Testing Hassan Rouhani’s commitment to human rights

An inventory of serious human rights abuses in Iran, and a corresponding set of queries that will serve as a litmus test for the authenticity of Rouhani’s commitment to justice and human rights for the Iranian people.

Iranian President Rouhani at the UN 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
Iranian President Rouhani at the UN 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)
The latest round of negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program resume in Geneva against the backdrop of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive” and raised expectations of a prospective agreement. Indeed, one US official went so far as to claim enthusiastically that he had “never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before.”
However, while negotiations will clearly focus on Iran’s nuclear program – and on economic sanctions that may be relaxed in exchange for Iranian concessions on the nuclear front – the United States and its allies must ensure that nuclear negotiations do not overshadow – let alone sanitize – the massive domestic repression in Iran.
Indeed, when the US negotiated an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1975, it did not turn a blind eye to the USSR’s human rights abuses; instead, the Helsinki Final Act linked the security, economics, and human rights “baskets,” with human rights emerging as the most transformative of the three. Negotiations with Iran should replicate this approach.
What follows is an inventory of serious human rights abuses in Iran, and a corresponding set of queries that will serve as a litmus test for the authenticity of Rouhani’s commitment to justice and human rights for the Iranian people.
1. Executions
Prior to Rouhani’s rise to power, Iran had the highest per capita execution rate in the world. Yet, under the new “moderate” President, the rate of executions has actually increased, with some 100 Iranians executed in the first month after Rouhani’s election, 30 executed during the week of his “charm offensive” at the United Nations – a fact that was largely ignored – and a recent wave of executions that, shockingly enough, has seen more than 45 prisoners executed since October 26. Moreover, many prisoners are killed by the regime in secret, such that the true number of executions is almost certainly higher.
Query: Will Rouhani declare a moratorium on executions?
2. Torture
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed – with whom I met recently – has documented the horrific treatment that Iranian prisoners endure.
Shaheed has found that physical torture, including beating, whipping, and assault, occurs in 100% of cases; sexual torture, including rape, molestation, and violence to genitals, occurs in 60% of cases; and psychological and environmental torture, such as solitary confinement, are also “highly prevalent.”
Query: Will Rouhani put an end to the widespread use of torture by Iranian officials?
3. Political prisoners
According to reports, there are hundreds of political prisoners currently detained in Iran. Among them are the leadership of ethnic and religious minorities, human rights defenders, students, journalists, bloggers, artists, trade unionists, members of the political opposition and various other leaders of Iranian civil society. As Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi put it, “Nearly all of the opposition activists in prison before Rouhani was elected are still in prison.” In the leadup to Rouhani’s appearance at the UN, nearly 100 political prisoners were freed, including iconic human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. However, while their release is a welcome development, it is not enough to free individual prisoners; the system that criminalizes innocence must be reformed, and those that prosecute and persecute the innocent must be held to account. It is therefore outrageous that Rouhani’s appointee as Justice Minister is Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a man implicated in a litany of major human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners. Indeed, the families of these victims – with whom I recently met – were stunned not only by his appointment, but by the international silence with which it was received.
Query: Will Rouhani release the remaining political prisoners, and will he stop detaining new ones?
4. Persecution of the Baha’i
International observers have repeatedly recognized the systematic and widespread persecution of Iran’s Baha’i religious minority. Earlier this year, UNESCO found that the Baha’i “face widespread and entrenched discrimination, including denial of access to employment in the public sector, institutions of higher education, as well as to benefits of the pension system.” Indeed, the Baha’i are routinely imprisoned for practicing their faith, and seven Baha’i leaders recently began their sixth year of a twenty-year sentence, which for some amounts to a death sentence, given their advanced age. Moreover, despite President Rouhani’s rhetorical overtures for greater tolerance, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini issued a fatwa last month calling on Iranians to avoid any interactions with members of the Baha’i faith, whom he described as “deviant and misleading”.
Query: Will Rouhani end the persecution of the Baha’i? Will he accept them as full members of Iranian society and allow them to openly practice their faith?
5. Persecution of other religious and ethnic minorities
The Iranian state incites hatred and violence against many minorities, violating their political, social, religious, economic, cultural, linguistic and educational rights. Among other abuses, minority schools and houses of worship have been closed or destroyed, restrictions have been imposed on both the public and private use of minority languages, and members of minority groups – such as the Baloch, Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, and Christians – have been imprisoned on spurious charges such as “spreading corruption on earth.”
The Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini – sentenced on trumped-up charges to eight years in jail – has just been transferred to a more dangerous prison where he faces life-threatening conditions.
Query:Will Rouhani end the oppression of minorities?
6. Persecution of women
While Rouhani has spoken eloquently of gender equality – and Article 20 of the Iranian constitution purports to protect it – women face widespread and systematic discrimination in education, employment, state benefits, family relations and access to justice.
The Iranian civil code compels women to obey their husbands, married women may not leave the country without their husbands’ consent, and there is a dearth of women in decision-making roles.
Query:Will Rouhani follow through on his promise to improve women’s rights, ensure gender equality, and establish Iran’s first Ministry of Women?
7. Persecution of lesbian and gay people
Iranian law criminalizes samesex relations and allows the courts wide discretion in determining sentences, which can include corporal and capital punishment. As Dr. Shaheed has reported, many LGBT Iranians are victims of discrimination and violence, but do not report their victimization to the authorities out of fear that they will themselves be charged with a criminal offence.
Query: Will Rouhani decriminalize same-sex relations and end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity?
8. The Persecution of Journalists and the Assault on Free Speech
Iran continues to be one of the countries with the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, regularly arresting journalists and bloggers, and imprisoning them without charge or trial. When charges are laid, they may include such absurd accusations as “propagating against the system” or “insulting the President.” In addition, many journalists report that the regime intimidates and harasses their families in an effort to pressure them into discontinuing their work. The lead-up to last June’s election was marked by the monitoring and censoring of internet activity, the blocking of access to opposition websites and e-mail accounts, and a roundup of members of the press. The most recent manifestation of the pressure borne by Iranian journalists was this week’s closure of the Bahar newspaper.
Query: Will President Rouhani stop detaining journalists and permit free expression and freedom of the press, including criticism of his regime?
9. Assault on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary
There is a complete absence of judicial independence and rule of law in Iran. Indeed, the entire legal system is designed to enable and enforce the regime’s massive human rights violations.
Lawyers who have represented prisoners of conscience have had their licenses revoked and have often become political prisoners themselves; nine major government ministries responsible for the rule of law and the administration of justice have become sanctuaries for the human rights violators themselves; and Dr. Shaheed estimates that some 40 lawyers have been detained since 2009. Any hopes that matters would improve under Rouhani appear to have been confounded by the appointment of Pour-Mohammadi as Justice Minister, as well as Elham Aminzadeh – a long-time apologist for Iran’s human rights record – as Vice President for Legal Affairs.
Query: Will Rouhani ensure respect for the rule of law, accountability for the nine ministries, and the independence of the Iranian justice system? Will he release any lawyers still detained? And will he allow lawyers – including Nasrin Sotoudeh – to champion the cases and causes they choose?
10. Denial of political rights
Last June, Rouhani defeated five other candidates to win the Iranian presidency; however, 680 potential candidates were barred from the ballot, including all of the women who tried to run. According to the Iranian constitution, the president must be a man who believes in “the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and official religion of the country.” Moreover, in advance of the election, the regime sought to intimidate opposition leaders and activists with arrests and a crackdown on political expression, such that the election cannot be claimed to be free or fair, even if the most “moderate” candidate was elected.
Query: Will Rouhani honour his promise to hold elections that are truly free and fair?
11. Incitement to genocide
In September, days before speaking at the UN, Rouhani addressed a parade in Tehran that included a display of Shahab-3 missiles, featuring messages such as “Death to the USA” and “Israel should cease to exist.”
While Rouhani’s rhetoric for international consumption is admittedly less inflammatory than that of his predecessor, the Supreme Leader’s annihilationist incitement remains, and Rouhani is implicated in it.
Query:Will Rouhani cease and desist from this state-sanctioned culture of hate, explicitly and implicitly, at home and abroad? 1
12. A culture of impunity
Dr. Shaheed has found that “a lack of Government investigation and redress generally fosters a culture of impunity” in Iran. The nomination of Pour-Mohammadi is a revealing and indeed scandalous example of the continuation of that culture under Rouhani, as is that of Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, who has ties to Hezbollah and has been implicated in the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut. Moreover, several members of the new cabinet – including Rouhani himself – have spent time at Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which suppresses dissent, spies on Iranian expatriates abroad, supports Hezbollah, and carries out kidnappings and extrajudicial executions.
Query: Will Rouhani end the culture of impunity of Iran? In particular, will Rouhani remove Pour-Mohammadi from office and ensure that he is held accountable for his crimes?
In the end, the fact that Rouhani’s rhetoric is less incendiary than that of his predecessor is welcome, but it should not in itself be cause for complacency, let alone celebration. Neither should any openness – or perceived openness – on the nuclear file overshadow Iran’s continuing violations of human rights. Rouhani’s deeds – not his words – will be the test of his commitment to a free Iran.
Irwin Cotler is co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and Liberal Vice-Chair of Parliament’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights.