Mass Sentencing of Labor Activists, Journalists Prelude to Reign of Repression Under New Judiciary Chief
Seven Sentenced to Lengthy Jail Terms in Connection with Peaceful Protests
September 9, 2019—Less than a year after workers’ rights activists in southwestern Iran publicized evidence that Intelligence Ministry agents had tortured detainees, those same activists and four independent journalists who covered their cases have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
“The sentences are an indicator that newly appointed Judiciary Chief Ehrabim Raisi intends to prolong his predecessor’s reign of repression by punishing peaceful activism through arbitrary arrests and kangaroo courts,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by Iran’s Constitution, yet the judiciary is decimating that right by punishing activists and journalists for exercising it,” he added. “Raisi has signaled that he will be accelerating the corrosion of the rule of law in Iran to stamp out peaceful dissent.”
The sentences are part of the government’s heavy-handed response to more than two years of protests at the Haft Tappeh sugar mill in the city of Shush, Khuzestan Province, for unpaid wages and workers’ rights.
The following individuals were all convicted of “national security” charges for participating in or covering those demonstrations, according to a post by the Haft Tappeh workers’ Telegram channel on September 7, 2019.
They were all sentenced by notorious hardline Judge Mohammad Moghiseh at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran:
Esmail Bakhshi, Haft Tappeh worker, union representative, 14 years in prison, 74 lashes
Sepideh Qoliyan, labor rights activist and freelance journalist, 18.6 years in prison
Amirhossein Mohammadifard, editor-in-chief of the independent Gam Telegram app news channel, 18 years in prison
Asal Mohammadi, Gam reporter, 18 years in prison
Sanaz Allahyari, Gam reporter, 18 years in prison
Amir Amirgholi, Gam reporter, 18 years in prison
Mohammad Khanifar, Haft Tappeh worker, six years in prison
Peaceful Activism, Press Freedom Treated as National Security Crime
The same day the sentences were issued, on September 7, 2019, former Tehran Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi—the only official who was held accountable for the torture and deaths of three political prisoners in 2009—walked free from prison after serving two years of his three-year sentence.
The seven defendants are currently imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Worker’s rights activist Ali Nejati was supposed to be included in the mass trial but has been free on bail since January 28, 2019, for medical reasons and it is not known when he will be tried.
If the sentences are upheld on appeal, the defendants would each have to serve seven years in prison, and Khonifar five years, according to Article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code, which stipulates that only the lengthiest sentence must be served in cases involving multiple convictions.
All seven were convicted of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “forming groups with the intention of disturbing national security” and “contacts with anti-state organizations.”
Qoliyan and Bakhshi were also convicted of “disturbing public opinion” and “publishing falsehoods.”
According to Article 27 of Iran’s Constitution, “Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”
But peaceful labor activism in Iran is treated as a national security offense; independent labor unions are not allowed to function, strikers are often fired and risk arrest and labor leaders are consistently prosecuted under catchall national security charges and sentenced to long prison terms.
Arrested for Demanding Unpaid Wages, Accusing Intelligence Ministry of Torture
Qoliyan and Bakhshi were initially arrested on November 18, 2018, at a rally by Haft Tappeh workers in the city of Shush where workers have been protesting for unpaid wages since 2017.
After they were released on bail a month later, they reported that agents of the Intelligence Ministry had tortured them while they were in their custody.
“During the first few days, without reason or any conversation, they tortured me and beat me with their fists and kicked me until I was going to die. They beat me so much I couldn’t move in my cell for 72 hours,” Bakhshi wrote on his now-suspended Instagram page on January 4, 2019.
His account was corroborated by other detainees including Qoliyan, who tweeted on January 9: “During Esmail Bakhshi’s arrest, I witnessed him being brutally beaten and when he was interrogated I saw him being humiliated…I’m ready to give testimony about myself and Esmail Bakhshi in any fair trial.”
In a video statement filmed in January 2019 before her second arrest, Qoliyan detailed the way she, Bakhshi and other detainees were tortured by Intelligence Ministry agents.
Both Bakhshi and Qoliyan were subsequently re-arrested on January 20. “I was being severely beaten,” said Qoliyan. “My cell was right next to the torture room. The sound of torture until morning wouldn’t let me get any rest. Where we were being kept was where they were holding members of Daesh [ISIS].”
The journalists who covered their cases and Haft Tappeh protests by posting reports on the independent Gam Telegram app independent news channel were also arrested in January.
A group of parliamentarians condemned the renewed crackdown on freedom of speech and assembly, calling on Raisi, who was appointed to head the judiciary by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in March, to rescind the heavy sentences.
“When Hojatoleslam [Ebrahim] Raisi became the judiciary chief, his statements reminded the people of the meaning of justice and due process. But unfortunately, we are again witnessing the same kind of sentences preferred by the previous Judiciary Chief [Sadegh Larijani],” said Member of Parliament Parvaneh Salahshouri during a speech on September 1, 2019.
On September 8, Iranian government-funded news outlets reported that Raisi may review the sentences.
“According to an informed source, Judiciary Chief [Ebrahim Raisi] has given a special order to the head of the judiciary in Tehran to reconsider and fairly assess recent verdicts issued by one of the branches of the Revolutionary Court as soon as possible,” reported the Iranian Students News Agency.
The report did not specify which cases would be reviewed or when. Nor did it mention that Raisi participated in “death commissions” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of prisoners in 1988 based on fatwas issued by the Islamic Republic’s founder and then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Intensified Crackdown Also Targets Activists, Lawyers, and Students
Environmentalists, students, lawyers, researchers, and women’s rights activists are among those being targeted in a renewed crackdown on freedom of speech, expression, and assembly by Iran’s security establishment and judiciary that appears to be accelerating under Raisi.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which answers to the supreme leader, and the Intelligence Ministry, which operates under President Hassan Rouhani, are both executing the crackdowns by detaining citizens for peaceful actions such as attending protests or writing articles condemning state policies.
“President Rouhani, who was voted into office promising to uphold citizens’ rights, has done nothing to address ongoing arbitrary arrests and rights violations by his own Intelligence Ministry,” said Ghaemi.
“The Iranian people are living under a government that punishes them at will and with total disregard for the law when they demand their basic rights,” he added.
*Editor’s Note: This article was revised on September 26, 2019, to reflect that Mohammad Khanifar’s name is spelled with an “a”, not with an “o” (Khonifar).