Iran launched a sweeping crackdown on human rights and civil society in 2010, following political unrest after the disputed June 2009 presidential election. The executive branch, the Revolutionary Guards and security services increasingly engaged in the arbitrary exercise of power. As Iran became more authoritarian, human rights conditions deteriorated dramatically. A military crackdown blocked public demonstrations, while a wave of convictions and executions demonstrated the almost absolute power of the state. Yet Iran’s brutality also revealed the regime’s fear of its own citizens, democracy and dissent.
Political executions and capital Punishment
The use of capital punishment has reached alarming proportions.One of the most notable trends in 2010 was the government’s broadening the definition of Moharabeh (or “enmity against god”), a capital offense. It should be applied only in cases of armed insurrection. Political activists have routinely been charged with this crime, but officials also now speak of charging armed robbers and even unarmed hooligans with “enmity against god.”
Iran also appears to be increasing secret group executions. Credible accounts have emerged of mass secret executions in a prison in Mashhad, near the Afghan border. Iran already executes more people per capita than any other country. With almost 400 known executions in 2009, Iran is second only to China in absolute numbers of executions. The reports indicate secret executions of over 100 prisoners with more than 600 persons, mainly convicted drug traffickers, on death row.
In January 2010, three political prisoners were hanged: Ehsan Fattahian, Mohmmad Reza Ali Zamani, and Arash Rahmani Pour. A long-time political prisoner, Farzad Kamanger, and four others including, Shirin Alam Holi, were executed on May 9, reportedly without due process. Kamangar was a Kurdish teacher and social worker convicted on security charges despite his lawyer’s claim that the court had “zero evidence” against him. Mohammad Valian, a 20 –year- old student, was sentenced to death for throwing three stones during a demonstration; his sentence was reduced to three years after sustained international protests. Eight other post-election protestors were also sentenced to death.
The case of Sakineh Ashtiani, who was originally sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, may actually have worked against eliminating the practice. "A global backlash led the regime to back off the sentence of stoning, but the authorities tried to sentence her to death by hanging for a role in her husband’s murder. The focus has been on her case rather than on a barbaric sentence still on the books."
Silencing human rights activists
The regime also stepped up its campaign to silence critics in 2010. Around 500 prisoners of conscience from the post-election turmoil remained behind bars. They included human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, lawyers, leading dissidents and reformers, journalists, academics, and students. Many others fled into exile. Up to 70 percent of the leaders in the human rights community are either jailed or in exile.
The government also harassed or persecuted many lawyers associated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center, co-founded by 2003 Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and forcibly closed in late 2008, and the Committee of Human Rights Reporters. Many members of the student alumni group ADVAR were arrested. From Evin Prison, ADVAR spokesperson Abdulla Momeni wrote a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei detailing how he was tortured in an attempt to coerce a false confession.
Leading human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested on Sept. 4 and held mainly in solitary confinement. She protested denial of due process with a hunger strike. Lawyer Mohammad Saifzadeh was sentenced to a nine-year prison term for his activities with the Defenders of Human Rights Center. To escape arrest, Mohammad Mostafei, the lawyer for Sakineh Ashtiani, fled the country and sought asylum in Turkey. Prominent human rights defender Emad Baghi was sentenced to one year in prison, but faces prosecution on other cases. Mohammad Oliyaefard, a lawyer representing dissidents, was sentenced to one year in prison. Five other human rights lawyers were arrested on Nov. 13 after travelling to Turkey; they have since been released on bail.
Women’s rights activists were also prosecuted and jailed. The authorities detained and mistreated members of the Mourning Mothers, a group whose children had been killed or jailed during recent political protests. Courts handed down draconian sentences to student leaders Bahareh Hedayat (nine years), Milad Assadi (seven years), and other young dissidents. Almost three dozen journalists and bloggers were imprisoned, making Iran one of the world’s leading persecutors of reporters.
Increasing politicization of the judiciary
The last vestiges of the rule of law and an independent judiciary seriously diminished in 2010. The Intelligence Ministry and Revolutionary Guards had a growing role in investigations, arrests, detentions, interrogations, trials, sentences, and bail decisions. Detainees have routinely been denied access to lawyers, family, their files and even charges against them. Some were not told their trials dates and then denied the right to speak at their trial. Show trials, in which multiple defendants have confessed publicly to alleged crimes, after torture and coercion, have become common. The application of cruel and unusual punishments including limb amputations and floggings is increasing. Iranian officials have denied that these punishments constitute torture and are illegal under international law. Many of those convicted for their peaceful political protests have been sentenced to floggings.
Prison conditions have also deteriorated, especially for prisoners of conscience. Many of these have been denied medical treatment, toilet and bathing facilities, and fresh air or exercise. Narges Mohammadi, an official of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, was arrested on June 10 in front of her young children, with no legal warrant. She was released after 22 days, and had to be hospitalized to recover from brutal interrogations and ill treatment.
Religious minorities have also been prosecuted. Seven Baha’ i leaders, who had been jailed since the spring of 2008, were sentenced to 10-year prison terms on national security charges, after a trial their lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, said was “riddled with irregularities.” Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for the “crime” of apostasy, which is not a crime under Iran’s penal code.
Government violence against dissent
An assassination attempt on former presidential candidate a Mehdi Karroubi took place on Jan.8. Former President Khatami was prevented from leaving the country to attend an international conference. The regime also denied students entry into universities based on their political and religious views, and expelled others already enrolled. University professors were dismissed and denied advancement on account of their political views, and academic freedom was further eroded under an announced policy of removing “un-Islamic” material from curricula. The government increased media censorship. Foreign television broadcasts were jammed and Internet sites blocked. The Internet has been slowed down during periods of potential unrest. The government also used national television to air defamatory programs about dissidents, including Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
Hadi Ghaemi is the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Aaron Rhodes, the Policy Advisor for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, contributed to the article.