People in Iran are confronting multiple crises. A sustained economic crisis has harmed the livelihoods of millions of Iranians, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Broad US economic sanctions have caused serious hardships for ordinary Iranians and threaten their right to health. At the center of Iranian residents’ struggles is an unaccountable and deeply repressive state. Iranian authorities ignore or punish peaceful dissent and have launched a sustained crackdown on civil society, from labor activists, lawyers and human rights defenders to journalists and even former senior political leaders. In November 2019, security forces used excessive and unlawful lethal force in confronting large-scale protests and have held no officials accountable while sentencing several people to death after unfair trials. Human Rights Watch’s Iran blog will use this space to highlight such official repression and civil society activists’ attempts to push for respect for human rights during this tumultuous period.
An Ahwazi Arab Gay Man Murdered in Iran
Alireza Fazeli-Monfared, 20, has reportedly been killed by family members on May 4, 2021, near Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province. LGBT rights activists have reported that his murder was motivated by his family’s suspicion that he was gay. According to different sources, Monfared expressed concerns about his own safety and intent to flee Iran. Monfared had been living away from his family but had returned briefly to Ahvaz to pick up his military exemption card, which he was eligible for as a gay man under Paragraph 5, Article 7 of the Iranian military exemption laws. Aghil Abyat, Monfared’s partner, informed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Monfared had planned to join him in Turkey on May 8, 2021, in hopes of traveling to Europe to seek asylum.
LGBT people in Iran face serious threats of violence and discrimination, with limited access to redress or government protection. The criminalization of same-sex relations, and the absence of legislation protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, compromise LGBT people’s safety and threaten their basic rights. Iran’s penal code criminalizes all sexual relations outside marriage, including same-sex conduct. Under Iranian law, same-sex conduct is punishable by flogging and, for men, the death penalty. Although Iran permits and subsidizes sex reassignment surgery for transgender people, no law prohibits discrimination against them. Iran has ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1975, which prohibits death sentences except for the most serious crimes.
Iranian authorities should decriminalize same-sex conduct and protect LGBT people from violence and discrimination, so that they can live safely in their country.
Immediately Release Maryam Akbari-Monfared from Prison
Maryam Akbari Monfared, a political prisoner, has spent the past 12 years in prison in Iran after being convicted in an unfair trial.
Akbari-Monfared is currently serving a 15-year sentence for “enmity against God” (moharebeh), a charge based on her alleged membership in the banned opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Amnesty International reported that her conviction was founded on a visit and phone calls she made to family members who are MEK members. Sources close to the case have said that during Akbari-Monfared’s trial over a decade ago, the judge said she would be “paying for the activities of her brother and sister,” a form of unlawful collective punishment. Her brother and sister were among those killed during the 1988 mass executions of prisoners.
In 2013, Iranian lawmakers amended Iran’s penal code for the charge of “enmity against God” and adopted a narrower definition of “drawing a weapon on the life, property or chastity of people or to cause terror as it creates the atmosphere of insecurity.” Akbari-Monfared’s family argued that this definition should be applied retroactively, and authorities should have released her that year.
In October 2016, Akbari-Monfared filed a formal complaint inside Evin prison seeking an official investigation into the 1988 mass executions. Since then, she has faced a series of reprisals, as prison authorities cancelled her access to medical care and restricted visits from family members, including her three children.
In March, authorities transferred Akbari-Monfared from Tehran’s Evin Prison to Senman Prison, about 350 kilometers away from her family. Disruptions to family life by making visitations unnecessarily extremely difficult or impossible constitutes a violation of prisoners’ rights, as provided by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Authorities should release Akbari-Monfared and ensure that everyone can seek truth and justice about the 1988 mass executions of prisoners without fear of reprisal.
University Students Petition for Peers’ Release from Unjust Detention
Hundreds of students and graduates of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran reportedly signed a letter asking Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to intervene to ensure detained Sharif University students Ali Younesi and Amirhossein Moradi’s due process rights are respected and that they receive a fair trial. Younesi and Moradi remain unjustly held in the notorious Evin Prison since April 2020.
The letter highlights the conditions of the students’ detention over a year after their initial arrest - which has included almost two months of solitary confinement, heightened risk of torture and other ill-treatment, and authorities’ denial of access to a lawyer of their choosing, according to several human rights groups. In June 2020, according to his family, Younesi contracted Covid-19 and became severely ill.
Officers arrested Younesi and Moradi in April 2020 and accused them of having ties to anti-revolutionary groups, including the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), and pursuing “destructive” actions. According to Younesi’s family, authorities used his parents’ former membership in the group to justify his and Moradi’s detention.
On April 11, Mostafa Nili, the students’ lawyer, told the Emtedad Telegram channel that the trial date for his clients was supposed to be set for that day; however, the session did not take place. Younesi and Moradi are charged with “corruption on earth,” which can carry the death penalty.
Health Condition of Jailed Iranian Filmmaker, Mohammed Nourizad, Raises Concerns
On May 4, 2021, United Nations independent experts raised concerns about the deteriorating health condition of Mohammed Nourizad, 68. The experts warned that serious complications could lead to possible death if he stays in prison and is denied access to the required medical care and treatment. According to Amnesty International, Nourizad suffers from diabetes and a heart condition, and has been hospitalized recently for losing consciousness. The UN statement noted that “his continued detention despite medical professionals finding he cannot stay in prison given his serious health condition, and the resulting denial of adequate medical care, may amount to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Mohammed Nourizad is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence in three separate cases from multiple charges that include “spreading lies” and “insulting the supreme leader.” The activist and filmmaker was one of 14 people arrested and charged for writing a letter in June 2019 demanding the resignation of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He was also arrested in 2010 after authoring a letter urging Khamenei to apologize for the bloody crackdown in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections.
The UN experts have said that Nourizad’s case is emblematic of detention conditions in Iran that have resulted in the death of many prisoners. They, as well as Human Rights Watch, have called for his immediate release.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff Sentenced to Another Year in Prison
On April 26, Hojat Kermani, the lawyer of the British-Iranian citizen, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff, told Emtedad Telegram news channel that her client was sentenced to a year in prison and banned from travelling for one year on charges of “propaganda activities against the regime.” Branch 15 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court of Tehran is now charging her with participating in a rally in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 and giving an interview to the BBC Persian Channel. This comes after she had recently completed at the beginning of March 2021 a 5-year sentence on vague national security charges that were brought up against her after her initial arrest at Tehran’s Airport in April 2016. By sentencing her to additional imprisonment for participating in a protest more than 11 years ago, it appears that authorities appear to be using arbitrary new charges against dual nationals as leverage in negotiations with the EU, UK, and US. Nazanin’s husband, Richard Ratcliff, maintained in a recent interview with the BBC that her case is directly related to a 1979 arms sale debt that was never settled by the UK.
Dominic Raab, British Foreign Secretary, called the new verdict as “totally inhumane and wholly unjustified decision” and insisted on her immediate release. Zaghari-Ratcliff, who has been temporarily released since last year, now has two weeks to appeal the recent verdict.
Baha'i Religious Minority Community Restricted from Burying their Deceased
According to the Baha’i National Center, Iranian authorities have instituted a prohibition on the Baha’i religious minority community in Tehran from burying their deceased members in a section of Tehran’s Khavaran cemetery that had previously been allocated for their use. The Center wrote in a statement on April 23 that the Behesht-e Zahra Organization’s Security Office, which oversees the cemetery, reportedly threatened Baha’is trying to use their section of the cemetery. This most recent policy of authorities is part of a broader decades-long government repression of Baha’is, including destroying and desecrating Baha’i cemeteries and restricting Baha’is cultural rights; for instance, according to the Baha’i International Community’s UN Office in Geneva, authorities expropriated the Baha’i cemetery in Tehran in 1981, demolishing more than 15,000 graves.
According to Simin Fahandeg, the Baha'i International Community UN Representative in Geneva, the recent prohibition intends to coerce Baha’is to bury their deceased in the area of the Khavaran cemetery that is believed to be the site of mass graves for political prisoners that Iranian authorities summarily and extrajudicially executed in 1988. On April 25, 79 family members of those executed wrote an open letter protesting authorities attempt to destroy the burial site that could be integral to prospects of investigation into this serious crime. Authorities have refused to acknowledge the killings and fully disclose the fate and whereabouts of the victims, and they have repressed families who seek accountability.
Iranian authorities have long persecuted Baha’is. Iranian law denies freedom of religion to Baha’is and discriminates against them in numerous forms. Authorities continue to arrest and prosecute members of the Baha’i faith on vague national security charges and close down or suspend licenses for businesses owned by them.
Imprisoned Poet Baktash Abtin Hospitalized for Covid-19
The Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) confirmed that Baktash Abtin was admitted to the health clinic at Evin Prison on April 4, 2021, due to the worsening of his Covid-19 symptoms. The poet and IWA association member had tested negative for the virus two days earlier, but a lung scan on April 4 showed symptoms of the virus.
Additionally, Mostafa Nili, Keyvan Samimi’s lawyer, announced on Twitter that his client Samimi and Reza Khandan Mahabadi—who are also detained in Ward 8 of Evin Prison with Abtin—have also begun to present Covid-19 symptoms. Nili said that the prison authorities are yet to test Samimi and Khandan Mahabadi. Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi have applied previously for medical leaves, but Iran’s judiciary have denied their requests despite health issues both of them have that could be exacerbated by Covid-19.
Baktash Abtin and Reza Khandan Mahabadi were convicted in May 2019 on counts of “propaganda against the regime” and “assembly and collusion against national security.” Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran convicted the writers to 6 years in prison based on their joint authorship of a book that documents the history of the IWA, publishing internal IWA publications, and organizing memorials for murdered IWA members by state agents. At the time of the verdict, the IWA issued a statement that called the charges “irrelevant” and “baseless.” Iranian authorities regularly prosecute activists, journalists, and others for peaceful dissent. They were summoned to begin their sentence in October 2020.
Authorities arrested Keyvan Samimi, a veteran journalist, during a demonstration on May 1, 2019 in front of the Iranian parliament. On June 14, a revolutionary court sentenced him to 3 years in prison on assembly and collusion to disrupt national security. The 72-year-old journalist began serving his sentence on December 7.
On October 6, the UN Human Rights Commissioner urged Iranian authorities to release all political prisoners and human rights defenders during the pandemic based on concerns of prisons’ overcrowding and the inability to implement COVID-19 preventative measures inside the prisons.
Three Unjustly Imprisoned Environmental Activists Given Short Leave
On March 29 authorities temporarily released Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, and Amir Hossein Khalegi, three of the eight imprisoned members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a local environmental conservation nonprofit, on a short leave according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA). They were temporarily released from Evin prison on the 9th day of the Iranian new year holiday, where they are serving an unjust 6-year sentence for the charge of “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” This is the first time authorities have granted Kashani and Khalegi a temporary release since the beginning of their imprisonment in January 2018.
The three activists were originally arrested along with five other members of the foundation on accusations that of “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.” One of the defendants, Kavous Seyed Emami, died in detention under suspicious circumstances in February of 2018. Instead of conducting a transparent investigation into Seyed Emami’s death, authorities harassed his family and placed his wife under a travel ban for one and a half years. During the trial that began in January 2019 and was halted several times, Niloufar Bayani, another member of the group, alleged that as she was subjected by authorities to psychological torture and was coerced to make false confessions. Authorities sentenced her to 10 years in prison.
In February 2020, BBC Persian also published a detailed account of Bayani’s 1,200 hours of interrogations based on the letters she had written from prison. Over the past three years, several government bodies and representatives, including a committee established by President Rouhani, haves said that there is no evidence against these environmentalists. Despite these serious allegations of mistreatment and lack of evidence for the spying charge brought against the activists, the court of appeals upheld the 6 to 10 year sentences against the defendants by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran.
Baha’i Writer Touraj Amini’s Unjust Prison Sentence
Iranian Baha’i historian and writer Touraj Amini is currently serving a 6-month prison sentence that began at the end of January 2021. Iran’s security forces first searched Amini’s house in August 2019 and confiscated many of his books and his personal laptop. He subsequently was summoned to the Karaj Intelligence Office for further investigation. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), the Karaj Revolutionary Court issued a verdict in June 2020 that sentenced Amini to a one year of imprisonment and two years in domestic exile for “propaganda against the state” based on his writings. The Alborz Provincial Court of Appeals later reduced his sentence to six months in prison and rescinded his exile sentence.
Amini’s current sentence is highly concerning considering the charges against him being based on his writings and the high rates of COVID-19 infection in Iranian prisons. A letter by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to Iranian authorities on March 15 called for dismissing “the charges against Mr. Amini and to free him without delay.” MESA also called on the government of Iran to ends its abusive targeting of Baha’i citizens, like Amini, a religious minority group in Iran who authorities have relentlessly persecuted solely for their beliefs. Touraj Amini is a historian who specializes in the history of Iranian religious minorities during the Qajar (1789-1925) and the Pahlavi (1925-1979) eras.
Authorities Should Provide Temporary Release or Clemency for Prisoners
Ahead of Nowruz, a celebration marking the beginning of the new solar year, prison authorities should offer temporary release or clemency to dozens of prisoners who are detained for their peaceful dissent or exercise of their fundamental rights, including Sepideh Gholian, Arash Ganji, Leila Hosseinzadeh, Niloufar Bayani, Atena Daemi, and many others. Prison authorities historically have offered temporary release or clemency to hundreds of prisoners ahead of Nowruz, which falls on March 20 this year.
In March 2020, when the country was experiencing its first wave of Covid-19 infections, the Iranian judiciary reportedly ordered the temporary release of 70,000 prisoners for Nowruz, though dozens of human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents remained in prison, and remain still.
At the time, the government called for releasing prisoners sentenced to less than five years, leaving out a significant population of political prisoners, including those with serious health concerns. Some activists temporarily released due to Covid-19 concerns, including Sepideh Gholian, have since been rearrested and imprisoned. She, along with many others, should not even be imprisoned in the first place, much less returned to jail.
Now, a year later, despite the continued spread of Covid-19 in Iran’s overcrowded prisons that underscores the ever-urgent need for authorities to facilitate temporary releases or clemency for those who are eligible, authorities have been transferring several prisoners to prisons far away from their families.
On March 17, authorities reportedly temporarily released Nasrin Satoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer. Satoudeh was sentenced in March 2019 to a total of 38 years on vaguely-defined national security charges. Nooshin Jafari, currently serving a four-year prison sentence, was also reportedly released.
While these temporary releases are welcome, the situation will remain wholly unsatisfactory until all prisoners unjustly detained join them.