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III. Background

The space for free speech in Iran has narrowed considerably since April 2000. In that month, after the resounding reformist victory in parliamentary elections two months earlier, Leader Ayatollah Khamenei gave a speech in which he said that the reformist newspapers “have entered the country and set up a stronghold...and they are the stronghold and the platform of the enemy.” This speech marked the beginning of a systematic campaign to silence critics within the country and to send the message that the window for free expression, briefly opened, would now be closed.

First, in 2000, came an unprecedented wave of newspaper closures by a branch of the Public Court that became devoted almost completely to hearing press-related cases.  The authorities then arrested increasing numbers of journalists, writers, activists, editors, and publishers. By late 2000, many joked that in order to have a discussion with the great minds of Iran, one had to visit Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Iranian human rights advocates and dissidents are well aware of the risks that come with speaking out against government policies. Freedom of expression and opinion are violated on a systematic basis. Since the crackdown on the reformist press began in April 2000, the Iranian government has become increasingly efficient and successful at intimidating and ultimately silencing voices of those who wish to speak against it.

Today, the environment for expression and dissent is at its worst since President Khatami’s election in May 1997.  “Before there was fear of your newspaper being shut down or being called before the court,” one writer said.  “Today, it is fear of force. It is fear for your life. It is fear that you will be beaten such that you will never dare speak again.”4  The judiciary, using security forces and interrogators under their control, has become adept at creating an environment of fear where dissidents know that they may at any time be arrested, called before court, held in solitary confinement for unlimited durations without charge, and tortured.  Former judge and now Chief Prosecutor Said Mortazavi and a handful of powerful judges have developed an increasingly brutal yet sophisticated machinery to crush criticism.

This report, covering the period from early 2000 to early 2004, links the repression of speech with increasingly coordinated efforts on the part of the government, and particularly the judiciary, to intimidate those who speak out, through abusive use of the courts, prolonged solitary confinement, and torture and ill-treatment in detention.  Human Rights Watch spoke with former political prisoners, journalists, academics, Iranian human rights advocates working inside and outside Iran, and Iranian students.  There is widespread agreement that the political environment has become increasingly abusive and defined by force.

Having closed virtually all of the reformist newspapers by early 2004, the authorities facilitated greater impunity for interrogators, judges, and plainclothes security agents to violate the law by attacking, detaining, and torturing those who speak out.  Today, few avenues, formal or informal, exist for those who are wrongly imprisoned to tell their stories or to seek redress.


Effective human rights monitoring of Iran is difficult and risky, particularly for Iranians who might seek to provide information. Many Iranians have been detained for their alleged contacts with international media or nongovernmental organizations.  While the authorities have allowed several U.N. human rights mechanisms to visit the country, the capacity of these individuals to do any investigations on the ground has varied. In 2003, at least one prisoner was punished for speaking with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.5

For this report Human Rights Watch interviewed former political detainees and prisoners who have left Iran since 2001, student activists who have fled the country, and the families of those deprived of their liberty. Interviews were conducted in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Turkey. Some individuals that we spoke with continue to live and work in Iran, and we have changed their names and identifying characteristics for their and their families’ security.  Others, who have written and spoken out publicly since leaving Iran, asked that Human Rights Watch use their names.

Informal interviews and conversations were carried out over email with a number of individuals inside Iran, as well as foreign journalists who have reported on the country. There are significant security constraints to carrying out interviews on politically sensitive topics inside Iran. Many individuals who have been in prison do not feel safe using email, telephone, or post for any substantive communication.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with Iran expert  N.M., November 24, 2004.

[5] Student activist Ahmed Batebi, who was out of prison on medical leave, was kidnapped by plainclothes agents and eventually acknowledged to be at Evin prison after meeting with Ambeyi Ligabo, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression in November 2003.  

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