A year after Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration as Iran’s president, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated for many human rights defenders and especially for Baha’is and Christian converts as a result of what some experts describe as a hard-line counteroffensive against the pro-Rouhani pragmatist/Reformist camp.
Rouhani has devoted most of his efforts during his first year in office to trying to resolve the nuclear crisis in hopes of gaining sanctions relief and boosting Iran’s anemic economy. But the cleric also promised to increase civil liberties in Iran — a promise that he has had difficulty fulfilling.
While the overall atmosphere has improved somewhat for ordinary Iranians, “human rights violations are widespread and very serious,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told a July 28 briefing on Capitol Hill. “Hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars” including prominent human rights defenders such as lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani. Just last week, Ghaemi noted, Iran detained several Iranian-American journalists including Jason Rezaian, the Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post. Ghaemi said that there is still “no record of their detention” by the judiciary, a sign that intelligence authorities may be interrogating them and trying to build a case against them.
Hopes were raised after Rouhani’s inauguration that Iranian activists would face less repression than they had under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A number of prominent Iranian political prisoners were released before the UN General Assembly last September for his presidential debut on the world stage. Media freedom also expanded initially and the atmosphere on university campuses lightened up with the removal of incompetent hard-liners installed by Ahmadinejad. Iranian women are becoming more and more liberal in their interpretation of Islamic dress. But there have been new arrests of civil society activists and censorship and Internet filtering continue. Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrest for their refusal to apologize for their role in stirring up anti-government protests following fraud-tainted 2009 elections.
Ghaemi told Al-Monitor that hard-liners are “reinforcing the repression … to make sure they do not lose control of domestic politics and major institutions.” They are “terrified of a more open press and increased political and social freedoms, because they fear once they allow any such opening their tight control of domestic affairs will quickly unravel and they will be challenged on many fronts, forcing accountability for their actions since the disputed 2009 election.”
Ghaemi added that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was backing the repression as part of an effort to calibrate “the degree and extent of rapprochement with the West” in the event that Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) succeed in concluding a long-term nuclear deal.
Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars — herself a former political prisoner in Iran — told Al-Monitor that Rezaian, his wife and two others had been arrested “to embarrass and humiliate Rouhani,” who has made a major effort to improve Iran’s image among Iranian dual nationals.
“We know that Rouhani can’t control the intelligence institutions and the judiciary,” Esfandiari added. “I’m sure he wishes he could do more.”
The July 28 hearing coincided with release of the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2013. According to the report, the Iranian government's “rhetoric and actions created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for Baha’is, as well as for Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, and Shia groups not sharing the government’s official religious views.”
Anthony Vance, director of public affairs for the Baha’is of the United States, told the Capitol Hill briefing that Baha’is — who have suffered intermittent persecution since the religion was founded in the 19th century — were “guardedly optimistic” about Rouhani after last year’s election. But Vance said that the number of Baha’is in prison has increased from 115 to at least 136 and Baha’is continue to face discrimination in education and employment. Although Rouhani has introduced a so-called Charter of Citizens Rights for public discussion, it offers no improvement for Baha’is, Vance said, because it is “couched in terms of the constitution or Iranian law” which do not regard his faith as legitimate.
Iran’s government also continues to persecute Sufi and Sunni Muslims as well as Shiite clerics who oppose the notion of velayet-e faquih, or rule by a senior Shiite jurisprudent, according to Dwight Bashir, deputy director of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The legal system is particularly harsh when it comes to Christian converts, Bashir and other experts told the Congressional briefing. While the regime no longer charges them with apostasy, which is a capital crime, it often accuses them of undermining national security and other vague but serious offenses, said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice.
Barrans told the briefing that Iranian authorities try to limit the practice of Christianity to ethnic Christians among native Armenians and Assyrians by blocking Christian churches from offering services in Farsi. At the same time, Farsi-speaking Christians who hold prayer services in private homes are subject to arrest and prosecution, she said. She pointed to the case of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American convert to Christianity who's serving an eight-year prison sentence because he held such meetings in private homes from 2000 to 2005. Abedini was arrested two years ago when he returned to Iran to finalize work on a nonsectarian orphanage he was helping to build outside the city of Rasht, Barrans said. “He was not there as a missionary but someone who wanted to care for the people of Iran.”
Rates of capital punishment in Iran also remain high, with 687 executions carried out in 2013, according to Ahmad Shaheed, the UN’s special rapporteur for Iran Human Rights. One interesting development has been a movement within Iran in which relatives of murder victims have chosen to accept financial compensation from convicted perpetrators and spared them from the death penalty. According to Iranian Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, 358 condemned Iranians were spared from March 2013 to March 2014.
Ghaemi told Al-Monitor that the "wave of forgiveness" in death penalty cases is “a byproduct of civil society campaigns in raising awareness and promoting a culture of anti-death penalty over the years. As long as it is impossible to advocate for legislative and structural changes in Iran's death penalty practices, it is the best window of opportunity in saving lives from executions and countering a culture of violence sanctioned by the state through large number of executions, many of them carried out in public.”
Despite Iran’s disappointing human rights record, Ghaemi and rights activists say the issue should not be used as an excuse to oppose a long-term nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1.
According to a survey of leading civil society figures inside Iran — including many who Ghaemi said were themselves victims of egregious human rights violations — “Iranian civil society strongly supports the P5+1 negotiations.”