National Security

Activists Call for Greater Scrutiny of Iran Human Rights, Civil Liberties Abuses

Government has ‘continued its crackdown on civil society’

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei / AP

Numerous organizations and activists have called for closer scrutiny and condemnation of Iran’s human rights and civil liberties abuses ahead of the latest round of negotiations on the country’s nuclear program.

As new President Hassan Rowhani garners heightened media coverage for his purported efforts to reach a rapprochement with the West and alleviate crushing economic sanctions, those groups say many of the Iranian government’s abuses against its own people persist.

The Iranian government has "continued its crackdown on civil society" since the disputed 2009 presidential elections, according to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012.

Government officials harassed and threatened opposition groups before the most recent presidential election in June, the report added.

"The most egregious human rights problems were the government’s severe limitations on citizens’ right to peacefully change their government through free and fair elections; restrictions on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; and the government’s disregard for the physical integrity of persons whom it arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and imprisoned," the report stated.

Iran recently announced the release of 80 political prisoners, including prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and others arrested during protests of the 2009 elections results, just hours before Rowhani traveled to New York for his first speech at the U.N. General Assembly.

However, leading opposition figures and former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi remain under house arrest.

Freedom House, an organization that advocates for civil liberties, human rights, and democratic change, estimates that about 800 Iranian dissidents remain behind bars as political prisoners. The group rated Iran "Not Free" in its Freedom in the World 2013 report.

"What we’ve seen so far has definitely fallen short of serious reforms and actions," said Patrick Christy, senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative, in an interview. "In some ways it looks like it was just done as a publicity stunt."

Iranian officials have also instituted sweeping measures to curtail online communication and the media.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media sites, which were used extensively by democratic activists to disseminate on-the-ground coverage of the 2009 post-elections crackdown, are blocked.

Iran’s minister of telecommunications and information technology reiterated Monday that the government has no plans to unblock such sites for the general public even though leaders like Rowhani use them. The official later walked back those comments and said the issue is still under review.

Freedom House wrote in its 2013 report that Iran’s 2010 Computer Crimes law "effectively criminalize[s] legitimate online expression" and "legalizes government surveillance of the Internet."

The Committee to Protect Journalists also reported in May that Iran has detained 40 journalists, the second-highest total in the world, in an attempt to "silence independent coverage of public affairs."

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed additional sanctions last year on Iranian individuals and entities that it said were responsible for the widespread reports of human rights violations since 2009.

"These sanctions target those in Iran who restrict or deny the free flow of information to or from the Iranian people and who limit or prohibit the exercise of freedoms of expression or assembly," the department said in a press release.

Still, Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs and the U.S.’s lead negotiator with Iran, recently urged lawmakers to "hold off on imposing additional sanctions on Iran" in advance of the P5+1 talks in Geneva on Oct. 15 and 16.

Christy told the Washington Free Beacon that the United States should seize the opportunity to bring up human rights any time it sits down with Iran.

"It should gain more prominence just because what has happened on the ground in Iran is so unfortunate—whether it’s religious minorities being persecuted or not allowed to practice or journalists arrested or intimidated just because of what they write or report," he said.

Additional concerns have been raised about the Iranian government’s treatment of religious minorities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual 2013 report lists Iran as a tier 1 country of particular concern, meaning that it has engaged in "particularly severe" violations of religious freedom.

Iran, ruled as an Islamic Republic since its 1979 revolution, continues to arrest and execute regime opponents for committing the capital crime of "warring with God."

One religious group that has faced acute persecution is the Baha’i community, Iran’s largest religious minority with about 300,000 members.

Followers of the Baha’i faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, believe that all of the world’s religions are interconnected by a line of divine messengers whom God sent to different peoples at different times. Conservative Shiites view the Baha’is as heretical and have successfully pushed for their imprisonment and, sometimes, execution. Iranian officials have also seized their businesses and banned their children from enrolling at universities.

Reza Aslan and Michael Brooks, both affiliated with the Middle East and interfaith group Aslan Media, wrote in a recent post for the Washington Post that the Baha’i community’s situation "has only worsened in recent years" despite fatwas, or religious rulings, issued by Shiite clerics promoting tolerance of the Baha’is.

"As Iran’s present leadership attempts to make bold moves, both domestically and globally, to normalize Iran’s relations with the world and reform the Islamic Republic within, the foundational rights of the Baha’i community will be the most powerful test of how genuinely committed [Rowhani] is to truly expanding human rights and social openness in Iran," they wrote.

"The world is watching"