Since Iran’s dramatic crackdown on anti-government protesters after the disputed
2009 presidential election, hundreds of Iranian activists have fled harassment
and detention to seek temporary refuge in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, according
to a new report released Friday by Human Rights Watch.
report, “Why they Left: Stories of Iranian Activists in Exile,” documents the
experiences of dozens of rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and human
rights lawyers who say they were targeted by security and intelligence forces
because they criticized the government.
The crackdown was a response to
mass demonstrations after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the
winner of the country’s presidential race on June 12, 2009. Hundreds of
thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they said were
Security forces – including agents from Iran’s feared
Intelligence Ministry and members of the Basij volunteer paramilitary forces –
brutally suppressed the protests, arresting, beating and detaining thousands of
demonstrators. By October 2009, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
had declared questioning the election results a “major crime” and by December
that year several dozen protesters had lost their lives.
HRW say that
while the brutal crackdown is no longer in the news, its affects are still felt
in Iran, where it has “profoundly affected civil society,” according to Joe
Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.
“The images of police beating
protesters mercilessly may have faded from television and computer screens, but
many Iranian activists continue to make the painful choice to abandon homes and
families,” Stork said.
HRW say that since 2009, there has been a
noticeable increase in the number of civil society activists who have applied
for asylum and resettlement to third countries.
The report cites United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics which say Iranians
filed 11,537 new asylum applications to 44 countries in 2009; 15,185 in 2010;
and 18,128 in 2011.
One activist, Shahram Bolouri, a former member of
Tehran-based NGO the Kurdish Society, fled Iran for Iraq in
Bolouri, who took part in the June 2009 post-election protests,
said he witnessed security forces using violence against peaceful protesters. He
later spoke to various media outlets about his experiences and disseminated
photos and videos of the violence.
On June 23, 2009, security and
intelligence agents raided Bolouri’s Tehran home and arrested him. Bolouri was
held for eight months in the Intelligence Ministry-controlled wards 209 and 240
in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. During that time, he spent 45 days in
Bolouri told HRW that he was held in a tiny
solitary cell in Ward 240, measuring just two and a half by one
“It had a toilet and no windows. Prison guards would often
come in and order me to stand, sit, and perform odd tasks just because they
could. One of them once said to me, 'You look like an
athlete. Select your sport. Stand up and sit down for me. One hundred
times, and make sure you count!' He made me do this several times even though I
had a busted leg. I was sweating profusely but they didn’t let me shower. After
two weeks the same guy opened the door to my cell and said, 'Why does it smell
like shit in here?' He ordered me to go take a shower and wash my clothes,”
Bolouri told HRW.
In October 2010, a revolutionary court in Tehran
sentenced Bolouri to four years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion
against the state by participating in protests and communicating with foreign
broadcasts and disseminating news.”
Bolouri appealed, but in June 2011
the judiciary increased his sentence to four years and six months. Facing
increasing pressures, Bolouri lodged a refugee claim with the UNHCR field office
in Iraq in July 2011.
In addition to the mistreatment he received in
prison, Bolouri said that the authorities also subjected his family to intense
financial and psychological pressure, citing the unusually high bail bond of
$200,000 demanded by the authorities for his release that meant his family was
unable to post the money to free him for several weeks.
punishments” such as that described by Bolouri are a common practice in
On Wednesday, Nasrin Sotoudeh, the imprisoned Iranian human rights
lawyer who recently ended her 49-day hunger strike in protest at a travel ban on
her 12-year-old daughter, posted a letter on her husband’s Facebook page saying
that of the 36 women who are serving sentences in the political prisoners’ ward
in Evin Prison, the first-degree relatives of 13 of them are either in prison or
are being prosecuted.
Some of the activists interviewed in HRW’s report
describe how Iranian intelligence authorities also subjected them to torture in
Fayegh Roorast, a Kurdish activist and law student
at Orumiyeh University in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, was arrested in
January 2009, days after Intelligence Ministry agents entered his home in
Mahabad, seized his belongings and arrested his father.
Roorast, his brother, sister and aunt of working with banned Kurdish opposition
groups, including the PJAK, a militant Kurdish nationalist group based in
Roorast told HRW he was taken to an Intelligence Ministry detention
facility in Mahabad, where he was held and interrogated before being transferred
to another facility in Orumiyeh.
In Orumiyeh, Roorast says the
authorities tortured him on many occasions.
“The authorities held me in
solitary confinement for several days. There were three interrogation, or
torture, rooms downstairs. I heard lots of horrible sounds coming from there.
They took me there about 15 or 16 times. The place reeked of urine and
feces. There they subjected me to all types of torture, including hanging
me by my wrists on wall so I’d be forced to stand on my toes, applying electric
shocks to the tips of my toes and fingers, and beating me up. They asked me why
I had kept lists of prisoners’ names and why I’d collected signatures for the
One Million Signatures Campaign [an Iranian women’s rights campaign],” Roorast
In addition to activists and human rights defenders, Iranian
journalists and bloggers have also experienced growing repression in the years
since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power.
According to HRW, since
2005 dozens of journalists and bloggers have left Iran because of increasing
limitations and threats.
According to Reporters Without Borders as of
August 2012 there were at least 44 journalists and bloggers in prison and on
Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Iran the second-worst jailer
of journalists, after Turkey. (Notably, Iran’s state-controlled media ignored
the criticism, headlining on Wednesday with “Turkey is World’s Worst Jailer of
Journalists.”) The HRW report details several cases of attacks on Iranian civil
society, including the notorious “Iran Proxy Affair,” in which the Iranian
authorities arrested 30 members of several human rights groups, accusing them of
participating in a CIA-sponsored plot to attack the Iranian government through
The authorities said that the groups – the Committee of
Human Rights Reporters, the Center for Defense of Human Rights and Human Rights
Activists in Iran, were part of a network named “Iran Proxy” that had, among
other things, supported foreign opposition and terror groups including the
banned Mojahidin-e Khalk (MEK), engaged in “psychological warfare” and conducted
Some of those arrested are still in prison, while
others are on bail or awaiting summonses to serve jail terms. Five others
managed to flee Iran for Turkey.
HRW say that those activists who managed
to flee Iran for Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan now face an uncertain future as
refugees and asylum-seekers.
Many of those interviewed by HRW said they
had experienced difficult conditions and long processing times for their asylum
applications in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to HRW’s report,
Iranian refugees in Turkey have faced restrictions on freedom of movement, tough
residency fees, an inability to acquire work permits, and lack of access to
Those in Iraqi Kurdistan also expressed similar concerns
about restrictions on their movements, and said they have suffered threats and
harassment by Kurdish Regional Government authorities, often because of their
continued political activities.
So far, Ankara has refused requests by
Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in
Iran, to visit the country to meet with and interview Iranian asylum-seekers and