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New Audio File Reignites Human Rights Debate in Iran

Human Rights  execution Iran
Convicted of the murder of a policeman, the execution of a man is interrupted, minutes before being hanged, after the family of the victim pardoned him, in Mashhad, Iran, 8 May 2013. Photo Mehdi Bolourian

A 28-year-old audio file, released last month by the website of the late Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, has once again shone a spotlight on human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the recording, Montazeri, who was in line to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, is heard condemning the execution of thousands of Iranians, many still in their teens, opposed to clerical rule. The massacre, widely referred to as the ‘67 executions’ (a reference to the Iranian year 1367, equivalent to 1988 in the Christian calendar), is generally regarded as one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.

Human rights abuses by the revolutionary forces, including the execution of political prisoners, started immediately upon Khomeini’s return to Iran in 1979 after 15 years in exile. They have been a constant feature of the country’s social and political life ever since. Today, Iran holds the dubious title of having the second-highest number of executions in the world after China (the highest, if calculated per capita).

The range of crimes that carry capital punishment is wide. Other than murder, offences such as ‘insulting the Prophet’, homosexuality, adultery, apostasy, drug-related crimes, and the frequently used but undefined charges of being ‘at war with God and His Messenger’ and ‘spreading corruption on Earth’ are included in that list. Blogger Soheil Arabi’s death sentence in November 2014 for ‘insulting the Prophet’ in a Facebook post is just one example. According to a report issued by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, at least 966 executions are believed to have been carried out in Iran in 2015 (up from 750 in 2014), even though many assert the real figure is likely higher. These have taken place despite the nuclear agreement with Tehran in July 2015, which many in the West hoped would pave the way for greater integration of Iran in the international community and potential improvements in the country’s human rights record.

Executions are mainly for drug-related charges, the authorities emphasize. Sharing a border with Afghanistan, Iran is regularly faced with armed smugglers from its eastern neighbour. However, Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, notes that even minor drug felonies, such as possession of 30 grams of amphetamines, can carry the death sentence. Around 1,200 Afghanis are reportedly awaiting execution, many on drug-related charges.

Mohammad Javad Larijani is the head of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, which can decide whether any human rights are in conflict with Islamic sharia law. Supported by two of his brothers, one the head of the judiciary and the other the parliamentary speaker, he has stated publicly that there are no human rights violations in Iran. He also claims that Islam, as interpreted by the officialdom in Iran, boasts a different set of rights than those prescribed in the West. The Iranian government, including Larijani’s organization, has repeatedly blocked Ahmed Shaheed and other UN human rights bodies from entering Iran.

Other than the recent increase in the number of executions for the crimes noted above, the draconian measures applied by the judiciary for allegedly ‘lesser’ offences are also of concern, according to the UN report. Floggings, amputation of limbs, blinding and stoning (some of which, like 47 executions, took place in public) are still part of a system of corporal punishment that is increasingly frowned upon, even by some senior clerics. Five amputations and three blindings were cited in the report, though the real number could be higher. Under the law of retaliation – qisas – the aggrieved have the right to demand ‘an eye for an eye’, which cannot be overruled by judicial authorities. In one instance, a left eye and a right ear were surgically removed to meet the requirements of the penal code.

The plight of religious minorities, the report noted, does not appear to have improved. The Bahai community, in particular, continues to face persecution. Iran does not recognize Bahaism as a religion and considers it a product of foreign governments for political purposes. Bahai cemeteries are desecrated and, on many an occasion, Bahai children are denied state higher education. The state-run media disseminates what the Bahai community considers false and misleading information about their faith. Some 80 Bahai are reported to be in prison solely for their religious affiliation. Similarly, Mohammad Ali Taheri, a leading alternative therapy practitioner with mystic tendencies and a sizeable following, has been sentenced to death for establishing what the authorities call a ‘diversionary cult’.

The press is censored and political activism is not tolerated. Up to January 2016, at least 47 political journalists and social media activists were believed to be incarcerated. For ‘insulting the sacred’, Mehdi Mousavi, a poet, was given 11 years in prison and 99 lashes. On the pretext of providing ‘societal security’, security forces in 2015 shut down over 272 internet cafés. The crackdown can be attributed, at least in part, to escalating in-fighting between the various factions inside Iran.

Another item in the report relates to the execution of juveniles. In the past two years, at least 16 people have been executed for crimes committed when they were under 18, and 160 underage delinquents await execution. Underage marriage for women, as young as 13 or lower if their fathers consent, is noted with disdain in the report. The low percentage of women in decision-making positions also highlights the Iranian government’s continuing struggle with gender equality. On that score, Iranian women’s ongoing campaign for equal rights in spite of social and political barriers has not gone unnoticed. Simin Behbahani, Iran’s most famous female poet who passed away in 2014, was known as the Lioness for her staunch defence of women’s and human rights.

Respect for human rights in Iran is very much tied to the domestic political landscape. Whatever the outcome of Iran’s multi-faceted, complex and often dangerous political intrigues, however, the question of human rights is bound to be at the top of the political agenda for change.