The Canadian Parliament has just concluded its third Iran Accountability Week, which sounded the alarm on the fourfold threat posed by the Iranian regime – nuclear, terrorist, incitement, and – in particular – the widespread and systematic violations of the human rights of the Iranian people. Parliamentarians heard expert witness testimony on the Iranian threat – particularly the massive domestic repression. In addition, a centrepiece of Iran Accountability Week was the Global Iranian Political Prisoner Advocacy Project, wherein parliamentarians “adopted” an Iranian political prisoner not unlike the experience with taking up the case and cause of Soviet political prisoners.
This year’s Iran Accountability Week occurred at a most propitious time, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been touting his commitment to “constructive engagement” with the international community, particularly in the negotiation of a comprehensive nuclear agreement. Yet, as nuclear talks resume this week, the systematic and widespread violations of human rights in Iran are being overshadowed – if not sanitized – by the preemptive international focus on the nuclear issue.
It should be recalled that when the U.S. negotiated an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, it did not turn a blind eye to the USSR’s human rights abuses. Instead, the Helsinki Final Act linked the security, economic, and human rights “baskets,” with human rights emerging as the most transformative of the three. Negotiations with Iran should replicate this approach.
Accordingly, the ongoing nuclear negotiations should neither distract nor deflect from addressing and redressing the Iranian regime’s massive domestic repression.
The following constitutes an overview of just a few of the serious human rights abuses in Iran that continue unabated – or have even intensified – under Rouhani’s “moderate” presidency.
Prior to Rouhani’s rise to power, Iran had the highest per capita execution rate in the world. Yet, the alarming rate of executions has actually increased under Rouhani, with more than 650 executions having been carried out since his ascension to the Presidency in August 2013 – including twenty executions during the week of his November “charm offensive” at the United Nations – a fact largely ignored. Meanwhile, the recent execution binge has witnessed more than 250 executions carried out since the beginning of 2014 alone.
2. Political prisoners
According to the recent report by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed – the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran – there are at least 895 “prisoners of conscience” and “political prisoners” incarcerated in Iran. Among them, as described by Dr. Shaheed, are political activists, religious practitioners, human rights defenders, civic activists, student activists, journalists, and other leaders of civil society.
Although Rouhani did free a number of political prisoners in the run-up to his September appearance at the UN – including iconic human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – the cosmetic freeing of individual prisoners should not overshadow the ongoing painful reality of the criminalization of innocence. Simply put, those that prosecute and persecute must be held to account.
As Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi put it,”Nearly all of the opposition activists in prison before Rouhani was elected are still in prison.”
According to Dr. Shaheed’s March 2014 report, former detainees describe being “subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and prolonged solitary confinement to coerce confessions . . . .”
His work documents the horrific treatment that Iranian prisoners endure, such as physical torture, including beating, whipping, and assault occurring in 100 percent of cases; sexual torture, including rape, molestation, and violence to genitals, occurring in 60 percent of cases; and a high prevalence of psychological and environmental torture, such as solitary confinement.
One shocking example of the rampant violence perpetrated against Iranian prisoners is the brutal raid by prison officials against Evin Prison inmates on April 17, where dozens of security officials – reportedly backed by the IRGC and Intelligence Ministry agents – used “extreme violence” during searches of cells in the notorious Ward 350, which houses political prisoners, with more than 30 detainees seriously injured.
Not only has Rouhani remained silent about these crimes, but he has promoted the head of the Iran Prisons Organization – Gholam Hossein Esmaili – to the position of Director General of the Justice Department in Tehran Province.
4. Persecution of the Baha’i
The Baha’i are routinely imprisoned for practicing their faith, and this month marks the start of their seventh year of incarceration for the group of seven Baha’i leaders, known as the Yaran. Their 20 year sentences amount to a death sentence for some owing to their advanced age.
Despite Rouhani’s professed commitment to greater tolerance of religious minorities, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa calling on Iranians to avoid any interactions with members of the Baha’i faith, whom he maligned as a “deviant and misleading sect.”
In his most recent report, Dr. Shaheed expounded on the plight of the Baha’i, whom he described as being “almost exclusively prosecuted for participation in their community affairs.”
The Iranian regime’s systematic persecution of the Baha’i has also resulted in widespread religiously motivated hate crimes against them, with none of the attackers yet prosecuted or brought to justice.
5. The Persecution of Journalists and the Assault on Free Speech
Even under Rouhani, Iran continues to imprison more journalists than almost any other country.
Indeed, dozens of journalists who were arrested during the crackdown that followed the 2009 fraudulent Presidential election remain incarcerated, while the regime continues to regularly arrest journalists and bloggers, imprisoning them without charge or trial or under trumped up charges such as “propagating against the system” or “insulting the President.” More recently, the regime has shuttered five newspapers, Bahr, Aseman, Ebtekar, Neshat, and Ghanoon.
In addition, many journalists report that the regime intimidates and harasses their families in an effort to pressure them into discontinuing their work, recalling that last June’s election was marked by the monitoring and censoring of internet activity, the blocking of access to opposition websites and e-mail accounts, and a roundup of members of the press.
6. Assault on the Rule of Law and the Independence of the Judiciary
There is a complete absence of judicial independence and rule of law in Iran. Indeed, the entire legal system is designed to enable and enforce the regime’s massive repression of human rights, and create a culture of impunity for its violators.
In this regard, it is outrageous that Rouhani’s appointee as Justice Minister is Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi – a man implicated in a litany of major human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners.
Dr. Shaheed estimates that some 40 lawyers have been detained since 2009. Any hope that matters would improve under Rouhani has clearly been repudiated by the appointment of Pour-Mohammadi as Justice Minister, as well as Elham Aminzadeh – a long-time apologist for Iran’s human rights record – as Vice President for Legal Affairs – both case studies of impunity.
Irwin Cotler is a Member of the Canadian Parliament, Emeritus Professor of Law (McGill University), and the former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada. He is co-Chair with Senator Mark Kirk of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and a Member of the Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran.