With a sharp surge in executions and a renewed clampdown on religious minorities, Iran’s engagement at the United Nations Human Rights Council presents significant challenges. In this interview, the second in our two-part series, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation Human Rights in Iran, spoke to IranWire about women in education, freedom online, the right to fair trials – and the continued practice of torture in detention. And, as Dr Shaheed’s latest report to the council is published, we ask: what hope is there for change in the Islamic Republic under Rouhani’s leadership?

Religious leaders and the Iranian government say that much of the country’s laws are based on Islamic law and that reports like yours and comments from abroad are viewed very much through a Western prism. In your view, are the laws of Iran in line with Islam?

If a country says  – and of course I can speak with some authority from an Islamic context – that it follows sharia, and that therefore the human rights council cannot talk to them about their laws, we should not walk away from that. We should interrogate what’s being said by the country. If you really interrogate sharia Islamic principles, you can’t justify a lot of the things that have been done in the name of sharia. What should happen, I think, is engagement with Iran, or anybody else who claims that their religion justifies human rights violations, to see if that claim is a political statement or one based on jurisprudence.

In my discussions with Iranian authorities, I often point to the fact that sharia is a diverse subject, and that it is never applied in one completely uniform format. In Iran itself, some say these laws are fixed and so must be complied with. Yet there have been moratoriums on some laws – for example, on stoning. Even today [during the Geneva council meeting] there were people who were saying that stoning isn’t going to happen.

They have been able to change the age of criminal responsibility for children. There is a lot of flexibility even within Iran’s own practice as to what at one point they regard as sharia and then what is changed according to new legislation. We tend to walk away too quickly when someone says they can’t do something because of sharia.

What is the current state of affairs with regard to journalists? Are they being subjected to more censorship? What is the government’s current approach to internet freedom? How has it targeted online activists?

This is an area of very serious concern. To date Iran has 39 journalists and bloggers in detention, making Iran the second highest jailer of journalists [following Turkey]. This comes on the back of large numbers of journalists and bloggers having fled the country over the last four or five years. It is partly to do with new legislation, including the Computer Crimes law, which undermines the right to impart information and the right to freedom of expression. It also requires service providers to retain details about users, who can then be tracked and punished for content they may have accessed that is seen to be unfriendly to the government. There is very limited space for free expression. Facebook is not accessible in Iran, and neither is Twitter, although currently some government officials use them.

In my report last year to the Assembly, the Minister for Information said that the government had deliberately slowed down internet usage during the elections so that people couldn’t communicate at the time. So Iran really polices speech very closely, so much that, despite claims by the President and the Minister of Guidance that there should be more space for freedom of expression, in actual fact this really hasn’t happened to any significant degree.

This year I reported on 16 bloggers that remain in detention as of today. I document in particular the case of one young lady, Maryam Shafi’ Pour, who has been given a seven-year prison term for activities linked to expression. So even if you have the government saying, “yes, we encourage free speech and we have this or that lobby to support it”, the very fact that a person can go to jail for seven years for media activity is a chilling reminder that there isn’t much space for free expression.

Your report looks at the clampdown on religious freedom. Can you give our readers an idea of what the current situation is? Who is being targeted and why? 

I raise the situation of the Baha’is and other religious minorities in the report. In the Iranian constitution, if you look at articles 12, 13 and 14, it states that the Shia faith is the official religion of Iranand then Zoroastrians, Sunni Muslims, Judaism and Christian are given official status, leaving out other faiths. The Baha’i fall into this void because there is no recognition given by the state. But even when there is an admission of a minority religion, in practice there are limitations not warranted under international law.

Article 18 rights are an issue in Iran. There are a number of Islamic countries that have no difficulty with Article 18, and some that do, so you cannot say it’s Islam that is doing it – it’s different countries that are doing it. Iran’s constitution embeds values that make it possible for the practice of discrimination against other religions.

In terms of access to education, which your report also looks at (among other socio-economic rights), what’s your view of the health of education in Iran at the moment? Who is being left out? What are the problems and how are they translating to the wider society? 

There is much to commend about education in Iran, especially since the revolution, if you look at literacy and school enrolment rates. Iran has well achieved the millennium development goals on this. They are doing very well, including on women’s enrolment, which counts for over 60 per cent university enrolment. So really, if you look at 100 years in Iran, this is a golden age for education.

But, and there’s a big “but” here, this doesn’t necessarily translate to empowering citizens. There are 60 per cent of women in university education and they achieve a remarkable degree of success intellectually, but they have certain debilitating legal burdens. For example, a husband can prohibit his wife from taking up a job. So what good is to have women being the best in the region and having this limitation that they can’t work unless the husband approves? And of course this is part of the gender hierarchy that has an affect on all of these issues.

Then there’s the question of the Baha’is or people who may be dissenters, or who are in some way not part of the majority orthodox community in Iran. Baha’is complain that if they are identified as Baha’i at higher education levels, they either get expelled or are forced to recount their Baha’i faith. In other words, there is no way that Baha’is can be involved openly in the higher education system. Attempts on their part to educate their own community by having their own institute was met with closure and the arrest, persecution and incarceration of the leadership – top Baha’i leaders have been imprisoned for 20 years.

And of course there was another phenomenon at the end of Ahmadinijad’s presidency, with students whose activities were seen as being anti-government or anti-system being thrown out of school or university. The new president, to his credit, said this should be reversed, including professors who were retired or sacked previously for similar points of view. But out of 300-400 students who should have been returned to education, less than half have been able to re-enrol. Those who were sacked for their views haven’t been re-instated. So while there’s been an attempt to establish academic freedom the results for the new president have been limited. I do have to commend him on this attempt and hope he will succeed in it.

Just as your report was published, Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), praised Iran for its effectiveness in dealing with illegal drugs trade. Not least because there’s an increase in executions of those convicted of drug crime, it seems there’s a substantial link between drugs and human rights in Iran. Can you say a bit about your concerns in this area? Which of your recommendations might help deal with this problem?

The simple fact is that Iran has a very serious challenge from the drugs trade that should be taken into consideration. They should be supported in dealing with it, but in a way that doesn’t violate human rights. Because Iran has a long border with the heartland of drug production means that it faces a huge challenge in terms of the social cost and the violence that goes along with the drug trade. But that doesn’t mean that you support the death penalty as a means of dealing with it, partly because, even in other crimes, the death penalty hasn’t been shown to be an effective deterrent. In Iran’s case, if you compare the number of death penalty cases being 99 in 2004 to 700 this past year, with a large increase in executions for drug offences, you can see that there has been no deterrent effect on that; the bodies keep piling up.

Iran has shown that creative ways of dealing with [the drug problem] has paid off. Some years ago, for example, Iran decriminalized drug addiction, enabling programs in prisons for needle exchanges, which reduced Iran’s HIV infections through needle usage tremendously – though there are reports that some things may have reversed. Iran has seized close to 70 tons of drugs in a year, which is commendable. But it’s tarnished by the fact that there’s been a lot of violence linked to it.

While the UNODC is in Iran, it should be mindful that, within the UN system, the program for “rights up front” applies to all UN bodies, even when they are combating various elements of crime. So the UNODC has to contribute to human rights promotion in Iran and be sure they have a firewall between arrests made as part of their program and executions for drug trafficking. And I hope that firewall becomes more secure.

And while they are in Iran, they have a unique opportunity to contribute to penal reform because they have expertise in that area. So rather than simply dealing with drug trafficking issues in Iran, as in the past, our work there will continue to look at other challenges.

Your report also looks at individuals who are denied fair trials and lawyers who face intimidation. What people are denied these rights and why?

This is a pervasive problem and in fact goes to the heart of a lot of our work in Iran. Iran is party to the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. It has a constitutional framework that would prohibit a number of areas of rights violations if applied to its own laws as they stand. So it should not have a system that allows for violations of human rights. But because these rights under law aren’t guaranteed, then violations occur.

One example is that, under current laws, they ban torture. But up to 90 per cent of the people I interviewed reported physical abuse in detention. So there seems to be no mechanism to remedy violations once they occur, no mechanism to establish accountability and therefore it becomes endemic.

Under current procedures, you can’t have a lawyer at the interrogation phase  – and that’s when a lot of the rights violations possibly occur because convictions are based on confessions extracted under torture during interrogation.

There are court proceedings where people have a right to a lawyer. If they can’t afford one, the court appoints a lawyer, who is given 20 days to prepare their defense. But in my report I note that these procedures are not often observed in practice. Many people complain that their lawyer has not seen the case until the day before or that their trial doesn’t last more than a few minutes or that the judge made up his mind about the case using information given to him prior to the trial. There is no provision for fair trial standards. Violations result from capricious implementation of rule of law, as well in situations such as not having access to a lawyer at interrogation stage.

There is a new court of procedure finalized in the country, which has passed through all the legal draft stages and is awaiting the president’s signature. It addresses some of these issues. Under that procedure, a defendant can have a lawyer at the stage of interrogation; cases being tried in open courts will have a plurality of judges, meaning at least three judges. And there are stronger safeguards for appeal. The question here is: when do books become law on the ground? When that starts to happen, then there will be a significant reduction in violations.

In your view what will the coming months hold in store? How do you think things will take shape in terms of human rights provision as we approach the one-year mark for the Rouhani administration? 

As the year progresses, the tensions between the conflicting signals coming out of Tehran ought to find some resolution.  Because there is a serious commitment on the part of the reformists to advocate reform, they must begin to have a dampening effect on the perpetrators, on what is behind the surge in executions. The present trend of rhetoric and gestures of positive intent cannot continue with credibility if the actions of rights violations continue in the same direction. This must come to a head. I hope we’ll hear from President Rouhani himself that the critical mass in the government favors reforms and wants to see them urgently. The Universal Periodic Review for Iran is fortunately set for this year. In October or November Iran will be back at the human rights council defending its record, explaining what has happened over the last four years, and I hope there’s more transparency, clarity – and that there’s more credibility for processes underway in the country. 

Read part one of this interview:

A Call for Free Speech and Transparency: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran

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