People gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash, at the gate of Amri Kabir University where some of the victims of the crash were former students, on January 11th, 2020 in Tehran, Iran. © 2020 AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities held a tight grip on peaceful activism during 2020, jailing lawyers, human rights defenders, and those who protested government corruption, mismanagement, and repression, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.

As the country grapples with controlling the spread of Covid-19, judicial and intelligence authorities have excluded dozens of human rights defenders and political prisoners from temporary release measures to reduce prison overcrowding. The authorities continue to imprison human rights defenders and those who speak out against the government’s conduct but have taken no steps to hold accountable those accused of serious human rights violations, particularly security forces who used excessive and lethal force against protestors in November 2019.

“Despite numerous geopolitical, health, and economic crises facing the country, Iranian authorities are treating local civil society as their number one threat and remain unaccountable for their abuses,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “By suppressing human rights defenders and other activists, the authorities are simply fueling more dissent and frustration.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

Since January 2018, Iranian authorities have responded to recurring widespread protests across the country with excessive and lethal force, and the arbitrary arrests of thousands of protesters. In the most brutal crackdown, security forces in November 2019 used excessive and unlawful lethal force against massive protests across the country. During the crackdown, the authorities ordered a near-total shutdown of the global internet across the country. According to Amnesty International, at least 304 people were killed during these protests, while Iranian government officials said the total was 230.

Iran is one of the leading implementers of the death penalty, executing 233 people during 2020 as of November 19, including for crimes committed as children and those that do not meet the international standard for the most serious crimes. As of September 21, the authorities had executed two people who were convicted of killing security forces during the protests, including Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old wrestler from the city of Shiraz, without investigating serious allegations of torture he said he experienced in detention.

Scores of human rights advocates, lawyers, activists, and members of ethnic and religious minorities are serving prison sentences for peaceful dissent following unfair trials.

While the United States government has built exemptions for humanitarian imports into its sanctions regime, which it intensified under US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy, banking restrictions have drastically constrained the ability of Iranian entities to finance such humanitarian imports, including vital medicines and medical equipment. This has caused serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and harmed their right to health, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the burden on the healthcare system.

“The incoming US administration should take a close look and make sure their policies are not harming the Iranians’ basic rights,” Page said. “The dire need to hold Iranian officials accountable for their serious human rights violations should be a priority without inflicting additional hardship on the Iranian people.”