London, 10 Feb – Human rights in Iran has always been a point of contention and friction between Iranian official and international bodies. Last November, the United Nation General Assembly’s human rights committee passed a draft resolution which voiced concern over continued rights abuses in Iran and urged the ruling regime to cease enforced disappearances and the widespread use of arbitrary detention.
This marks the 63rd time the Iranian regime has been condemned on human rights violations following the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah monarchy and gave birth to the Islamic Republic.
As has been the case with previous resolutions, Iranian officials have played down claims of human rights violations and defended their practice of human rights and associated them with political goals and agendas.
Following are the key areas where Iran’s human rights agenda is being debated.
Free and fair elections in Iran
Presidential and parliamentary elections are held every four years in Iran, where people cast their votes to choose the country’s president from among candidates.
However, the Supreme Leader, a religious monarch-like figure who holds his office for life, has the final say on all critical matters and can override any decision taken by legislative or executive bodies.
In the years following the 1979 revolution, opposition members were officially allowed to take part in elections, but government-led efforts prevented members of groups such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) from becoming part of the political process. Massoud Rajavi, MEK’s leader, who according to France’s LeMonde daily was forecasted to obtain millions of votes, was disqualified by a last-minute fatwa (edict) declared by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder and first Supreme Leader. A state-backed fraud campaign subsequently prevented members of the MEK from gaining a foothold in the Majlis, Iran’s legislative body.
In later years, the state has toughened up restrictions and set explicit bans that prevented people and organizations expressing the slightest opposition to the regime from taking part in any elections. Institutions and bodies affiliated with the office of the Supreme Leader strictly vet presidential and parliamentary candidates to make sure of their loyalty to the regime and its fundamental concepts.
As expressed by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), with the genuine opposition having no voice, elections held in Iran are merely “a constricted power struggle through sham elections whose outcome is shaped not by popular vote but by the regime’s internal balance of power.”
Iran’s elections have also been subject to egregious cases of vote rigging and election fraud. In 2009, nation-wide protests and uprisings erupted after it became evident that the state had manipulated the results in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Freedom of speech and media in Iran
Out of 180 countries rated by Reporters Without Borders in 2016, the independent international body monitoring freedom of information across the world, Iran was ranked 169. Freedom House, rates Iran’s press freedom at 90/100 (100 being the worst score), and describes the country’s media environment as “repressive.”
Major media outlets and publications in Iran are either state-owned or affiliated with the state’s military and security apparatus. Keyhan and Etelaat, the country’s principal dailies, are often described by western media as the mouthpiece of Ali Khamenei, the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader, because of their strict ties to his office. Outlets not owned by or tied to the ruling factions are strictly censored or closed down.
Iran’s constitutional law puts severe restrictions on publications. The law forbids the publication of any material that is “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public,” a vague definition that is often interpreted on an ad-hoc basis to justify crackdown on dissent.
Iran’s security forces strictly police the media and often criminalize and arrest journalists for expressing dissenting opinion. A stark example is that of Sattar Beheshti, an Iranian blogger who was arrested by Iran’s cyber police for criticizing the government, and was later tortured to death while in custody. Freedom House’s report 2016 report on freedom of press in Iran iterates many other cases where journalists, reporters and satirists have been arrested on trumped up charges of moharebeh or “enmity against god.”
Torture and executions in Iran
Iran’s deliberate use of the capital punishment has been a constant source of international outrage and condemnation. According to several independent international bodies including the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran and Amnesty International, Iran is the leading state in number of executions per capita, and only second to China in terms of figures. Iran also tops the charts in the number of executions of minors and juvenile offenders.
The Iranian regime is notoriously renowned to execute opposition members and dissenters. The state executed tens of thousands of persons affiliated with opposition groups during the 1980s. The 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, mostly MEK members and supporters, is one of the prominent episodes of Iran’s execution agenda. The event led to Ayatollah Montazeri, then slated to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader, to split from the regime. An audio file from Montazeri that surfaced 28 years later shed new light into the details of the 1988 massacre. Execution of political prisoners, especially supporters of MEK, has continued in recent years.
Since the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who is often portrayed as a moderate figure by western countries, executions have surged in Iran. 2015 was a record-breaking year in number of executions in Iran, with more than 1,000 documented cases of capital punishment. Opposition sources maintain the real figures are much higher.
The Iranian regime also carries out a large number of executions for drug-related charges, crimes that aren’t considered major offenses according to international norms. Iran’s methods of execution, which involve hanging and stoning, often carried out in public, is also under international criticism.
Torture and corporal punishment is a common practice in Iran’s prisons and is also mandated by law. Iran uses public lashings and maiming to humiliate prisoners. Accounts from former prisoners reveal the use of rape, beatings, mock executions and other forms of torture in Iran’s prisons, especially against dissidents. Prisoners dying under torture is a common happening.
One case that was highlighted in recent years was that of the Kahrizak Prison, which highlighted the mass-scale torture and rape of demonstrators arrested during the 2009 uprisings.
Iran has been criticized on several reprises for getting forced confessions from prisoners through torture. Last November, Amnesty International published a report in which it slammed the Iranian regime for broadcasting forced confessions of prisoners in order to justify their execution.
Women’s rights in Iran
Women have always had an exceptional role in shaping the Iranian society and history. Iran also has the most educated female population in the Middle East. However, under the Islamic Republic, they are strictly limited to manifest their capacity.
In terms of personal and social freedoms, Iranian women are subject to stringent rules. Women are required to wear the hijab (head veil) in all public places on the pain of corporal punishment. In some cases vigilantes sanctioned by the government have staged acid attacks against women for not adhering to the dress code. Women are also banned from public events such as sports matches, or from activities such as riding bicycles.
As for civil rights, Iran’s laws explicitly classify women as second class citizens. A woman’s share of inheritance is half of what a male relative is entitled to. Moreover, Iranian women are banned from traveling abroad without the permission of a male family member. The testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man, and in some cases, it is not even acceptable. Marriage and divorce laws are also skewed in favor of men.
Iranian women’s access to education and work are also legally limited in Iran. Some faculties, especially in technology and engineering, remain the exclusive domain of male students in Iranian universities.
Women are restricted in worklife. Men are legally allowed to ban their wife from working. Access to administrative functions and job titles are also limited for women. Political roles and offices are largely banned for women and too many hurdles make it practically impossible for women without deep ties and favors with state officials to make it into leadership roles. Those few who have made it to the parliament or executive branch are usually sidelined and have ceremonial and non-enforcing authority.
Minority rights in Iran
Iran’s ethnic and religious landscape is diversified, with a Persian Shiites constituting the majority of the population. The state however, which is run by Shiite clerics, disfavors ethnic minorities such as Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis, as well as religious minorities such as Sunnis, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Bahais, and thus members of these groups become subject of systematic state-run discrimination and persecution.
The earliest acts of suppression against minorities under the post-1979 clerical rulership was the violent quelling of the 1979 Kurdish uprising, where security forces and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) led a massive military operation in the Kurdistan province, in which thousands of people were killed.
According to Amnesty International, ethnic minorities in Iran are often subjected to land and property confiscations, denial of state and para-statal employment, restrictions on social, cultural, linguistic and religious freedoms which often result in other human rights violations such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, grossly unfair trials of political prisoners before Revolutionary Courts, corporal punishment and use of the death penalty, as well as restrictions on movement and denial of other civil rights.
Conversion from Islam to other religions is severely punished under apostasy law and religious minorities are persecuted and legally punished for professing or exercising their religion.