Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Human Rights Watch

Iran: Human Rights Developments, 1994

Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch
November 30, 1993


Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Iran showed no improvement in 1994. A picture emerged of new obstacles to the rule of law, a marked worsening in the situation of religious minorities, heightened enforcement of intrusive restrictions on every day life, limitations on basic freedoms of expression, thought, opinion and the press, and discrimination against women. The government generally excluded independent human rights monitors.

The cumulative effect of the erosion of human rights in Iran was reflected in March in a resolution of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights condemning Iran's violations of human rights. Its wording was strong, particularly with reference to Iran's failure, for the third consecutive year, to grant access to the U.N. Special Representative on the Human Rights Situation in Iran. The resolution expressed "deep concern at the high number of executions, cases of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment."

In August 1994 the U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities denounced widespread violations of human rights by the Iranian government including "arbitrary and summary executions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, unexplained disappearances, the absence of guarantees essential for the protection of the right to a fair trial." The Sub-Commission regretted the refusal of the Iranian government to implement existing agreements for delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit Iranian prisons.

In a population of sixty-two million, Iran's religious minorities include 3.5 million Sunni Muslims, 350,000 followers of the Bahai faith, 80,000 Christians and 30,000 Jews. Tens of thousands of Christians, Jews and Bahais have fled Iran in the past fifteen years. During 1994 the government mounted a fierce campaign against the small Christian minority. Churches have been shut down, scores of young Christians_many of them converts from Islam_have been imprisoned and tortured, especially in the cities of Gorgan and Kermanshah. Three leading Evangelical Christians were killed in suspicious circumstances. In January, Bishop Haik Hovasepian Mehr, who had come to international prominence leading a campaign for the release of Pastor Mehdi Dibaj, was murdered. Mehdi Dibaj, who converted from Islam to Christianity about forty-five years ago, had been imprisoned in Sari, northeastern Iran, from 1983 to 1994. In late June, another evangelical minister, Tateos Michaelian was shot and killed. He was acting chair of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran, a post he assumed following the murder of Bishop Hovasepian Mehr. Pastor Mehdi Dibaj was killed a week later in early July.

There was no evidence of a thorough official investigation into the killings, and Christian sources held the government responsible for the deaths. Iranian officials claim that evangelical churches have political agendas besides worship.

There was also no let up in the persecution of the Bahai minority, which is not recognized as a religion under the Constitution of the Islamic Republic and is referred to as a heretical sect.

In February a judge released two Muslims who had killed a Bahai citing a religious authority to the effect that Bahai blood may be shed with impunity. The judge based his ruling on the late Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa (edict) that a Muslim will not be killed for killing an apostate.

According to Amnesty International, Haji Mohammad Ziaie, a Sunni Muslim leader from Bandar-Abbas, known to be critical of government policies, was found dead in suspicious circumstances in July. He had been summoned for interrogation by security forces in Laar, Fars province on July 15, and he was never been seen alive again.

These incidents appear to illustrate the growing strength of militant forces within the Islamic leadership. The persecution of religious minorities, which received widespread media attention in the West, worked directly against the interests of others in the government who had hoped to normalize relations with the West.

One of the few remaining public voices of dissent in Iran appeared to have been silenced with the detention in Tehran in March of Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani. His associate, Mohammad Sadeq Said, a poet, whose pen-name is Niazi-Kermani, was also arrested. The arrest of Saidi-Sirjani, a prolific writer, further narrowed the scope of expression in the Islamic Republic.

Since 1989, the authorities have imposed a complete ban on all of Saidi-Sirjani's seventeen volumes of essays and social commentary. The writer responded to this muzzling by circulating open letters to the authorities, courageously denouncing censorship and the lack of freedom in Iran.

A month after his arrest the authorities produced an alleged confession they attributed to Saidi-Sirjani, of a wide range of crimes "conspiring to defame the Islamic regime and its founders." He also purported to have confessed to being a homosexual (a criminal offense in Iran punishable by death), as well as to gambling, drinking, and smoking opium. At the end of the year Mr. Saidi-Sirjani's status was unclear.

Iran's news media, too, suffered strict controls and editors and journalists faced arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. For example, in April, Abbas Abdi, edito- in-chief of the newspaper Salam, and a frequent critic of President Rafsanjani's policies, was released after serving ten months of a one year sentence on payment of a bond.

In June, the Press Council, a government appointed body, announced the withdrawal of the right of publication of a magazine, Havades, which it deemed "obscene and empty."

In an episode that has chilled freedom of expression worldwide, Salman Rushdie and all associated with the publication and translation of his novel, The Satanic Verses, remained under the express threat of assassination on the authority of the Iranian state. In June, Ayatollah Meshkini_head of the eighty-two member Assembly of Experts, which appoints the leader_endorsed the principle that one fatwa (edict) can be challenged by another, thus opening the door for Ayatollah Khamenei to revoke the death sentence on Rushdie. In a public sermon, Ayatollah Meshkini said "if even a religious leader issues a fatwa, and [the current leader] issues a ruling, the latter takes precedence." Yet Khamenei, despite his title as Iran's supreme spiritual leader, remains a junior religious figure relative to Khomeini. For conservative Muslims, any countervailing fatwa he may issue on the Rushdie case would be unlikely to gain mass support. In addition President Rafsanjani in his interview with Le Figaro, in September, said "there is no question of pardon in Rushdie's case, because the fatwa was pronounced against him. One cannot reverse this. It is not in the interests of the West to protect someone who has insulted a billion Muslims."

A bill on banning the use of television satellite reception equipment passed through the parliament in September, but is not yet law. Before the bill passed, the Head of the Judiciary announced that judges may order the removal of satellite dishes in order to halt the spread of "corruption." Ayatollah Yazdi justified the immediate removal of the offending dishes by saying that "in the view of Islamic judges, satellite programs come under the category of spreading corruption." Yazdi's opinion appeared to short-circuit the parliamentary process, and opened the door for the security forces to enter houses by force to remove dishes with no basis in law for these actions.

There were conflicting signals for women in Iran, and increasing arbitrary harassment. In December 1993, the government lifted all restrictions on what women can study in the nation's universities. On the other hand, single women were still banned from traveling abroad to study.

In April parliament ratified a bill concerning the selection of judges enabling qualified women to work as assessors in administrative tribunals, and in other low-level judicial positions. This was the first time since 1979 that women were permitted by law to work as judges of any kind.

Such small advances for women had to be weighed against a constant barrage of arbitrary restrictions. For example, in June the police issued a statement condemning women's smiles as something which could arouse corruption in men. In September, the daily newspaper Jomhuri-e-Islami reported on a meeting of officials in which the Minister of the Interior had called for no toleration of non-compliance with the Islamic dress code (Bad Hejabe). He also condemned women who ride motorcycles with men as disrespectful of Islamic principles.

Public discontent over economic and other conditions led to riots in Iranian cities. Serious public demonstrations, leading to violent confrontations between demonstrators and the security forces, took place in Tehran, Zahedan, Qom, Qazvin, Tabriz, Najafabad and many other cities.

In March, people in Tehran clashed with security forces who had been ordered to suppress all public manifestations of the traditional "fire-day" observances which mark the Iranian new year. Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, condemned such manifestations as "atheist celebrations." According to journalist Safa Ha'eri, a secret official report recorded eleven dead and more than five hundred wounded in the clashes.

In August, in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, hundreds of angry demonstrators were arrested and some were reported killed in protests after the Basij (militia) attacked young women who had mixed with young men at the end of a soccer match. The government's interpretation of Islamic rules forbid social mixing of men and women.

According to Middle East International, Qazvin, an industrial town 150 kilometers west of the capital, was the scene of social unrest and virtual insurrection in August. After the rejection by parliament of a bill to promote the status of the surrounding district to a province, thousands of Qazvinis poured into the streets of the city to show their frustration. The peaceful demonstration deteriorated into violent confrontations as soon as non-native security forces were rushed to the scene with orders to open fire to disperse demonstrators. At least thirty people were killed, 400 wounded and over 1,000 arrested. Putting down the riot in Qazvin, turned out to be one act of repression too many for some members of Iran's army. Four generals who claimed to be speaking on behalf of the whole of the armed forces including the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), which are generally considered more loyal to the Islamic leadership, warned the political leadership that the army could "no longer remain silent" while the country was threatened by "aggression from outside and disintegration from within."

Nevertheless, in November Associated Press reported that the parliament passed a bill authorizing law enforcement officers to shoot and kill demonstrators "to restore law and order at times of unrest."

In June a bomb explosion killed twenty-six and injured scores of other pilgrims at Iran's holiest shrine in Mashhad. This was the most shocking incident in a year of widespread social unrest, and came as yet another sign of spreading discontent. No group claimed responsibility, but in the politically charged atmosphere conspiracy theories were rampant.

Closer cooperation between the governments of Iran and Turkey, in security measures targeting opposition groups from both countries, threatened the security of thousands of Iranian refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey. Iranians who were recognized as refugees by the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and some whose cases were pending, were forcibly returned by the Turkish authorities to Iran, even though many of them risked serious human rights violations in Iran. For its part, in March the Iranian government handed over four alleged members of the separatist Kurdistan Working Party (PKK) to stand trial in Turkey, where torture of political prisoners is endemic. Other PKK supporters were attacked or harassed by the Iranian authorities.

Another group of Iranians at risk in Turkey were refugees who had been registered by UNHCR in Iraq, but who had moved to Turkey looking for better living conditions. Some of these refugees feared persecution in Iraq as Kurds or as former members of the Iranian opposition group, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), based in Iraq. UNHCR refers to such cases as "irregular movements" and encourages them to return to Iraq despite the risk of persecution there as well as in their native Iran.

Iran's Kurdish minority continued to suffer persecution inside and outside the country. In April, two villages in Iraq sheltering displaced Iranian Kurds were virtually destroyed by Iranian shelling. According to the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), in October the Iranian government activated plans, dating from 1975, to depopulate the border region with Iraq. Inhabitants of six villages in Piranshahr region, part of Western Azerbaijan province in Iran, were ordered to evacuate. Members of Kurdish opposition groups were assassinated in attacks attributed to the Iranian government by Kurdish sources. In January Taha Kerminch, a refugee, was killed in Turkey. A leader of the PDKI was assassinated on August 4, in Baghdad.

Opponents of the Iranian government living abroad continued to fear attack by Iranian government agents active in Turkey and throughout Europe. In November, the trial began in Paris of the accused killers of former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar. The three defendants, all with links to the Iranian government, went on trial for the August 1991 murder. Despite the more than sixty murders of Iranian dissidents abroad, this is only one of the few times an assassination case has been tried. In most of the other cases the suspected assassins either escaped arrest or were permitted to return to Iran by western governments fearing reprisals against their interests or their nationals by the Iranian government.

In any country, the law, upheld by a strong impartial court system is the basis of human rights protection. After six years of discussion, a law reorganizing the court system passed the parliament in August. It is envisaged that this system will be implemented gradually within a five-year period. In places where the new General Courts (Dadgahayeh Aam) are established, existing structures of revolutionary courts, penal courts, and other courts will be dissolved. However, in places where the new system is not implemented, the old systems still pertain. This means that different parts of the country will have widely varying court structures; defendants accused of the same crimes will not necessarily be tried before the same type of court or enjoy the same procedural safeguards.

For example, the new law provides for the abrogation of the function of the prosecutor. In the new General Courts, the judge acts as both investigator and judge. Among the major objectives of this new law is to expedite the legal process. This means that the two-phase study of a case, first by an investigating magistrate and then by a trial judge, will be reduced to a single phase. This will shorten the time needed for cases to pass through the system at the expense of the rights of the defendant. A right of appeal to a higher court is not clearly established in the law, and in some cases it is explicitly ruled out, further contravening international fair trial standards to which Iran is a party. In support of the new law Ayatollah Yazdi, the Head of the Judiciary, asserted that giving powers of investigation to the judge is more consistent with Islamic Law.

Another special characteristic of the new law is that power over the judiciary, and the appointment of judges in particular, is concentrated in the hands of the Head of the Judiciary. No reference is made in the law to regulations governing the qualifications required by those serving as judges, thus opening the door for unqualified but compliant judges to be appointed at the discretion of the Head of the Judiciary. The concentration of such wide powers in the hands of one man works against the independence of the judiciary, and to the detriment of the rule of law.

Despite continuing efforts by the Head of the Judiciary to promote judicial reform, the workings of the judicial system continued to be capricious. Basic fair trial safeguards have long been absent, particularly in political trials, which take place before revolutionary courts. Defendants in such trials have no access to legal counsel and are held in indefinite incommunicado pre-trial detention.

In an incident that highlighted the contradictions at the heart of the task of judicial reform in a theocracy, Ayatollah Yazdi traveled to the province of Khuzestan, in May, to negotiate with local tribal leaders and government officials "to put an end to practices contrary to religious and civil law." Ayatollah Yazdi in particular drew attention to the practice of fathers who murder their own daughters but go unpunished because, under Islamic Law, they "own the blood." Ayatollah Yazdi condemned "honor crimes"_crimes committed on the pretext of defending family honor_saying, "although the Lord of the Universe has given the right to the owner of blood, he has also given the right to the government."

Incidents of corporal punishments which violate international human rights standards were also reported. According to the daily newspaper Abrar, in Gilan province seven thieves were punished in one day by amputation of the four fingers of their right hands in accordance with the penal code. Human Rights Watch/Middle East received reports of two cases of women stoned to death for adultery, one in Evin Prison, Tehran in February, the other in Qom in March. In May an American woman was given eighty lashes in public for alleged "prostitution."

If the Head of the Judiciary was able to reassess traditional interpretations of Islamic Law in Khuzestan, he could have acted to prevent such abusive punishments. President Rafsanjani has been quoted on a number of occasions in the international press expressing his disapproval of such practices, and in September, he told Le Figaro, evidently in error, that the punishment of stoning no longer took place in the Islamic Republic. If the government asserts that it has a right to legislate against practices which some defend as condoned by Islamic law, such as honor crimes, then its arguments that Islam is an immutable system preventing compliance with international norms lose consistency.

The Right to Monitor

Iran remained hostile to both internal and external human rights monitors. No independent international human rights organization was given access to the country during the course of the year, and would-be Iranian monitors faced severe problems. Opposition political activity is also severely curtailed. The Freedom Movement headed by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan applied for a permit as political party more than ten years ago, and still is waiting for an official response from the government. Other parties have also met with no success in achieving registration. Similarly, the Association of Writers has been unable to reopen despite public requests from leading writers. The Bar Association, was taken over by the government in 1980. Lawyers have been seeking for many years to elect a new leadership, but the government has not permitted free elections to be held.

Although parliamentary deputy Said Rajaie Khorassani was able to establish a Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, its activities have yet to show any signs of independent monitoring of, or comment on, the human rights situation.

Criticism of the government did emerge from inside Iran. For example, in May, Darioush Forouhar, the leader of the National Party of Iran, and a former minister in the Bazargan Cabinet, criticized the government and asked for democratic reform, a call that was echoed in September by prominent retired general, Azizollah Amir Rahimi. In October a group of 134 renowned writers and poets wrote an open letter to the government criticizing "anti-democratic practices" such as restrictions on freedom of expression, and harassment and persecution of writers.

The Role of the International Community

U.S. Policy

Although U.S. officials made reference to Iran's poor human rights record with some frequency, and described it as "the world's most significant state sponsor of terrorism", bilateral trade between Iran and the United States continued to grow. U.S. law forbids the direct import of Iranian exports, including oil. However. as U.S. oil companies purchased Iranian crude oil on the international market, the volume of U.S.-Iran trade in 1994 reached $5 billion. The U.S. became Iran's chief trade partner. The Clinton administration consolidated its policy of "Dual Containment"_seeking to isolate the political influence in the region of the Baghdad and Tehran regimes. For example, President Clinton said in August, "The two key obstacles of [peace] are Iraq and Iran and the radical groups they continue to support."

Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in May, "Iran is an outlaw country, and deserves to be treated with containment and isolation." But this isolation did not extend to trade, where Christopher said the U.S. "cannot expect to end trade with them." In August Christopher blamed Iran for bombings in Argentina and London. He used the occasion to pressure Russia to hold back arms sales, and he was critical of other states that maintained close trade and financial ties with Iran.

The U.S. pressure on its allies to limit ties with Iran could be seen at the World Bank. This year, there was no World Bank loan to Iran, largely due to U.S. pressure. At the G-7 meeting in July, Russia, France and Germany joined the U.S. in condemning Iran as a "sponsor of international terrorism." These nations are four out of Iran's top five trading partners.

The European Community

European governments were more conciliatory in their statements and actions towards the Iranian government. For example, the Swiss authorities requested the extradition of the two suspects wanted in connection with the 1990 assassination, near Geneva, of prominent opposition leader, Kazem Rajavi, but in January the French government returned the suspects to Iran.

President Francois Mitterand of France met in Paris with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmoud Vaezi in June, his first meeting with an Iranian official since the assassination in Paris of former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar. In a move out of step with U.S. efforts to curb Iranian access to credit, France, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands began to reschedule Iran's short and medium term debts. There was continuing tension in the Iran-British relationship, partly because of the Rushdie affair. The British government formally complained to the Iranian government, who it also alleged had sought to hire the Irish Republican Army to carry out contract killings against targeted opposition figures in Europe.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East

Human Rights Watch/Middle East played a leading role in reporting on the suspicious deaths of Evangelical Christian leaders. In February, it made the first of a series of requests to send observers to attend the trial of those accused of carrying out these killings, and to be kept informed of the progress of the investigations. No reply was received.

Human Rights Watch/Middle East protested on a number of occasions the imprisonment of Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani and sought information about his case, including the circumstances leading to his confession, and his access to legal counsel. At the end of the year Human Rights Watch/Middle East was seeking information about his current whereabouts. We received no reply.

At the invitation of the General Prosecutor, international journalists visited Tehran's Evin prison in April. Human Rights Watch/Middle East welcomed the access granted to the international press and sought permission to send a delegation to carry out a study of Iran's prison system. No reply was received.

Human Rights Watch/Middle East monitored the situation of Iranian refugees in Turkey, making a number of interventions to the Turkish government on behalf of refugees threatened with deportation. In March Human Rights Watch/Middle East presented its concerns about refugee protection in Turkey to UNHCR officials in Geneva.

Following press reports of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners by the Iranian opposition group PMOI, and the receipt of complaints from former PMOI members, in October Human Rights Watch/Middle East wrote to their leader in Iraq, requesting access to detention facilities within PMOI bases in Iraq.

Throughout the year Human Rights Watch/Middle East maintained contact with a broad range of activists, scholars, and concerned individuals inside and outside Iran. It participated in conferences on human rights issues, and gave interviews to the U.S. and international press on these and other human rights issues.