WORLD REPORT 2001 - Iran

Human Rights Developments

There was continued struggle between reformists and conservatives over the political direction of the Islamic republic leading to new human rights abuses, notably violations of freedom of expression. Reformist candidates supporting President Khatami won a significant victory in February's parliamentary elections, hailed as the fairest in Iran's history, but hopes that this would lead quickly to institutionalized gains for the legal protection of human rights proved misplaced. Conservatives used their control over powerful state institutions, most importantly the judiciary, to intimidate and silence supporters of greater political freedom. Twenty-five independent newspapers and magazines were closed, and leading publishers and journalists were imprisoned on vague charges of "insulting Islam" or "calling into question the Islamic foundation of the republic." The prosecution and conviction, after an unfair trial, of ten Iranian Jews from Shiraz on charges of espionage for Israel highlighted serious due process shortcomings in Iran's judicial system and raised fears that religious minorities would face greater persecution. The government continued to make frequent use of the death penalty after trials which failed to comply with international standards. Some executions were carried out in public.

The early part of the year was dominated by elections for the sixth Majles (Islamic Consultative Assembly). Parliamentary elections in 1996 had been marred when the Council of Guardians vetoed more than 44 percent of the candidates. This year the council, a government-appointed body of twelve senior clerics and legal experts, vetoed less than 10 percent of the candidates. Of 6,083 candidates who stood for election to the 290 seats, 576 were disqualified. Despite the exclusion of representatives of parties opposed to, or openly critical of, clerical rule, Iranians were presented with a choice of candidates representing a range of views.

Conservatives maneuvered, however, to limit the extent of the reformist victory, and blocked high-profile reformists from running as candidates in a variety of ways. Abdullah Nouri, the impeached former minister of the interior, publisher of the prominent daily newspaper Khordad, and reformist candidate for speaker, was brought to trial in November 1999 before the Special Court for the Clergy.

However, he used his trial as an opportunity to advocate reform, reminding his conservative accusers that they could not impose their own interpretation of Islam and challenging the religious and legal authority of the court, which he likened to an inquisition. Nouri's statements, which included favorable reference to Ayatollah Montazeri's criticisms of the velayet-e faqih (rule of the supreme jurist) were widely reported in the opposition press. Nevertheless, Nouri was convicted, sentenced to five years of imprisonment, and disqualified from standing in the election.

In January, the Council of Guardians removed other prominent reformists from the list of candidates, including Abbas Abdi, a leader of the 1989 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which occasioned the hostage crisis, who had since then taken public steps to reconcile with his former captives. Candidates from the opposition Iran Freedom Movement, including its leader Ebrahim Yazdi, were again banned from participating in the elections.

Mahmoud Ali Chehregani, an advocate of the rights of the Azeri minority, was prevented from registering as a candidate for the election in Tabriz by being detained by local police until after the registration deadline had passed.

On March 12, a gunman shot and severely wounded Saeid Hajjarian, a director of Sobh-e Emrouz, the reformist newspaper that had taken the lead in exposing the involvement of state officials in extrajudicial executions of dissident intellectuals. He was also a leading political advisor to President Khatami, and regarded as the architect of the reformists' February electoral triumph. His assailant escaped from the scene of the shooting on a motorcycle of the type reserved for use by security forces and police at the scene made no attempt to apprehend him, raising suspicion that he was acting in collaboration with members of the security forces. However, the assailant was arrested soon afterwards and, together with four co-conspirators, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment.

The attempt on Hajjarian's life heightened fears that paramilitary death squads were at work within the state apparatus. A group of police officers charged with an attack on a Tehran University student dormitory in July 1999 (see World Report 2000) went on trial in March, but they did not include uniformed paramilitaries who witnesses said were responsible for the worst of the violence, in which at least four students were killed. In July, a senior police officer among those charged was acquitted. Scores of students who were detained during demonstrations and in the raid on the dormitory remained in prison.

State officials accused of involvement in the murder of dissidents and intellectuals at the end of 1998 have not yet been tried in public. In September, a statement from the judiciary, published in the press, announced the beginning of court proceedings against eighteen former ministry of information officials accused of involvement in the killings. Only two of the accused were in detention. Lawyers for the victims' families, who were granted access to prosecution files, complained that the files were still incomplete and raised questions about what had happened to material gathered during two years of investigations.

Conservatives mounted a concerted campaign to close independent newspapers in order to weaken the reformists' influence. In the absence of formal political parties, newspapers were key agents for mobilizing popular support for the reformist cause, with many leading reformists publishing their own newspapers, which acted as forums for wide-ranging discussion of issues confronting the country. The press had been a major factor in the reformists' electoral success and, increasingly, was exposing corruption within the ruling conservative elite and its involvement in gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions of dissidents. The conservatives' action against the press dealt a devastating blow to what had been one of the few visible achievements of the reform movement, a vibrant, independent print media.

The reformist movement was far from monolithic. It included both Islamist democrats, who advocated a more responsive political system, and others who more directly challenged the clergy's central role in politics and the notion that the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic should have absolute power to determine divinely ordained policy.

In April, conservative elements within the judiciary began to close down independent newspapers and magazines, and to imprison leading journalists and editors. On April 10, Mashallah Shamsol-Vaezin, a pioneer of independent media and editor of a succession of banned titles, was imprisoned for thirty months on the grounds that an article he had published criticizing the death penalty defamed Islam. On April 22, Akbar Ganji, a leading investigative journalist for Fath newspaper, was imprisoned by the Tehran Press Court for defaming the security forces in articles he had written about official involvement in political killings and the attack on Saeid Hajjarian. On April 23, Shamsol-Vaezin's publisher, Latif Safari, was imprisoned for two and a half years by the press court. The same day, eight daily and three weekly newspapers were ordered closed. Other prominent publishers or editors, some of whom were also politicians, were indicted for press offenses or summoned to appear before the press court. In August, Ahmad Zeidabadi, Massoud Behnoud, Ebrahim Nabavi, all journalists for independent newspapers, were taken into detention without charge or explanation.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, while endorsing "the free flow of information," openly condoned the action taken against the press accusing some un-named titles of being "bases of the enemy." Following this lead, conservatives redoubled their attacks on reformists as agents of hostile alien forces, and the last remaining major independent daily, Bahar, was closed down in August. Ayatollah Jannati, a member of the Council of Guardians, remarked that closing down the newspapers was "the best thing the judiciary had done since the revolution."

In April, leading Iranian reformist politicians attended an international conference on Iran in Berlin, which was also attended by banned, exiled political activists. This allowed conservatives to portray the reformists as linked to hostile foreign powers, and many were prosecuted for participating in what the state-controlled media portrayed as an anti-Iranian, anti-Islamic event. Veteran independent politician, Ezzatollah Sahabi, now more than seventy years of age, spent more than six weeks in detention under interrogation before being released on bail. Three participants in the Berlin conference remained in prison at the end of the year. Five others are awaiting trial, but free on bail.

With the reformist press suppressed, conservatives were emboldened to tamper with the election results. In May, the Council of Guardians nullified the results in eleven constituencies and canceled 726,000 of the more than three million votes cast in the Tehran constituency, without explanation. For the clerical establishment, the most embarrassing outcome of the election was former President Rafsanjani's failure to gain enough votes to win a seat in the new Majles. Revised results several months later placed Rafsanjani higher in the poll but, rather than face humiliating criticism that the vote had been rigged, the powerful former president stood down from his seat.

When the new Majles convened in late May the reformists controlled some 150 of the 290 seats, but it was unclear whether the diverse factions of the reformist bloc would be able to operate as a unified voting group. Many reformists appeared chastened by the conservative backlash and anxious to reassure conservatives that change would not undermine the foundations of the state. Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric with a long history of senior government service, was elected speaker as a candidate acceptable to all factions.

The new parliament promised to amend the repressive press law passed in the closing months of the previous parliament. The law required applicants for new newspaper licenses to obtain prior approval from the judiciary, closing a previous loophole that had enabled banned newspapers to reopen days later under a new name. The law also facilitated the closure of newspapers on vaguely worded charges of "insulting Islam" or "undermining the religious foundation of the republic," leaving the press court with wide discretion to censor titles of which it disapproved. Reformists drafted a new bill that would better protect press freedom but this was vehemently attacked by conservatives as un-Islamic and likely to spread corruption in society. On August 6, Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the parliament to drop its consideration of a new press law. This unprecedented intervention in the legislative process by the supreme leader was accepted by Speaker Karroubi, averting open conflict between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, which was anyway expected to veto the proposed new law.

Other early actions by the new parliament indicated a pragmatic approach. New legislation to facilitate access by foreign investors to the Iranian market passed unanimously, indicating a shared recognition that the country's severe economic problems needed government attention. Reformist pledges to carry out public inquiries into the attack on student dormitories remained unfulfilled, however. On a positive note, a parliamentary commission carried out an investigation into prison conditions, visiting prisons in different parts of the country. The publication of the commission's findings, scheduled for mid-October, was delayed, reportedly because of their critical tone and exposure of torture.

Former detainees, arrested after the student disturbances in July 1999, informed Human Rights Watch that they were tortured and sexually abused while in prison in 1999 and early 2000. Ahmad Batebi, a student sentenced to thirteen years of imprisonment, wrote a letter to the head of the judiciary that was published in the international press, protesting beating and lashing that he had suffered while in detention.

Unfulfilled expectations were the cause of several clashes between demonstrators and hardline conservative supporters and the security forces. On the anniversary of the student demonstrations of July 1999, students marched and were joined by other demonstrators expressing their frustration at poor economic conditions. The protesters in Tehran were beaten by the self-styled partisans of the party of God, ansar-e hezbollahi, and forcibly dispersed.

More serious clashes occurred in the provincial town of Khorramabad in West Azerbaijan province in late August. Two leading reformist thinkers, Abdol Karim Soroush and Mohssen Kadivar, were prevented by hezbollahis armed with clubs and knives from attending a student convention in the town at which they were due to give speeches. There followed a week of street clashes between students and hardlinevigilantes in which a police officer was killed and dozens of people were injured, requiring hospital treatment. Townspeople joined in the protests on the side of the students. One hundred and fifty protesters, mostly students, were detained after these disturbances.

Hardline vigilantes were less active in the early part of the year, partly because the judiciary was more actively targeting reformists. On April 14, the supreme leader condoned "legal-violence" against the "bases of the enemy" and "centers of corruption," suggesting that the vigilantes should act only when the judiciary and the legal authorities were not doing enough to maintain order. His remarks at Friday prayers contained a barely veiled threat that citizen violence to protect Islam was justified if the state was failing in its obligation to protect the faith. As demonstrations of popular discontent mounted towards the end of the year, the vigilantes resumed their usual activities of assaulting reformists, breaking up demonstrations, and provoking disorder designed to discredit the reformist cause. In September, a group of vigilantes attacked a book exhibit in Esfahan, claiming that the titles showed disrespect for Islam. After the extreme vigilante violence of July 1999, Minister of Information Ali Younessi declared that such violence would no longer be permitted, but one year later he could only acknowledge that "they have their own leadership network and do as they please." The activities of the shadowy paramilitary supporters of conservatism, and the identities of the leaders behind the violence, had been favorite topics of the independent press. With suppression of this media, hard-liners were able to intimidate political opponents free from the threat of public exposure.

A former vigilante, Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, stated in a videotape that vigilantes had received payments from senior clerics in order to carry out attacks on reformist personalities and to disrupt public events. He was sentenced in October, after a closed trial, to two years of imprisonment for defamation of public officials. His lawyer, Shirin Ebadi, and another lawyer, Mohssen Rahami, who had received a copy of the tape, were given suspended prison sentences and banned from practicing law for five years. False allegations were made by the conservative press that a Human Rights Watch researcher had been involved in the production and dissemination of the tape, but no formal charges were made against her.

The April trial in Shiraz of thirteen Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel was conducted against this background of factional conflict. The factual basis of the case against the accused remained shrouded in mystery even after ten of them were convicted of forming an illegal organization and maintaining contacts with Israel, a hostile foreign power. While the trial was in progress, defendants gave interviews on state-controlled television in which they confessed to espionage. These confessions were contested by their lawyer, however, and appear not to have formed part of the court proceedings.

The trial, before a revolutionary court, was unfair. It was conducted in closed session, and observers, including a representative of Human Rights Watch, were denied access to the proceedings. Before trial, the defendants were held incommunicado for many months, during which the statements that formed the basis for their conviction were taken from them by the judge in his dual role as prosecutor as well as judge. The defendants, three of whom were acquitted at trial, were allowed access to legal counsel only once they had confessed.

Yet, in some respects, the trial of the Jews was uncharacteristically transparent by the standards of Iran's revolutionary courts. The trial judge met with journalists, diplomats, and human rights observers and answered questions about the case. Whereas most defendants tried before such courts are denied all access to legal counsel, in the Shiraz trial, principal defense lawyer Esmail Naseri openly challenged the validity of his clients' confessions, made while they were denied access to their lawyer, and pointed out the absence of other incriminating evidence. After the July sentencing of ten of the defendants to prison terms of between two and thirteen years, Naseri commented that, by law, they should be released pending an appeal because of the many procedural violations in the prosecution process, but that he feared political interference would rule this out. Then, in September, days before the result of the appeal was due to be announced Naseri told a press conference that he had been pressured to withdraw his objections to his clients' confessions and told that they would choose new lawyers if he refused to do so. He said that the thirteen had been held in prolonged solitary confinement until they were disorientated and willing to incriminate themselves, and that he would reveal the source of the pressure and threats against him if his clients' confessions were upheld. In September, the appeals court upheld the convictions but reduced the sentences to between two and six years. In October, the defendants allowed the deadline for filing an appeal to the Supreme Court to pass, and dismissed their defense lawyers without explanation.

While all Iranian leaders took exception to international criticism of the case, stressing that the judicial process should be allowed to take its course, President Khatami repeatedly emphasized that the Jewish community formed an integral part of Iranian society. In August, he received leaders of the Iranian Jewish community and relatives of the Shiraz defendants.

Other minority religious communities continued to be subjected to persecution. In February, three Bahais, Sirus Zabihi-Moghadam, Hedayat Kashefi-Najafabadi and Manouchehr Khulusi, were sentenced to death, apparently because of their religious activities. Two of the three had been detained since 1997 for violating the ban on Bahai religious gatherings. The details of the third man's detention were not known.

The Iraq-based armed opposition group, the People's Mojahedine Organization of Iran, continued to carry out attacks against targets inside Iran. Although the organization claimed to be targeting officials, several civilians were killed or injured in incidents, such as a mortar attack on the presidential office in downtown Tehran in February.

Defending Human Rights

The closure of independent newspapers was a major blow to public awareness of, and discourse on, human rights, but some steps were taken towards the creation of independent local human rights organizations. An Iranian Committee for the Protection of Journalists continued to promote and protect international standards on freedom of expression, but most of the organization's leaders were subsequently imprisoned or facing prosecution for their journalism. The nongovernmental Writers Association publicly criticized attacks on the press and restrictions on freedom of expression, and the Islamic Commission on Human Rights, an official body based within the judiciary, also spoke out against the closure of newspapers and prosecutions of editors and journalists. Mehrangiz Kar, a lawyer and women's rights activist, was arrested in April after making a speech advocating women's rights at the Berlin conference. She was freed on bail after a month. In August, Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari, a religious scholar, was imprisoned on his return from Germany for his advocacy of liberal interpretations of Islam supportive of human rights principles. He had delayed his return from the Berlin conference. He was charged as an apostate and with being corrupt on earth, charges which carry the death penalty.

Access to the country by international human rights observers remained restricted and the U.N. special representative on Iran continued to be denied entry. However, a Human Rights Watch researcher in possession of an Iranian passport was able to visit in April and to meet withofficials, but other Human Rights Watch representatives and those of other nongovernmental organizations were generally not issued visas. The government allowed representatives of a French legal association to visit Iran at the time of the Shiraz trial of Iranian Jews.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, while welcoming a number of positive developments such as the February elections, "expressed concern" about Iran's human rights record in a resolution in April. The resolution called on the government to resume cooperation with the U.N. special representative on Iran, Maurice Copithorne of Canada, and it extended his mandate. The resolution also expressed concern over the Jews' trial, discrimination against the situation of religious minorities, and the prevalence of the death penalty. In his report to the General Assembly in October, Copithorne was more critical, singling out the "accelerating attack on the press" as the most dramatic development, but also noting the lack of progress in judicial reform and the execution of 130 people between January and July.

European Union

The prospect of lucrative Iranian trade and investment contracts for European corporations was a high priority for E.U. leaders, but the Shiraz trial of Iranian Jews strained the improving relations between E.U. members states and Iran. In France and other European countries, demonstrations called for the severing of diplomatic relations with Iran if the defendants were convicted, and in April the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the Iranian authorities to guarantee a fair trial, allow access to international observers, and introduce a moratorium on the death penalty. Many E.U. leaders, while condemning continued violations of human rights, publicly expressed support for the reformist policies of President Khatami, and he made state visits to France and Germany during the year.

United States

There was a continued slow warming of relations between the United States and Iran. The U.S. commented favorably on the February elections, but continued to express concern over Iran's alleged support for international terrorism and efforts to develop nuclear weapons. President Clinton and other U.S. leaders publicly criticized the Shiraz trial. Restrictions were eased on the import to the U.S. of certain goods, but restrictions on U.S. corporations investing in Iran remained in place, to the increasing displeasure of corporations who saw contracts being awarded to their European competitors.

A delegation of Iranian parliamentarians led by Speaker Karrubi attended an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in New York in August, and met several members of the U.S. Congress at a reception. During President Khatami's visit to New York for the U.N. Millennium Summit, President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conspicuously attended his speeches. The State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1999, issued before the post-election crack-down on the reformist movement, gave some credit for improvements in the freedom of expression field, while remaining critical of a wide range of violations. The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, issued by the State Department in early September identified Iran as "a country of concern," because of its persecution of religious minorities.