Letter to President-Elect Dr. Hassan Rouhani Regarding Rights Reform
His Excellency Dr. Hassan Rouhani
Islamic Republic of Iran
We are writing to you to express our serious concerns regarding Iranians’ human rights, and to request that you fulfill your campaign promises to prioritize human rights during your presidency. On August 4, 2013 you will be sworn in as the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after an election campaign in which you made many promises to the Iranian people—promises that played a role in your victory. These include promises to expand personal freedoms and respect for individuals’ rights.
While we acknowledge the many difficulties and challenges that lie ahead, we hope that you will use your good offices to ensure improvements in the following key areas:
Free Political Prisoners:As you are well aware, today there are hundreds of political prisoners in Iran’s jails. Many were arbitrarily arrested and detained after the 2009 presidential election, prosecuted in unfair trials, and convicted on various “national security” crimes not recognized by international law. They are in prison today merely because they exercised their basic rights, including freedom of expression and association and peaceful assembly. In many cases, their prosecutions violate Iran’s Constitution, which mandates that the law must define “political offenses” and prosecute alleged offenders in the presence of a jury.
During your campaign, you referred several times to political prisoners, including Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been arbitrarily detained under house arrest. These opposition figures have spent nearly two and a half years in detention without charge, clearly in violation of Iranian and international law. Human Rights Watch urges you to prioritize their release as a preliminary sign of your commitment to safeguarding one the most fundamental of rights—the right to peaceful dissent.
We also ask you to push for the immediate and unconditional release of all other political prisoners, including hundreds of political and civic activists, journalists, lawyers, and rights defenders. The release of these prisoners should be accompanied by policy changes to allow them to continue their peaceful activities upon release, including protecting their right to membership in opposition political parties. In the meantime, Human Rights Watch believes it is imperative that you speak out against the abuse, ill-treatment, torture, harassment, and systematic denial of access to necessary medical treatment in many prisons and detention facilities throughout the country.
Support a Moratorium on Executions:Since your electoral victory on June 15, unofficial and official sources have reported at least 71 executions. In 2012, Iran was one of the world’s foremost executioners, with more than 500 prisoners hanged either in prisons or in public. For the past several years, Iran has had the second largest number of executions in the world, behind China.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its irreversible, cruel, and inhumane nature. Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons why your administration should, at the very least, push for a moratorium on executions. The vast majority of executions in Iran are for drug-related offenses or other offenses not considered serious enough to warrant the death penalty under international law. In other cases where courts have issued death sentences, such as for murder, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented serious due process violations that often taint the validity of the underlying convictions. We urge your administration to conduct a full review of the death penalty during the imposition of a moratorium, with a view to abolishing the practice altogether.
Remove Press and Media Restrictions:As of June 2013 there were more than 50 journalists and bloggersbehind bars in Iran. Numerous security and intelligence agencies heavily censor the press and print media, implementing and enforcing a dizzying array of censorship rules and “red lines” that Iranians cannot cross without risking arrest, detention, and conviction. These restrictions extend to television and the Internet, and authorities routinely block or filter websites, jam satellite signals, and slow Internet speeds, depriving Iranians of freedom of the press and access to information.
During your presidential campaign, and since your electoral victory, you made numerous statements bemoaning Iran’s strict government censorship, including on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. On June 29, for example, a tweet from your account read: “The system that takes its [legitimacy] from [the people should] not [be] afraid of [a] free media.” In line with these statements, we urge you to implement policies during the next four years that encourage, not prohibit, freedom of the press and the Internet. Your choice in cabinet appointments for key ministry posts, including the Ministries of Technology and Culture, can lay the foundation for removing many of these unlawful restrictions.
Expand Academic Freedom: During your campaign you often decried the increased “securitization” of Iranian society, noting particularly greater control and interference by security and intelligence forces in and around university campuses. In recent years authorities have severely limited freedom of thought and choice at Iran’s universities, once a source of national and international pride. Professors at Tehran’s Sharif University recently wrote a letter to you stating that universities look to you to restore educational control and autonomy to the “rightful stakeholders—the students and professors.”
We urge you to follow up on your campaign promises to expand academic freedom by appointing a Minister of Science who will implement serious reform policies in higher education. The minister’s priorities should be to reinstate dozens of professors forced to retire during the past eight years seemingly because of their views; restrict the growing influence of the basij and security forces on campuses; remove disciplinary boards that unlawfully monitor students’ activities and suspend or expel them solely because they have exercised their fundamental rights; roll back regressive gender-based policies that separate the sexes on campus and which limit academic choice; scrap plans to remove or restrict social science curricula; and allow organizations likeTahkim-e Vahdat, one of the country’s largest student groups, which has been banned since 2009, to resume operating.
Unshackle Civil Society: You have repeatedly acknowledged the critical role that civil society plays in the growth and development of a healthy society. In a post-election speech you said: “A strong government does not mean a government that interferes and intervenes in all affairs. It is not a government that limits the lives of people.” And in a recent interview you responded favorably to a question asking whether the now-banned Iranian Journalists Association could resume work.
During the past eight years, Iranians have witnessed an assault on a once vibrant and independent civil society. Authorities have shut down dozens of non-governmental organizations, independent trade and labor unions, and other groups. The Iranian Bar Association, Shirin Ebadi’s Center for Human Rights Defenders, and the House of Cinema are examples of groups that have either been shut down, declared unlawful, or severely restricted. During the next four years, we urge you to appoint appropriate ministers to implement policies to remove unnecessary burdens on civil society, and allow Iranians to freely associate with groups that can play an important role in improving their everyday lives.
Respect Women’s Rights: At a recent Tehran gathering, which your advisors attended, activists noted that much of the recent rollback on women’s rights results from regressive policies, and not laws, implemented by the previous administration. While we recognize that the president has limited ability to directly changediscriminatory personal status laws related to marriage, inheritance, and child custody, we believe that your administration should nonetheless support efforts to amend or abolish such laws, and implement progressive policies to improve the lives of Iranian women.
Your administration can take concrete steps to improve women’s rights, consistent with statements you made before and after the election, including: appointment of officials in ministries or positions of power, including women, who favor policies intended to improve women’s rights; initiating a national dialogue aimed at empowering civil society groups, like the One Million Signatures Campaign, to resume their peaceful activities to change Iran’s discriminatory laws; reversing recent restrictions imposed on population control programs, including access to birth control; opposing regressive gender-based policiesin universitiesthat disproportionately affect women, and in public spaces such as sporting venues; and working to end security crackdowns on women who are deemed not to properly abide by the strict dress code.
Guarantee Minority Rights: Today, millions of people among Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities are subjected to legal or effective discrimination in their political participation, employment, and the exercise of their social and cultural rights. This discrimination is particularly acute vis-à-vis members of Iran’s evangelical and Protestant Christian communities, Baha'is, and Sufi groups such as the Nematollahi Gonabadi order, who are systematically targeted and deprived of the right to practice their faith. Iran’s significant Sunni population, too, faces unnecessary restrictions. Poverty, illiteracy, and harsh security policies disproportionately affect the periphery of the country, home to many of Iran’s ethnic minority communities, including Azeris, Arabs,Kurds and the Baluch.
During your election campaign, you indicated that you would appoint a senior aide to “attend to the issues and demands of our minorities.” While the establishment of such post is a step in the right direction, it is only a start. We urge you and your administration to implement policies that ensure equal protection of the law for all Iranians, irrespective of ethnicity and faith.
Push for the Eradication of Inhumane Practices: Recentlythe Guardian Council approved an amended penal code that retains many punishments that clearly violate Iran’s international legal obligations. Examples of these punishments include stoning and execution of child offenders, defined under international law as persons under age 18 who have commit offenses. While the amended penal code eliminates the death penalty for child offenders charged with certain crimes, it still allows a judge to sentence a child offender to death for other crimes, such as adultery or murder, if the judge believes that the accused was mature enough to understand the consequences of his or her actions.
In recent years, there has been serious discussion, including among Iranian lawmakers and Judiciary officials, about the need to amend the penal code to prohibit stoning and execution of child offenders. Human Rights Watch recognizes that you can play an important role in reviving the national debate on banning these inhumane practices, and we urge you to use your good offices to do so.
Cooperate with UN Rights Bodies: The Iranian government’s record of cooperation with international institutions, particularly organs of the United Nations, remains poor. Iran has continuously denied access to UN thematic special procedures of the Human Rights Council since 2005, despite Iran’s formal standing invitation and longstanding and repeated requests for invitations to visit addressed by several Rapporteurs. Iran has similarly denied access to the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, appointed in 2011 by the Human Rights Council in response to the deteriorating human rights situationin your country and the absence of Iran’s engagement with thematic special procedures.
The Iranian government has also failed to implement the recommendations of General Assembly resolutions and, UN expert bodies, as well as dozens of recommendations member states made in 2010 during Iran’sUniversal Periodic Review. Many of the recommendations related to accountability for torture and killings perpetrated by Iranian officials following the wide-scale crackdown that followed the 2009 presidential election. To date, no high-ranking official has been adequately brought to account for these gross violations.
We urge you to reverse this trend, and to use the president’s good offices to ensure cooperation with UN rights organs, including allowing Dr. Ahmed Shaheed to visit the country so that he can carry out his UN mandate.
Finally,weask that you allow Human Rights Watch staff members to visit Iran so that we can further discuss these issues with your administration and other officials in an effort to improve Iranians’ access to human rights. Despite repeated efforts by Human Rights Watch to gain access to Iran so that we can independently monitor human rights there, we have not been allowed entry since the 1990s. We sincerely hope that your inauguration signals a new willingness on the part of the Iranian government to engage with international human rights organizations.
We thank you for your immediate attention to these important matters, and look forward to hearing from your office in the near future.
Acting Director, Middle East Division