FLOGGING SENTENCES USED TO REPRESS FREE EXPRESSION
Amnesty International is renewing its call on the Iranian authorities to stop cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments such as flogging after a spate of such sentences in the country. The organization said it feared such punishment is being meted out to deter others from criticising the authorities, particularly in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2012.
Actress Marzieh Vafamehr has become the latest individual to face such a sentence, after she was sentenced on or around 8 October 2011 to a year in prison and 90 lashes in connection to her appearance in the film My Tehran for Sale, in which she appears in one scene without the mandatory head covering which women in Iran are required to wear and appears to drink alcohol in another, although her husband Nasser Taghvai has denied she had actually drunk any alcohol. The exact charge of which she was convicted is not known to Amnesty International.
The consumption of alcohol is a criminal offence in Iran, punishable by 80 lashes for a first offence. Article 640 of the Penal Code also provides for between three to 12 months’ imprisonment and up to 74 lashes for “anyone who exhibits or puts for public viewing ….films … which offends public decency or morals”. Amnesty International considers the imposition of mandatory dress codes, such as that in Iran, to be a violation of the internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression and belief. Her lawyer is reported to have appealed against her conviction and sentence. Marzieh Vafamehr, believed to have been arrested in late June 2011, is held in Gharchak (or Qarchak) Prison in Varamin, where conditions are harsh. If Marzieh Vafamehr is held solely on account of the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression, she should be released immediately and unconditionally.
In September 2011, Somayeh Tohidlou, a well known blogger and opposition activist was flogged 50 times for “insulting” the country’s President. Afterwards, she recounted on her blog how she was taken to Tehran’s Evin Prison on 14 September 2011 and chained hand and foot before being lashed 50 times.
Somayeh Tohidlou confirmed that while the lashing was largely “symbolic” and did not cause extreme pain, it was deeply embarrassing. In a message to those who carried out the punishment she said “Be happy, because if you wanted to humiliate me, my entire body is burning with humiliation”.
More recently, student activist Peyman Aref was flogged 74 times on the day of his release for “insulting the president” after serving a one year prison sentence for his peaceful political activities. He said that the flogging had been carried in a harsher manner than that prescribed by law. Under the law, flogging sentences should be carried out more or less harshly, depending on the offence.
A picture of the wounds to his back can be viewed on the website Human Rights House of Iran.1He left prison supported by friends, as his injuries left him unable to walk unaided.
“I could not hold my back straight from the pain of being flogged. My heart condition is not good. On the advice of the doctors I took a shower but the pain and burning sensation is severe,” he told the opposition website Jaras. "I just sent an open letter to the president to describe the catastrophic situation of universities. It did not bear any insults against him. I only said that I would never greet him," he added.
Treating “insults” to officials as a criminal offence breaches international law and standards on freedom of expression, which permit only such restrictions as are demonstrably necessary and proportionate for the protection of certain public interests or the rights or reputations of others. It is well established in international human rights law that public officials should tolerate more, rather than less, criticism than private individuals.
The Iranian courts impose flogging sentences for a wide range of offences, including sexual offences, drug-related offences, drinking alcohol, theft, and some relating to freedom of expression and assembly, such as “insulting others” or “disturbing public order”. Most flogging sentences are imposed on men and are in some cases commuted to cash fines.
Another cruel punishment, amputation, is also provided as punishment for certain cases of theft; cross amputation, where a hand and opposite foot is cut off is one of four possible punishments for the offences of “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. Amnesty International recorded at least 12 cases of amputation for theft in 2010, with a further case of cross-amputation.
As judicial punishments, flogging and amputation both violate the international prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. According to Article 7 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iran is a state party, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Iran’s report on the implementation of the ICCRP will be considered by the UN Human Rights Committee on 17-18 October 2011 and the authorities will have to answer for their continued resort to a punishment which is banned in international law.