Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Iran: Pioneers Of Human Rights?

Radio Free Europe:
As the year comes to a close, human rights observers, international organizations, and Iranian activists are expressing renewed concern about the human rights situation in the Islamic republic.

Tehran has reacted to international criticism dismissively and with counter accusations. Indeed, at the most prominent platform for state-policy statements, the Tehran Friday prayers, preacher Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami said on 23 December, "we consider ourselves pioneers of human rights." READ MORE

This kind of statement suggests that improvements in the country's human rights situation will not be forthcoming. Moreover, the ultraconservative stance of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on cultural issues -- he recently banned broadcasts of Western music -- and his appointment of officials with security and intelligence backgrounds for Interior Ministry and provincial government positions suggests the human rights situation in Iran will only worsen in the new year.

International Outrage

On 22 December Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the death one week earlier of Zabiullah Mahrami, a Bahai who was imprisoned 10 years ago. Mahrami initially was sentenced to death for abandoning Islam, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli noted on 23 December that this incident is hardly unique. "The government of Iran is engaged in the systematic oppression of its citizens, including the persecution of individuals for religious, political, and other reasons," Ereli said, according to the department's website. "Members of the country's religious minorities -- including Sunni Muslims, Sufis, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians -- are frequently imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated based on their religious beliefs."

On 10 December, Iranian Human Rights Activists Groups in the European Union (EU) and North America, a coalition of 15 groups, issued a statement listing alleged rights abuses in Iran over the past seven months. The statement alleged that during this period Iran interrogated 254 students, 46 reporters, and bloggers; prosecuted 157 political and social activists; condemned 101 people to death; and ordered two women stoned.

"Given the fact that the extensive, continuous, and planned violation of human rights encompasses all social institutions, writers, pressmen, workers, and students...one can see this is not an isolated matter or the work of a few lawless people," Group member Hussein Mahutiha told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on 10 December.

Separately, Iranian activists marked International Human Rights Day on 10 December with demonstrations in Cologne, Germany, to mark and draw attention to the plight of detained dissidents in Iran, Radio Farda reported on 10 December.

Two days later, EU foreign ministers issued a statement in Brussels regretting the state of human rights in Iran and affirmed a persistent interest in talking to Tehran about them, Radio Farda reported on 12 December.

Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, told Radio Farda on 12 December that Iran has responded to such statements in the past by asserting that the state of human rights in Iran is generally acceptable; that Western states -- including the United States -- have themselves violated rights, and that parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contradict Iran's state religion, Radio Farda reported.

The United Nations General Assembly issued a resolution on 16 December that referred to human rights abuses in Iran and other countries. That resolution referred to the "continuing harassment, intimidation, and persecution of human rights defenders, nongovernmental organizations, political opponents, religious dissenters, journalists, and students," and it noted "restrictions on freedoms of assembly, press and expression, [and] arbitrary arrests," as well as the rejection of candidates for elected office. The resolution called on Iran to end its persecution of human rights activists, stop using torture, and cease executions of minors. The resolution on Iran, which was sponsored by Canada, was adopted by a vote of 75 in favor to 50 against, with 43 abstentions.

'Troubling' Ministers

In a 15 December report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as "particularly troubling" the appointment of Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei and Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Radio Farda reported.

Pur-Mohammadi allegedly served on a committee that gave orders for the execution of thousands of prisoners in the 1980s, an incident HRW described as a "crime against humanity." There also are suspicions that he was involved in ordering the murders of numerous dissidents in the late 1990s.

Mohseni-Ejei is suspected of ordering the killing of at least one dissident, and in his position as prosecutor-general of the Special Court for the Clergy, he was connected with the trials of several reformist clerics. HRW called on the Iranian government to investigate the allegations against the two ministers, and it suggests they be relieved of their duties until the investigation is complete. Barring this, it continued, the legislature should hold a vote no confidence in the two.

In interviews with Radio Farda the day the HRW report was released, Iranian human-rights specialists have differing opinions on the status of the two ministers and on the effectiveness of the HRW report. Ahmad Bashiri, a reformist lawyer in Tehran, told Radio Farda that although Mohseni-Ejei and Pur-Mohammadi held sensitive posts at the time of the serial murders (a common reference to the killings of dissidents in the late-1990s), there is insufficient evidence to prosecute them.

However, Reza Moini of Reporters Without Borders told Radio Farda there is enough evidence available on the involvement of the two men in those murders. Hussein Davani, the brother of murdered journalist Piruz Davani, told Radio Farda his sibling was killed on the basis of a fatwa issued by Mohseni-Ejei.

Students Face Difficulties

The Office for Strengthening Unity student group on 11 December urged the Iranian government to respect the rights guaranteed by Iran's constitution and the Universal Declaration, which Iran's parliament has ratified, Radio Farda reported on 12 December. However, a number of student activists were jailed or otherwise punished in the days after this statement.

Abbas Hakimpur, a member of the central council of the Islamic Association of Students at Amir Kabir University, said on 25 December that the university's disciplinary committee suspended him for a term, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. Hakimpur said he was not given a reason for the suspension.

Student activist Said Kalanaki has received a suspended prison sentence for membership of an illegal organization and for participating in illegal gatherings, the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported on 21 December. The charges relate to his participation in 2003 rallies, and he has been free on bail since that time.

An Iranian court on 20 December sentenced Abdullah Momeni, former leader of the Office for Strengthening Unity, to five years in prison for undermining national security, Radio Farda reported. The sentence is described as "habs taziri," which means that the prison sentence must be served in full. Momeni was also barred from public affairs for five years. Momeni told Radio Farda that day that he was tried in a closed hearing without a jury, and the accusations against him were based on his pro-democracy activities and were therefore baseless. His activities, Momeni continued, had nothing to do with national security. Momeni said he protests these charges and believes the sentence will not deter the student movement from the promotion of democracy, human rights, and civil society.

The one-year prison sentence of Amir Hussein Balali, another student activist, was changed to a 10 million rial fine, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 19 December, citing attorney Mohammad Sharif.

Prominent Prisoners

Journalist Akbar Ganji has been imprisoned since 2001, and his hunger strike earlier in the year elicited a great deal of international attention. Ganji ended his fast, but he remains in jail and is reportedly in solitary confinement.

Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, sent a fax to ISNA on 25 December rejecting prison officials' claims that the family has not sought to see the prisoner. She said prisoners are legally entitled to weekly visits by relatives and their lawyer, telephone access, and periodic furloughs. Shafii said her husband has less than three months left on his sentence and questioned his being in solitary confinement. "We have had no news of Ganji for 37 days," Shafii said. "On the basis of what law is a prisoner who has been in jail for six years treated in this way?" She added that Ganji remains in poor health.

Lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani was detained in July, and he has spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement. In late November, almost 200 jurists wrote to judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi to demand Soltani's release (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 December 2005).

Soltani's wife, Masumeh Dehqan, told Radio Farda on 20 December that her husband is getting weaker every day. Dehqan told Radio Farda that she sees her husband every two weeks and last visited him on 19 December. She said his health is deteriorating. Dehqan said she has written to Hashemi-Shahrudi and expressed concern about her husband's well being.

Government Rejects Criticism

The official Iranian reaction to the accusations of human rights violations has followed a familiar pattern that includes denial, claims of cultural peculiarities, and counteraccusations.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 18 December dismissed as "political" the UN General Assembly resolution passed two days earlier, ISNA reported. Assefi said the condemnation of human-rights abuses has become a "tool at the hands of certain countries," which means "nobody in the world pays any attention to such resolutions." He accused Canada, one of the resolution's sponsors, of its own rights abuses, including the "deplorable" state of its indigenous population. "Human rights are absolutely not respected in Canada, and we simply do not see...Canada as being in a position to comment on human rights," ISNA quoted him as saying.

Regarding the Human Rights Watch report, Assefi on 18 December described it as "vulgar and incoherent," ISNA reported. "I think Human Rights Watch watches over Western interests more than it does over human rights," Assefi said.

Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, spokesman for the Guardians Council, said on 24 December that the UN resolution's criticism of the council is unjustified and irrelevant, IRNA reported. Kadkhodai said the council's responsibilities are specified in the constitution and the input of "non-Iranian officials" will not have an impact. He ascribed different interpretations of human rights to cultural and religious differences. "I believe that UN officials and others should accept that when it comes to the human rights issue, there are deep differences among various cultures and religions," he said. "Unless such differences of opinions are examined and understood by UN commissioners and others, human rights will hardly be observed in any community in its present form."

Tehran's new Friday prayer leader, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, addressed human-rights complaints in his 23 December sermon. He said Western countries' accusations against Iran are "really ridiculous" since these same countries face "popular rebellions" and employ "martial law," state radio reported. Khatami said the United States will never wash away the "stain" of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gurayb. "America talks of human rights while its own citizens are not secure," he continued. "All media have reported that [U.S. President George W.] Bush has ordered illegal tapping of all telephones." Khatami accused the West of using the human-rights issues for political ends and added, "we consider ourselves pioneers of human rights."