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IIX. The Independent Press and the Prisoners

The newspapers wrote about my complaint to the Article 90 Commission.  About two days after the newspapers ran the story of my complaint to the Article 90 Commission, several plainclothes men came and put me in a car right in front of my house. They took me out on the road towards Karaj and they beat me up badly.  When they drove me back to Tehran, they dropped me off in front of the Parliament building, and said, “There you go.   If you want to go and complain to the Majles [Article 90] Commission, there it is.”147

As the government campaign to silence critics escalated, it became more difficult for those imprisoned to seek redress or any means of defense.  Formal mechanisms, such as appeals to higher courts, were usually unavailable to political prisoners. Informal avenues for publicizing information and advocacy in the form of the reformist press and the Parliament’s Article 90 Commission have been shut down or are now muted. 

In retrospect, it is possible to appreciate better the important protective role played by the independent press.  Many newspapers, including Tous, Bahar, Bayan, Payam-e Emrooz, Salam, Sobh-e-Emrooz, Neshat, Asr-e Azadegan, Aban, Iran-e Farda, Goonagoon, and Mosharekat tackled the most difficult and sensitive political and theoretical issues in Iran.148  Full page articles were devoted to debates on issues of Islamic law, governance, democratic change, women’s rights, natural rights and human rights, popular participation in state affairs, Western and Eastern philosophy, and world affairs. 

Aside from creating intellectual space for discussion of various topics, the press also kept a close watch on domestic political developments and engaged in regular coverage of the treatment of political prisoners. Journalists with the reformist newspapers attended press conferences and meetings with government officials, peppering even the most highly-placed officials with questions about their previous statements or recent decisions.  They reported on meetings of parliamentary committees and initiatives introduced by parliament and repeatedly squashed by the Council of Guardians149 or the Leader. The newspapers published debates, often in the form of letters to the editorial boards of the newspapers, between judges and activist lawyers.  The journalists attended court sessions, demanded access to prisoners and to trials and hearings, questioned judges, and followed up on the cases of imprisoned writers, journalists, and editors.  

During the early period of the crackdown, in 2000 and 2001, those who were arrested, imprisoned, and denied basic due process rights knew that their cases were being covered by the independent media.  Former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that the persistence of the reformist press was critical in their release and in providing information to their families regarding their condition.  Prisoners and families of prisoners were able to use the press, and the threat of increased press attention on a particular case, in order to obtain medical care for prisoners, secure family visits, exert pressure for public trials, and demand that individuals be released on the dates that they had been scheduled for release. They were able to create an environment that made it politically costly for the government to treat prisoners abusively or torture them.  Letters were spirited out to the press and quickly published, images of prisoners at trial were described repeatedly, and family members reported after visiting with their imprisoned family member.  As the wife of one prominent editor imprisoned in April 2000 told Human Rights Watch:

We went to the parliament when we knew that the heads of the judiciary would be visiting, and we told the press that we were going.  We went and stood outside their offices and we waited. And when the head of the judiciary came out, we began to ask questions: Where were our husbands? When would they have trials? Why were they still being held without having done anything wrong? Because they saw that the journalists were there, they were scared, and they promised us a meeting right away.

We would always tell the journalists from the reformist newspapers as soon as we would hear about a trial date, or as soon as we were going to go anywhere, because we knew that they would write about it, and we knew that they would follow up on the cases.150

She and other wives and family members of political prisoners were able to organize the Society of Family Members of Political Prisoners. They called journalists to alert them of any upcoming developments in their cases (for example, bringing large groups of people to the gates of Evin Prison when a prisoner was set to be released) or to report that they had not visited nor received telephone calls from their family members in several weeks, or to point out that the trials of their family members had been held behind closed doors.  In an informal way, they were able to protect the basic rights of family members by using the constant glare of the independent press. 

Former political prisoners from that period interviewed by Human Rights Watch recalled that while they were in prison they felt as though they knew there were people fighting for their freedom outside, they knew that they would not be forgotten. They recalled days that they were moved out of solitary confinement, or when they were allowed time to walk out of doors for twenty minutes.  Once they were released, they realized that these critical openings had occurred when their families and the reformist papers had continued to pressure the authorities on their cases.

One former prisoner told Human Rights Watch:

When they got me, they weren’t as aggressive because there were still many newspapers, the parliament was very active on our behalf, and the people felt very comfortable actively supporting us.  Later, they started going after confessions, they started going after things they could use publicly. Those who are in now are in a different world. We were so much more fortunate.151

Reformist papers and journalists also publicized and support the work of parliamentarians who pursued the cases of political prisoners.  They provided information about the investigations of the Article 90 Commission,  printed their findings and conclusions, and demanded responses from judges and other government officials. 

Seen in this light, it is clear that the government shut down the reformist press in part to secure greater impunity for judges, interrogators, and plainclothes agents.  Under the guidance of the Office of the Leader, the Iranian authorities closed off the only voices for advocacy and defense of the rights of those who had been imprisoned.  As newspaper after newspaper was shut down under Judge Mortazavi’s orders, and as more journalists and editors were imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment, fewer and fewer prisoners’ cases were monitored or publicized.  By mid-2001, when at least fifty papers had been closed, the judges could be less concerned that their courtroom would be filled with inquisitive journalists. They could be assured that the critical statements of parliamentary commissions would not reach such a large audience as before.  They knew that the prisoners would be less confident, less sure that there was someone following their case outside prison walls.  As Ebrahim Nabavi told Human Rights Watch:

The judges and the hardliners were afraid of the newspapers back then, they were afraid of what they would say.  It was such an important way to lessen the pressure on us. It is much, much worse now for those who are in prison.152

As of this writing, only one major reformist newspaper remains in print, Sharq.153 Internet news sites, most of them run from outside of Iran, are now a vital source of information for most Iranians with access to the internet, and their reporting on the status of political prisoners often trickles into the print newspapers.  For those who remain in prison for speaking out, there are far fewer chances for information about their cases to reach the public.  As of this writing, those still in prison include: Abbas Abdi, Nasser Zarafshan, Ahmed Batebi, Taqi Rahmani, Hoda Saber, Ali Rahmani, Manoucher Mohammadi, Akbar Mohammadi, Hashem Aghajari, Reza Alijani, Akbar Ganji, Hassan Youssefi-Eshkevari, Iraj Jamshidi, Siamak Pourzand, Abbas Deldar, and Mehrdad Lohrasbi.  There are also fewer journalists today who dare challenge authorities to provide greater information, to make available written information on the cases of the imprisoned, or to monitor the cases of political prisoners as they move through the judicial system.  There are oblique references to torture or ill-treatment in order to obtain confessions, such as in the cases of several students from the June 2003 protests who provided televised apologies or recantations.  After they were pardoned by the Leader, there was some discussion of what kinds of pressure they had experienced prior to their videotaped accounts.

Such examples today are few and far between. Many prisoners whose names are not publicly known or who are held in solitary confinement in detention centers are not only denied the formal means of redress guaranteed under law, but also are denied the significant benefits of the informal advocacy and monitoring role played by the independent press several years ago.154 

The Article 90 Commission

The Article 90 Commission is a parliamentary body mandated by the Constitution.  Article 90 reads:

Whoever has a complaint concerning the work of the Assembly or the executive power or the judicial power can forward his complaint in writing to the Assembly.  The Assembly must investigate his complaint and give a satisfactory reply.  In cases where the complaint relates to the executive or the judiciary, the Assembly must demand proper investigation in the matter and an adequate explanation from them, and announce the results within a reasonable time.  In cases where the subject of the complaint is of the public interest, the reply must be made public. 

At the height of press openness,155 the parliament’s Article 90 Commission began to exert real pressure on hardliner judges and other authorities.  The commission, mandated under Article 90 of the Constitution to investigate and report on complaints by individuals against the three branches of government, has no real enforcement power.  Still, when the press and parliament members pushed more vigorously for the rights of imprisoned journalists and activists, the commission served as the only means of official redress for many prisoners. They saw the commission, and particularly its public reporting mechanism, as a way to bring attention to their cases.

In 2000 and 2001, the Article 90 commission was able to bring pressure on the judiciary regarding the arrests of journalists and students, treatment of political prisoners, and state accountability for violence against student protesters.156 One of the most recent reports of the commission highlights the degree to which the environment in Iran has changed for the worse.  The report on the death in detention of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi presents a scathing indictment of the judiciary, and specifically the role of Chief Prosecutor Said Mortazavi in covering up the cause of Kazemi’s death.  The report notes:

Mr. Mortazavi has accused the commission of not knowing the law,157 and he wouldn’t accuse the commission of not knowing the law if he had studied the law.  To shed light upon this point... this is the law. This commission can, in order to obtain sufficient information, request the presence of the three branches, all the ministries...and institutions who in any way are related to the branches of government aforementioned.  The commission can invite them or write to them directly.  The ones contacted are obliged to respond. In case of violation, and proof of the crime of not responding to the commission, a competent court has the responsibility of looking into the matter expediently and if they prove the crime, has to issue the punishment as described [in the law].  With this explanation, Mr. Mortazavi’s statement as the Public Prosecutor is surprising.158

Rather than responding to the serious concerns raised by the Commission’s report, the judiciary instead forced journalists to ignore the report. Only one print newspaper in Tehran ran the full report.  Human Rights Watch received information that others were warned not to run the story if they wanted to remain open.  Many Internet sites printed the report, but within Iran access to these was limited. 

Some of the most vocal MPs who repeatedly sought out information about the condition of political prisoners or who have openly criticized the judiciary’s targeting of journalists and activists have been subject to similar treatment.  Plainclothes agents attacked them attacked during public appearances.  One person who spoke with Human Rights Watch stated that:

The Article 90 Commission is important, and they fulfilled a very necessary function. But now, what can they do?  Not only do they not have any enforcement power, but they are always getting arrested.159

[147] Human Rights Watch telephone interview  with Hossein T. (not his real name), location withheld, December 8, 2003.

[148] Tous, Spring, Speech, Message of Today, Hello, Today’s Morning, Joy, Age of the Free, Aban, Iran of Tomorrow, Happenings, and Participation, respectively.  All have since been closed down.

[149] The Council of Guardians is a twelve person government-appointed body of Islamic jurists and clerics, which has the power to veto parliamentary laws.

[150] Human Rights Watch interview with family of former political prisoner, location withheld, December 11, 2003. 

[151] Human Rights Watch interview with Siamak S., London, December 21, 2003.

[152] Human Rights Watch telephone interview  with Ebrahim Nabavi, Belgium, January 8, 2004.

[153] Until the February 2004 parliamentary elections, two major papers remained open, Sharq as well as Yas-e Nau.  In the past year, both have been harassed, temporarily closed, and threatened with closure. Yas-e Nau placed itself in the line of fire in the fall of 2003. Human Rights Watch received information that the night before  the paper published the full text of the Article 90 Commission’s report on the death of photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi, the editor of the daily received a telephone call from Chief Prosecutor Mortazavi warning him not to publish the report.  Because the paper had already gone to press for the next day, Yas-e Nau was the only print newspaper to run the entire report.  In the events leading up to the Seventh Majles elections in February 2004, Mortazavi again threatened the remaining independent newsmedia to be cautious of what they wrote. When, on February 17, disqualified Members of Parliament wrote and distributed a public letter to the Leader, directly criticizing him for his role in allowing the disqualifications to go forward and for “trampling human rights in the name of Islam,” Yas-e Nau and Sharq were the only domestic newspapers to publish excerpts of the unprecedented letter.  On February 18, Chief Prosecutor Mortazavi ordered both papers to close, and security forces working with the judiciary went to the offices of both buildings to ensure that the editions printing parts of the letter were not distributed.  On the eve of the parliamentary elections, the closures marked the silencing of the few remaining critical voices in Iran. Sharq was allowed to reopen two weeks later, but Yas-e Nau remains closed.  Mohsen Asgari and Gareth Smyth, “Tehran Muzzles Reformist Media Ahead of Election,” Financial Times, February 20, 2004; Nazila Fathi, “In Iran, an Election or a Boycott?,” New York Times, February 22, 2004; Human Rights Watch, “Reformist Newspapers Muzzled Before Election,” February 19, 2004., (retrieved, February 23, 2004).

[154] For example, it is not known how many members of the Religious/Nationalist Alliance remain in prison, or the names, legal status, and location of many student protesters and activists. Some individuals who spoke with Human Rights Watch stated that there are still student activists from the 1999 Tehran University protests in detention, as well as those still in detention from November 2002 protests. 

[155] The opening up of the press after President Khatami’s election was not a result of legal changes.  Press freedoms and increased public space for criticism and lively debate were tolerated by the government, where before they would have been immediately repressed. However, no lasting legal reforms or protections were put in place for, the authorities were subsequently able to dismantle these ‘freedoms’ with ease. 

[156] In April 2001 the Article 90 Commission stated that it would launch a probe into the judiciary, primarily in order to investigate the “startling numbers of reformist writers and journalists who were in prison.” “Justice official retracts himself,” IRNA, April 11, 2001, (retrieved February 2, 2004).  The article quotes Judge Alizadeh as saying to a member of parliament involved in the investigation: 

Mr. Ansari, why are you making such a fuss over several journalists who have been legally detained," he said. "Why do you raise questions about legal proceedings for the sake of a bunch of so-called reformers and newspapers?

In early 2001, MPs on the Article 90 Commission urged Head of the judiciary Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi to release students arrested during the 1999 Tehran University Protests.  MP Mohammad Dadfar stated: “In the dormitory case only students were punished and jailed but nobody from the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) or the other camp was punished and the court dealing with the plainclothesmen’s case has not yet begun its hearings.” The term “the other camp” is a reference to plainclothes agents of Ansar-e Hizbollah and Basij forces. “MPs Will Urge Shahroudi to release students in dorm incident case,” IRNA, January 27, 2001.

[157] Mortazavi wrote an angry response to the Commission’s request for information and documents, noting that the “Article 90 Commission has no right to interfere in judicial matters,” “The Text of The Answers of the Public Prosecutor of Tehran to The Report of the Article 90 Commission” ISNA, November 3, 2003, (retrieved 4, 2003). Translated by Human Rights Watch. 

[158] Article 90 Commission Report on the killing of Zahra Kazemi, file 4952, read on the floor of the Majles on October 28, 2003. Translated by Human Rights Watch.

[159] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Siamak S., December 11, 2003.

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