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.
Increased Pressure on Teachers Amidst Nationwide Protests
Today, on World Teachers’ Day, Mohammad Habibi, the spokesperson for the Iranian Teachers Union, tweeted that yesterday authorities at the education ministry informed him of their unappealable decision to fire him from his job. Habibi has previously spent close to 30 months in detention for his activism.
Last month, security forces arrested Aziz Ghasemzadeh, a teacher, at his parent’s home and have denied him access to a lawyer, phone calls, and visits ever since, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). Ghasemzadeh, a member of the Gilan Teachers Union, filmed his arrest in a video now widely circulated on social media. The reason for his arrest and the charges against him remain unclear.
Increased pressure on teachers and Ghasemzadeh’s arrest coincide with nationwide protests organized by the Council for Coordination among Teachers Unions. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, protesters are expressing grievances after President Raeesi blocked previously promised wage increases for teachers.
Authorities should immediately release Ghasemzadeh and drop any charges held against him unless authorities can provide evidence he should be charged with a recognizable crime.
Peaceful protests by teachers in 2018 and 2015 were followed by authorities’ increased targeting, harassment, and arrests of teachers and other education activists. Another prominent member of the teachers union, Ismael Abdi, has been imprisoned since 2016 on a 10-year prison sentence that was previously suspended by authorities.
UNICEF Retiree Under Travel Ban in Urgent Need of Critical Care
An 84-year-old Iranian American citizen, Baquer Namazi, is in urgent need of "immediate surgery for a 95–97% blockage in one of his internal carotid arteries — the pair of main arteries that supply blood to the brain,” his lawyer announced on October 4.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization arrested Namazi, a UNICEF retiree, in February 2016, when he went to Iran to follow up on Iranian authorities’ arrest of his son Siamak, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in an unfair trial and has remained unjustly behind bars.
Baquer was released from prison on medical grounds in February 2018, but he has remained under a travel ban. “My father has already lost so much precious time. I am begging Iran to let him spend whatever small amount of time he has left with his family, my brother Siamak included,” Baquer’s other son Babak said during a press conference on October 4.
Human Rights Watch has documented the pattern of Iranian authorities’ targeting of foreign and dual nationals with vaguely defined national security charges and using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with western countries, in particular the United States.
Witness to Prisoner Torture Reported Dead
On September 23, the Iranian judiciary confirmed the death of Shahin Nasseri, a prisoner detained in the Greater Tehran Central prison who allegedly witnessed the torture and forced confession of former fellow inmate Navid Afkari, who was executed last year, when they were both detained in Shiraz prison.
The judiciary said that Nasseri died “45 minutes after being taken to a health clinic and the cause of death is under investigation.” A source in Tehran prison reported Nasseri’s death on September 21. Nasseri had apparently been transferred to solitary confinement on the anniversary of Afkari’s death.
According to tweets by Babak Paknia, Nasseri’s former lawyer, Nasseri had called him multiple times on September 20 asking for representation. An audio file circulated on social media this month, allegedly of Nasseri’s voice, details how Nasseri’s interrogators threatened him with physical violence.
In a handwritten letter published in September 2019, Afkari detailed the torture he experienced in two Shiraz detention centers, including beatings and near suffocation by detention authorities. A handwritten letter by Nasseri testifying that he witnessed Afkari being beaten by his interrogators was also among the documents Afkari’s defense team had submitted to authorities for the investigation into Afkari’s torture. An appeals court dismissed Afkari’s torture allegations in April 2020 and the state executed him in September 2020.
Afkari and his brother Vahid Afkari were arrested in September 2018 on charges including murder as well as participation in illegal demonstrations, insulting Iran’s supreme leader, robbery, and “enmity against God.” Afkari’s brother has remained in solitary confinement since last year.
According to Amnesty International, since 2010, at least 72 people have died in custody in Iranian prisons, while authorities have failed to provide accountability despite credible reports of torture and ill-treatment.
Financial Journalist Detained
Since September 1, Iranian authorities have detained financial reporter and labor activist Amir Abbas Azarmvand in the 209 ward of Evin prison in Tehran, which is under the supervision of the Intelligence Ministry, the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) has reported.
According to HRANA, authorities initially set a US$18,500 bond for Azarmvand’s release, but when his family went to the prosecutor’s office to request a reduction in the amount, they were told that he is still being interrogated. Azarmvand is apparently being charged with “propaganda against the state” according to IranWire, an online media outlet, citing Azarmvand’s colleague who spoke to the outlet on the condition of anonymity.
Authorities have detained Azarmvand, who reports on labor protests and poverty, briefly two other times in the past three years. Iranian authorities should immediately drop all charges concerning criticism of the state, release Azarmvand and end their repression against journalists.
Imprisoned Human Rights Lawyer Denied Critical Health Care
Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer imprisoned in Arak Central Prison, Markazi province, suffered a heart attack on August 1, Human Rights Watch has learned from a source with direct knowledge. Iranian authorities promised that Najafi’s medical treatment would continue after his visit to an out-of-prison medical center, however since his return to prison he has been unable to continue as the necessary medical treatment is not available there.
Authorities first prosecuted Najafi in reprisal for his role in exposing a protestor’s death in custody in January 2018 and reporting that the victim’s body bore marks of torture and other ill-treatment. Since then, Najafi has been mostly behind bars and has faced several new charges for peaceful dissent including “propaganda against the state.”
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. Prison authorities have stated that they are committed to addressing abuses after video footage from inside Evin prison showing serious abuses against detainees was leaked to media. Yet serious rights violations against dozens of prisoners including Najafi continue making such promises ring hollow.
Prominent Human Rights Defenders Arrested for Seeking Accountability
On August 14, Iranian authorities arrested six prominent human rights lawyers and activists on unclear charges. According to their colleagues, as well as a statement issued by Iran’s Central Lawyers Association, those arrested were working on filing a complaint against Iranian authorities for their abject mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis.
Iran is currently experiencing a “fifth wave” in the Covid-19 pandemic, with a daily death toll estimated at nearly 1,000 people a day, and in which total death are estimated at over 97,000 by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) statistics.
Authorities released one member of the group overnight, but human rights defenders Arash Keykhosravi, Mehdi Mahmoudian, Mostafa Nili, Mohammadreza Faghihi and Maryam Afrafaraz remain in detention.
At a time in which authorities should be releasing detained peaceful activists given the dire Covid-19 risks for those in prison and who should never have been imprisoned in the first place, arresting prominent human rights defenders seeking to hold government officials accountable is another example of how Iran’s repressive, autocratic government prioritizes violating its citizens’ rights instead of protecting them.
Several Kurdish Activists Arrested in West Azerbaijan Province
Iranian authorities have detained 14 people in Western Azerbaijan province in early August 2021, according to reporting by Mukrian News Agency, which reports on human rights violations in Kurdish areas of Iran.
Authorities reportedly arrested Salam Kordeh, Ribwar Charkedari, Jalal Ghaderzade, Hassan Shadikhah, Abid Anwari, Rahman Assadi, and Farhad Maroofi in Oshnavieh, in West Azerbaijan province. Around the same time, they also reportedly arrested Soran and Ako Dorbash, Rizgar Einaloo, Himan Gharadaghi, Ahad Soneh, and Diar and Kaveh Soleimanpour from villages in Mahabad county, Western Azerbaijan. Mukrian News Agency said that according to unconfirmed reports, they are charged with vaguely defined national security charges. National security charges are regularly used against ethnic minorities participating in peaceful activism in Iran.
These arrests fit into authorities’ ongoing wave of arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and enforced disappearances targeting people from Iran’s disadvantaged Kurdish minority, including those engaging in peaceful activism, in areas such as Alborz, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Tehran, and West Azerbaijan provinces. Authorities routinely fail to provide timely and transparent reasons for the arrests, coerce the detainees into making confessions, including through the use of torture, and prosecute them in unfair trials.
More Lengthy, Arbitrary Prison Sentences for Iranian Dual Nationals
An Iranian court sentenced German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi, 66, and British-Iranian Mehran Raouf, 64, a labor activist, to more than 10 years in prison each on vague national security charges related to “participating in managing an illegal group” and “propaganda against the regime,” as announced by their lawyer Mostafa Nili on August 4, 2021.
The court also sentenced three Iranian women activists - Somayeh Kargar, Bahareh Soleimani, and Nazanin Mohammad Nejad – to prison for between two years and eight months to six years and eight months on similar charges.
Rights groups noted that the authorities initially arrested almost all of these individuals in October 2020 in home raids and transferred them to detention centers without notifying their family members in a timely fashion. Amnesty International reported on Raouf and Taghavi’s ill-treatment in prison, including prolonged periods of solitary confinement for both of them.
Human Rights Watch has documented Iranian authorities’ use of vaguely defined national security charges as well as targeting of foreign and dual nationals with those charges in unfair trials over the past several years. Authorities appear to be using these charges and sentences against dual nationals as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the European Union, the United States, and other countries, such as recently in the case of British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Iran: Covid-19 Spreads through Women’s Ward in Evin Prison
Covid-19 is an unchecked crisis in Iran, but prisoners face a particularly dangerous situation in detention facilities where social distancing and safe hygiene is nearly impossible and medical care is inadequate. Not only are people in detention at heightened risk of contracting the virus that causes Covid-19, they are unable to provide care to their families or spend time with them when they get sick. Such is the situation of several Iranian environmentalists unjustly imprisoned for over three years.
On August 1, Emtedad news outlet reported Niloufar Bayani, one of eight environmental activists affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) whom authorities detained in January 2018, tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19.
On July 20, authorities temporarily released Sepideh Kashani, another member of the group, along with two other political prisoners who contracted Covid-19 while in detention. Parents of Sepideh’s husband, Houman Jokar, another detained member of the group, have also contracted Covid-19. Authorities took Jokar in shackles and handcuffs to see his hospitalized father for only a few hours.
On July 28, 1,400 environmental activists in Iran wrote an open letter to Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the head of Iran’s judiciary, to grant a temporary release to Jokar so he visit his parents. UN standards guarantee prisoners access to regular family visits in the event of a relative’s serious illness.
In January 2018, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) intelligence organization arrested and accused eight members of PWHF of “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.” To date, authorities have failed to provide any evidence into such allegations, while several government officials have denied the charges. In November 2019, an Iranian court sentenced them to prison time ranging between 4 and 10 years that was upheld by the court of appeal in February 2020.
In the beginning of the pandemic, Iranian authorities released prisoners, including Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the environmental group. Dozens of those detained solely for peaceful dissent were excluded from the releases.
Iran’s prison authorities should unconditionally release all people who remain detained for peaceful dissent, 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.
Prison Sentence for Father of Killed Protester
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.