HRW: Iranian activists seeking refuge abroad

Human Rights Watch reveals stream of journalists, bloggers and lawyers seeking asylum abroad after 2009 government crackdown.

Iranian 2009 protests 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer .)
Iranian 2009 protests 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer .)
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.
The 62-page 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 fraudulent results.
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 2011.
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 solitary confinement.
Bolouri told HRW that he was held in a tiny solitary cell in Ward 240, measuring just two and a half by one meters.
“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.
So-called “family punishments” such as that described by Bolouri are a common practice in Iran.
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 detention facilities.
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.
Officials accused Roorast, his brother, sister and aunt of working with banned Kurdish opposition groups, including the PJAK, a militant Kurdish nationalist group based in Iraq.
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 told HRW.
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 cyber-warfare.
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 “illegal protests.”
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 health services.
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 refugees.