Iran and major world powers are due to agree on a nuclear settlement soon, and there are widespread hopes that crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted at the same time. Although economic recovery will not be immediate, for poor, out-of-work Iranians, the lifting of sanctions will represent new possibilities, including a better standard of living and improvement in their daily lives.
“When I see a young person who has to sell things on the street because he can’t find a job — and then doesn’t even sell anything — I want to cry,” wrote one IranWire reader in response to a recent survey. But this is reality of Iran today: unable to support their families, many people are doing whatever they can to make ends meet.
Younes Asakereh was one such person. Desperate to find a way of supporting his family, the 34-year old from Ahwaz set up a fruit stall in Khorramshahr, Khuzestan, without a license. Municipal authorities repeatedly stopped him from selling fruit, insisting that the stall was blocking a public right of way. They repeatedly threatened and harassed him. Eventually, they confiscated his stall so that he could not continue his business.
On March 14, Younes Asakereh set himself on fire to protest against the confiscation of his stall. Just over a week later, on March 22, he died at Tehran’s Motahari Hospital.
How much can government incompetence, ill-guided priorities and negligence be blamed for the death of Younes Asakereh? Could he have been saved?
After three days at a local hospital, Asakereh was transferred to Tehran because medical staff in Khorramshahr was not equipped to care for his injuries. But instead of being transported via air ambulance — his family was unable to pay for the cost of the air transport — Asakereh endured a 950-kilometer trip to Tehran by road, during which he suffered enormous pain and discomfort.
“Had Asakereh been taken immediately by plane to Tehran,” said lawyer and Arab human rights activist Sahar Beit Mashal, “he might be alive today.”
Beit Mashal believes that the government has been remiss in caring for its own citizens. “It seems that, for the Iranian government, the life of an Iranian citizen is worth less than the life of a Yemeni citizen,” Beit Mashal said. As Asakereh was protesting in Khorramshahr, events in Yemen were escalating: on March 14, the day of Askereh’s protest, there was a massive explosion in Yemen. The Iranian government sent 25 tons of medicine to deal with victims’ injuries, and transferred 52 Yemeni casualties to Iran for treatment.
Lawyer Mohammad Olyaeifard believes Khorramshar municipality officials are to blame for the fruit-seller’s death. “The confiscation of Asakereh’s stall happened under the pretext that it was obstructing a public thoroughfare,” he says. He believes endemic problems in local government led to the tragic death of a vulnerable man who was doing everything he could to support his family.
“In recent years, due to poverty and unemployment, many Iranians have turned to trading goods to help them survive, setting up stalls in public places and passages,” he says.
According to Iran’s Municipal Code, alleyways, streets, squares, parks, gardens and public passages, as well as rivers and streams, officially fall under the label of public property. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring these public places are not obstructed, and are entitled to instruct bailiffs and other officials to help in enforcing this.
But Olyaeifard argues that “even though obstruction of a public thoroughfare is technically wrong, it is not a crime unless it causes disturbance to others.” A member of the public must lodge a complaint in order for it to constitute a crime. Even in those cases when obstructing access is considered to be a crime, he says, only police can intervene. Municipal officials are not authorized to carry out arrests or confiscate property and can only issue warnings. They can report repeated offenders to the police, but cannot take any further steps in the matter. In his view, Khorramshar municipal authorities behaved unlawfully in Asakereh’s case. Olyaeifard also says that authorities should be held accountable, not least because they repeatedly rejected Asakereh’s appeals and requests to set up a stall in the town. He was in a “dire situation,” Olyaeifard says, and authorities should have been conscious of this and not challenged him so severely.
According to one of Asakereh’s relatives, the stall was not blocking the sidewalk or any other business; there was no reason to believe that it was disturbing anyone. The relative also said that, before Askareh set himself alight, he had appealed to authorities, asking them to reconsider their decision and warning them that he was desperate.
Asakereh’s funeral took place under tight security measures and his family was warned not to talk to the press, suggesting that local officials were concerned how the public might react. If people started discussing his death and the incidents that led up to it, it could lead to a range of uncomfortable outcomes for local officials and the government, including protests or online campaigns.
But lawyer Mousa Berzin Kalifelo does not believe that municipally officials can be held legally responsible for Asakareh’s death even in terms of causation — the legal description for a situation where an outcome is linked to an action taken by an individual, company or government. “Authorities cannot be assigned legal responsibility for refusing to grant him permission to set up his stall, since this permission is given based on municipalities’ bylaws and decisions and varies from one city to another,” he says. As a result, he says, it is difficult to argue that local officials were under obligation to grant Asakereh a permit. “Moreover, criminal responsibility cannot be assigned to municipal officials even in terms of causation, since causation only applies where there is a direct link between the cause and the effect, whereas in this situation the acts of the municipality officials did not cause the death. Asakereh’s death was caused by self-immolation.”
“However, looking at the bigger picture and resorting to the principles of justice and fairness," Kalifelo says, “one can argue that even though the authorities of Khorramshahr cannot be held legally responsibile for the death of Asakereh, they can still be held morally responsible. The least they can do is to sympathize with his family and help them financially.”
Younes Asakereh was not the first case of self-immolation in Iran, and it might not be the last. Civil society has a huge challenge: to successfully put pressure on the government to observe its obligations regarding the economic and social rights of its citizens, including Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which states, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work, which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.” The government is also bound by Article 11, which states that the state must “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Under Article 11, Iranian authorities must take the appropriate steps to ensure this right is upheld, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.”