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Wave of Journalist Arrests Sweeps Iran

Newspaper Iran

Seraj Mirdamadi is one of dozens of journalists and civil society activists that have been arrested in Iran over just the past two months. In self-imposed exile since 2009, Mr. Mirdamadi was arrested upon his return to Iran at the time of President Rouhani’s inauguration in 2013, and he was sentenced to six years in prison on 27 July 2014.

A week before, on 22 July, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a reporter with the National Emirates, were also arrested in Tehran along with another photojournalist and her husband. Without announcing any specific charges, officials have confirmed these arrests.

Last week, six Special Procedures mandate holders joined me to condemn the recent wave of arrests of journalists and civil society activists in Iran, which did not end there.

On 28 June 2014, journalist Mr. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin was charged with “propaganda against the state” related to interviews with media and speeches he gave at conferences. He was then released on bail of two billion riyals ($ US 66,000).

In the last two months alone, at least four female journalists were also summoned to prison to serve their sentences. Mahnaz Mohamadi, a documentary film maker, women’s rights activist, and photojournalist who was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state,” was arrested and transferred to Evin Prison on 7 June to begin serving her sentence. On 21 June, journalist Reyhaneh Tabatabai was also arrested after she presented herself to the office of the prosecutor upon being summoned for a new case. She was transferred to Evin Prison to serve six-month sentence. Marzieh Rassouli, who had worked as a journalist with the Shargh and Etemad newspapers, reported to prison on 8 July to serve her sentence of two years in prison and 50 lashes. And on 11 July, Sajedeh Arabsorkhi, a blogger and journalist, also reported to Evin Prison to serve a one-year sentence on the charge of “propaganda against the state.”

On 10 June 2014, journalist Hossein Nourani Nejad, who had been in detention since April 21, was sentenced to six-years’ imprisonment for “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding against national security”. On 16 June he was released on bail of 3 billion rials ($US 100,000).

Ms. Saba Azarpeik, a journalist who was arrested on May 28, is still in custody. For almost two months she was allegedly detained outside the system of official state detention centers. Ms. Azarpeik appeared in court on 21 and 22 July to face charges from a previous case and was reported to be in bad physical and psychological condition.

On 26 May, an appeals court in the city of Ahvaz upheld the three-year sentences of three netizens detailed on charges of anti-Government publicity on Facebook, and on 22 May, Ms. Farideh Shahgholi, a German-Iranian netizen, began a three-year sentence. She was arrested in 2011 when she visited the country, and was charged with anti-government publicity and insulting the Supreme Leader, for comments she made on Facebook.

Repression of social media has also been on the rise over the past few months, with users increasingly facing charges for the content they upload. In one striking example, Branch 28 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, under Judge Moghisseh, recently sentenced 8 Facebook users to 127 combined years in prison combined, including a 20-year sentence for British-Iranian dual citizen Ms. Roya Nobakht.

In the year 2013, 35 journalists were imprisoned in Iran. That already high figure is now increasing by the day.

Ms. Azarpaik’s mother recently made a powerful comment that should give pause to Government officials: “They should just take away the title of ‘journalist’ as an occupation altogether, so that our children do not enter this field and so that they avoid facing issues.”

I urge the Iranian Government to respect the rights of journalists solely carrying out their professional activities—including the right to criticize—as protected by both Iran’s Constitution and its obligations under international human rights law. When this happens, parents will again encourage their children to enter the venerable field of journalism, rather than shy away from it due to fear.

Sanctions do have an impact

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Recent reporting and research indicates that economic sanctions on Iran continue to pose obstacles to the realization of economic and social rights within the country. While commenting on the purpose and value of sanctions is beyond the scope of my role as Special Rapporteur, I regularly conduct research and interviews about sanctions and their impact on the lives of Iranians, and include these results in my reports to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

I have expressed concern about the impact of sanctions in my reports, both economically and as they relate to human rights. Despite the manner in which the sanctions are structured, I continue to receive reports of challenges faced in securing certain medical supplies and services. For example, government data indicates that the Iranian pharmaceutical market experienced shortages of between 78 and 172 drugs per month between mid-2012 and September 2013.

A welcome development in January 2014 was an aspect of Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreed upon by the P5+1 that is meant to provide important sanctions relief. US sanctions law, moreover, includes exemptions and general licenses for trade of food, medicines, medical devices, and funds designated for humanitarian purposes, environmental conservation, or disaster relief. In relation to social and economic rights, the JPOA allows tuition support to Iranian nationals studying in universities abroad and includes plans for a financial channel that would permit Iran to purchase food, agricultural products, medicine, medical devices, and medical services.

There is still room for improvement, however. Details of the JPOA financial channel have yet to be determined, which has left 150 million Euros worth of medications scheduled for purchase to be held in the EU, according to a Ministry of Health official. I hope that stakeholders currently in negotiations with Iran can reach an agreement on the structure of this financial channel in order to expedite the delivery of food and medicine to those in need.

While Iran’s Expediency Council reported economic losses of roughly US $160 billion between March 2013 and March 2014 due to sanctions, the International Monetary Fund estimates the Iranian economy will grow 1-2% this calendar year. I encourage sanctions-imposing countries and the Government to take all measures to build on this positive forecast, to closely monitor the impact of sanctions, and to mitigate any negative humanitarian consequences by securing alternate channels for the swift delivery of needed goods and services.

Supporting Prisoners in Iran

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Insufficient protections for civil and political rights have resulted in the imprisonment of over 895 “prisoners of conscience” and “political prisoners” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Over half of these Iranians were sentenced for simple and protected acts such as expressing an opinion, associating with an organization that promotes cultural rights, being active on a school campus, showing up to a rally or protest, or believing in an unrecognized religion.

My recent report to the UN Human Rights Council reviews the legacy of vague and overly broad laws that lead to the arrest of Iran’s journalists, lawyers, students, and hundreds of activists that work to advance the rights of workers, women, and minorities in the country. My report also discusses the abusive practices that result in the torture and denial of fair trial standards that contribute to the unjust convictions of hundreds of human rights defenders. Some political prisoners have also been executed for their alleged crimes, including Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani and Mah Afrid Amir Khosravi, and Ali Chebeishat and Sayed Khaled Mousavi, recently executed on Moharebeh (enmity against God) charges for their involvement in cultural rights and political groups.

The UN Human Rights Council recognizes the pivotal role that human rights defenders play in the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms globally, and reflected on the serious risks they face for their work due to “threats, attacks, reprisals and acts of intimidation”. The Council’s resounding response was to reaffirm the responsibility of Member States to protect all fundamental rights, and to recognize that national laws and practices should “facilitate the work of human rights defenders, including by “avoiding any criminalization, stigmatization, impediments, obstructions or restrictions, that violate international human rights law in a unanimously adopted resolution this past March.

Iranians both inside and outside the country continue to work to realize the Council’s proclamation at home. Recently, for example, the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners held their International Day in support of the acts of bravery to peacefully advance the belief that everyone has equal rights. The international community must continue to demonstrate its commitment to Iranians by highlighting violations, calling for the release of all human rights defenders, persisting in its support for home-grown initiatives, and applauding Iran for positive steps that strengthen human rights protections in the country. This includes the apparent stay of the executions of Sunni prisoners Hamed Ahmadi, Jahangir Dehghani, Jamshid Dehghani, and Kamal Mollaie, who were prosecuted for an alleged murder, despite their claim of being in police custody at the time the crime took place.

It is my hope that judicial and law enforcement authorities in Iran can work together to uphold international rights standards that can result in a decrease in political incarcerations and prosecutions. The international community would truly welcome these and any other steps that serve to transform rhetoric into action on the part of the Government.

Illegal Execution Spree Enters New Heightened Phase

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One week ago, the Government of Iran hanged Mr. Mah Afrid AmirKhosravi, a former businessman it had accused of large-scale financial corruption. The international media, in its coverage of this story, has tended to focus on the potentially scandalous nature of financial malfeasance in Iran. In my view this misses the larger point, and an equally important storyline: that this execution was illegal under international law, which prohibits all forms of execution except in “most serious” cases, which are generally interpreted to involve violent crime.

Yesterday, on 1 June, the Government executed Mr. Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani, a political prisoner who was sentenced to death for moharebeh for allegedly passing information and possibly financial assistance to a London-based television station affiliated with the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MKO) organization.

Mr. Khosravi was originally arrested in 2008, convicted of espionage by a Revolutionary Court, and sentenced six years in prison. In 2011, well into the implementation of his sentence and prison term, Mr. Khosravi was apparently returned to court and tried for the same alleged crime, but this time on charges of moharebeh. The court issued a conviction and death sentence, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Aside from serious concerns about the possible violation of due process and fair trial guarantees in this case, it is contrary to Iranian law to try someone twice for the same crime — a case of “double jeopardy.” Moreover, Article 14 of the ICCPR, to which Iran is a State party, prohibits this practice, and the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets this core international treaty, has expressed even stronger concern for this provision in cases involving capital punishment.

Finally, Iran’s own new Islamic Penal Code, which came into effect in 2013, prohibits the implementation of capital punishment for moharebeh for cases not involving the use of a weapon. The Government itself did not claim that Mr. Khosravi used a weapon, rather that he simply passed on information and money to an organization.

These executions are illegal, plain and simple, and I call on the Government of Iran to explain them, and to cease all executions, in line with its international obligations; especially as long as fair trial and due process guarantees are lacking for political prisoners in the country.

Attention on Arrest of Artists Should Lead to Greater Engagement

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The arrest of six individuals in Iran last week for creating a dance video to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” garnered international attention. The individuals were arrested after posting a video to YouTube in April and were forced to express remorse on national television. A Twitter and Facebook campaign, #FreeHappyIranians, was trending on Facebook a day after the group’s arrest. All members of the group, with the exception of the video’s director, were released on May 21. While this case is certainly an example of restrictions on freedom of expression in Iran, the situation of human rights in the country on the whole requires more sustained attention.

As I outline in my most recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, there are many human rights concerns in Iran. Outside of freedom of expression—including the shutdown of newspapers, targeting of journalists and bloggers, and Internet censorship—I express concern about the independence of judges and lawyers, the intimidation, arrest and sentencing of ethnic and religious minorities, due process and fair trial standards, and the startling number of executions, many for crimes not meeting international standards of “most serious.”

These issues are complex and require consistent investigation, reporting, and reform efforts on the part of the Government, civil society, UN member states, the international community, and ordinary citizens in the country. I am encouraged by public statements made by members of the Government within the past year to investigate violations of human rights and uphold international standards to which Iran is a party and look forward to progress made in this regard, but remain concerned that pledges have yet to be transformed into action.

On my part, I aim to continue reporting on human rights concerns, working with the Iranian Government in areas of common concern, and raising awareness. The case of the six individuals is of course a great help in drawing attention to certain areas of human rights concern. However, I hope that the broader population now aware of the human rights situation in the country will remain engaged and continue to support the people of Iran on multiple human rights fronts, even when the specific incidents involved are not quite as catchy!

Voices of Support for Iran’s Baha’is

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Political, social, or cultural circumstances produce challenging obstacles to implementing human rights commitments in every country.

One such issue in Iran is that of the persecuted Baha’i minority. Adherents of the Baha’i Faith are typically denied the right to publicly or privately manifest their beliefs. Members of the community also often report discrimination in employment, denial of the right to higher education, imprisonment, and desecration of their cemeteries.

The targeting of Baha’is is not news for those engaged in human rights issues in Iran, but in many ways, the rise in the diversity of voices in Iran in recognition of the plight of the Baha’i community is a new and welcomed development.

Over the past year, there have been some alarming actions taken against Baha’is, accompanied by concerning state-sponsored media initiatives appearing to target the group. Ataollah Rezvani, a Baha’i, was murdered in Bandar Abbas in August 2013 in an apparently religiously-motivated crime, and members of a Baha’i family were attacked and stabbed in their home in February 2014 by a masked intruder. In December 2013, state TV broadcasted nationally a six-part documentary about the Baha’i community entitled “Meet the Darkness”, detailing the alleged “relationship between the misguided sect of Baha’ism and Israel, and the influence of the Baha’is on the sinister Pahlavi [former Shah’s] family.”

This apparent resurgence in incitement by authorities to targeting the Baha’i community has been accompanied, however, by a promising increase in the frequency of statements and expressions of solidarity with Baha’is by other Iranians. For example, last month Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani presented artwork featuring sacred Baha’i passages as “an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens”. Just last week, a group of prominent rights activists, journalists, and clerics met in a publicized group meeting to sign declarations and give statements in support of the imprisoned Baha’i leadership, known as the Yaren, who have been detained since 2008.

The significance of these developments cannot be overstated. These acts, carried out in a context where Baha’is are still often labeled as “impure” by state officials, have created a new space for dialogue. As prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh said at the aforementioned meeting, “We are here together because the Baha’i community was oppressed and our mothers and fathers did not pay attention to this matter.” Mohammad Nourizad, a former journalist for the semi-official Kayhan newspaper, said in the meeting that, “Before I went to prison, I was weighed down by prejudice. But after I was freed from prison, the heavy weight of prejudice was lifted from me and my outlook has changed.”

I hope the brave outspokenness of these individuals will inspire other like-minded individuals to raise their voices in support of their fellow citizens of Iran. While important efforts outside of Iran are ensuring that member states are aware of the human rights situation, the Government and citizens of Iran will ultimately have to take ownership of any new way forward, and the first step in this process is creating a space for dialogue. After all, Baha’is are one of many religious and ethnic groups comprising the extraordinarily rich tapestry that is Iranian culture and history.

Layers of Internet Censorship in Iran

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This past March I attended the Munk School of Global Affairs’ 2014 annual Cyber Dialogue in Toronto, where government representatives and members of civil society, academia and the private sector discussed cyber security and governance. We talked about ways to support governments, including Iran’s, in their efforts to advance protections for privacy, expression, opinion, and association and in their efforts to improve Internet speed and access to content deemed protected under international law.

These are issues of importance in every country, and particularly in Iran, where access to material deemed offensive or subversive is legally restricted, and where media entities and journalists, bloggers, and other netizens are often prosecuted for publishing or managing online content viewed as “propagating against” the Government. Some 37 journalists and netizens are currently detained in Iran, including 16 netizens arrested late last year who managed a tech-gadget news website.

Millions of websites are blocked in Iran. In 2013, a study found that a wide range of websites, including sites related to health, science, sports, news, and even shopping are blocked. Almost 50% of the top five-hundred visited websites in the world are blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

A separate study concluded that Internet speed is intentionally reduced to frustrate users and limit communication. For example, Internet traffic and speeds dropped significantly in the days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election and in the weeks leading up to the 2013 election. Throttling has also been noticeable during times of international political upheaval, including during the Arab Spring.

The employment of blocking, filtering and throttling technologies by governments frequently occurs in violation of their obligation to guarantee the right to freedom of expression. As the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank LaRue, notes in his May 2011 report:

“…blocking measures constitute an unnecessary or disproportionate means to achieve the purported aim, as they are often not sufficiently targeted and render a wide range of content inaccessible beyond that which has been deemed illegal..[and] Lastly, content is frequently blocked without the intervention of or possibility for review by a judicial or independent body.”

With this in mind, I regularly encourage authorities to ease restrictions on online media and access for Iranian citizens. I hope that the Government will recognize that access to information, which should only be subject to very narrow limitations permissible under international law, is an asset to democratic societies, and that ideal aims of maintaining security and providing open access are in no way mutually exclusive.

The Real Victims of Personal Attacks

It’s no secret that personal attacks hurled by some Iranian officials and media outlets in the run-up to the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council this past March reached new heights – or, rather, depths. 

People frequently ask me if these attacks, which often include crude insults and defamatory remarks, affect me or my work. My answer is that while I of course find such tactics disappointing, I find their distractive nature to be more disturbing.

The presentation of my reports and the interactive dialogue about the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic that takes place among members of the Human Rights Council presents a opportunity for all stakeholders to discuss pressing issues and cases of abuse. Insults and inflammatory statements only serve to detract from this opportunity, and delays the much needed solutions necessary for the most vulnerable in Iranian society; solutions that often emanate from substantive and open discourse.

Besides, the attacks against me and other UN officials pale in comparison to those often reported by Iranians who exercise their fundamental rights to free expression, belief, assembly, and association.

At the end of each working day, I can turn off my computer and switch off my phone. Human rights defenders and those who express dissenting views inside the country apparently don’t have this luxury. Individuals who express dissent from officially-sanctioned views reportedly face prison sentences for the vaguely-defined and overly-broad “crimes” of “propaganda against the system,” “acting against national security,” or “dissemination of false information.” In some cases, they face capital punishment for mofsed fil-arz (corruption on Earth), or moharebeh (translated either as enmity with God, or as holding a weapon to the populace with intent to frighten).

As I documented in my last report to the Human Rights Council, there are around 900 political prisoners in Iran, many of whom are in prison for expressing the same types of international protected forms of criticism that I convey in my reports. The individuals punished come from all walks of life — ethnic, religious, and gender communities, geographical regions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And there are many more hundreds of individuals who, while not necessarily in prison, reportedly face harassment and persecution for non-violent forms of dissent.

So when people ask me how I feel when officials attack me or the Secretary-General, I can only respond: I am far from a victim. The real victims of these personal attacks are those that live in fear of airing their beliefs, those whose grievances continue to be ignored, and those who continue wait in silence for remedy.

Week in Review: Catching up on what you might have missed at the UN

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On March 11, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, submitted his interim report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Human Rights Council. His report addressed growing concerns surrounding the situation in the county and demanded that the Iran respect its human rights obligations. He criticized the persistent reports of abuses in the country, including arbitrary detentions, unfair trials, and condemned the sharp increase in the use of the death penalty, in contravention of international law.

On March 12, in line with the Secretary-General’s report, I, along with the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, on torture, and on violence against women issued a statement expressing our alarm at the ongoing spike in executions in Iran. As it stands, at least 176 persons have been reportedly hanged in Iran in 2014 alone.

In our joint comment, We stated that the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, stressed that “the Government continues to execute individuals at a staggering rate, despite serious questions about fair trial standards”.

the Government continues to execute individuals at a staggering rate, despite serious questions about fair trial standards

Then, on March 17, I officially presented my sixth report on the situation of human rights to the Human Rights Council. Among my findings was that an estimated 1,539 individuals in Iran have been executed since the establishment of my mandate in 2011. What’s more, an estimated 624 people were executed in 2013 alone. You can read my full report to learn more.

During my interactive dialogue to the Council, I stressed my desire to engage with the Iranian Government and the Iranian people. Throughout my mandate, I have made countless requests to visit Iran. And while I have been encouraged by several conversations with Iranian officials over the past twelve months, I still have not been granted a visit.

To be sure, as with other international mechanisms, the Council’s Special Procedures are most effective when all stakeholders can work together through cooperation and constructive dialogue. Moving forward, it is my hope to work alongside a ready and willing Iranian government to advance efforts to recognize the rights of all Iranians, without distinction.