Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Human Rights Watch

Iran: Human Rights Developments, 1996

Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch
November 30, 1995


Human Rights Developments

As international debate focused on how to influence Iran’s foreign policy, with the U.S. adopting stronger sanctions and Europe pursuing a policy of “critical dialogue,” human rights developments were influenced mainly by domestic concerns. Personal freedoms suffered, public executions increased, and advocates of reform within the framework of the Islamic revolution found a less tolerant climate in which to express their views.

The government announced the discovery of “spy rings” on several occasions. In January three “U.S. spies” and two “Iraqi spies” were charged with espionage in Kermanshah. Later in January six “U.S. and Israeli spies” were charged in Tehran. In February the government announced the arrest of six members of a “Qatari spy ring.” In April, Information Minister Ali Fallahian announced the arrest of twenty-nine “Turkish spies” in western Azerbaijan province. In June, thirty-three members of an “enormous espionage organization,” centered in Tehran and Orumieh and composed mainly of public employees, were arrested. The proceedings against these suspects, all of whom could face the death penalty, took place mostly in secret and failed to comply with international standards for a fair trial. The outcome of the proceedings was unknown as this report went to press.

The authorities took harsher measures against convicted criminals in 1996. After an absence of several years, public executions resumed with the hanging of two convicted murderers in the Tehran suburb of Narmak in January. They had each been given seventy-four lashes prior to being taken to the gallows. Reports of the execution of large numbers of convicted drug traffickers also resumed in the Iranian press after several years’ absence.

On May 15 five young men whom the government claimed had been convicted of rape and murder were executed in Tabriz and their bodies driven through the streets hanging from construction cranes. These public executions brought to an end street protests that had occurred in Tabriz on an almost-daily basis following the removal of a popular candidate from the ballot for parliamentary elections (see below).

The first round of the election for the 270-member parliament, or Majles, took place on March 8. Arbitrary bans on candidates and political parties, and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly for opposition candidates, greatly restricted the rights of citizens to participate in selecting their representatives. The government-appointed Council of Guardians vetoed some 44 percent of the 5,121 declared candidates. The twelve-person council, composed of senior clerical figures and religious jurists, tightly controlled access to the electoral process by assessing such matters as candidate’ “practical adherence to Islam” and support for the principle of “rule by the pre-eminent religious jurist (velayat-e faqih).”

The constitution provides for the Majles to be elected directly by the people and for the Council of Guardians to play a supervisory role in the process. Many argued that in excluding candidates in a summary and arbitrary manner the council overstepped its constitutional powers. Its decisions to exclude candidates and to annul voting results in some cities were the most troubling aspects of the parliamentary elections and violated the right to political participation, which is upheld in international human rights treaties to which Iran is a State Party.

Fifteen supporters of the Freedom Movement, a banned but tolerated political party, presented themselves as candidates. Only four made it through preliminary vetting, three of whom were excluded before polling day. By that time the party had announced its intention to withdraw from the election, complaining that government restrictions made it impossible to communicate with the public. Other tolerated opposition parties, like the Iran Nation Party and the National Front, boycotted the elections.

The government’s tolerance or support for violent religious zealots known as Partisans of the Party of God (Ansar-e Hezbollah) undermined the meaningful participation of parties from outside the closed circle of the clerical leadership in the elections. Hezbollahi-led mobs disrupted their attempts to hold press conferences, political rallies, and other public gatherings.

After the voting, the Council of Guardians summarily annulled the results in eight cities, including Iran’s third largest, Isfahan. On April 6 the council accused some candidates of using antirevolutionary slogans, making illusory promises and vote-buying. It neither identified those candidates nor substantiated its claims. In other cities where first-round results were annulled, no reason was provided, suggesting that the Council of Guardians was unhappy with the election results, not the process.

On April 19 the election committee in Tabriz, a body reporting to the Council of Guardians, removed Muhammad Ali Chehregani’s name from the ballot. His campaign had highlighted issues of cultural discrimination against the Azari minority. This summary measure prompted as many as 40,000 people to demonstrate in Tabriz. Security forces broke up the protest and detained more than 600 people, according to local press reports.

The government also stepped up attacks on the press. Newspapers that published critical commentary risked suspension and prosecution. In November 1995 the government lifted the ban on Tous, a Mashad daily supportive of radical clerics critical of President Rafsanjani. But editor Mohammed Sadegh Javadi-Hesseri was subsequently arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment and twenty lashes for “defamatory” reporting on government policies. In January the press court sentenced Abolghassem Golbaf, publisher of the monthly Gouzarish, to three months in prison in a case brought by Agriculture Minister Issa Kalantari, in violation of the procedures for prosecutions before the press court. Neither of these sentences had been carried out as of November 1996.

On January 27 a Tehran press court convicted Gardoun editor Abbas Maroufi of “publishing lies.” For this offense he received a sentence of six months in prison and thirty lashes. There were many violations of fair trial procedures in the prosecution, including the introduction of new charges during the proceedings without new evidence and without giving defense lawyers time to prepare. Maroufi left the country without serving his sentence but has repeatedly stated his willingness to return if he will be permitted to continue to publish his magazine.

Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mostafa Mir Salam wrote in the Tehran daily Keyhan on February 8, “the press does not understand its limits” and acts “without wisdom and common sense.” More than 190 journalists wrote an open letter to President Rafsanjani to protest the minister=s remarks and to criticize arbitrary attacks on press freedom. On March 14, Bahman, the Tehran newspaper that published this open letter, received a suspension order from the Press Advisory Board for its critical reporting. That ban was overturned by an appeals court in September.

In February the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance announced that it would impose pre-publication censorship on all books, a unprecedented measure in Iran’s modern history. Previous policy had left publishers with the obligation to abide by guidelines and subject to penalties if they violated them. The new policies prompted deputy minister Ahmad Masjed Jamei to resign, saying he would “not accept responsibility for them.”

In July agents from the Intelligence Ministry raided the home of a German cultural attaché as he hosted a group of Iranian writers. The six writers in attendance, together with their spouses, were detained overnight. In September security agents raided the home of prominent writer Farhad Koushan, where a group of thirteen writers were holding an informal weekly gathering. The writers were released in the early morning hours after being warned to halt such meetings.

Hezbollahi-led mobs loyal to factions or individuals within the leadership (see above) harassed government critics of all kinds, burning property, beating individuals and disrupting gatherings with impunity. On May 12, a Hezbollahi mob prevented philosopher Abdol Karim Soroush from delivering a lecture at Amir Kabir Technical University. In an open letter to President Rafsanjani sparked by this incident Soroush noted that he had turned down all previous invitations to speak, and canceled his university classes “in the interests of the country,” but had not gained anything from this approach. He added, “I have gradually lost my professional and personal security as the brazen have become more impudent.” Hezbollahi militants attacked two Tehran cinemas showing the film Indian Gift, which they thought to be corrupt even though it had been approved by government censors. They assaulted audiences and vandalized the cinemas.

Hezbollahi mobs demonstrated in the streets of Tehran against women bicyclists in April, criticizing also President Rafsanjani’s daughter Faezeh Hashemi, a leading vote-winner in the parliamentary elections, who had supported women’s right to ride in public. The authorities ceded to Hezbollahi demands, limiting women to riding on segregated paths out of sight of men.

Restrictions on personal liberty had a harsh impact on women. In November 1995, the Basiji, the anti-vice branch of the security forces, announced that it had detained 86,000 suspects in the previous twelve-month period. Most of them were thought to have been women detained for violating the dress code, which required covering the hair and wearing a flowing somber-colored body garment. The new penal code, which went into effect on July 9, substituted fines and prison terms for the penalty of lashes for violators of the dress code. One positive development for women was the reform of the divorce law in November 1995, enabling women to obtain a divorce even if their husbands did not consent.

A contraction of basic liberties was apparent in the treatment of religious minorities. For the first time since 1992, death sentences were imposed on followers of the persecuted Bahai faith. On January 2, a revolutionary court in Yazd sentenced Zabihullah Mahrami to death for apostasy. Mahrami had announced his conversion to Islam during the early days of the revolution in the hope of avoiding trouble for his family, but after arranging for his daughter to marry a Bahai in late 1995, the authorities conducted hearings to examine Mahrami’s religious beliefs. Finding him an unrepentant Bahai believer, the court sentenced him to death. Kayvan Khalajabadi and Bahman Mithaqi, imprisoned since 1989 for taking part in Bahai activities, had their death sentences confirmed by the Supreme Court. All three remained in prison as this report went to press.

Members of Protestant Christian churches also continued to suffer persecution for their beliefs. Only two Protestant churches that conducted services in Farsi, the Assembly of God churches in Tehran and Rasht, remained open. The murder of three leading Protestant clergy in 1994 had a devastating impact on the Protestant community. In November 1995, church sources reported the detention of Reverend Harmik Torosian, an Assembly of God pastor in Shiraz.

Religious persecution was not confined to non-Muslims. Followers of Shi`a Muslim clerics who had expressed opposition to the interpretation of Islam promoted by the government remained in detention in Qom, the center of Shi`a learning. For example, at least eighteen followers of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Shirazi had remained in detention without charge since November 1995.

“Anti-vice” raids by the security forces on private homes continued. One such operation in June, in a wealthy Tehran neighborhood, resulted in the fatal fall of a young man from an eighteenth-story window. Accounts differed as to whether he was pushed by the police or slipped while trying to escape.

The new penal code, reflecting a harsher approach to law enforcement, gave prominence to corporal punishments like lashing and amputations of fingers, hands, and toes. Although the previous code provided for such punishments, they were rarely imposed. The new code simplified procedures for imposing corporal punishments, prescribed them for a wider variety of crimes, and reduced judges’ discretion to impose alternative sentences. Six repeat offenders convicted of theft had the fingers of their right hands amputated soon after the implementation in July of the new code, in prison and in the presence of other convicted thieves.

Many Iranian asylum-seekers in Turkey were summarily returned to Iran by Turkish authorities without their claim for political asylum being assessed by Turkish authorities or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This long-established practice took place without any mechanisms in place for monitoring the fate of the asylum-seekers who had been forced to return to Iran. There were also cases of individual refugees whose claims had been recognized by the UNHCR, and who in a few cases had even been accepted for resettlement in third countries, being subjected by Turkey to refoulement to Iran. No information was available of the treatment of those returned by Iranian authorities.

The Right to Monitor

For the first time since 1991, the government agreed to permit the U.N. special representative on the human rights situation in Iran, Maurice Copithorne, to visit the country. His visit in February was preceded by visits by two rapporteurs of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The special rapporteur on religious intolerance visited in December 1995, and the special rapporteur on freedom of expression in January 1996. Also in January, the government for the first time permitted a fact-finding mission by Human Rights Watch, albeit under near constant undisguised surveillance. Authorities did not authorize visits by other international human rights groups.

This partial openness to international monitoring was a welcome change from the obstructive attitude of recent years. However, the extension of invitations to international monitors was not matched by any relaxation of the prohibition of independent domestic monitoring. Iranians who made critical comments about the human rights situation risked harassment by the authorities or attack by Hezbollahi mobs. Under the new penal code, the crime of espionage was defined so broadly as to criminalize the passing of almost any type of information about country conditions to foreigners, potentially criminalizing the transmission of human rights information to international bodies, and in violation of international law guaranteeing the right to receive and impart information. U.N. Special Representative Copithorne remarked in his report to the commission that “even the concept of human rights is not well understood” by the Iranian government.

Human Rights Watch honored Tehran lawyer Shirin Ebadi as a human rights monitor in 1996, in recognition of her work for human rights and legal reform in Iran.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

In April the U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution strongly condemning Iran for wide-ranging violations and renewing the mandate of the special representative on the human rights situation in Iran. Finding no satisfactory Iranian response, some European countries dropped their effort to offer a more conciliatory resolution in return for an explicit pledge by Iran not to take any action to carry out the death sentence decreed against British author Salman Rushdie in 1989. In August the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities also passed a resolution condemning the government’s involvement in the killing of dissidents in exile.

European Union

European governments and the European Parliament voiced frustration with the failure of their “critical dialogue” policy toward Iran to modify Iranian policy. Although human rights violations inside Iran were explicitly included in the European policy, they were rarely highlighted among the issues on the agenda.

In February the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging Tehran to give assurances it would not carry out the fatwa sentencing Salman Rushdie to death, and urged the E.U. to increase pressure on the Iranian authorities to issue such a declaration. In July, the European Parliament again raised the Rushdie case and urged the European Council of Ministers to review its “critical dialogue” policy if the Iranian government refused to make sufficient concessions in this regard.

At a meeting of European foreign ministers in March, Germany’s Klaus Kinkel, a leading defender of the policy, told the press that “we are close to the red line.” He said that the E.U. would continue to seek to moderate Iran=s behavior through dialogue, “but not at any price.” Dutch Foreign Minister Hans Van Mierlo was even more outspoken, while at the same time rejecting U.S. efforts to stiffen sanctions against Tehran. In August, Danish foreign minister Niels Helveg Petersen announced his government’s withdrawal from the “critical dialogue,” explaining, “I cannot point to one single improvement as a result of critical dialogue.”

United States

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran and asserts that it is a pariah state. Iranian leaders, meanwhile, habitually refer to the United States as “the Great Satan”, or as the leader of “global arrogance.” In 1996, human rights conditions inside Iran played only a minor role in the competition between the Democratic administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to show who was toughest on that country’s government. Alleged support for international terrorism led the list of reasons behind moves to punish Tehran, including adoption of a law imposing sanctions on non-U.S. companies that invest in that country.

U.S. pressure on governments, the private sector and multilateral bodies certainly hindered Tehran in its efforts to attract foreign capital and investment. However, the impact of the sanctions policy on human rights was difficult to gauge.

Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau, speaking on May 14 in Tampa, Florida, said, “We have deep objections to several of Iran’s policies, including its support for terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, support for Hamas and other violent groups seeking to derail the [Arab-Israeli] peace process, subversion of other governments, and a human rights record which is deservedly condemned by the international community.”

U.S. officials, in public statements on Iran, occasionally mentioned human rights conditions but rarely highlighted them. The Iran chapter in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, while generally accurate, spoke in broad generalities and presented few revelations, reflecting the lack of engagement on human rights conditions in U.S. policy.