Human Rights Watch: Locked Up in Karaj

August 19, 2014
            More than 60 prisoners in Karaj, near Tehran, are serving terms for exercising their fundamental rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. The organization also suspects that due process violations may have tainted the judicial process that led to 35 prisoners being placed on death row.
             “The election of a new, avowedly moderate president a year ago raised hopes that many of Iran’s political prisoners would soon walk free, but many remain behind bars,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The lion’s share of responsibility for releasing these prisoners rests with the judiciary, but President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet should be doing more to press for their release.”
            Iran’s judiciary has not responded to the Human Rights Watch inquiry about 175 prisoners in three facilities in Karaj, most of whom are profiled in the report. The following are excerpts.
Journalists, Bloggers and Social Media Activists
             Human Rights Watch has identified nine journalists and bloggers held in Karaj who qualify as political prisoners. All of them are in Rajai Shahr prison except for one.
             According to Reporters Without Borders there are at least 62 journalists and bloggers in Iran’s prisons, making Iran one of the largest jailers of journalists in the world. The Iranian judiciary imposes harsh sentences on journalists and bloggers based on vague and ill-defined press and security laws such as “acting against the national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “publishing lies,” and insulting the prophets or government officials such as the president, or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
             Bahman Ahmadi-Amoui, a journalist who had written articles critical of the government on his website and in official newspapers, is serving a four-year sentence in Rajai Shahr after his arrest on June 20, 2009. Officials arrested him following the disputed elections and prosecuted him on charges of “propaganda against the state,” “insulting the president,” and “acting against the national security.” A revolutionary court sentenced him to seven years and four months in prison and 34 lashes, which was reduced on appeal to four years.
             The authorities are also holding a 53-year-old blogger, Mohammad-Reza Pourshajari, in Karaj’s Central Prison, a separate facility that normally houses detainees convicted in Karaj courts. In 2010 the authorities tried and convicted Pourshajari, who is also known by his pen name, Siamak Mehr, on charges of “acting against the national security,” “insulting Ayatollah Khomeini,” and “insulting [religious] sanctities” for writings he posted on his personal blog, his daughter told Human Rights Watch. Pourshajari suffers from serious heart ailments and authorities have consistently denied him proper medical care, his daughter said. In a June 10, 2013 audio recording obtained by Human Rights Watch, a voice identified as Pourshajari’s says that authorities beat and tortured him  and threatened to hang him after forcing him to stand on a four-legged stool during his initial detention following his arrest on September 12, 2010. He also says that authorities held him in solitary confinement for eight consecutive months and that interrogators repeatedly threatened to send him to the gallows.
Lawyers and Other Rights Defenders
             Human Rights Watch’s investigation has identified seven rights defenders and one lawyer who are imprisoned in Karaj. All are detained in Rajai Shahr prison.
             Authorities are holding lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh, who is 67 years old, in Rajai Shahr prison. He is a former colleague of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi who cofounded the Defenders of Human Rights Center with Ebadi and several other lawyers. In October 2010, a revolutionary court convicted Seifzadeh of charges including “acting against national security through establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Center,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. An appeals court later reduced his nine-year sentence to two years, but in March 2013, Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Seifzadeh to another six years in prison for “assembly and collusion against the national security” for writing critical letters to former President Khatami and signing several group statements while in prison, Ebadi told Human Rights Watch.
             The authorities are also holding several student and labor rights activists at Rajai Shahr prison. On Student Day in December 2009, students demonstrated on university campuses throughout Iran, to protest the results of the disputed June 2009 presidential election. Authorities arrested student protesters, including Majid Tavakoli, a 23-year-old student at Amirkabir University and member of the school’s Islamic Student Association, who gave a speech criticizing the government. In 2009 a revolutionary court sentenced Tavakoli to eight-and-a-half years in prison on various national security charges related to his speech, including “conspiring against the national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” and president. Authorities later transferred Tavakoli from Evin prison in Tehran to Rajai Shahr, according to rights groups. He is currently being held in Ward 4, Room 12, said a former prisoner.
Religious Minority Activists and Community Leaders
             Human Rights Watch’s investigation identified 38 peaceful religious activists and community leaders, the majority of them are members of Iran’s Baha’i minority, whom the Iranian authorities are holding at both Rajai Shahr prison and the Central Prison in Karaj. At least 136 Baha’is are detained in Iranian prisons for their peaceful activities.
             Baha’i leaders Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeed Rezaei, Behrouz Azizi Tavakoli, and Vahid Tizfahm are each serving 20-year prison sentences in Rajai Shahr. Security forces arrested these men, along with two female leaders now in detention at another facility, between May 8 and May 14, 2008. After holding the seven in Evin prison in Tehran for 20 months without charge, officials on January 12, 2010 brought charges that included spying, “insulting religious sanctities,” and “spreading corruption on earth.” All the charges were related to their peaceful activities as leaders of the Baha’i community. Authorities have often leveled the charge of spying against Baha’is because of the faith’s supposed links to Israel (the tomb of the faith’s founder, Baha’u’llah, is near Acre in what is now Israel).
             The authorities are also holding two Christian pastors and two Christian converts in prisons in Karaj. The family of Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor, has said that he is detained in Ward 4 Room 12 of Rajai Shahr prison. A revolutionary court convicted him of “intent to endanger the national security” by establishing and running home churches, and sentenced him to eight years in prison.
             Authorities are also holding Christian pastor Behanam Irani, Hossein Saketi Aramsari (also known as “Stephen”) and Reza Rabbani (also known as “Silas”) at the Central Prison in Karaj, a source familiar with the cases told Human Rights Watch. Armed security and intelligence forces entered pastor Irani’s home in April 2010 and arrested him for performing ceremonies in a private home with a small group of other Iranian Christians. A revolutionary court had previously convicted Irani in 2008 of acting “against national security” and “propaganda against the system” for proselytizing, and issued a suspended five-year sentence against him. After the 2010 arrest, however, a revolutionary court revived the initial sentence, the source said. The court relied on Irani’s admission that he was a Christian convert and pastor, and on testimony from witnesses who accused him of tricking them into adopting the Christian faith. Saketi Aramsari is currently serving a one-year prison term on the charge of “propaganda against the system,” according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and the source familiar with these two cases.
Political Activists
             Human Rights Watch’s investigation has identified eight prisoners in Karaj who have been imprisoned solely because of their peaceful political activism. All are detained in Rajai Shahr prison.
             Throughout Iran members of reformist parties and other government opponents are serving sentences stemming from the government crackdown after the disputed 2009 election. Many had unfair trials before revolutionary courts, whose judges fail to ensure basic due process standards. Revolutionary courts sentenced some after mass show trials during which they were indicted on patently political charges such as “actions against the national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” “membership in illegal groups,” and “disturbing public order.” Some defendants were made to confess before television cameras, in violation of the right under international law to not be compelled to testify against oneself.
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