WORLD REPORT 1999 - Iran

Human Rights Developments
Human rights failed to improve, and in some areas deteriorated, as the power struggle intensified between supporters of President Khatami’s reformist program and those seeking to maintain the grip on power of a closed circle of clerical rulers associated with the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamene’i. While the political rivalry between these increasingly polarized factions helped highlight important human rights issues, it nevertheless appeared to drive and even promote violations of human rights as hardliners in the judiciary and the parliament sought to undermine President Khatami’s efforts to normalize Iran’s relations with the West and the United States by speaking out in support of fundamental rights and the rule of law. Efforts for reform were met with repression and threats of further violence. For example, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Yahya Rahim Safavi warned reformers in April, “we are seeking to root out counterrevolutionaries wherever they are. We have to cut the throats of some and cut off the tongues of others.” A few days later he threatened, “we will go after them when the time is ripe...fruit has to be picked when it is ripe. The fruit is unripe now.”

Executions after unfair trials proliferated, including cases of stoning to death in public. For the first time since 1992 a follower of the Baha’i faith was executed in prison. Other religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims, Evangelical Christians, and Jews were subjected to discrimination and persecution. Prominent dissidents, including writers and editors, were subjected to arbitrary detention and independent newspapers were closed down. New laws were passed discriminating against women and aimed at restricting debate about women’s rights. Torture was widespread during interrogation, and the government failed to take steps to halt violent attacks by vigilante groups which serve as enforcers for conservative clerics, known as the Partisans of the Party of God (Ansar-e Hezbollahi) . As tensions with the Taleban rulers of neighboring Afghanistan mounted, Afghan refugees, more than a million of whom have lived in Iran for many years seeking refuge from civil war, were attacked and beaten by crowds leading to several deaths.

Hundreds of people were executed after trials that failed to comply with minimum international standards. In June, the daily newspaper Hamshahri, reported the public hanging of four young men in the city of Ahvaz, in the south, for “insulting” Leader Khamene’i and “armed robbery.” Seven people were reported by opposition groups to have been convicted of adultery and stoned to death in October 1997 and six more were reported to have been sentenced to stoning in January. On July 21, Ruhollah Rowhani was executed in the city of Mashhad on charges of converting a Muslim to the Baha’i faith. This execution marked a deterioration in the situation of this intensely persecuted minority. At least fifteen other Baha’is were held in prison and seven were facing death sentences because of their faith. There were further detentions of Baha’is in September when dozens were detained in a new wave of repression. In May, Jewish businessman Ruhollah Kakhodah-Zadeh was arrested and later hanged in prison. His crime was never declared in public and any legal proceedings which occurred did so in secret. In June, Molavi Imam Bakhsh Narouie, prayer leader of a Sunni mosque in the town of Miyankang in Sistan va Baluchestan province in south-eastern Iran was killed, leading to protests from the local community who believed that the authorities were responsible. Sunni Muslims form a minority in predominantly Shi’a Iran, but a majority of ethnic Kurds and Baluchis are Sunni, which exacerbates their already tense relations with the central authorities in a state in which Shi’a Islam is the established religion.

Attempts by the judiciary and other supporters of the status quo in Iran to discredit leading associates and supporters of President Khatami focused national and international attention on long-standing human rights problems. For example, the prosecution on corruption charges, of the mayor of Tehran, Gholam Hossein Karabaschi, exposed the widespread torture of suspects during investigation. Judicial officials reportedly tried to build a case against the mayor on the basis of coerced statements taken from detained municipality officials, including elected district mayors and deputy mayors. On being released, the detained mayors complained about their ill-treatment and produced medical evidence to substantiate their allegations. Their statements were widely reported in newspapers sympathetic to President Khatami and the mayor.

In March, responding to hostile questions from reporters about the treatment of the officials, Ayatollah Yazdi, the head of the judiciary, stated the allegations were “all a political campaign aimed at the police and the judiciary” and threatened to prosecute reporters for “making unfounded accusations against the judicial branch.”

In May, the former editor of Adineh magazine, Faraj Sarkouhi (s ee Human Rights Watch World Report 1998), who had been released from his one-year jail term for “circulating harmful propaganda” and permitted to travel to Germany to be reunited with his family, was able to reveal information about torture and ill-treatment he had suffered while in detention, including mock-execution. Together with the testimony of the mayor of Tehran’s associates, Sarkouhi’s experience made public the continuing prevalence of torture in Iranian prisons.

The Tehran mayor’s trial, in open court in the presence of international reporters exposed other long-standing problems in the criminal justice system. The defense in the June hearing challenged the impartiality of the judge, arguing that “it is not in accordance with the principles of justice for you to occupy the positions of investigating magistrate and trial judge in the same case.” In the General Courts, first introduced in 1994, the function of the prosecutor was doubled up with that of the trial judge, removing fair trial safeguards (s ee Human Rights Watch World Report 1995) . The mayor also called attention to the torture of his officials, and the inacceptability of “anything written under duress while these people were in prison.” The mayor was convicted and sentenced to lashes and five years in prison, but was at liberty pending an appeal.

The mayor’s prosecution brought to the fore dissension between Iran’s leaders, often played out at a cost to human rights protection. In April, after the detention of the mayor, Minister of the Interior Abdollah Nouri criticized the judiciary’s “arbitrary” action and announced that his ministry was setting up a defense committee for the mayor. Nouri’s criticism of the judiciary led to a vote of no confidence in him from the parliament, and his dismissal from office on June 26. President Khatami responded by appointing Nouri to the position of deputy-president for development and social affairs.

Nouri had also provoked conservative anger by calling for the elimination of the role of the Council of Guardians in vetting and excluding candidates for election to the parliament, the presidency, and the Assembly of Experts - an eighty-six member body responsible for choosing the leader of the Islamic Republic. The Council of Guardians vetoed almost all of the candidates associated with the reformers in the October election. In May, Nouri had granted a permit to students to demonstrate in favor of reforming laws governing participation in elections. The peaceful rally of several thousand students in Tehran’s Laleh park was violently broken up by a group of Hezbollahi vigilantes while police stood by. In August, under pressure from conservatives, the cabinet declined to submit a bill to parliament to restrict the powers of the Council of Guardians.

While the treatment of Abdullah Nouri highlighted violations of the right to participation in public affairs, freedom of assembly, and the illegal activities of vigilantes, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani became identified with increasing the diversity of the Iranian press by issuing permits to new publications with independent views. Mohajerani’s efforts were countered by the increased zeal of the judiciary to close down independent publications and imprison and prosecute journalists and editors; by attacks from vigilantes on newspaper offices; and by new laws passed by the parliament seeking to ban publications dealing with women’s rights and the reform of family law.

Newspapers continued to be subject to harassment and closure orders both through the legal channels of the press courts and extra-legal administrative acts or attacks from vigilante groups. Akbar Ganji, the editor of Rah-e No weekly newspaper was held in incommunicado detention for three months following a speech he made in Shiraz critical of government policy. In January, a newly established journalists union accused the head of the judiciary of “obstructing the freedom of the press” after he had declared that the judiciary was under no obligation to explain to the media why people were detained. In February, the newsletter published by Habibollah Payman, head of the unrecognized Islamic Militant Movement party, was banned and he was fined after proceedings that did not meet international standards of due process. In April the offices of Hamshahri, Iran, and the Iran Daily News , daily newspapers which had been supportive of the mayor of Tehran, were raided by police in an operation which failed to comply with mechanisms established under the press law for investigating alleged violations by newspapers. In July, three other newspapers, Panshambeha, Gozaresh-e Rouz, and Khanneh, were closed under official pressure. The editors of Gozresh-e Rouz and Khanneh were each imprisoned for a week for interrogation.

In August, Jameh , which within a few months had gained a reputation and a wide readership for its championing of reform, was closed down, although the jury in the press court had advised minimal punishment. In an apparent turnabout Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohajerani stated, “the opponents and enemies of liberty can also be those who do not respect their limit.” Within a few days of the closure, a newspaper appeared under the title Tous which was accused of being Jameh under another name. Head of the Judiciary Yazdi objected, “The publication of a previously forbidden newspaper under a new name is illegal. We are asking the ministry of culture to take action before someone else does.” Ayatollah Yazdi’s words were followed by an attack by Hezbollahi on the editorial offices. Conservative pressure on Tous did not relent on September 15 Ayatollah Khamene’i threatened to use extra-legal force to silence independent newspapers which he characterized as “a dangerous, creeping cultural movement...writing against Islam,” unless government officials took action against them. The next day, Tous managers Hamid Reza Jalei-Pour and Mohammad Javadi Hessar, editor Mashalla Shamsol-va-Ezin, and staff writer Ebrahim Nabavi, were arrested by order of the Revolutionary Courts on charges of publishing articles “against security and general interests.” The newspaper was ordered closed. The four journalists were all released in October, and no legal reason for their detention was provided by the authorities.

Also in September, the independent newspapers Rah-e No and Tavana were ordered closed by administrative decree. The judiciary declared that it was creating a special body to monitor the conduct of the press and to refer writers to revolutionary courts. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance protested this move and insisted that, “it is necessary to deal with press violations according to the law and in ordinary courts and with the presence of a jury.”

Freedom of expression was restricted in other ways. In November 1997, after Grand Ayatollah Montazeri had delivered a lecture in Qom criticizing Ayatollah Khamene’i’s interpretation of the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurist), on which the position of the leader of the Islamic Republic rests, Hezbollahi ransacked his residence. Throughout the year, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the former designated successor to the late Ayatollah Khomeini as leader, was subjected to house arrest and banned from teaching and commenting on public affairs. In February, a special court for the clergy ordered the freezing of assets controlled by Ayatollah Montazeri assets, including funds received in tithes from Shi’ites in Iran and throughout the world. Scores of his relatives and supporters were imprisoned for their views. For example, in December 1997, the leader of the Iran Freedom Movement, Ebrahim Yazdi, was detained for eleven days, apparently for his role in organizing support for a public letter, signed by fifty-five people, protesting the restrictions placed on Ayatollah Montazeri. In April, about forty bazaar shopkeepers and teachers were detained for leading protests against the restrictions on Ayatollah Montazeri in his home town of Najafabad in central Iran. Ayatollah Montazeri’s son-in-law, Hadi Hashemi wasdetained in May and held incommunicado. Mohammad Movahedi Savoji, the son of a member of parliament, was also arrested in May and condemned to twenty months imprisonment in September for speaking out against the harsh treatment of Ayatollah Montazeri.

In June, independent legal scholar Hojatoleslam Mohssen Saeidzadeh was detained, apparently because of his public criticism of the status of women in family law. He was not able to challenge the legal basis for his detention before a court and he was denied access to his lawyer, he remained in custody at the time of writing.

Opposition views outside the differing factions of the clerical leadership, including those of political parties like the Freedom Movement and the Iran’s Nation Party, continued to be denied expression. Opposition publications were banned and their meetings were frequently attacked by vigilantes. In contrast, the Ministry of the Interior’s Committee on Political Parties agreed in May to license the Servants of Construction (Kargozaran Sazandeghi), led by supporters of clerical leaders associated with economic reform, as a first political party.

Violent vigilantes restricted freedom of association and limited political debate unchecked by the authorities. In November 1997, Hezbollahi disrupted a speech by the dissident philosopher Abdol-Karim Soroush and caused extensive damage to student union offices at Amir Kabir university. On the same day, the same mob beat Hishmotallah Tabazadeh, a radical student leader, for his call for the leader of the Islamic Republic to be elected by direct suffrage, and for limits to be placed on the leader’s powers. In March, Hezbollahi broke up a peaceful demonstration by students in Tehran criticizing the role of the Council of Guardians in excluding candidates from parliamentary by-elections. In May, after statements threatening such action by parliamentarians, attackers beat a speaker and disrupted a conference of surgeons which had criticized a proposed law to segregate health care along gender lines. Eventually, on September 11, reacting to the beating of a minister and a vice-president by Hezbollahi..., President Khatami declared: “The authorities must not dither or show mercy in dealing with this ugly vengeance against the rule of law and freedom. The law breakers, who are either ignorant or have a mission, understand no logic but force.” No action was taken against those responsible for the public attack on senior government officials.

Women’s rights were also a battleground in the confrontation between reformers and social conservatives. In November, reformers achieved some success with the passage of a law by the parliament allowing judges to award custody of minor children to the mother in divorce cases if the best interests of the child would be served by so doing. This was an encouraging moment in a mixed year for women’s rights in Iran, but a year in which activism for change in the discriminatory treatment of women, especially in the family, achieved considerable public prominence.

Conservatives responded to increased activism for women’s rights by trying to ban it. In April the parliament passed a bill, yet to become law, making it a crime “to create division between women and men through defending [women’s] rights outside the legal and Sharia frameworks.” The proposed law also sought to ban pictures of unveiled women appearing in the press. Minister of Culture Mohajerani opposed the bill, but his objections were overruled by the conservative majority in the parliament. The bill passed a second reading in parliament in August.

In a similar vein, the parliament overruled objections from ministers, several women members of parliament, and the medical profession to pass a bill seeking to enforce gender separation in the provision of medical care. Many commentators pointed out the impracticality of the proposed law given the lack of sufficient women doctors to meet even the minimum medical requirements of Iran’s women. Some observed that it would require the recruitment and training of thousands of new women doctors, and male gynecologists objected that they would be unemployed. The bill was widely viewed as a show of force by conservative parliamentarians who intended to put an end to efforts to reform family law. In October, the Council of Guardians sent the bill back to the parliament without its approval.

Enforcement of the dress code for women varied with the political climate. Women detained for failing to cover their hair and to wear a flowing garment hiding the shape of their bodies were subjected to fines, up to seventy-four lashes or to prison terms of up to three months. Detentions increased during May, the period of Moharram , associated with mourning and increased piety in Shi’a Islam. Celebrations following the Iranian national soccer team’s qualification for the soccer World Cup in France in June were characterized by public mixing between the sexes and open flouting of the dress code.

Defending Human Rights
No independent domestic human rights monitoring organizations were permitted to operate and individual advocates were subjected to threats, intimidation, and arbitrary imprisonment. Human rights organizations with links to the government, like the Islamic Human Rights Commission, issued mild statements critical of some aspects of domestic human rights conditions, and gave the false impression that Iran tolerated human rights activists. Human Rights Watch and other independent international organizations were denied permission to visit the country.

In September former deputy prime minister Abbas Amir Entezam was imprisoned after he made statements criticizing torture and ill-treatment of prisoners. His remarks were prompted by the assassination, claimed by the armed opposition group, the People’s Mojahedine Organization of Iran, of the former head of Iran’s Prisons’ Organization, Assadollah Lajevardi, who presided over mass executions and widespread torture during his tenure of office. Entezam had been released conditionally from a life prison term, but the official reason for his reimprisonment was not announced. He was not permitted to have access to his lawyer.

United Nations
The government continued to deny access to the U.N. special representative on Iran, Maurice Copithorne of Canada. In his report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in April, Copithorne stated that “the situation is continuing to worsen...the new government must recognize the importanceand urgency of reversing the present trend.” He emphasized the high number of executions in the report, but acknowledged governmental efforts to ease censorship. A resolution passed by the commission in April expressed its concern that “human rights continue to be violated in Iran.”

A slightly different tone was struck by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who visited Tehran in March during a regional governmental human rights conference, which Human Rights Watch was denied permission to attend. Although her scheduled meeting with President Khatami was canceled, the high commissioner observed that she found “certain trends that are encouraging” and noted that “the debate about human rights is developing in Iran.”

European Union
The Iranian government dissociated itself from the reward offered by an Iranian foundation for the killing of the British novelist Salman Rushdie, clearing the way for the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.K. Despite continuing threats against the novelist from parliamentarians and conservative leaders, E.U. relations with Iran warmed throughout the year. E.U. ambassadors withdrawn in protest over the Mykonos restaurant killings in Germany (s ee Human Rights Watch World Report 1998) returned to Tehran in November 1997. In January, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said that isolating Iran is not the right response because, “isolating Iran politically won’t help the advocates of change there... [and] isolating Iran economically won’t hit the target we want: Iran’s attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” In February the E.U. abandoned its ban on ministerial level contacts with Iran. In announcing the resumption of official dialogue E.U. ministers called on the Iranian government to address concerns in a number of areas, including human rights and the situation of Salman Rushdie. Germany had special concerns about German national Helmut Hofer, condemned to death for illicit sexual relations with a Muslim woman. In July, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi became the highest level western official to visit Tehran in six years. European governments continued to object to U.S. law calling for sanctions against non-United States companies involved in sizeable investment activities in Iran. In May, overriding objections from some members of congress, the Clinton Administration waived sanctions against Total of France and two other energy companies which have invested in the capital starved Iranian energy sector, apparently wishing to avoid an open breach with the E.U. over the issue.

United States
While not reaching the levels of normalization achieved between Europe and the Iranian government, official U.S. rhetoric towards Iran also mellowed throughout the year, although sanctions prohibiting trade with Iran remained in place. The thrust of U.S. policy towards Iran did not emphasize human rights in Iran; rather Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its alleged sponsorship of international terrorism were cited as the primary U.S. concerns. U.S. leaders, including President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright, made public statements to invite the Iranian government to begin an official dialogue with the U.S. on issues of concern — a request the Iranian side declined to take up. The Congress was decidedly more hostile to Iran than the administration, appropriating funds intended to destabilise the Iranian government, and passing resolutions condemning Iran’s policies. In May, the State Department listed Iran among state’s sponsoring terrorism, including in its list of “terrorist acts” attacks on supporters of armed opposition groups living in northern Iraq. Nevertheless, the State Department also included the armed opposition group, the People’s Mojahedine Organization of Iran on its list of “terrorist organizations.”