IRAN: HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS, 1993
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Developments
The negative attitude of the Iranian government to universal human rights did not change during 1993. The Islamic Republic was in the vanguard of the minority of states who argued strenuously at the U.N. World Conference, in June, that cultural and religious differences should permit the implementation of different standards of behavior. Officials continued to denounce the raising of human rights issues by foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations, and the United Nations, as attempts to undermine the 1979 revolution and impose "Western values" on Iran.
Iran is a signatory to most international treaties and conventions, including those in the field of human rights. In a significant step toward compliance with treaties governing banned weapons, in January, the Rafsanjani government added Iran's signature to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention.
On the other hand, Iran's compliance with U.N. resolutions dealing with human rights has usually been poor. Following a period of thaw, relations with the U.N. Human Rights Commission once again soured badly in late 1991, and remained hostile thereafter. Beginning in December 1991, the Special Representative of the Human Rights Commission, Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl, was barred from entering Iran, and cooperation by the Iranian authorities with U.N. human rights work almost ceased. The Special Representative reported in November 1992 that out of 500 Iranian cases submitted to the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances over the years only one had been cleared up-and a nongovernmental organization had resolved that case.
Strong resolutions condemning Iran's human rights record passed the U.N. General Assembly in November 1992 and the Human Rights Commission in February 1993, by wider margins than in previous years. In August 1993, the U.N. Commission on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a scathing report on Iran's failure to provide adequate and timely information about its compliance with the relevant international convention. In particular, the U.N. body asked Iran about its treatment of Kurdish and Baha'i minorities.
In some arenas of national life, such as freedom of expression, women's rights and judicial reform, human rights had made some modest advances since President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani came to power in mid-1989. In other areas-freedoms of religion and association, for instance-there was little or no change in the government's repressive behavior. During 1993 political dissent continued to be dealt with severely, even within the ideological confines of the Islamic Republic's constitution. And prescription of every facet of public and private life-from clothing to schools curriculae-remained a principal tenet of governance.
Most serious of all, with respect to "the right to life, liberty and security of person," enshrined in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Iran's record remained one of the world's worst. An exceptionally high rate of judicial executions, following unfair trials; the hunting down, and murder, of exiled opponents; and the arbitrary detention of citizens on flimsy charges, added up to flagrant defiance of the letter and spirit of the Universal Declaration. Official explanations that Iran was engaged in a war against narcotic drugs and against armed opposition groups, accurate though these arguments might be, represented no justification for such gross violations.
A central dilemma-one shared by Iranian citizens concerned about the limits of appropriate behavior or expression and by human rights groups attempting to evaluate the Iranian government's record-was that of the arbitrary application of laws. Rapidly shifting norms set by competing factions in the clerical establishment added to the problem. Thus, the wide range of publicly expressed views, inconsistencies in judicial sentencing, and the unrest in border provinces could provide a misleading impression of tolerated diversity. Middle East Watch believed, however, that the absence of control in some areas of public life was not for lack of intent on the part of the central authorities; rather, it reflected the unique nature of the regime, with its dual spiritual and secular authority, and endemic factionalism, as well as latent Iranian individualism.
The June election of President Rafsanjani to a second, four-year term raised hopes that, with a fresh mandate, the President would feel strong enough to usher in a more tolerant era. In fact, the reverse occurred. The most prolonged crackdown on "public vice" for years swept through the streets, shops and offices of the country within days of his re-election. The campaign, which resulted in over 4,000 arrests by September, was probably timed to the start of the holy Islamic month of Moharram. Whatever the rationale, Rafsanjani's inability or unwillingness to rein in the hard-liners was clear, despite his public pleas for restraint.
As in previous years, the streets were a good litmus test of the prevailing political climate. So, too, were the bookstores, newspaper stands and cinema theaters. Soon after the elections, a fresh drive against discordant voices in the press was launched. This time, the main targets were former allies, hard-core supporters of the revolution who, having lost an earlier battle for power in the Islamic Majlis, or parliament, had become champions of free expression and more relaxed state controls.
In August, the government acted to punish the daily newspaper Salam, aligned with the Militant Clerics Association, a breakaway group from the pro-government Tehran Militant Clergy Association. Since the radical faction's loss of its parliamentary majority in the 1992 national elections, Salam had become increasingly open in criticizing government policy. It had become a forum for dissident voices on a range of subjects. Abbas Abdi, its editor-in-chief, was arrested on the order of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts, on August 26. Two days later, the newspaper's publisher Mohammed Asqar Musavi-Kho'iniha, a prominent cleric, was summoned to appear before the Special Clerical Court on charges of slander. The same day, Mehdi Nassiri, editor-in-chief of the mass circulation daily, Keyhan, another radical newspaper, was summoned to the prosecutor's office over commentaries critical of the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi. He was released on bail and awaited trial on slander charges filed against him by Yazdi. Slander was the common criminal charge when government policy was criticized.
Keyhan's embroilment with the law was related to reports it had published concerning the activities of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. The challenge to the regime's authority posed by Montazeri, a prominent government critic, touched one of its most sensitive subjects. Until 1989, when he fell out with Ayatollah Khomeini, Montazeri had been the late Iranian leader's designated successor; since then, he had been confined to the city of Qom, where he taught at a theological seminary. While the government attempted to silence Montazeri and his supporters as discreetly as possible, the problem was his religious eminence-especially when contrasted with the relatively low standing in the Shi'a hierarchy of Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran.
In a stern warning to other Montazeri supporters, in November, Mahmud Kheirollahi, a cleric, was sentenced to nine years in jail and seventy lashes. According to Keyhan, a religious court had found him guilty of "insulting the Islamic government" and distributing publications advocating Montazeri's elevation to the Supreme Leadership. Earlier in the year, the government had used both its formal and informal instruments of control in an unsuccessful attempt to silence Montazeri. After a critical speech to his theological class in February, several of the religious leader's aides, including his son-in-law, were arrested and their offices ransacked by paid thugs. Two months later, in April, a clerical court ordered the closure of the magazine Rah-e Mojahed because it dared to publish criticism of the February events.
Another prominent former supporter of the regime turned dissident, the philosopher Abdelkarim Soroush, increasingly found himself unable to express his opinions in public. Soroush had articulated a view held privately by many others, that the Shi'a leadership needed to choose between secular and spiritual power, arguing that, if they failed to choose, they ran the risk of losing both sources of authority.
During 1993, all the press remained vulnerable to unchecked vigilante attacks. Among those attacked were the daily Ettela'at, the magazine Ettela'at-e Haftegi, the magazine Kiyan (linked to Soroush) and the publishing house Nashr-e Nogreh. In June, a Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance spokesman acknowledged that the government was unable to stop these attacks. He exhorted publications to "behave in a way as not to offend the sentiments of the hezbollahi (hard-line revolutionaries)."
One of the worst abuses directly attributable to the authorities concerned Manouchehr Karimzadeh, a cartoonist accused in 1992 of insulting the memory of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite standing orders from Ayatollah Yazdi, his first trial was conducted in secret before the Islamic Revolutionary Courts. (Revolutionary Courts are used when the authorities deem the likely punishment levied by general courts to be insufficient.) Karimzadeh was first sentenced to one year in prison, fifty lashes and a fine. In 1993, the Supreme Court ratified the lower court's guilty finding, and sent the case back to the lower court for retrial. After the second hearing, Yazdi announced, in October, that Karimzadeh's prison sentence had been increased ten-fold.
In one small victory for press freedom, in December 1992 Abbas Maroufi, the editor-in-chief of Gardoon magazine, was tried by a criminal court before the press jury, and was acquitted. Gardoon was able to resume publication in April, after some delay. This case and another, earlier in 1992, marked the first applications of the 1985 Press Law, which required that press offenses be tried in general courts in the presence of a jury.
Women's rights-another key arena of ideological and social confrontation-fared indifferently in the twelve months under review. In some aspects, modest progress was made, in others there were reverses. Reinforced dress codes affected women more than men, descending even to such trivial offenses as wearing sun glasses. Violations frequently led to fines or flogging. Meanwhile, the separation of the sexes in public, a central precept of Islamic morality, was taken a step further in December 1992, when it became required that public transportation be segregated by gender.
Several developments improved women's conditions in the areas of employment and divorce. In July, Ayatollah Yazdi affirmed a right to work for women-an important, but controversial, issue in a country where conservative Muslim clergy argue that women must stay at home and bring up children. Yazdi qualified his endorsement of the principle, however, saying that in the absence of a private nuptial contract specifying a wife's right to work outside the house or continue her studies, her husband had the right to deny these prerogatives.
Amendments in divorce laws agreed upon in December 1992 were greeted by women as signs of progress. Legislation ratified by the Council of Expediency, a top-level arbitration body for the government, allowed women to claim "housework wages" from husbands who filed for divorce. Unfortunately, the practical consequences of this move were limited-in part, because of stringent preconditions applied to those seeking compensation and, in part, because of the high degree of illiteracy among rural women. Discriminatory policies against women in other legal areas, such as inheritance, child custody, education, travel and occupation remained unchanged.
The total number of political or security prisoners in Iran during 1993 was unknown. According to Ayatollah Yazdi, in April, there was "not even a single prisoner in Iran kept for his thoughts and beliefs." Hojatulislam Mir Abolfazl Musavi-Tabrizi, the Prosecutor-General, was equally categorical. The state radio quoted him as declaring at a press conference in January: "At present, there are no political prisoners in Iran." Yazdi conceded that the government was holding members of opposition parties, which he described as "counter-revolutionary grouplets;" but he claimed that the number of such detainees was "fewer than the number of fingers."
These official claims could not be accepted at face value. After anti-government disturbances in early 1992 in several parts of the country, many hundreds were arrested and accused of being "insurgents" or "corrupt on earth." Some were reported in the Iranian media to have been sentenced to long prison terms. In a submission to the Iranian government in September 1992, Galindo-Pohl listed the names and cases of eighty-nine persons believed being held at that time on political grounds.
Few cases of arrests of opposition activists become public. In one rare example, in November 1993, the left-wing organization Komala wrote to Middle East Watch about five of its activists who had been detained by Revolutionary Guards in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, on October 21. Middle East Watch was also aware of the names of other long-term prisoners in Iranian jails who continued to be held because of their political beliefs or associations, and not because of any acts of violence.
Overcrowding and poor conditions were believed to be serious problems in Iranian detention facilities. In a rare admission, on January 3, Ayatollah Yazdi said on state television that, taking into account the number of incarcerated drug offenders, the state of the country's prisons presented "a big problem." Drug offenders and addicts, who were confined to compulsory treatment centers, made up between 50 and 70 percent of Iran's estimated 100,000 prisoners; the higher figure was given by Prosecutor-General Musavi-Tabrizi on January 24.
Supervisor of Prisons Asadollah Lajevardi disclosed in September that during the Iranian year to March 21, 1993, Iran's prison population had averaged 99,900. He broke down this figure by stating that 52,000 persons were held on drug-related charges, and 2,000 persons for vice crimes. Lajevardi also noted that 2,000 persons under the age of eighteen were among the prisoners. It was unclear whether detainees under interrogation or those awaiting trial or sentencing were included in these figures.
The number of executions carried out in 1993, while believed to remain high, could not be reliably estimated, largely because the Iranian media ceased its previous practice of publishing details of individual cases. In 1992, Amnesty International documented from press accounts at least 330 executions, including cases of juveniles. For his part, the U.N. Special Representative noted 224 cases where the death penalty had been applied in the first seven months of 1992 alone, at least sixty-six of which were on political grounds.
The government claimed that capital punishment was applied only to "major drug traffickers and those found guilty of premeditated murder." It also consistently denied allegations that political prisoners were being executed under the guise of drug traffickers. The scale of the drugs problem can be judged from a statement by a top Interior Ministry official, Brig.-Gen. Reza Seyfollahi, that between March and August 1993-the first five months of the Iranian year-the authorities had seized a record twenty-two tons of narcotics.
In response to criticism about Iran's judicial shortcomings, during 1993, the country's top judicial officials were at pains to defend their practices. Musavi-Tabrizi emphasized that all judicial sentences were automatically reviewed, with the second stage being final and binding. Yazdi, responding to criticism over lengthy pre-trial detention of suspects claimed, in September, that Iran's practice was superior to international standards, "because charging a defendant with a crime before trial is tantamount to an official finding of guilt." His remarks underscored a disregard for the basic legal safeguards necessary for a fair trial. The judiciary's institutional weaknesses were its inconsistency and the dearth of qualified jurists.
Iran's disregard of the fundamental principle of the right to life was not, however, confined within its borders. In 1993, Middle East Watch noted four successful assassinations, one attempted assassination, and one case of abduction and disappearance of Iranians linked to exile opposition parties. In each of these cases there were strong grounds for the belief that the authorities in Tehran were behind the action. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the government has been suspected of involvement in the killing abroad of at least sixty opposition figures.
Incidents recorded during the twelve months to November 1993 consisted of the December 26, 1992 abduction in Istanbul of Abbas Gholizadeh, from the Organization for the Defense of Fundamental Freedoms in Iran (formerly Flag of Freedom); the January 18 attempted murder in Cologne of Mehdi Haeri, a dissident cleric; the March 16 killing in Rome of Mohammad Hossain Nagdi, an official of the National Resistance Council of Iran; the June 6 assassination in Karachi of Mohammed Hassan Arbab a People's Mojahedin of Iran member; the August 25 abduction in Ankara of Mohammad Ghaderi, member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran-Revolutionary Council; and the August 28 assassination in Ankara of Bahram Azadifar of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran.
In none of the above cases were arrests made by the local authorities. Coincidentally, though, three important cases involving prominent Iranians assassinated in Western Europe either came to trial in late 1993, or were due to begin shortly. All of these cases carried political overtones for the states concerned-France, Germany and Switzerland-as local prosecutors in each case stated that evidence existed linking the Iranian authorities to the crimes. Iranian officials continued vehemently to deny the government's involvement in overseas assassinations-a denial expressed to Middle East Watch in February by Deputy Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif, in Tehran.
On October 28, a Berlin court began hearing a case against four Lebanese and an Iranian accused of participating in the 1992 murder of Sadiq Sharafkandi and four of his colleagues on the orders of the Iranian intelligence service. A few days before the case began, Germany's top intelligence official held secret talks in Bonn with Hojatulislam Ali Fallahian, the Iranian Minister of Intelligence. The meeting drew protests from Britain and the United States; but the Kohl government insisted that it would continue the contacts, which it said dealt with unspecified "humanitarian matters." Four Germans were held in jail in Iran, one of whom had been sentenced to death, on charges of espionage, at the time. Several other foreigners, including an American travel agent, Milton Meier, who was informally accused of a number of offences, remained in jail in Tehran without trial.
The other Iranian cases due to come to trial in Europe at the end of 1993 or early in 1994 released were those involving the August 1991 murder in Paris of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, and the April 1990 murder near Geneva of Kazem Rajavi, brother of the leader of the opposition People's Mujaheddin of Iran.
Foreigners held against their will in Iran during the year included an estimated 20,000 Iraqi prisoners-of-war-still detained more than five years after the end of the war with Iraq. While many may not have wanted to return to Iraq, prior to 1993 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been unable to ascertain their wishes, in accordance with its standard procedures concerning the repatriation of POWs. After repeated official denials that Iran was holding so many Iraqis, in May Deputy Majlis Speaker Hassan Rouhani confirmed the 20,000 figure for the first time.
In what was described as a "good will" gesture, Iran released a total of 3,500 Iraqis, who returned to Iraq under ICRC supervision. At least 2,900 were not POWs, but military deserters who crossed the border into Iran during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Iraq did not reciprocate these gestures and continued to claim that there were no Iranian POWs in its custody.
Based on testimonial evidence gathered by Middle East Watch in February, as well as information collected by other international organizations, Iranians being kept against their will in Iraq included an unknown, but large, number of ethnic Arabs and Kurds forcibly removed from their homes in the border areas to camps deep inside Iraq, in the early months of the eight-year war.
The two most significant issues during 1993 involving the rights of ethnic or religious minorities concerned the Kurds and the Baha'is. Little reliable information was available about security force actions inside Iranian Kurdistan involving human rights violations. But fighting with guerrillas of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and two smaller groups apparently grew in intensity, leaving casualties on both sides. In response to the deteriorating situation, the new Interior Minister, Ali Mohammed Besharati, was put in charge of a new security force in the border zone, in October. The Law and Order Forces, composed of basij volunteers-young Islamic zealots-was described as a rapid-reaction force to deal with unrest in Kurdistan; its establishment created a concern that further rights violations would occur in a region where grave abuses had been reported over the years since the 1979 revolution.
Along Iran's border with the Kurdish-held region of northern Iraq, Middle East Watch and other nongovernmental organizations observed the persistent shelling of border villages by Iranian forces, which caused much damage and forced an estimated 10,000 civilians to seek refuge elsewhere. Shelling and other military actions, ostensibly aimed at bases of Iranian Kurdish parties, began in March and continued on an almost daily basis throughout the rest of the year. In another breach of international humanitarian law, in July, Iranian forces seized thirteen Iraqi Kurdish civilians as hostages, to press for the return of five Iranian soldiers captured earlier by the Kurdish authorities. An exchange was arranged after some weeks of negotiation.
In a move with disturbing implications for the rights of thousands of Iranian refugees in Turkey, on October 18 Interior Minister Besharati and his Turkish counterpart, Mehmet Gazioglu, signed a protocol to counter "hostile acts along their common border." In return for Iran's cooperation in denying sanctuary to the mainly Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas, according to the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, Besharati asked Gazioglu to expel or otherwise restrain 183 Iranian dissidents living in Turkey.
Members of the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, Baha'is have long had to contend with discriminatory government policies. Persecution significantly abated over the years, but Baha'is were still not recognized by the state as a religious group and were not afforded any constitutional rights. In February, the U.N. Special Representative released a 1991 document apparently approved by Iran's highest-ranking officials which stated baldly that "the progress and development of the Baha'is shall be blocked." The document required that Baha'is be denied education and employment, if they identified themselves as Baha'i, and that they be prevented from assuming any position of influence
Legislation that formalized the previously administrative discrimination applied against all persons deemed not to be good Muslims was passed by the Majlis on October 24. The wide-ranging bill made it illegal for public servants to engage in many actions with human rights implications. Among them were "unauthorized contact or communication with foreigners"; the "non-observance of Islamic dress code or Islamic principles and rights"; and "scaremongering, participation in illegal sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations, or encouraging others to [engage in] these acts."
Obnoxious for their group implications were those clauses of the bill that barred government employment to members of "deviant groups ... groups whose constitution is based on the denial of divine religions ... and Freemason organizations." As Baha'is are considered by mainstream Shi'a to be apostates, as a result of this bill they were automatically barred from work for any public employer. Although the legislation may have been aimed primarily at controlling corruption in government employment, as some Iranians claimed, its draconian nature gave officials a heavy stick to use at will against dissidents and minorities.
In response to criticism about Iran's treatment of Baha'is and peaceful dissidents, the Iranian Mission to the U.N. said on April 23 that: "neither Baha'is nor any other groups including dissident groups have been prosecuted in Iran on grounds of their beliefs. Like other Iranian nationals, Baha'is also enjoy equal protection of the law and like them Baha'is have also been held accountable for their breaches of the law. For instance, in the last five years in Iran only one Baha'i individual has been found guilty as charged in a court of law and sentenced to death." The individual concerned, Bahman Samandari, a prominent community leader, was executed on March 18, 1992, one day after being summoned on a pretext to Tehran's Evin Prison. His relatives were never informed of the charges, or whether he had been tried.
Impelled by Iran's outspoken opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and by intelligence reports that the Islamic Republic was acquiring the means to develop nuclear weapons, the Clinton administration early on adopted a harsher stance against Iran than had the Bush administration. The shift to a more active policy of "containment" of Iran also reflected the urgings of two key U.S. allies in the Middle East, Israel and Egypt.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, whose previous spell in government as Deputy Secretary of State had been marked by the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, set the tone at a March30 Senate hearing. Branding Iran "an international outlaw," Secretary Christopher said the U.S. opposed World Bank lending to the Islamic Republic, and would be urging U.S. friends and allies to follow suit. U.S. officials argued that low-cost World Bank loans enabled Iran to divert scarce financial resources to the acquisition of arms, including nuclear weapons. Against U.S. objections, the World Bank approved $458 million in loans to Iran, in March. However, persistent U.S. pressure led, in September, to a suspension of World Bank loans pending a broader review of lending to Iran, which has run into mounting credit problems.
Human rights formed one of the six areas of Iranian "objectionable behavior" cited by administration officials when asked about the preconditions for a changed attitude on the part of Washington. The others were: the acquisition of nuclear technology, support for terrorism abroad, pursuit of a military buildup in excess of its defensive needs, opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace talks, and the subversion of Arab governments friendly to the United States. The last point, referring to Egypt and Tunisia, was later dropped in public statements.
The most forthright exposition of the new U.S. policy toward Iran came in a May speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy by Martin Indyk, the senior Middle East aide on the National Security Council. Before joining the government, Indyk had headed the pro-Israel Washington Institute. In his speech, the NSC official said: "We do not seek a confrontation, but we will not normalize relations with Iran until and unless Iran's policies change-across the board." Indyk dubbed U.S. strategy toward Iran and Iraq as one of "dual containment." State Department officials later backed away from the "dual containment" line, emphasizing that Washington remained open to dialogue with Tehran, without preconditions on either side.
Although human rights were often cited in the lexicon of misbehavior, less emphasis was placed on domestic violations than on acts of overseas terrorism. Here, the U.S. took an expansive view of Iranian government responsibility. The State Department's annual report on terrorism featured Rafsanjani and Khamenei on its cover, and devoted more space to actions allegedly conducted by, or on behalf of, Iran than any other country. U.S. officials were particularly angered by Germany's secret talks with the Iranian Intelligence Minister, Ali Fallahian, in October. Regrettably, though, no statement emanated from Washington in response to the constant shelling of Iraqi Kurdish border villages-part of an area closely monitored, and ostensibly protected, by patrolling U.S. and allied aircraft.
The most practical aspect of U.S. policy was a concerted drive to deny Iran "dual-use" technology with civilian and military applications. Meeting with European Community Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg on June 9, Secretary Christopher urged European states to back the U.S. premise that Iran should not enjoy normal commercial relations. No blanket embargo exists on trade with Iran, although the U.S. forbids the import of most Iranian exports, including oil. Despite the prohibition, U.S. oil companies were reported to be among the largest purchasers of Iranian crude oil, shipping it to third destinations or to offshore refineries. A bid by the Boeing aircraft manufacturer to sell passenger aircraft to Iran, in an order potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was held up by the White House.
Contrary to reports disseminated by the People's Mujaheddin, the principal opposition organization, the Clinton administration did not move closer than its predecessor to a rebel body that itself had a poor human rights record.
The Right to Monitor
No on-site monitoring of human rights conditions in Iran by international organizations was permitted during 1993. Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl, Special Representative of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, had been denied access since December 1991. Similarly, Amnesty International, Middle East Watch and other nongovernmental organizations were consistently refused permission to enter Iran for the specific purpose of examining domestic human rights issues.
Middle East Watch was able to conduct a mission to Iran in 1991, aimed at gathering information about the uprising in neighboring Iraq; and it was permitted to return in early 1993 to investigate conditions in Iraq. On both these occasions, and during a September 1991 visit to Tehran, to take partin a government-sponsored conference on human rights, Middle East Watch representatives were able to meet with government officials, academics, nongovernmental organizations and private citizens.
In 1993, there was no genuinely independent domestic organization to monitor human rights conditions, although a dissident political party, the Freedom Movement, did issue occasional denunciations of governmental abuses of the rule of law, and other matters, through clandestinely printed and circulated statements. One ostensibly independent human rights organization, the Organization for the Defense of Victims of Violence, was backed by the government; its work was confined to combatting the propaganda of the opposition PMOI and to defending the official version of Iran's human rights record before international organizations.
In May, the Iranian parliament announced the formation of a "nongovernment" committee, consisting of seventeen members of parliament and lawyers, to "investigate the human rights situation in Iran and abroad and offer suggestions." No further details were available as to its role and functioning. Given parliament's independence from the Rafsanjani government, such a committee could potentially play a useful monitoring role, provided it was prepared to use its authority to call officials to account and demand changes in abusive practices.
The expulsion of the ICRC in March 1992, on the grounds that it had exceeded its mandate, closed a briefly opened window into prison conditions in Iran. For two months, the ICRC had been able to meet Iranian security prisoners on a regular basis, to register them and determine their wellbeing. However, it was not permitted to meet the estimated 20,000 Iraqi prisoners-of-war being held in Iran following the end of the war with Iraq, in August 1988.
International humanitarian organizations, such as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and private relief groups, were given relatively free access to the large refugee population in Iran. Iran housed over three million refugees from conflicts past and present among its neighbors-the heaviest refugee burden of any country in the world-and, during 1993, it appealed on several occasions for further outside assistance. The presence of foreign organizations in sensitive border regions was closely controlled by the authorities. Nevertheless, such bodies served informally as useful sources of information on human rights-related matters.
The Work of Middle East Watch
In 1993, Middle East Watch's work focused on freedom of expression in Iran. A 140-page report titled Guardians of Thought: Limits on Freedom of Expression in Iran was released in September and received widespread media coverage. Covering primarily the period from 1989 to 1993, the report examined the various mechanisms of state control of expression. It presented more than sixty cases of Iranian writers, filmmakers, journalists and intellectuals who had either been imprisoned or otherwise punished for the content of their work, or whose work had been banned or censored. The case studies illustrated tactics of direct, often violent, pressure by groups of ideological vigilantes, media vilification campaigns, and formal censorship; it also showed how the power play between different factions of the ruling elite had a deleterious effect on freedom of expression. Efforts to meet with Iranian government officials, to discuss the contents and recommendations contained in the report, were unsuccessful.
Publication of Guardians of Thought was followed up, in October, with a brief report on the detention of a dissident former army officer, Col. Nasrullah Tavakoli, and the imposition of a ten-year prison sentence on a cartoonist, Manouchehr Karimzadeh. The Tavakoli case, involving a lone individual who issued lengthy written attacks on the government, illustrated the limits of official tolerance. Middle East Watch organized an international campaign among cartoonists over the Karimzadeh case.
A delegation from Middle East Watch traveled to Iran in January and February, for a three-week mission. Team members interviewed Iraqi refugees and exiles in Tehran and Khuzestan province about human rights conditions inside Iraq. Informally, the delegation was also able to gather useful information on current conditions in Iran, to counter often distorted accounts received abroad from exile groups. Throughout the year, Middle East Watch met with activists living abroad or visiting from Iran. Itparticipated in conferences on Iran, and addressed groups in the United States on human rights conditions in the country.