Human Rights Developments
As international attention focused on Iran's criticism of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and other aspects of its foreign policy, inside the country Iranians were increasingly outspoken in demanding respect for basic freedoms. A few days before his death in January, the Islamic Republic's first Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who in recent years had been one of the government's most persistent internal critics, spoke of the suppression of political freedom and of "widespread, corruption into the very heart of the judiciary." He noted in an interview published in the West, "they never allowed this nation to breathe. All efforts to restore some liberty were crushed at the inception." Bazargan's words aptly described another year in Iran's long human rights crisis. The government closed newspapers, imprisoned critics, forcibly suppressed protests, and condoned vigilante attacks against domestic opposition. Religious zealots from competing authorities interfered in people's everyday lives enforcing ever-changing rules of conduct.
The attack on freedom of expression, reported in Human Rights Watch World Report 1995, gathered pace. In a case that had a chilling effect on writers and creative artists, Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani died in detention under mysterious circumstances in November 1994. The coroner's report on the cause of death of this prominent writer was withheld.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a senior member of the Council of Guardians, denounced writers who, following the disappearance of Saidi-Sirjani, signed an open letter in October 1994, calling for an end to censorship. Speaking at Friday prayers at Tehran University, Ayatollah Jannati accused the writers of "spreading corruption," and warned them that if they continued zealous government supporters (hezbollahi) would act to stop them. The Council is a body of twelve clerics and experts in Islamic Law responsible for ensuring that legislation comports with Islamic principles and the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.
In December 1994, 500 journalists joined the writers' protest against censorship, objecting in particular to the summary closure of newspapers by the authorities. Nevertheless, in February 1995, the Press Supervisory Board, a government dominated body, ordered the closure of the Jahan-e Eslam newspaper for "acting against the security of the state, and tarnishing officials." The closure arose out of a serialized interview with former Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, which was highly critical of the policies of president Rafsanjani. In March, the literary journal Takapou was accused of violating Islamic values and closed. In August, the government closed Payam-e Daneshju, a weekly news magazine, also associated with the critics of the president. The magazine had gained a large circulation because of its reporting on allegations of widespread corruption within the government, and within the Bonyad-e Mostazafin, a foundation closely associated with the government. In October, a provincial daily, Tous, was closed for violating laws on defamation in its criticism of the government.
The government carried out these newspaper closures in apparent violation of press laws requiring charges against the media to be brought before a court. The government submitted the draft of a new press law to the parliament (Majles) in June. The new law would provide the Ministry of Islamic Guidance with powers to order the closure of publications without the need for prior court approval, thus writing into law the ministry's de-facto powers. The banned but active opposition group, the Freedom Movement of Iran, criticized the draft law because it would allow the executive to encroach on the powers of the judiciary, and would further restrict the freedom of the press.
In violation of constitutional prohibitions on government ownership of newspapers, government officials began publication of two new newspapers, Iran and Akhbar.
Restrictions on freedom of expression also extended to the cinema industry. In June, 214 filmmakers signed an open letter to the government calling for the lifting of government's restrictions on the industry. The filmmakers complained of bureaucratic interference in scripts, production, funding and distribution. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance responded to these protests by announcing at the end of June that it would ban the export of films portraying a "negative image of life in Iran." In recent years, Iranian films have won acclaim at international film festivals, but the ministry stated that these films "lack a national and Islamic identity."
In a sinister development, threatening to stifle the free exchange of ideas, hezbollahi mobs attacked intellectual Abdol Karim Soroush as he was giving a speech in Isfahan, in July, and again in Tehran in October. On both occasions, scores of youths opposed to the philosopher's ideas disrupted his scheduled university lectures, preventing him from speaking. Dr. Soroush had been criticized for his liberal interpretation of Islamic principles. The attack on Soroush followed criticism made in September by Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei, who chided unnamed intellectuals for unjustly criticizing the clergy and "earning a living on Islam." In July, following the first attack on Soroush, 107 professors sent an open letter to President Rafsanjani urging him to uphold the constitution, and to prevent such illegal interference in people's rights.
Vigilante violence continued throughout the year, encouraged by state officials and religious spokesmen. In July, a mob attacked the memorial service for Dr. Karim Sanjabi, a leader of the National Front, and a former minister in the transitional government of Mehdi Bazargan. The authorities took no action to restrain the attackers or to pursue and prosecute them after the event.
In August, the Morgh Amin bookstore in Tehran was firebombed because it had published a book condemned by some as un-Islamic. The burning of the bookstore sparked a controversy in the press as hard-liners, like Ayatollah Jannati, praised the actions of those who burnt the store, saying that they had only done what the authorities should have done. This brought a response from supporters of president Rafsanjani, "How can a man who is a member of the legislature encourage thugs to take the law into their own hands." Others within the government responded that it was the testament of Ayatollah Khomeini that the hezbollahi should take up the task of protecting Islam whenever the authorities failed. When Salam newspaper entered the fray, accusing Ayatollah Jannati of "encouraging anarchy," a mob gathered outside the newspaper offices shouting "death to the enemies of Islam." In September, more than forty publishers sent an open letter to president Rafsanjani calling on the government to "deal legally with anti-cultural elements and book burners."
The president's critics were not the only Iranians resorting to officially-sponsored vigilantism. Clerics had written an open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei in August, Salam newspaper reported, protesting that supporters of president Rafsanjani had formed gangs of thugs who "drove from their pulpits" Friday prayer leaders critical of government policies. Also in August, government supporters prevented Ayatollah Mohtashemi from making a speech at Tehran University.
The forthcoming elections were increasingly the focus of opposition statements. The opposition Freedom Movement called on Iranians to participate in the elections, and to change the government through the ballot box. However, in August, the authorities reconfirmed the ban on the Freedom Movement as an organization whose activities "are not in accordance with the Iranian Constitution." The authorities took no measures to secure meetings and activities organized by the Freedom Movement from attack by mobs.
The continuing economic crisis contributed to social unrest. In April residents of a shantytown in the Islamshahr suburb of Tehran demonstrated against increases in bus fares. According to Amnesty International, security forces fired on the crowd, killing up to ten people. Revolutionary Guards detained hundreds of people after the demonstration. Golam Hossein Rahbarpour, head of the Revolutionary Courts in Tehran, announced in June that fifty of the demonstrators would go on public trial before Revolutionary Courts. Nevertheless, the detainees were held incommunicado, and without charges. In response to the Islamshahr disturbances, the government was reported to have conducted military maneuvers, and formed a rapid reaction force "to crush the enemies of Islam," according to journalist Safa Ha'eri.
In July, Salam newspaper reported a strike by workers at the Benz Khavar auto manufacturing plant in Islamshahr. The workers' demands for increased pay were met by the deployment of troops around the factory, who broke up the demonstration after three days. The opposition Iran Nation Party reported that some of the strikers were detained, and would face trial before Revolutionary Courts. In August, workers in a privatized textile factory in Ghaemshahr, in northern Iran, staged a protest against job lay-offs. Again, Revolutionary Guards forcibly broke up the protest.
Intrusive restrictions on everyday life continued. In January, the Majles passed a law banning the possession of satellite television dishes. The law, which came into effect in March, stipulated that violators would be fined up to $2,000. The new law also gave a pretext for security forces to enter private houses to search for outlawed satellite equipment.
In September, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa stating that, "teaching young people to read and play music makes them depraved and leads to corruption." In accordance with the ruling, Tehran's largest public-funded cultural center canceled its music classes. However, private music schools continued to function.
In September, Ayatollah Jannati urged zealous Muslims to block traffic if they saw wedding parties that did not conform to Islamic norms. According to Reuters, the radical legislator was apparently referring to brides who appeared in public in western-style bridal gowns.
The activities of extra-governmental enforcers of Islamic orthodoxy became more prominent throughout the year, increasing the likelihood of interference in the daily life of citizens. Women continued to be hounded to comply with petty restrictions. In May, police authorities began implementation of a decree prohibiting women from riding in the front seat of taxis. More than 120 shops in northern Tehran were closed for selling female clothing "incompatible with the norms of the Islamic Republic." Detention of women for failure to observe a rigid dress code continued, but enforcement was inconsistent and unpredictable. In an interview with Aftab-Gardoun magazine in June, president Rafsanjani urged women to accept the "limitations" nature had imposed on them.
In May, according to Salam newspaper, a new court system was introduced in Tehran, in accordance with the decision to unify criminal courts within a system of General Courts (Dadgahayeh Aam). The introduction of the new system brought chaos as inexperienced judges were given responsibility over both investigation and judgment, undermining legal safeguards. The government dealt severely with those who criticized the new system. Dr. Javad Tabatabai, deputy-dean of Tehran University Law School, was dismissed after criticizing the new courts. Students declared a strike to protest his removal.
In an unusual development, three women accused of the murder of Christian leaders in 1994, were brought to trial in public before Revolutionary Court. Proceedings before such courts almost invariably take place in secret. The motivation of the authorities to hold this trial in public appeared to be political, as the authorities sought to place responsibility for the killings on the violent opposition group, the People's Mojahedine Organization of Iran (PMOI). At the hearing in September, the women confessed to the murder of Protestant pastor Tateos Michaelian. The women's confessions, emphasizing their connection to the PMOI, were televised. Other unusual aspects of this trial were that the women were assigned lawyers_lawyers are normally banned from Revolutionary Courts_and the hearings were open to observers, including Western diplomats.
There were reports that political opponents of the government were sentenced to death, especially in the Kurdish areas in the northwestern provinces. For example, in September, according to the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, which advocates armed revolt, six of its supporters were executed in Orumieh Prison. Also in September, the Organization of Iranian People's Fedaian (Majority) announced the execution of one of its supporters in Langrud. Violent clashes between armed government opponents and the security forces continued to take place in the Kurdish areas, and in Sistan va Baluchestan province in the southeast.
Iran has long provided a haven to millions of refugees from the conflict in Afghanistan, with little assistance from the international community. In a draconian plan, the government announced that all of the estimated 1.6 million refugees must leave Iran by March 1997, inducing them to leave by refusing to renew their residency or work permits. The government's resolve to eject its Afghan population was not weakened by the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, from which the refugees had originally fled.
The government enhanced its joint security agreement with Turkey, which led in August to an exchange of dissidents, in violation of the international prohibition on refoulement. Iran handed over thirty-four opponents of the Turkish government and received fourteen Iranian dissidents in return. While an Interior Ministry spokesman, Ali Reza Barati, stated that cooperation with Turkey "to eradicate terrorism" would continue, these exchanges raise grave concerns about the security of Iranian refugees in Turkey who were compelled to go through processing by Turkish police in order to obtain refugee status.
The Right to Monitor
The government denied access to independent international human rights organizations, and for the forth consecutive year, the U.N. special representative on the human rights situation in Iran was not allowed to visit Iran. Domestic human rights activity was limited to government controlled groups. Human rights bodies like the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, the Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, which was associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the newly established Human Rights Commission within the judicial branch operate in Iran, but their activities did not substitute for independent monitoring or reporting. Nevertheless, this year saw an increasing number of groups and individuals voice public criticism of the government. In January, Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Rouhani, one of Shi'ism's pre-eminent clerical leaders, wrote an open letter to President Rafsanjani stating that life in Iran had become "unbearable for those who abide by the true principles of our Islamic faith." Grand Ayatollah Rouhani stated that he wished to leave Iran because his life was at risk from "armed criminals." In a long letter, published in London by the Arabic daily Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat, Grand Ayatollah Rouhani criticized specific government practices, including night raids on private houses on the pretext of searching for alcohol, and confiscation of property without due process of law.
In a second open letter in June, Grand Ayatollah Rouhani criticized arbitrary detention, beatings of prisoners and extrajudicial executions. In apparent response to Rouhani's statements, the security forces detained twenty-five of his followers in Qom in July, including his 26-year-old son, Javad. The detainees were held in an unknown location, and the authorities did not announce the charges on which they were being held. Grand Ayatollah Rouhani's movements were restricted by the authorities, as were those of other senior clerics, including Ayatollah Montazeri, the former designated successor to the Leader of the Islamic Republic. Many clerics joined in protests against these actions.
Secular critics were also active in 1995. Retired general Azizollah Amir Rahimi continued to voice dissent, even after his release from prison in March. Former minister, Dariush Foruhar openly challenged the authorities in a July telephone interview with the independent Paris-based news agency, Iranian Press Services, to permit "a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy," or else "face the consequences." He warned that "state hooliganism" would be confronted forcefully. Foruhar also condemned forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for March and April 1996, as a facade.
Foruhar's supporters claimed that the government was preparing to kill him, pointing to an article in Keyhan Hava'i newspaper in which he was accused of being "in tune with Western governments," and of rejecting the Islamic Constitution. The article suggests that while in Europe, Mr. Foruhar, "may be prey to violent actions by opposition organizations."
Former deputy-Prime Minister Abbas Amir-Entezam continued to speak out from his prison cell in Evin Prison. Mr. Amir-Entezam, imprisoned since late 1979 on unproven charges of espionage for the United States, wrote to a prominent German legislator to call for worldwide condemnation of the government's violation of human rights. "Why should our people be denied the right of choosing freely its own government?" Mr. Amir-Entezam asked in his letter.
The Role of the International Community
The United Nations
The U.N. special representative on Iran was not allowed to visit Iran in 1995. Nevertheless, in March the U.N. Commission on Human Rights condemned Iran for "gross and systematic violations of human rights." The report of the special representative adopted by the Commission noted that at least 283 persons detained in 1992 in connection with unrest in Mashad remained in detention without trial. The report also detailed the persecution of religious minorities, including increased surveillance on Iranian Christians.
In August, the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a resolution condemning "flagrant violations of human rights in Iran," including "excessive use of the death penalty," torture, the use of excessive force in suppressing demonstrations, the harassment and intimidation of people by street patrols, the lack of due process standards and restrictions on freedom of expression.
The European Union
In May, the European Union sought a written pledge from the Iranian government that it would take no action of any kind aimed at killing the British author, Salman Rushdie, condemned to death by a fatwa from the late Ayatollah Khomeini. The approach followed indications given by Iranian officials to Scandinavian governments that the threat to the author's life from the Iranian government could be lifted.
When put to the test, the reports proved to be without substance, and no written statement from the Iranian government was forthcoming. This led to a cooling in relations between the Scandinavian countries and the Iranian government, with Norway downgrading its diplomatic relations. However, while the E.U. expressed frustration over the failure to make progress on the Rushdie case, the European Commission announced in May its intention "to leave all lines of communication open with a country which is an important trading partner and an important regional power." Germany expressed its opposition to sanctions because they would result in Iran defaulting on debt payments. The E.U. debated lesser punitive measures, including the suspension of economic dialogue, and the cancellation of the annual meeting of foreign ministers with Foreign Minister Velayati.
On April 30 President Clinton issued an executive order imposing a total trade embargo on Iran, citing Iran's "export of terrorism," threat to the Middle East peace process, and pursuit of nuclear weapons as the reasons for his decision, which placed a new emphasis on Iran in U.S. foreign policy.
Skepticism characterized the initial international reaction to the forthright U.S. action, with the European Union declaring its intention to continue a "critical political dialogue" with the Iranian authorities, and Japan showing little enthusiasm to join any embargo. The Clinton administration's decision to act against Iran, after years of talking tough appears to have been prompted by the desire to head off anticipated congressional moves to propose even harsher measures that would have imposed a secondary embargo on companies trading with Iran, potentially causing havoc in international trade.
U.S. policy focused on preventing the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran from Russia and China. The U.S. also tried to persuade its Western allies not to take over the business it was foregoing by upholding the embargo.
The economic results of this policy were inconclusive. At the G-7 Summit in Halifax in May, the communique made no direct reference to the Iran sanctions. The U.S. made little attempt to link its sanctions policy to the internal human rights situation, and in the short term, at least, those most hostile to the West inside Iran drew credit for standing up to U.S. pressure, and could use the embargo to justify repressive internal measures. In September, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Pelletreau claimed that the policy was working, pointing to pressure from other countries that denied Iran access to official credits. Pelletreau declared the U.S. intention to "raise the cost to Tehran's leaders of maintaining their destabilizing policies."
In the absence of a U.S. diplomatic presence, the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 relied on observation of the human rights situation from outside the country. The report contained little new information, and spoke in broad generalities.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East
In November 1994, Human Rights Watch/Middle East called on the Iranian government to conduct an independent autopsy into the cause of death of Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani, and to publish the results. It received no reply.
In January, following a statement by Prosecutor General Ayatollah Moghtadai inviting international human rights organizations to visit Iranian prisons, the organization resubmitted its request to send a delegation to Iran to assess prison conditions. It received no reply. The organization had first made this request in April 1994, following a statement from another Iranian leader inviting representatives of the international news media to visit Iran's prisons.
In June, following the United States' Executive Order on Iran, Human Rights Watch/Middle East expressed concern to Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, about obstacles that the Executive Order may pose to the exercise of freedom of expression and movement by Iranians and others, including journalists, academics, researchers, and human rights workers.
In September, Human Rights Watch/Middle East wrote to Minister of Interior, Mohamed Ali Besharati, expressing concern over the arson attack on the Morgh Amin bookstore, and Ayatollah Jannati's praise of the attack. The organization asked to be informed of the government's efforts to apprehend the perpetrators of the attack.
In a letter to the Turkish authorities, the organization expressed concern over the situation of Iranian refugees in Turkey, and urged the Turkish government to uphold its obligations under international law to safeguard refugees from being sent to countries where they faced persecution.