Iranian Society under Crackdown

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017.
Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. 

People in Iran are confronting multiple crises. A sustained economic crisis has harmed the livelihoods of millions of Iranians, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Broad US economic sanctions have caused serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threaten their right to health. At the center of Iranian residents’ struggles is an unaccountable and deeply repressive state. Iranian authorities ignore or punish peaceful dissent and have launched a sustained crackdown on civil society, from labor activists, lawyers and human rights defenders to journalists and even former senior political leaders. In November 2019, security forces used excessive and unlawful lethal force in confronting large-scale protests and have held no officials accountable while sentencing several people to death after unfair trials. Human Rights Watch’s Iran blog will use this space to highlight such official repression and civil society activists’ attempts to push for respect for human rights during this tumultuous period.

Prison Sentence for Father of Killed Protester

A screenshot of a photo posted by Manoucher Bakhtiari of him and his son Pouya, on Instagram. 

An Iranian court recently sentenced Manoucher Bakhtiari, the father of a young Iranian man killed during the bloody crackdown on protesters in November 2019, to three and a half years in prison and two and a half years in exile on unclear charges, according to reporting by the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Iranian security forces have arrested Bakhtiari several times since the death of his son. 

Bakhtiari’s son, Pouya Bakhtiari, 27, was fatally shot in the head in November 2019 in Karaj, Alborz Province. Pouya had participated in protests in which security forces used excessive and unnecessary lethal force on protesters. Many victims of the violence died from gunshots to the head or chest.

The authorities arrested several members of the Bakhtiari family, including Manoucher, in December 2019 after they called for public mourning for Pouya’s death.  A week after the arrest, Gholamhossein Esmaili, the judiciary’s spokesperson, said that the family members were accused of “acting against national security.” Authorities held Manoucher for two months before releasing him pending trial. Authorities rearrested him in July 2020, shortly after he made a public plea to the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate the security forces’ use of violence on protesters. In December 2020, Manoucher posted on his Instagram account that his brother Mehrdad Bakhtiari, Pouya’s uncle, received a five-year suspended sentence on broad national security charges. 

Instead of investigating the serious violations security forces committed during the brutal crackdown against protesters in November 2019, it appears that the Iranian authorities are using their old tactic of prosecuting those who are seeking truth and justice.

Iran Should Take Measures to Protect Prisoners from Covid-19

A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.  © 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign

The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported on July 12 that Iranian environmentalist Sepideh Kashani recently tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19.

Kashani is one of eight environmental activists affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) whom authorities detained in January 2018 on accusations of “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.” In November 2019, an Iranian court sentenced Kashani and her colleagues to prison time ranging between 4 and 10 years. Kashani received a 6-year sentence, which an appeals court upheld in February 2020.

In the beginning of the pandemic, Iranian authorities released many prisoners, including Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the environmental group. 

Since early 2020, several peaceful activists and dissidents held in Evin Prison have contracted the virus, including the poet Baktash Abtin and Iranian-British dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Iranian authorities should immediately reduce prison populations across the country to combat the spread of the coronavirus and publish complete information on the number of positive Covid-19 cases recorded in prisons and detention centers.

In March 2021, authorities temporarily released Kashani and others for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, but they have since been returned to prison. 

Iran’s prison authorities should unconditionally release all people detained for peaceful dissent, including Kashani and her PWHF colleagues, and temporarily release all eligible prisoners to minimize the spread of Covid-19. For those who remain, prison authorities should ensure equitable access to masks, hygiene supplies, Covid-19 tests, treatment and vaccines, in line with World Health Organization guidance and international human rights standards.

Iranian-German National’s Health at Risk in Detention

July 2021 marks Jamshid Sharmahd’s eleventh month in arbitrary detention in Iran, without public charges or a set trial date. Sharmahd, 66, is an Iranian-German national previously involved with the “Kingdom of Assembly of Iran,” an Iranian opposition group accused of planning a deadly 2008 explosion, according to Amnesty International.

Reuters reported in August 2020 that Iranian authorities arrested Sharmahd and detained him in Iran. According to his family, Sharmahd went missing in July 2020 while transiting to India via Dubai on a business trip. At time of writing, Sharmahd’s exact location remains unknown. Sharmand is one of the three known cases of Iranian authorities detaining foreign-based dissidents. In December 2020, authorities executed Rouholllah Zam, a prominent dissident and journalist who was likely arrested in Iraq, after convicting him in a grossly unfair trial.

In an interview with Voice of America, Sharmahd’s daughter said judicial authorities repeatedly blocked the family’s lawyer from meeting Sharmahd or even reviewing his case file, claiming the case is still under investigation. Instead, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported a judiciary official introduced a different lawyer to the family who could represent Sharmahd for US $250,000, a cost the family cannot afford. Under article 42 of Iran’s criminal procedure law, authorities can restrict access of those who are facing national security charges to legal counsel of their choice during the initial investigation period.

Iranian state television channels previously aired a series of Sharmahd’s “confessions” wherein he allegedly admits to involvement in the attack. The family, as well as other human rights organizations, contend the confessions are coerced. Authorities have a long history of using coerced confessions. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, protects the right of every person “[n]ot to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt.” Broadcasting such a confession prior to a suspect’s fair trial violates the principle of presumptive innocence, as outlined in article 14(2).

Sharmahd’s detention is particularly alarming given his pre-existing health conditions. Amnesty International reports Sharmahd has diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Under the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, prisoners who require specialist treatment should be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals.

Lack of Medical Care Leads to Two Prisoners’ Deaths in Two Months

On June 7, 2021, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported the June 5 death of Sassan Niknafs in Firouzabadi Hospital, where he was admitted after losing consciousness, according to the prison’s medical team. Earlier in February 2021, Behnam Mahjoubi died at Loghman Hospital after being transferred there from Evin Prison due to multiple seizures. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, both Prisoners were imprisoned without adequate health care despite their medical histories. Mahjoubi was deemed incapable of withstanding incarceration by the State Medical Examiner, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, while Niknafs had displayed mental and physical health issues prior to his imprisonment and required daily medication and regular medical visits.   

Niknafs began serving a five year prison sentence in July 2020 on charges that included “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state.” Mahjoubi, who belonged to the persecuted Sufi Gonabadi Order, began serving a two year sentence for arbitrary national security charges since June 2020.   

The UN has expressed concerns several times about the denial of medical care to prisoners detained on vague national security charges in Iran, most recently in the case of imprisoned filmmaker Mohammed Nourizad. Article 502 or Iran’s Criminal Procedure Code allows judges to suspend an individual’s imprisonment if their health worsens, until the prisoner recovers. Iranian human rights activists believe that the deaths of Niknafs could amount to unlawful deaths due to the failure to provide adequate medical care.

Lengthy, Vague Sentences for Six Baha’is for Practicing Faith

A revolutionary court in Borazjan, Iran, sentenced six Baha’i Iranians to lengthy prison terms on vaguely defined national security charges, including propaganda against the state “by spreading the beliefs of the Baha’i” faith, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). The six convicted were Maryam Bashir, Mino Bashir, Hayedeh Ram, Frank Sheikhi, Borhan Ismaili, and Derna Ismaili.

Authorities charged Borhan Ismaili for “spreading” the beliefs of the Baha’i faith and acting against national security interests and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. The other individuals were each sentenced to 12½  years in prison for “assisting” in this propaganda, the evidence of which includes social media posts they made on Facebook.

The case is currently subject to appeal. If the sentences are upheld, each person would serve 10 years in prison. Under article 134 of the penal code, if the number of charges committed by a defendant exceeds three, then the defendant will serve the harshest prison sentence attached to their charges.

Iran’s constitution does not recognize Baha’i individuals as a religious minority in Iran, and authorities have long targeted members of the faith through harassment and arrest campaigns. Most recently, authorities instituted a policy that restricts where Baha’is can bury their deceased.

Rights Defender Narges Mohammadi Sentenced to Imprisonment and Flogging

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, at the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Tehran, June 25, 2007.  © 2007 AFP/Getty Images

On May 23, Iranian authorities sentenced prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi to an additional two and a half years in prison, a “flogging” of 80 lashes, and other financial penalties. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), the charges against Mohammadi include “propaganda against the state” for issuing a statement, staging a sit-in in prison authorities’ offices, and refusing to obey orders to end her sit-in.

According to Mohammadi, the charges against her stem from a public letter she wrote in September 2020, published by the Defenders of Human Rights Center, in which she criticized Iran’s extensive use of the death penalty and her treatment by prison authorities, and also from her sit-in protest against the brutal crackdown against protestors in November 2019.

As the vice president of the banned Defenders of Human Rights Center, Mohammadi is well-known for her activism campaigning against the death penalty in Iran. According to Amnesty International, in 2020 alone, Iranian authorities carried out over 240 executions. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inherently cruel and irreversible.

In October 2020, authorities released Mohammadi from Evin prison after spending 5 years of a 10-year sentence there. In 2016, Iran’s revolutionary court sentenced her in an unfair trial for “establishing an illegal group,” as well as for “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” In January, Mohammadi reported she was barred from traveling to France to visit her children and husband, even though she had been released three months prior.

Mohammadi’s return to prison raises serious concerns for her health, as she has a serious neurological disease that causes muscular paralysis. Prison authorities previously demonstrated a lack of willingness to provide her with urgent medical care, as was the case in 2019 when prison doctors confirmed her need for treatment, but she was denied it nonetheless.

Prominent Activists Continue to Be Harassed and Travel Banned

Iran Air airplane approaches Mehrabad airport in Tehran, Iran, January 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

On May 16, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) reported that journalist and writer Emmadeddin Baghi, 59, was banned from travelling for 16 years. Baghi is the founder of the Committee for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights in Iran. He has been arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned several times in the last two decades on different arbitrary charges, including “propaganda against the state” and “colluding against the security of the regime.”

Baghi is one of several activists barred from leaving the country. For instance, prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi was released from prison in October 2020 after being behind bars for five years. Mohammadi reported on January 27, 2021 that authorities barred her from traveling abroad to visit her children who live in France. Mohammadi has been prosecuted for her peaceful activism several times.

Iranian authorities have long used arbitrary travel bans against activists and at times have used travel bans to prevent travel of activists’ family members. In 2012, family members of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, said that judicial authorities imposed a travel ban on her husband Reza Khandan and her then 13-year-old daughter Mahraveh without a clear legal basis.

Human Rights Watch echoes GCHR’s call to the Iranian authorities to cease the persecution of Baghi and other activists and remove the arbitrary bans on their ability to travel.

An Ahwazi Arab Gay Man Murdered in Iran

Alireza Fazeli-Monfared, 20, has reportedly been killed by family members on May 4, 2021, near Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province. LGBT rights activists have reported that his murder was motivated by his family’s suspicion that he was gay.  According to different sources, Monfared expressed concerns about his own safety and intent to flee Iran. Monfared had been living away from his family but had returned briefly to Ahvaz to pick up his military exemption card, which he was eligible for as a gay man under Paragraph 5, Article 7 of the Iranian military exemption laws. Aghil Abyat, Monfared’s partner, informed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Monfared had planned to join him in Turkey on May 8, 2021, in hopes of traveling to Europe to seek asylum.

LGBT people in Iran face serious threats of violence and discrimination, with limited access to redress or government protection. The criminalization of same-sex relations, and the absence of legislation protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, compromise LGBT people’s safety and threaten their basic rights. Iran’s penal code criminalizes all sexual relations outside marriage, including same-sex conduct. Under Iranian law, same-sex conduct is punishable by flogging and, for men, the death penalty. Although Iran permits and subsidizes sex reassignment surgery for transgender people, no law prohibits discrimination against them. Iran has ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1975, which prohibits death sentences except for the most serious crimes.

Iranian authorities should decriminalize same-sex conduct and protect LGBT people from violence and discrimination, so that they can live safely in their country.

Immediately Release Maryam Akbari-Monfared from Prison

Maryam Akbari Monfared, a political prisoner, has spent the past 12 years in prison in Iran after being convicted in an unfair trial.

Akbari-Monfared is currently serving a 15-year sentence for “enmity against God” (moharebeh), a charge based on her alleged membership in the banned opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Amnesty International reported that her conviction was founded on a visit and phone calls she made to family members who are MEK members. Sources close to the case have said that during Akbari-Monfared’s trial over a decade ago, the judge said she would be “paying for the activities of her brother and sister,” a form of unlawful collective punishment.  Her brother and sister were among those killed during the 1988 mass executions of prisoners.

In 2013, Iranian lawmakers amended Iran’s penal code for the charge of “enmity against God” and adopted a narrower definition of “drawing a weapon on the life, property or chastity of people or to cause terror as it creates the atmosphere of insecurity.” Akbari-Monfared’s family argued that this definition should be applied retroactively, and authorities should have released her that year.

In October 2016, Akbari-Monfared filed a formal complaint inside Evin prison seeking an official investigation into the 1988 mass executions. Since then, she has faced a series of reprisals, as prison authorities cancelled her access to medical care and restricted visits from family members, including her three children.

In March, authorities transferred Akbari-Monfared from Tehran’s Evin Prison to Senman Prison, about 350 kilometers away from her family. Disruptions to family life by making visitations unnecessarily extremely difficult or impossible constitutes a violation of prisoners’ rights, as provided by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Authorities should release Akbari-Monfared and ensure that everyone can seek truth and justice about the 1988 mass executions of prisoners without fear of reprisal.

University Students Petition for Peers’ Release from Unjust Detention

Ali Younesi during an interview with Iranian Student News Agency after winning a gold medal as a member of Iran’s national team during the 12th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics. © 2019 ISNA News 

Hundreds of students and graduates of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran reportedly signed a letter asking Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to intervene to ensure detained Sharif University students Ali Younesi and Amirhossein Moradi’s due process rights are respected and that they receive a fair trial. Younesi and Moradi remain unjustly held in the notorious Evin Prison since April 2020. 

The letter highlights the conditions of the students’ detention over a year after their initial arrest - which has included almost two months of solitary confinement, heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment, and authorities’ denial of access to a lawyer of their choosing, according to several human rights groups. In June 2020, according to his family, Younesi contracted Covid-19 and became severely ill. 

Officers arrested Younesi and Moradi in April 2020 and accused them of having ties to anti-revolutionary groups, including the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), and pursuing “destructive” actions. According to Younesi’s family, authorities used his parents’ former membership in the group to justify his and Moradi’s detention. 

On April 11, Mostafa Nili, the students’ lawyer, told the Emtedad Telegram channel that the trial date for his clients was supposed to be set for that day; however, the session did not take place. Younesi and Moradi are charged with “corruption on earth,” which can carry the death penalty.

Student Union Activist Leila Hosseinzadeh Receives a 5-Year Prison Sentence

Women’s Rights Defenders Sentenced, Targeted for Marriage Rights Workshops

Human Rights Lawyer and Professor, Reza Eslami, Sentenced to 7 Years in Prison

Iranian Human Rights Activists’ Punishment Doesn’t End with Imprisonment

New Iranian Judiciary Document Not Sufficient to Change Rampant Human Rights Abuses

Iranian Authorities Restricting Rights Defenders’ Access to Necessary Health Care