Tehran police chief's recent announcement about the dispatch of 7,000 undercover morality agents has stirred much criticism in Persian-language media and social networks. The backlash is mostly focused on the social costs of the undertaking; namely, the violation of privacy and civil liberties, the possibility for ethical abuse and the creation of distrust among people. There are also concerns about the ambiguities of the project, such as the method of targeting, training and operation of the undercover agents, as well as the legality of their activities.
In his election campaign, President Hassan Rouhani had promised, "I will work with the police in order to make sure that there is real security in society, and I will not allow any unknown or unidentified agent to question people." This pledge is now being doubted, though based on the administration's statements, it appears that concerns and criticisms similar to those raised in the media are also being brought up within the presidency. Rouhani has emphasized, "People's freedom cannot be limited by anything other than the law. Not even the administration or the judiciary can limit people." He has also promised that his administration will "do everything within its executive power" regarding this issue.
Morality patrols, distinguished by their white and green vans — and usually escorted by a police vehicle — first appeared in the streets in 2007. The patrols were part of the Hijab and Chastity Promotion Plan, which then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had submitted to law enforcement services and was subsequently implemented as part of the Plan to Increase Societal Security.
Now, almost a decade later, 7,000 undercover agents have been added to the existing morality patrols. They are tasked with identifying harassment of women, noise pollution, removal of the mandatory headscarf while in a vehicle and street performances. They are then supposed to text message the violator's personal details, including license plate number, to the police's morality division.
Al-Monitor spoke to prominent Iranian lawyer Mohammad Saleh Nikbakht about this development. He said that as far as the Iranian legal system is concerned, the formation of the undercover force comes with a lot of ifs and buts. "Duties assigned to these 7,000 individuals do not fit within the framework of any legal description of the duties of the law enforcement bodies."
According to Nikbakht, articles 28-62 of the Criminal Procedure Code define the entities that are responsible for law enforcement and explain the limits of their authority and duties. "The law enforcer is that in whose care a suspect is entrusted in order to investigate the circumstances of the case after a crime has been committed," Nikbakht said. "However, based on the announcement made by the law enforcement services, these undercover agents are not allowed to even talk to the offenders and can only report incidents to judicial authorities."
Nikbakht told Al-Monitor he does not consider the undercover agents as law enforcers or security officers, "They are simply reporters of possible offenses and activities who report to judicial authorities or the official law enforcement bodies."
According to the Law of the Foundation of Law Enforcement, which was passed in 1990, law enforcement services are under the supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also the commander in chief of the armed forces. Usually, with the formation of each new Cabinet, the supreme leader delegates this authority to the minister of interior and appoints him as his deputy in the Law Enforcement Agency. Mahmoud Rahmani Fazli currently holds this position. This dynamic has become a point of contention between the administration and its critics in the debate over the undercover agents. The question is, can the minister of interior legally interfere in this matter?
According to Nikbakht, in the absence of a clear specification of the law regarding the formation of these undercover patrols, and considering that the Ministry of Interior is in charge of supervising the organizational activities and the funding process of the law enforcement service, Fazli can "restrain" these undercover agents until the relevant laws have been passed.
Another ambiguity surrounding the matter is the necessary coordination between the police and the judiciary. It is the duty of the Tehran prosecutor's office to issue provisions for these agents as law enforcers. However, according to Nikbakht, the judiciary is duty bound to uphold people's rights and ensure their safety. He told Al-Monitor that such duties are in contrast with having "undercover law enforcements. This is a gross violation of people's rights, which is emphasized upon and guaranteed in the Constitution and other laws."
Haleh Mirmiri, a cultural studies expert and sociologist, highlighted violations of people's freedoms and also increasing violations of privacy in an interview with Al-Monitor. Mirmiri described the undercover agents as "private eyes or cameras" that have become a "capillary network" among marginalized members of society. She told Al-Monitor, "Previous supervision [of morality] was unsuccessful as people resisted it. This new form of supervision is just a weakened version of the old one. The political establishment keeps instilling censorship in people up to a point where eventually there will not be a clear means of distinguishing between 'self' and 'other,' and we start to become suspicious of even ourselves. In such a society, even one's own parents can be undercover morality agents."
In Mirmiri's telling, the most damaging aspect of the new policing project is the harm to what she called "social capital." She told Al-Monitor that the telltale signs that identify the people watching your conduct "are no longer people's outfits and appearances. … For instance, having facial hair, staring at the ground and wearing loose shirts and pants can no longer be indicative that the person is a representative of the establishment. Now, even people who dress like we do can use aggressive speech against us [to enforce moral codes]. … When the means of social navigation are removed, security and trust will be damaged as a result."
Mirmiri believes that the patriarchal structures in Iran will make things more difficult for women. "I doubt that this issue will result in the formation of a serious resistance movement among women activists in a focused and organized way. However, if this project continues for an extended period, women have to upgrade their group and individual techniques to avoid the [undercover] agents. They can no longer only bypass alleys and streets to avoid agents, since they now no longer know who it is that they should avoid."
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