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Iran Raises the Pressure on Human Rights Defenders

Iran- Nasrin Sotoudeh
People gather outside Iran embassy in France on June 13, 2019, to support Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and demand her release. Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP ©AFP ⁃ FRANCOIS GUILLOT

Since the beginning of 2018, numerous human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders and human rights lawyers, have been arrested in Iran for simply doing their job and often given harsher sentences than ever before.

A report published on 20 August by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (an International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organization about Torture (OMCT) partnership) focused on analysing 28 individual cases of human rights defenders, 15 of them women and 13 lawyers. 13 of the 28 are currently detained and 15 are at risk of imminent re-arrest. The cases include those of well-known activists and lawyers Nasrin Sotoudeh, Reza Khandan and Mohammad Najafi. The report is called “Indefensible: Iran’s Systematic Criminalisation of Human Rights Defenders” and documents how human rights defenders, including human rights lawyers, have been frequently arrested without charges, held in prolonged pre-trial detention without access to legal representation of their choosing, sentenced to lengthy prison terms on vague charges following unfair trials, and incarcerated in poor conditions.

For example, Nasrin Sotoudeh’s total sentence amounted to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for– according to the Iranian authorities–spying, spreading propaganda and insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader. In fact, she was simply defending her clients: women who protested the obligatory dress code by taking off their hijab in public in 2018, an act that the Iranian authorities equate with treason. Sotoudeh was already well-known for having represented jailed opposition activists and politicians following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, as well as prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors. In 2019, her husband Reza Khandan was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from leaving Iran or engaging in online activities for two years for peacefully protesting the country’s compulsory hijab law, in part by possessing pins that read “I’m against forced hijab.” He has been out on bail since January 2019.

Similarly, Mohammad Najafi has been sentenced to 19 years of prison for “disturbing public opinion” in connection with a letter he posted on Facebook on 8 September 2018, in which he criticizes Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by writing, “Mr. Khamenei! Our generation is crushed under your burning feet! Our days are as black as your turban. Remove your cape from neighbouring countries. Don’t spend our resources on your Shia ideology. We have enough troubles inside the country with graft and corruption. Don’t try to step on world leaders. We have been frozen in time for 40 years and fighting the world in sensitive times while many of our poor cannot clothe themselves or buy bread.”

“We have noted, especially for the past two years, that civil society members in Iran are facing constant oppression,” president of FIDH Karim Lahidji told Fanack on 27 August 2019. “I am thinking of nine workers from a sugar cane factory who were asking for their rights and their salary, [instead] they got condemned to jail and lashes. All social levels are targeted; it’s enough to be claiming, protesting or gathering. What [has] changed is that the level of repression and punishment for those people is now very high.”

Human rights defenders who are arrested under “national security charges” are denied access to a lawyer of their choice, particularly during the investigation process. They are slapped with sentences of up to 15 years in prison for a single charge after  unfair trials held in Iran’s Islamic Revolution Courts. Most of the human rights defenders whose cases are detailed in the Observatory’s report are detained in Tehran’s Evin prison, known for its serious overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. They are kept there in solitary confinement for long periods of time, are deprived of essential medical care, and are frequently denied visits by their family or lawyer.

“Peaceful human rights activism in the country is treated as a “national security” crime in Iran as shown by the documented cases of prisoners and prisoners of conscience who are serving lengthy prison terms after being prosecuted in trials severely lacking in due process, like Narges Mohammadi, Arash Sadeghi and Esmail Abdi,” Jasmin Ramsey, communications director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told Fanack on 28 August. In the past two years, Iran’s judiciary and security establishment have also been attempting to cut off the only lifeline these political prisoners have: defence lawyers. At least three lawyers who have taken on civil and human rights cases are currently behind bars in Iran. Iran is putting these lawyers behind bars for doing their jobs and depriving those targeted by the state of hiring their counsel of choice in an attempt to further suppress dissent.” Even withdrawing the veil in public is now considered as a national security crime, as well as defending women doing so, as in the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh.

“The Iranian government, especially the judiciary, are extremely sensitive to public activism that is critical of government policies,” Ramsey added. “The judiciary and security establishment work together to muzzle activists by making the cost of their peaceful actions extremely high. Yet the government is ignoring the growing reality on the ground, [which is] that the majority of the Iranian people don’t support repressive policies.” The government seeks to do so by silencing people who are able to defend human rights defenders and activists themselves, as if then the rest of the population would have no other option than to stop trying to speak up. “Lawyers are speaking out when their clients cannot, so the authorities often target them in order to silence them,” Mansoureh Mills, Iran researcher at Amnesty International, told Fanack on 28 August. “For this reason, human rights lawyers are seen as a threat that the authorities [continually] seek to quash.”

The government might be doing so in order to ensure its survival following a wave of protests in over a hundred Iranian cities in 2017 and 2018 over the weak economy, strict Islamic rules, water shortages, religious disputes and local grievances. Despite the authorities now being able to control the people once again, this outburst of anger and dissatisfaction left a bitter feeling among Iranians, who would likely become more willing to fight for their rights if they were not fighting so hard on daily basis to survive.

“Unfortunately, the human rights situation in Iran is deteriorating,” Mills added. “Until recently, the authorities were denying individuals their right to a lawyer of their choosing at the investigation stage of their case, which often goes on for months, but now we are hearing of more and more cases where people are being denied even state-appointed lawyers; individuals are being tried in court without any lawyer at all. And of course, more and more lawyers are finding themselves on the other side of the prison bars alongside their former clients. The situation is outrageous and the international community, especially the EU, which has an ongoing dialogue with Iran, must call on the Iranian authorities to stop the crackdown on human rights defenders, including lawyers.”

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