Message to Rouhani: Rights Crisis in Iran Must Finally Be Addressed
September 22, 2015—When Iranian president Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015, his third trip to the organization’s New York headquarters since his election in June 2013, he will stand on a record of great success in the nuclear negotiations—and abject failure in delivering on his pledges to defend basic civil rights and liberties in Iran.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran calls on all government and UN officials, business and civil society leaders, and journalists who will be meeting with Rouhani and his delegation in New York to use every interaction with Iranian officials to press them to end the repression gripping the country and respect its citizens’ most basic civil liberties, particularly the right to peaceful dissent.
Elected by a large margin over two years ago promising greater political and social freedoms, Rouhani presides over a country held in a firm chokehold by repressive security and intelligence organizations controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, and a Judiciary that ignores Iran’s own laws to suppress all dissent in the country.
“His citizens are being thrown in prison for peacefully criticizing their government,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “Rouhani hides behind an ‘independent’ Judiciary but he is still head of state. It is indefensible that Rouhani has been silent and inconsequential on basic human rights.”
Over the past two years, Rouhani has effectively ceded the domestic sphere to the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization and the Judiciary, both organizations whose respective heads report directly to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
These two organizations have been at the forefront of repression in Iran, and Rouhani, despite his pledges, has proved either unwilling or unable to publicly push back against them.
“With the signing of the nuclear accord, Iran is focused on reaping the economic benefits of the removal of sanctions. But the international community should insist that the government finally focus on the human rights crisis in the country,” said Ghaemi. “The US and the EU should predicate the trade and investment Iran seeks on the release of the country’s political prisoners and the authorities’ acceptance of the right to peaceful dissent.”
The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization emerged as a powerful force and parallel entity to the administration’s Ministry of Intelligence in 2009, when the state, under then-president Ahmadinejad, used them to violently suppress the post-presidential election protests. Under the hardline Ahmadinejad, the Guards’ role was supported if not encouraged, and the organization, originally formed in 1979 by the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, to safeguard the new regime, became a huge political and economic actor in the country.
The Judiciary, headed by Sadegh Amoli Larijani, is also a bastion of hardline power, and often relies on its system of parallel Revolutionary Courts to try political dissidents under trumped up national security charges, presided over by hand-picked judges who hand down harsh sentences.
Rouhani administration officials argue that Iran’s separation of powers dictates an independent Judiciary, but such passivity ignores the president’s constitutional powers—as well as the power of the bully pulpit—to defend citizens’ rights.
Hundreds of political prisoners remain in Iranian jails, some dating back to the disputed 2009 election that ended with a violent state crackdown on peaceful protestors. The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence bodies aggressively pursue peaceful activists, working hand-in-hand with the Judiciary to send them to prison for lengthy terms. Atena Daemi, age 27, serving 14 years for her participation in gatherings against the death penalty, and 28-year-old Atena Faraghdani, serving 12 for posting her drawings on Facebook, are just two recent cases. The Guards have also been the central player in the high profile arrests of dual Iranian-American citizens, such as the Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
The Judiciary, meanwhile, delivers sentences predetermined by the Guards’ Intelligence Organization, and keeps activists behind bars illegally: Bahareh Hedayat, age 34, is held on expired charges after completing her five-year sentence for her student activism, and prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, was returned to prison on old charges for her support for women’s rights.
None of these individuals have received public mention by Rouhani, despite the clear violations of the Iranian constitution and law in both cases, and his statement on June 8, 2013, during his campaign that “We must do something for all these prisoners to be released.” The president has occasionally spoken out against the over four-year-long house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard, but tepidly and to no effect.
Meanwhile, executions are at unprecedented levels: at the current rate, more than 1000 people will be executed in 2015, almost all after judicial prosecutions severely lacking in due process and primarily for drug-related crimes for which international standards do not allow capital punishment.
Other freedoms remain under assault as well: the Revolutionary Guards have been particularly aggressive with any dissent expressed on the Internet, pursuing online professionals and social media activists and ensuring that judicial prosecutions end in long prison terms. While Rouhani has promoted Internet access, arguing it is necessary for modern economic life, he has said little about the Guards’ persecution of Internet professionals and activists, and the filtering and monitoring of online activities by the Guards’ cyber police continues.
The Rouhani administration is not always only a passive bystander, however. At times it too has adopted repressive policies. The Association of Iranian Journalists, under Rouhani’s Ministry of Labor, remains shuttered, and Iran is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. Films and books continue to be banned, and Rouhani’s own Minister of Intelligence urged the maximum punishment for the prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi.
“All entities, must use every opportunity in their meetings with Iranian officials in New York to press the government to respect its citizens’ most basic civil liberties, including the right to peaceful dissent,” urged Ghaemi.