The world powers’ negotiation with Tehran over its nuclear military work has overshadowed the Islamic Republic’s deteriorating human rights situation and outbreaks of social protest. Just last week, Iranian men and women posted pictures on social media of themselves with shaved heads to promote solidarity with beaten political prisoners in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Prison authorities conducted, according to Iranian diaspora and reform websites in the country, a massive assault on Evin’s Ward 350 – the section used to incarcerate political dissidents.
”More than 30 prisoners were injured and at least four inmates were taken to a hospital outside the jail because they were bleeding or sustained fractures,” according to the Iranian website Kaleme.
In response to the violence, Iranians launched a shaved head protest. “Activists both inside and outside the country are posting their photos on a Facebook page titled ‘With the Political Prisoners of Evin’s Section 350,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on Wednesday.
Prompting the creative action was a photograph of human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani that showed him last week with a shaved head. He was held in Ward 350 and reported to have been a victim of the assault.
The protesters are using the Persian hashtag “sarfaraz,” or “proud,” to spread their campaign, noted Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that a “rare public protest” took place with roughly 150 people in front of President Hassan Rouhani’s office.
“Why are you sitting and doing nothing?” the demonstrators demanded to know.
The prison brutality appears to be a great source of embarrassment to Iran’s regime. Gholam Hossein Esmaili, who oversaw the country’s prison network and flatly rejected the brutality allegations, was promoted on Wednesday to run Tehran Province’s courts. Iran said his promotion was long planned. It is yet another bizarre manifestation of a legal and prison system that promotes an official engulfed in a human rights scandal. Iran’s opaque legal system has faced longstanding criticism, to put it mildly, for its woefully inadequate due process guarantees.
Exposes of Iran’s human rights violations remain an Achilles’ heel for Rouhani. After all, he promised greater openness and his regime reacts in a hypersensitive way to criticism. Take the example of the European Parliament’s resolution in late March urging Iran’s leaders to improve its human rights situation
The resolution noted that “the situation of women in Iran remains marred by unacceptable discrimination, in particular on legal matters, as well as with regard to family law and women’s participation in economic and political life.”
And in the atypically blunt resolution, the EU parliament expressed “alarm with regard to the high number of executions in 2013 and 2014, including of minors; notes that most of the 2013 executions were carried out during the last five months of the year; condemns the restrictions on freedom of information, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, academic freedom, freedom of education and freedom of movement, as well as the repression and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation that persist, inter alia, against the Baha’i community, Christians, apostates and converts.”
Predictably, Tehran rejected the legitimacy of the EU’s criticism as interference in its internal affairs. The head of Iran’s Basij militia force, Brig.-Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, said, “The European Union is a good example of the Koran verse that says they’re worse than quadrupeds,” and added, “Homosexuals [in Europe] have intercourse like animals. They have a surge in drug production, which they sell to their young people at a cheap price. Then in their resolution they say: ‘You don’t have the right to execute drug dealers, and release the homosexuals.’”
In this complex stew of protests against prison brutality and rejection of universal human rights, the regime last week abolished subsidies for petroleum. When Iran last slashed subsidies in 2007, there were demonstrations against the price increases.
With 25 percent of the Islamic Republic’s population unemployed or underemployed, the ingredients are present for mushrooming social unrest.
Taken together, the lack of legal venues for Iranians to address their injustices and the fragile economy might, just might, create a mass movement that mirrors the 2009 Green Revolution calling for greater democracy.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.