Iran: Human rights caught between diplomatic progress and political deadlock

Press release
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Op-ed written by Karim Lahidji, FIDH President, at the occasion of Rouhani’s first anniversary as the president of the country.

The diplomats are delighted. One year after Hassan Rouhani was elected president, relations between Iran and Western countries are (almost) friendly. Hassan Rouhani is being hailed as a ‘reformist,’ with many newspapers touting him as the antithesis of Ahmadinejad, who was known for his belligerent rhetoric and violent anti-Semitism. Counselled by rather knowledgeable advisors, after his election Rouhani immediately undertook far-reaching negotiations on the nuclear programme in an attempt to lift the sanctions that weigh heavily on Iran’s economy.

According to the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the nuclear negotiations in Geneva are “difficult” but are making progress, as are the discussions with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been authorised to return to “sensitive sites” in Iran. The media has extensively covered these delicate negotiations, as well as the spectacular improvement in relations between Iran and the United States, evidenced by the ubiquitous news stories on the historical telephone call between the Iranian president and the U.S. president in September 2013, which was immediately hailed as a landmark moment in international relations. These warming relations were only slightly marred by the appointment of the new Ambassador of the Islamic Republic to the U.N., Hamid Aboutalebi, who is suspected of having participated in the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.
On the eve of the first anniversary of Rouhani’s election, this improved diplomatic atmosphere has proved sufficient for the international community to give the Iranian president a tacit vote of approval and agree to ease sanctions on Iran. Not even the Syrian crisis managed to seriously impede Iran’s return to favour in the concert of nations, despite Iran’s flagrant support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The international community has also closed its eyes to the human rights situation within Iran, a state that is far from reflecting the picture of tolerance and moderation that its president paints for the international media.

Executions, torture, and imprisonment just as prevalent in today’s Iran as in the Iran of Ahmadinejad

To praise Iran’s president for his diplomatic successes means forgetting all too easily that the situation within the country has changed little, if at all, since his election. The wave of hope that accompanied the victory of Hassan Rouhani has not materialized into concrete progress, and far from it. Executions, torture, and imprisonment are just as prevalent in today’s Iran as in the Iran of Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani’s numerous electoral promises concerning rule of law and freedom of the press, of opinion, of assembly, and of association remain unfulfilled.

The right to a fair trial continues to be systematically violated, and the courts increasingly hand down the death penalty, most often for cases of drug trafficking. Thousands of people – including many members of ethnic communities such as the Balochs, Kurds, and Arabs – are on death row in Iran. Despite a lack of transparency and an absence official public records of executions, many death sentences are carried out, often publicly. 2013 was a record year in the past decade, with over 700 executions, including at least 8 minors. 2014 looks to be following the same trend, with more than 330 executions, including 7 minors, having taken place since the beginning of the year.

The release of some political prisoners in September 2013 – including our colleague Nasrin Soutodeh, human rights lawyer and recipient of the 2012 Sakharov Prize – should not distract the international community from the fact that many prisoners of conscience remain in detention, and more continue to be arrested. There may be as many as 1,000 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience behind bars in Iran today, including two other FIDH members, Abdolfattah Soltani and Mohammad Seifzadeh, as well as other human rights defenders such as Bahareh Hedayat, Mohammad Seddigh Kaboudvand and Reza Shahabi Zakaria. Over 130 followers of the Baha’i faith, held solely for practising their religion, are also imprisoned. Nearly 50 Christian converts, scores of Sufi (Dervish) and Sunni Muslims, and others are also held in prison for their religious beliefs. Many of the detainees are held in Evin prison and Rajaishahr prison, and are subjected to various types of torture and ill-treatment.
Contrary to the promises made by Rouhani before his election, freedom of the press is also systematically declining. A number of publications have been shut down or otherwise barred from publication, including the reformist-leaning newspapers Asseman, Ghanoon, and Bahar. The Association of Journalists, banned since the 2009 elections, has still not been authorised to open its doors. The repression of social protests is at an all-time high, leading to the arrest of many trade unionists.

Under the control of the Supreme Leader

Lawyers, journalists and academics bear the brunt of a regime that is rigid and seems incapable of change, but it would be an exaggeration to lay all of the blame for the present repression exclusively on Hassan Rouhani, as this regime is largely controlled by the real master of the State, Ayatollah Khamenei. The Supreme Leader, who supervises the three branches of government including the Executive, has never denied his hostility toward political change, leaving the newly elected president with very little room to manoeuvre. The judiciary is only accountable to Khamenei and thus feels no reason to change its policies on public freedoms. Members of Parliament are also vetted: in order to be eligible for election, they have to be ‘pre-selected’ by the Council of Guardians, a very conservative body where half the members are personally chosen by the Supreme Leader and the other half hand-picked by his judiciary.

Hassan Rouhani therefore does not bear sole responsibility for the deepening political and economic stalemates in Iran. That said, the Iranian president is not without authority to change some of Iran’s repressive policies, which he has failed to do. Campaign promises to reduce censorship of the media and allow unions to operate more freely fall under the jurisdiction of the president, but remain unfulfilled.
By declaring his scepticism regarding agreements with Western governments on nuclear energy, Ali Khamenei flexed his muscles and engaged in a de facto power play with Hassan Rouhani, who has relied heavily on these negotiations to reboot the country’s economic machinery. If Rouhani is to have a truly successful term in power beyond the diplomatic pageantry of his first year in office, he will not only have to ensure the lifting of sanctions and revitalisation of Iran’s economy, but will also have to leverage the Constitution (albeit an undemocratic one) and the bit of legitimacy bestowed on him by the Iranian people in last year’s elections to push the regime to respect the Iranian people’s most basic human rights, a duty and promise he has yet to make good on.

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