2023: A Year of Challenges and Unprecedented Opportunities
December 29, 2023
As 2023 comes to a close, we are grateful to the supporters who have made our work possible
2023: A Year of Challenges and Unprecedented Opportunities
Nobel Peace Prize awarded to human rights activist Narges Mohammadi. Oslo, December 10, 2023 (photo The Nation)
As 2023 comes to a close and we reflect on the opportunities and challenges we faced in advocating for human rights and democracy in Iran, and plan for the future, we are grateful to the supporters who have made our work possible. The 2022 Woman, Life, Freedom protests captured international attention and shed light on the fact that Iranians, in significant numbers and from diverse backgrounds, reject the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. The state’s response to this existential challenge was disproportionate and lethal. The persecution of protesters and victims’ families, lawyers, activists, journalists, artists, and teachers, among others – which continued throughout 2023 – instilled a climate of fear that silenced many, though not all. For those of us outside the country, the path forward is to continue our human rights documentation work, despite setbacks, so that the Islamic Republic’s leaders can be held accountable and stopped, so that we echo the victims’ voices and prevent the state’s disinformation machine, regional conflicts, and political expediency from burying the truth.
Documenting the Islamic Republic’s violent response to protests in the current repressive context has been a challenge for human rights groups, including Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC). Getting first-hand victims’ and survivors’ testimonies, fact-checking, identifying perpetrators, and understanding the patterns of state repression are difficult and time-consuming tasks. Another challenge we face is to carry on despite the pain, the trauma, and sometimes the feeling of helplessness that comes along with documenting the Islamic Republic's unending brutality and cruelty. “By risking their lives and livelihood, Iranian citizens have built a new narrative that shed light on their reality and drew the world’s attention to their plight. We owe it to them to carry on to tell their stories, remind Iran’s leaders that their victims will not be forgotten, and fight for a better future,” said Roya Boroumand, ABC’s Executive Director.
Our sources spoke about the absurd violence they experienced when arrested by the morality patrols, the use of live ammunition against their loved ones, often directed at the head and chest or shot at their backs; they told us about their families’ hardships, fears, and their children’s nightmares. Survivors told us about security forces using shotguns, deliberately aiming pellets and paintballs at their faces, blinding them and hundreds of others, and persecuting them for posting photos of their injuries on social media. They told us of having avoided hospitals where injured protesters were arrested or being turned away by hospitals that were told not to treat protesters. Some sources told us of targeted killings of individuals who had been identified for their protest activities, while others reported humiliation and torture, sexual abuse, and death threats.
The stories we collect from cities, small towns and villages across the country shed light on a desperate state confronted with an existential threat coming from its own citizens, who have lost patience and are immune to the propaganda and lies. For all this often harrowing, labor-intensive documentation work and the flow of bad news regarding the persecution of protesters and their families, there are also some hopeful developments. Many Iranian women and girls continue to defy the mandatory veil law, some death sentences have been overturned, and thousands of detainees have been released. International support and visibility given to protesters were key to these developments. The international community has also taken important steps toward accountability for the grave and ongoing human rights violations, while simultaneously giving recognition to Iranians’ fight for their rights.
Throughout the year, the UN’s Fact-Finding mission on Iran, voted through a Human Rights Council Resolution on November 24, 2022, has worked in this complex and difficult environment to compile information and assemble a comprehensive picture of the protest crackdowns and their context: its report is due in March 2024. On December 19, 2022, Swedishappeals court’s upholding of a life sentence for Hamid Nouri, involved in the secret 1988 mass killing of political prisoners, sent a promising signal that the Islamic Republic’s worst human rights offenders may face justice abroad.
President Macron meets with Iranian women- Paris November 14, 2022 (photo RFI)
The European Parliament 2023 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought award ceremony with the presence of Jina Mahsa Amini's lawyer. December 12, 2023
ABC’s work in 2023 was not limited to recent events. Over the past year, ABC has continued to document and memorialize human rights violations, and conduct advocacy efforts at all levels.
Thanks to the efforts of ABC’s team, the Omid Memorial’s expansion continues, with more than 220 new cases of victims of state violence added to the memorial that now totals over 26,300 cases. These cases include individuals executed for drug offenses, murder, and religious and political offenses as well as the victims of extra-judicial executions and arbitrary shootings in the framework of protests. As of December 27, 2023, ABC had recorded 774 executions for 2023. The Omid Memorial remains a platform for telling the stories of individuals; understanding the violence Iranians face and the context in which their right to life and due process is violated. Omid’s profiles are not only a public recognition of the harms done to thousands of victims and a step in the healing process of their families, evidence that paves the way for future prosecutions, but they are also important pieces of Iran’s contemporary history. These are just a few examples of the cases added this year:
Taha Kermanj, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran – Revolutionary Leadership, was the target of an extrajudicial killing on January 4, 1994 while he was living in exile in Turkey. Due to his active role in the party and his work countering spy networks, Kermanj had previously been the target of a number of unsuccessful assassination attempts prior to his death.
Dr. Manuchehr Hakim, a well-respected doctor, a renowned researcher, a founding member and manager of the Missaghieh Hospital in Tehran, and prominent member of the Baha’i community was assassinated on January 12, 1981 in his private practice. According to friends, Dr. Hakim had been the target of interrogations, threats, and had his passport confiscated in the months and days leading up to his assassination. The (at that time) newly created Disinherited Foundation (Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan) – now the second-largest commercial enterprise in Iran, run by the Supreme Leader, and instrumental in the mass confiscations of property, including Baha'i property and hospitals following the 1979 revolution – confiscated the Missaghieh Hospital. An Islamic Revolutionary Central Branch One issued a court order dated April 28th, 1980 demanding the surrender of all recorded assets for the benefit of Bonyad-e Shahid (Martyrs Foundation) and named the founders of the Missaghieh hospital, “followers of the perverse Baha’i sect.” Dr. Hakim previously served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran.
Minu Majidi was arbitrarily killed by security forces in Kermanshah on the night of September 20, 2022, while participating in the protests following Mahsa Amini’s death. A photo of her daughter, Roya Pirai, went viral on social media after she posted a photo of herself at her mother’s grave with a shaved head and her cut off hair in her hands, in protest of what had happened to her mother.
Mohammad Mehdi Karami was executed on January 7, 2023, after being tried on the charge of Moharebeh (“waging war against God”) for his alleged participation in the killing of a member of the Basij militia, and destruction of public and private property. The 22-year-old had been attending the 40th day ceremony of one of the individuals killed during the Mahsa Amini protests. Following his arrest, Karami was subjected to torture, denied representation from the attorney he had selected, and faced a hasty trial lacking thorough investigation. His family was deprived of a final visitation before his execution.
Khaleq Khezrzadeh was executed on January 9, 2023 on charges related to “corruption on earth through drug trafficking.” Khezrzadeh, who had begun working as a border courier during the Covid-19 pandemic, was arrested after agents discovered 6.2 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine in his vehicle. The validity of the charges cannot be determined without the basic guarantees of a fair trial. He was found guilty on the charges and sentenced to be executed, though the court proposed a reduction in sentence. The reduction was denied on appeal, and despite last minute guarantees to him and his family of a stay of execution, Khezrzadeh was executed approximately two and a half years after his initial arrest.
The ABC team also worked to document cases of flogging in the Islamic Republic: in 2023 we collected data on 186 cases of flogging sentences, and reports of 9 cases in which the flogging punishment was implemented. There is no official data on flogging sentences and their implementation and the true number of such rulings is estimated to be much higher. These are just a few examples of those cases:
On June 25, 2023, Christian convert Zaman Feda’iwas given 80 lashes at the Branch One Criminal Sentence Implementation of the Evin Prosecutor’s Office for “delay in returning to prison.”
On April 3, 2023, two young men charged with consuming alcohol and recording and circulating a video of the act during the Ramadan period were given 80 lashes. The flogging was done in public at the alleged location of the crime, “Gohar Park” in Sirjan.
On February 2, 2023, a Baluch prisoner charged with theft was publicly flogged in the presence of military and judicial officials in Delga, Sistan, and Baluchistan Province.
In 2023, ABC published two new reports. The first,“Proven With(out) Certainty: How Judges Sentence Defendants to Death for Drug Offences in Iran,”details the sudden rise in executions for drug offenses during the 2021-2023 period. Done in collaboration with Eleos Justice at Monash University, the report provides insight into the application of capital drug laws. Using documented cases and analyses of judgements – arbitrary and inadequate in providing evidence and legal arguments – the report demonstrates how the criminal justice system in the Islamic Republic of Iran violates international standards and enables a deadly miscarriage of justice.
ABC also published a report entitled, “After a Bloody May, the World Must Challenge Iran’s Escalating War on Dissent.”This report, published nine months after Mahsa Amini’s death sparked a massive wave of protests, examines the crackdown following the protests, narrowing in on the 135 executions during the month of May. ABC has documented the inconsistencies of the legal system, the lack of due process, and the dire consequences Iranians face for pursuing accountability and justice, or simply for expressing their opinions.
The following blasphemy case from that report offers an example of how ordinary Iranians face extreme consequences from the Islamic Republic:
On May 8, 2023, Iran executed Yusef Mehrdad, a farmer from Ardebil and father of three, and Sadrollah Fazeli Zareh, a Yasouj native working as a cabinet maker and caretaker for his elderly mother. The two were executed for blasphemy after being arrested for their work managing social media channels that criticized and satirized religion. Official reports do not include the nature of the social media content it deemed criminal, as the Supreme Court wanted to preserve the “taboo” nature of the content. The two victims were repeatedly denied access to lawyers, and their trials failed to meet international standards.
ABC’s international advocacy efforts have been a critical portion of our work throughout 2023. In February, ABC’s founders were the focus of a segment on Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien discussing the importance of ABC’s work documenting the stories of victims and calling attention to the crisis around right to life in Iran. In August our executive director participated in a podcastpublished by the US based Death Penalty Information Center, looking at capital punishment in Iran, the revolutionary courts, universal jurisdiction, and the role of the international community in affecting the problem . This was in addition to a number of other press interviews with our executive director, on platforms including the BBC, VOA, and more.
ABC's Executive Director at the Human Rights Council. Geneva-July 2023 (photo Iran Wire)
Alongside advocacy in the media, we have worked diligently to advocate through international mechanisms. The formation of the Fact-Finding Mission on Iran (FFMI) by the Human Rights Council, created to investigate the recent protests and their after effects, has provided a critical opening for ABC to contribute to international investigation and accountability. Throughout this year, ABC – alongside other organizations such as Impact Iran – has engaged with the FFMI to provide background, analysis, and documentation related to protests and retaliation against protesters. In collaboration with Impact Iran and Article 19, on July 5th ABC’s Executive Director delivered a joint statementfor the Human Rights Council’s interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Iran. ABC’s Executive Director and researchers also collaborated with Physicians For Human Rights to produce a letter published in The Lancet on October 21, analyzing protesters’ eye injuries and blinding as a result of violent repression. Also in October, ABC's Executive Director attended the 139th session of the Human Rights Committee (CCPR) in Geneva for its Iran country review. To follow-up on ABC's earlier submission to the Committee and suggest recommendations, she participated in its formal and informal briefings with civil society groups and made a statement during the Committee's interactive dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran.