I. Summary and Recommendations

Individuals from an ever widening range of groups in Iran are subject to arrest on security grounds for political activism and peaceful dissent against the government. Those arrested are frequently detained in facilities operating outside the regular prison administration, most notoriously in Section 209 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, where they may be subjected to torture and abusive interrogation. After weeks or months the authorities frequently release those held on conditional bail or a suspended prison sentence, using the ever-present threat of a return to jail to intimidate them against further activism or open dissent.

Crackdowns on peaceful dissent have been a hallmark of all governments in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and there was already ample legal latitude for the persecution of government critics when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005. It is the great expansion in scope and number of individuals and activities persecuted by the government that seems to distinguish the Ahmadinejad period to date.

Since August 2005 Iranian security forces have detained at least 35 members of the Iranian women’s movement in Evin 209. They have also held teachers calling for better wages and pension plans, students and activists working towards social and political reform, as well as journalists and scholars with no history of activism. In the majority of these cases, the detainees have spent some or all of their detention in solitary confinement (sometimes for months), been denied access to counsel or visits with their families, and been put under severe psychological and physical pressure to give confessions, whether truthful or otherwise.

A set of laws within Iran’s Islamic Penal Code entitled “Offenses Against the National and International Security of the Country” (“Security Laws”), provide the government wide scope for suppressing any peaceful activity it perceives as critical of its policies. Iranian law also has grounds for denying basic due process rights to security detainees. Although the Iranian Constitution, Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Citizens Rights Law include a number of provisions on detainees’ rights and methods of interrogation, Iranian law also includes grounds for denying some of these rights and straying from prescribed procedures. More than in any other period in recent Iranian history, the authorities have used security legislation as a pretext for politically motivated arrests and detention. Often there is no warrant or other legal basis given for the arrest; instead the authorities interrogate detainees without an attorney present with the intention of “fishing” for a charge. This report begins by outlining the due process rights under Iran’s criminal procedure code, as well as the security-related provisions that effectively undercut those rights.

Another distinguishing feature of politically motivated arrests under the Ahmadinejad administration is the focus not on individuals’ actions, but on their connections to foreign institutions, individuals, or sources of funding. The government routinely applies Iran’s broadly conceived security laws to accuse anyone from women’s rights campaigners to union organizers to student leaders of “spying,” “acting against national security,” “receiving funding from abroad,” or “planning a soft revolution.” Recent United States government policy promoting allocations of funds for “regime change” in Iran has been seized upon by the Iranian government to accuse independent Iranian civil society activists of being the agents of foreign agendas. Prominent Iranian activists have pointed out the ways that the Iranian government has exploited the US allocation of these funds in order to intensify its crackdown on civil society.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the government of Iran to amend or abolish the vague security laws and other legislation that allow the government to arbitrarily suppress and punish individuals for peaceful political expression, association and assembly in breach of international human rights treaties to which Iran is party. It is also calling on the government to treat detainees in accordance with international standards, and to either bring Evin 209 under the supervision of the regular prisons administration or shut it down.

Human Rights Watch is also calling on the US government to engage Iranian civil society regarding its funding allocations so that US support is not an easy pretext for continuing repression.

Key Recommendations to the Government of Iran

Full recommendations to the Iranian government can be found in section VII.

  • Release all individuals currently deprived of their liberty for peacefully exercising their rights to free expression, association, and assembly.

  • Discipline or prosecute as appropriate officials at all levels of the Iranian Information Ministry responsible for the mistreatment of detainees at Evin 209 detention center. Bring Evin 209 under the supervision of the State Prisons and Security Corrective Measures Organization, or immediately close it.

  • Amend the “Offenses against the National and International Security of the Country” (the “Security Laws”) to define both “national security” and the breaches against it in narrow terms that do not unduly infringe upon internationally guaranteed rights of free speech and assembly (provisions of the Security Laws requiring specific attention are enumerated in the “Detailed Recommendations” in section VII).

  • Excise Laws in the Islamic Penal Code that criminalize “insults” against religious figures and government leaders.

  • Change provisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure that allow the right to counsel to be denied in the investigative phase of pretrial detention. The government should guarantee the right of security detainees to meet in private with legal counsel of their choosing throughout the period of their detention and trial.

  • Recommendation to the Government of the United States

  • Engage with Iranian civil society groups to support projects which they believe will not provide an easy pretext for the Iranian government to repress their activities.