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Iranian protesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019.  © 2019 AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities intensified their crackdown during 2019 against protests across the country, using mass arrests and lethal force, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020. The protests were spurred by deteriorating economic conditions, perceptions of corruption, and the lack of political and social freedoms.

Iran’s judiciary dramatically increased the cost of peaceful dissent during 2019, sentencing dozens of human rights defenders to decades-long prison sentences. In one of the bloodiest crackdowns since the 1979 Revolution, authorities responded to widespread protests after the abrupt increase in fuel prices in November 2019 by directly targeting protesters who posed no threat to life with lethal force.

“Iranian leaders have responded to widespread disgust over corrupt and brutal rule with violent repression and by silencing of all domestic dissent lest it threaten their power,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The use of lethal force against protesters demonstrates the authorities’ complete lack of concern about the effect of deteriorating economic conditions on Iranian citizens.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

On January 3, 2020, Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force commander, was killed in a United States drone attack at Baghdad airport. In addition to the serious regional and international ramifications already unfolding, Iran’s repressive political establishment is seizing on the killing to repress dissent, particularly with regard to regional and foreign policy issues.  

Iranian authorities have refused to release official figures for deaths or arrests during the crackdown. Amnesty International said that at least 305 people were reported killed in the protests. A parliament member estimated that security forces arrested about 7,000 people, many of whom remain at risk of mistreatment and torture.

US sanctions, which make inadequate provision for access to essential medicine, are also affecting the country’s economy and pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health. The “humanitarian exemptions” under the sanctions have been ineffective and have almost certainly contributed to documented medical shortages, ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.

Revolutionary courts sentenced dozens of activists to prison during 2019 for their peaceful actions, including labor rights activists such as Sepideh Gholian, Ismael Bakhshi, and Marzieh Amiri, and human rights lawyers such as Nasrin Sotoudeh. In July and August, a branch of the revolutionary court of first instance sentenced four women who had challenged Iran’s compulsory hijab laws – Yasman Ariani, her mother Monireh Arabshahi, Mojgan Keshavarz, and Saba Kordafshari – to prison terms of more than a decade.

The authorities detain Iranian dual and foreign nationals on vaguely defined national security charges, while signaling that they are open to using these detainees as bargaining chips in bilateral negotiations with Western countries.

In November, another branch of Iran’s revolutionary court of first instance sentenced eight environmental experts who have been detained for over two years on the charge of “collaborating with the enemy state of the United States” to prison terms ranging from 4 to 10 years. On February 8, 2018, Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian university professor who was arrested with the group, died in detention under suspicious circumstances.

According to the group Iran Human Rights, Iran had executed at least 227 people as of November 1, 2019, compared with 253 in 2018, including at least 2 sentenced to death for crimes they allegedly committed as children.

Iranian women face discrimination in law and practice. However, after more than a decade of advocacy, on October 2, the Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic jurists, finally approved an amendment to Iran’s nationality law that allows Iranian women married to men with foreign nationality to request Iranian citizenship for their children under age 18 if there is no “security problem.”

Iranian law allows girls to marry at 13 and boys at 15, and younger if authorized by a judge. The judicial parliamentary commission has blocked efforts to increase the minimum age.

Children with disabilities face barriers to inclusive education. These include a mandatory medical exam, the physical inaccessibility of school buildings, discriminatory attitudes of school staff, and a lack of adequate training for teachers and school administrators. 

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