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Iran: 2020 in human rights

Iran has frequently been in the media this year, from rising tensions with the US, widespread protests, and arbitrary detentions and executions. We take a look back at key human rights areas, and how things might develop in 2021.

Legacies of the Revolution

In 1979 a revolution in Iran swept aside the US-backed Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and the monarchy in favour of an Islamic Republic. Causes and motivations for the revolution are still debated by historians, with some saying the revolution was a backlash against Westernisation and secularisation, and others attributing it to the social force of the rural, the poor, those left behind by the elitist policies of the monarchy. The revolution saw a group of students hold 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days, garnering a popular reaction. This move was seen as an effective bargaining tool.  Moreover, whatever the causes of the revolution may have been, the revolution succeeded in establishing the first Islamic Republic state, and the country has indeed seen progress since in infrastructure, basic services, improved literacy, and poverty reduction.

However, the journey of progress has been far from smooth. The Iraqi invasion of 1980 saw greater opposition to Iraqi allies including the US and Israel, seen as an undue influence of the US and foreign intervention. This meant that successive regimes faced challenges and tensions with the world’s superpower, as well as the impact of sanctions on the developing economy. Corruption, mismanagement, cronyism and the pressures of neoliberalisation created an underclass of working class, poor Iranians and a rich, ruling class. Such socio-economic issues are still rife today, with 25 million people living below the poverty line, 10 million excluded from health, work or unemployment insurance, and 11% of the labour force unemployed. As well as this, the legacies of British colonialism sees long-lasting ruptures in the region’s social fabric, with the artificial borders created by Western powers resulting in tensions between ethnic and religious groups. The minority populations, Kurdish, Shia, religious minorities an non-Muslim groups, are often persecuted or have their freedoms restricted.

Protests and punishment

In November 2019, mass protests erupted in opposition to rising fuel prices, but also overall worsening socio-economic conditions. At least 300 people died and over 7000 were arrested during the protests. An Amnesty International report released in September revealed that brutality against protesters that continued into 2020, with Iranian authorities arbitrarily detaining people for weeks after the protests died down. Detainees, including children, were reportedly subject to beatings, extreme temperatures and torture via electrocution and waterboarding, and sexual violence. Out of the 500 names that Amnesty had collected of people investigated in connection with the protests, at least three had been sentenced to death so far based on torture obtained “confessions”. 

“In the days following the mass protests, videos showing Iran’s security forces deliberately killing and injuring unarmed protesters and bystanders sent shockwaves around the world. Much less visible has been the catalogue of cruelty meted out to detainees and their families by Iranian officials away from the public eye.” – Diana Elthahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for MENA 

On 3 December 2020, Amnesty also reported that six men, convicted for various offences such as theft, are in danger of having their fingers amputated after unfair trials and torture. They reported that “prosecution authorities and prison officials in Urumieh, West Azerbaijan province, are preparing to bring a guillotine to Urumieh prison to amputate the fingers of up to six men – Hadi Rostami, Mehdi Sharfian, Mehdi Shahivand, Kasra Karami, Shahab Teimouri Ayeneh and Mehrdad Teimouri Ayneh.” All the men were denied access to lawyers during their trails, and their convictions were based on torture-elicited confessions. Using amputation for judicially-sanctioned punishment is a crime under international law. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Centre, over the past twenty years the Iranian authorities amputated the fingers of at least 129 people, as well as flogging 2,134 people, of which 17 were children.

As well as torturing and detaining protesters and using amputation as a punishment, Iran is the “world’s top executioner”, according to the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance to Iran (NCRI). 

The Women’s Committee NCRI reports that 4,300 people have been executed throughout President Rouhani’s tenure, including 109 women and 38 juvenile offenders. They estimate the figure for executions of women is actually much higher, but many are done in secret with no witnesses. 

In the first six months of 2020, Iran executed 136 prisoners, a record number. Of these prisoners, 134 were men and two were women, and several were minor offenders. Whilst there are no official numbers for the total number of executions for the year, many more have faced death in the second half of 2020. 

Two women were hanged in the Central Prison of Mashhad on 2 August and 18 August. Another woman, Mahtab Shafii, was hanged in Gohardasht Prison on 23 September, and another, identified only as Razieh, was executed on 11 October. Many executions of women result in murder convictions, however because of Iran’s failure to classify murder in degrees, many of these women are executed for committing murder out of self defense, poverty or because they were victims of domestic violence.

Many of those executed are also political prisoners. Iran detains those who speak out or are critical against the government, frequently arresting them on baseless charges and conducting unfair trials. Eight political prisoners were among those executed in the first half of 2020: Mostafa Salimi, Abdolbaset Dahani, Shahram Baygan, Hedayat Abdollahpour, Diako Rasoulzadeh, Saber Sheikh Abdullah, Mostafa Salehi, and Navid Afkari. All were executed on charges of Moharebeh, “waging war on God” or “corruption on Earth”.

No media, no freedom

Hand in hand with crushing protests, arbitrary detentions, unjust punishment and executions is the crackdown on media freedom. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), “Iran is one of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists for the past 40 years. State control of news and information is unrelenting and at least 860 journalists and citizen-journalists have been imprisoned or executed since 1979.”

Iran ranks 173rd in the RSF 2020 World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries, worsening on 2019’s ranking of 170.

There are tight controls over the media, the constant threat of shutdowns for the few remaining independent outlets, harassment of independent and citizen journalists and the risk of arrest. The increasing turn to social media for reporting is a double edged sword; independent and citizen journalists can expose injustices more easily, but also risk any social media activity being used as a reason for arrest and imprisonment. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) data shows 15 journalists currently imprisoned in Iran. Seven of those were independent freelancers, and two were reporters with Amad News, Arash Shoa-Shargh and Rouhallah Zam. Zam, arrested in October 2019, was executed on 12 December 2020. He was found guilty of “corruption of Earth”. He ran Amad News, sharing content to over one million followers on government corruption. Amad News was accused by the government of inciting violence during the 2017 and 2018 protests. Zam is one of three journalists who have been murdered in Iran since 1997 (CPJ data). 

Foreign and Dual-Nationals

Another strand of human rights abuses involving political prisoners is the imprisonment of foreign and dual-nationals, those from abroad who have Iranian citizenship or citizenship with another country. Iran uses this as a hostage diplomacy tactic, leveraging the lives of innocent people for negotiations with other countries. 

According to the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, there are at least 10 dual or foreign nationals who are known to be imprisoned in Iran, as of April 2020.

This year, one foreign national was released from the notoriously brutal Evin Prison: Kylie Moore-Gilbert. The Australian-British academic, who worked as a lecturer at Melbourne University’s Asia Institute, spent 804 days in prison since October 2018. Her release on 27 November 2020 was suspected to be part of a negotiation with Thailand and Australia; the Taiwanese government exchanged three Iranian citizens as Moore-Gilbert was released. Neither Thailand or Australia have acknowledged that this was a prisoner swap, despite six months of negotiations.

Also in November, the planned execution of Swedish-Iranian Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali caused global outcry. Djalali was sentenced to death in October 2017 for “corruption on Earth” charges, using torture and death threats against his family to obtain a “confession”.  Dr Djalali’s lawyers confirmed that the Iranian authorities have written an official letter stating that they will carry out the death sentence against him, but thousands of individuals have called for his execution to be halted. The UN and the EU, as well as numerous worldwide government officials, academic institutions and civil society organisations, voiced their opposition to his execution. 

The British government has been continually lobbied by the relatives of Iranian-British dual-nationals imprisoned in Iran, but is yet to take meaningful action to secure their release and safety. Anoosheh Ashoori, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Morad Tahbaz, Aras Amiri, Shahram Shirkhani and Kameel Ahmady are all dual-nationals with Iranain and British citizenship or British residency that are currently imprisoned. 

The charges against them range from “corruption on Earth”, espionage, or collaboration with a hostile/foreign government. One suspected reason for the failure of the British government to effectively negotiate the release of these prisoners is the looming £400 million debt owed from the British to the Iranians. For the first time, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged the debt as a major obstacle in September 2020, and said that the government is “exploring every legal avenue to pay the debt.” The debt is decades old, from the non-delivery of Chieftain tanks ordered by the Shah of Iran before his overthrow in 1979, but still plays a part in today’s relations between Britain and Iran. In 2008, an international arbitration ruled that the UK owed the debt, but there have been numerous legal battles since. Here, the legacies of British interference in the region are clear, as the lives of dual-nationals hang in the balance waiting for the UK to make up for errors of the past.

Persecution of minorities 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the minority groups who face persecution by the Iranian regime. The Baha’is are denied freedom of religion under Iranian law, with authorities continually arresting members of the Baha’i faith on “vague national security charges”, and close down businesses owned by Baha’is. Baha’is are also prohibited from registering at public universities because of their faith. On 25 November 2020, VOA news reported that Iranian authorities enacted one of the largest coordinated raids of Baha’i homes. Around 50 families had their homes raided, across different regions of the country and including the capital Tehran. Sources report the Iranian agents seized personal documents and digital devices. Such raids are said to happen regularly in Iran. Other minorities who face restrictions on their freedom include the Sunni Muslim population, the Azeri, Kurdish ethnic minorities and Baluch ethnic minorities, and Christian and Jewish religious minorities. 

Women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights are also limited, and activists are often detained. In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, many imprisoned women’s rights activists faced new charges or prison transfers to prevent their release. Around 85,000 prisoners were temporarily released under a furlough scheme, many of whom were political detainees, but prominent activists remain imprisoned. Those include Narges Mohammadi, a women’s rights defender jailed for 16 years, who was denied furlough and charged with “dancing in prison during the days of mourning to commemorate the murder of the Shia Imam Hussein.” Atena Daemi, another women’s rights activist, was also given new charges of “disturbing order” at Evin prison by chanting anti-government slogans to render her ineligible for furlough. Saba Kord Afshari, jailed in 2019 for nine years for not wearing a headscarf, had her sentence increase to 24 years. 

Onlooking 2021

Whilst the year in human rights for Iran is a dire picture, geo-political forces may change the situation in the coming year. The EU has heavily criticised Iran’s execution of Rouhallah Zam, with European powers first pulling out of a business conference with Iran, and then calling on Iran to release its arbitrarily detained prisoners. EU chiefs specifically called for the release of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, condemned Iran’s executions, and drew attention to Dr Djalali’s case. 

European Commissioner for Equality, addressing the European Parliament, called on Iran to end the arbitrary detentions of EU-Iranian dual-nationals and Iranian human rights defenders. As European powers took meaningful action in pulling out of the business conference, the hopes are that the Iranian regime changes its practices and releases its political detainees if faced with jeopardising business and trade.

With the success of President-elect Joe Biden in the US, Iranian relations may improve. President Trump was very vocally opposed to Iran, often tweeting his dismay at the Iranian government and pulling out of former President Obama’s landmark nuclear deal (JCPOA). However, Iran has stated that it would return to the deal “within an hour” of the US doing so, but with no extra constraints or changes to its ballistic missile programme. President-elect Biden said the US will rejoin the deal and lift sanctions if Tehran returns to “strict compliance.” In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Iran had more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the agreement. 

Whilst Iran appears to have already exceeded the limits of the deal since Trump’s departure from it, the effect of sanctions on the economy and on health may help to reign them back in. Iran’s GDP has declined by 11% since the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. A HRW report details that US sanctions have “largely deterred international banks and firms from participating in commercial or financial transactions with Iran, including for exempted humanitarian transactions, due to the fear of triggering US secondary sanctions on themselves”. As a result, Iranian citizens face negative impacts on their access to health and essential medicines. As 2020 has been plagued with the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an issue of grave importance. The US did not ease sanctions on Iran when the pandemic hit, but instead heightened them. Iran has recorded over a million COVID-19 cases and 53,273 deaths (as of 18 December). Iran was one of the first countries worldwide to open up its economy so quickly after the COVID-19 first wave in order to narrowly avoid economic catastrophe and bankruptcy, but a more deadly second wave ensued. 

Officials in Tehran said that US sanctions are hampering attempts to procure a COVID-19 vaccine, as Iran is unable to utilise a payment system intended to ensure fair global access to the vaccine (named COVAX). Iran is prevented from using funds from the facility jointly managed by Geneva-based Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the World Health Organization, as money has to be cleared through US banks in order to be converted to dollars, then euros, before being transferred to COVAX, but banks are unwilling to do so. With Biden looking to return to the JCPOA, and Iran devastated by sanctions to an even greater degree over this year, there are international hopes that cooperation between the two can resume, and lessen the wreckage to Iranian citizens; lives and public health.

As 2020 draws to a close, the human rights and freedoms of many in Iran remain in need of defending. Multilateral cooperation between governments, civil society, and worldwide institutions should continue to work towards diplomatic solutions with Iran. Human rights should be essential going forward into the new year, retracting the punishments given to those who are already detained or persecuted, and preventing future instances of human rights violations.

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