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September 21, 2014 11:03 am

Rouhani’s Record Reveals Nothing Has Changed in Iran

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avatar by Irwin Cotler


Iran's President Hassan Rouhani at the World Economic Forum. Photo: Screenshot.

While Iranian President Rouhani pledged to usher in a new era of human rights for Iranians, the person held out as a “moderate” has presided over a regime that continues to engage in massive repression. As nuclear negotiations continue, so does the systematic and widespread violation of human rights in Iran. While negotiations respecting Iran’s nuclear weaponization program resume this week, they should neither overshadow nor sanitize the regime’s ongoing abuses.

What follows is an overview of some of the serious human rights violations in Iran that serve as a litmus test for the authenticity of Rouhani’s commitment to human rights for the Iranian people.


This summer marked 26 years since the Iranian regime’s 1988 Prison Massacre. For five months beginning in July 1988, the regime of then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini executed thousands of Iranian dissidents, thereby purging any opposition to the absolute authority of the ruling clerics. These executions were carried out by fatwah – a religious decree – with the victims denied any semblance of due process as their guilt was proclaimed. Twenty-six years later, the Iranian regime not only continues to suppress evidence of the massacre – while rebuking family requests seeking information surrounding the execution and burial of the victims – but continues to provide political and financial rewards to the perpetrators.

Despite talk of moderation, Rouhani continues to indulge a culture of impunity, rewarding and promoting the perpetrators of grave abuses. His own Justice Minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, played a leading role in the 1988 Prison Massacre, presiding over the Evin Prison Death Committee that was responsible for selecting victims, and is a scandalous example of the prevailing culture of impunity. Moreover, after political prisoners at Evin Prison’s notorious Ward 350 were brutally beaten in April, the responsible prison official – Gholamhossein Esmaili – was promoted to head the Tehran Justice Department. So long as human rights abusers continue to be rewarded with political advancement, Rouhani’s rhetoric of “moderation” will remain empty and irrelevant.


Rouhani has spoken in support of gender equality – and Article 20 of the Iranian Constitution purports to protect it. Nonetheless, women in Iran face widespread and systematic discrimination in education, employment, state benefits, family relations, and access to justice – not to mention the dearth of female representation in decision-making roles. Indeed, according to a new plan announced last month, female employees in Tehran municipality will now be formally segregated from their male counterparts. Moreover, according to a directive ratified by the council of mayors, only male government employees will be eligible for specified posts. It is particularly telling that, despite Rouhani’s talk of gender-equality, his Justice Minister, Pour-Mohammadi has described this gender-segregation plan as being “in conformity with the regime’s values.”

Gender-based discrimination and the exclusion of women from economic and professional opportunities have increased under Rouhani. This month, Colonel Khalil Helali – the head of the Public Buildings Office of the Iranian Police – announced that women are not allowed to be employed in cafés and traditional Iranian restaurants. Women have also been banned in 13 provinces from appearing on stage in musical performances. The result of these decrees will be to exacerbate unemployment amongst women, who already suffer unemployment at more than twice the rate of Iranian men.


Iran continues to imprison human rights defenders, students, journalists, bloggers, artists, trade unionists, members of the political opposition, and civil society leaders generally. While Rouhani has freed some high profile political prisoners at opportune moments – such as in the run up to his September 2013 visit to the U.S. – the cosmetic freeing of individual prisoners does not constitute systemic change in this regard. Indeed, the continued imprisonment of Jason Rezaian – the 38 year old American-Iranian Washington Post correspondent in Tehran – along with his wife – is yet another instance of the regime’s systematic repression of free speech and free press, while the hosue arrest of 2009 Presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Medi Karoubi, together with Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnaverd, is entering its fourth year.

Moreover, the regime continues to use a “revolving door” approach to the freeing of political prisoners whose detention may have garnered unwelcome international attention. This strategy entails the intermittent release of certain prisoners on short-term furloughs, who remain surveilled, harassed, and intimidated and may be ultimately rearrested once international concern with their individual cases wanes. One recent example is the arrest in June of blogger Mehdi Khazali, who had been previously imprisoned and then pardoned after a conviction for “insulting the Supreme Leader.” Khazali was rearrested on unspecified charges that are believed to be related to the publication of a politically charged blog post.


While Rouhani continues to pay lip service to principles of free speech and free press, his rhetorical commitment to greater protections for journalists is belied by reality. Indeed, Amnesty International has reported a “sharp rise in arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment of independent journalists in Iran [that] signals the authorities’ utter determination to crush hopes for increased freedom . . . .” In addition, the regime has increasingly confiscated satellite dishes and continues to restrict open internet access. While internet censorship has prevailed in Iran since the 2009 Green Protests – and while there are reports of reform – the targeting of open internet access continues. Recently, a senior Iranian hard-line cleric, Makarem Shirazi, declared that “high-speed mobile . . . services are ‘un-Islamic’ and violate ‘human and moral norms.'” This sentiment is particularly troubling in light of the reality of government censorship in Iran. Indeed, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which is tasked with formulating Iran’s internet policy, is dominated by conservative and hard-line members.

Censorship in Iran is not limited to the internet, but extends also to the traditional print media. The regime continues to shutter newspapers deemed unacceptably critical of the regime or seen as questioning tenets of Shiite Islam. In April, the reformist newspaper Ebtekar was closed for “spreading lies” after it reported that Evin Prison Chief Esmaili’s promotion had been connected to the Evin prison assault over which he presided. Ebtekar is the third paper to be closed in recent months. Officials ordered the reformist paper Bahar to be closed  in October and the newly launched Aseman in February.

5.      TORTURE

Under Rouhani’s presidency, torture continues to be used by authorities to intimidate detainees and to coerce confessions that are then used to justify trumped-up charges, while the general culture of impunity prevails. As documented by Dr. Ahmad Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, methods of torture include: whipping and assault; sexual torture including rape; and psychological torture such as prolonged solitary confinement.


Iran executes more people per-capita than any other state – with 90 executed in August alone – an alarming rate that has actually increased under Rouhani, with some 600 executions carried out in 2014. Moreover, many of these executions have been carried out in secret such that the true number is likely to be higher, while many of those executed have been activists for ethnic and religious minorities who were arrested on trumped up charges. While Rouhani continues to preside over a massive execution binge, the regime continues to deny the UN Special Rapporteur access to the country.

The disconnect between Rouhani’s rhetoric and the reality of human rights violations must end. The international community must demand accountability and action from Rouhani, who must cease and desist from the massive domestic repression and end the accompanying culture 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.

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