual cases of concern, with the explicit message that the Iranian government should expect these cases to be consistently raised in regular diplomatic exchanges from then on.         


Iran has one of highest numbers of executions in the world. Last year alone, human rights groups documented at least 567 executions in Iran. The majority of those executed are charged with nonviolent drug offenses that do not meet the “most serious crime” standard under international law. Human rights groups also continue to document executions of individuals for crimes they allegedly committed as children.

Drug-Related Executions: Since December 2015, the parliament has considered several proposals to outlaw or limit executions for drug-related offenses. On July 16, 2017, parliament approved a proposal to amend Iran’s 1997 Law to Combat Drugs to limit the imposition of the death penalty for some nonviolent, drug-related offenses. However, parliament sent the draft legislation back to the parliamentary judiciary commission for a fourth time to deliberate the proposed penalty changes for certain offenses. If the current draft becomes law it could save the lives of thousands currently on death row.[3]

Child Executions: Since 2013, changes in the penal code allow judges to use their discretion to not sentence a child offender to death if the judge believes that they did not understand the nature of the crime. Judges may now seek the opinion of the government’s Forensic Medical Department to assess the child’s mental state. But several children tried or retried under the new provisions were still sentenced to death.[4]

Lack of Fair Trials and Due Process

Iranian authorities have charged and imprisoned hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, members of ethnic and religious monitories, and political activists simply based on their peaceful dissent or exercising their legitimate rights to free speech, free assembly, or religious beliefs.

Moreover, Iran’s legal system, particularly in such cases, is characterized by a lack of due process and fair trial standards. A clear step to improve the lack of due process is to improve detainees access to a lawyer.

Defendants’ Access to a Lawyer: Iran’s 2013 reforms to its criminal procedure law sought to expand legal access for detainees. However, article 48 of the approved amendments requires people accused of certain offenses, including political charges to choose their counsel from a pre-approved pool of lawyers the head of Iran’s judiciary has selected. The list of approved lawyers is not available to the public, and attorneys and families of detainees charged with national security crimes regularly report detainees being denied access to a lawyer at the pretrial investigation stage.[5]

Torture and Impunity

Iran has consistently failed to prevent torture during periods of detention and to investigate allegations of torture. Revolutionary courts use confessions obtained under torture as evidence in court. While torture is prohibited under the Iranian constitution, thousands of detainees have reported experiencing torture or witnessing signs of torture or inhuman treatment on other inmates’ bodies during detention. Several detainees have stated that they have reported torture to the authorities, including judges, but authorities ignored them.

The country has a dismal record of investigating allegations of torture and mistreatment under detention. In several cases in which allegations of torture were widely covered in the media, such as those concerning Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who died while in detention, alleged perpetrators received lenient treatment.


Australia should publicly and privately call on the Iran government to:

  • In discussions on ending use of the death penalty, abolish drug-related and child executions as a matter of the highest priority;
  • Release all persons detained arbitrarily, including those imprisoned or detained for exercising their rights to free expression, assembly, movement, or political or religious association, and cease arresting and detaining others for such actions. Some of the most urgent cases for release are:
    • Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, prominent opposition figures who remain under house arrest without charge or trial since February 2011.[6]
    • Abdolfattah Soltani, a prominent human rights lawyer who is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for his human rights work.
    • Narges Mohammadi, a member of the banned Center for Human Rights Defenders who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for charges that include establishing an anti-death penalty coalition.
    • Ismail Abdi, the secretary general of the Teachers’ Association who is currently serving a 6-year prison sentence in Tehran.[7]
    • Zia Nabavi, a student activist who is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Karun Prison in Ahwaz.
  • Remove restrictions on access to lawyers for people charged with national security crimes;
  • Establish independent mechanisms for reporting and investigating torture.






[1] Tara Sepehri Far (Human Rights Watch), “Rouhani Win Matters for Human Rights” commentary, May 20, 2017,

[2] Tara Sepehri Far (Human Rights Watch), “Women Activists in Iran Pressing for Female Minister in Cabinet” commentary, July 27, 2017,

[3] See “Iran: Halt Drug-Related Executions,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 20, 2017,

[4] Tara Sepehri Far (Human Rights Watch), “Despite Minor Reforms, the Iranian Penal Code is Still Failing Children” commentary, February 10, 2017,

[5] “Iran: Detainees Denied Fair Legal Representation,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 24, 2016,

[6] “Iran: Opposition Figures Denied Health Care,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 2, 2017,

[7] “Iran: Detainees Denied Fair Legal Representation,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 24, 2016,

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