As part of his mandate, UN Human Rights Rapporteur Dr Ahmed Shaheed presented his latest findings on the human rights situation in Iran to the Human Rights Council (HRC) earlier this week.
It paints a bleak picture, with an increase in the number of public executions, including that of 13 juveniles, and a deterioration in civil liberties, which continues to particularly effect members of the press and ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Christians and Baha’is living in Iran.
IranWire spoke to Dr. Shaheed about the report, and asked whether President Rouhani is doing all within his power to improve the situation — and what he foresees for human rights in the country in the coming months.
Dr Shaheed, you last spoke to IranWire in November 2014. How has the human rights situation in Iran developed since then?
The situation has worsened. The best indicator of this is the surge in the number of executions, which by the end of last year reached 753. In the first 10 weeks of this year, there were an additional 200-plus executions, so it’s clear-cut that the situation has deteriorated.
Why has it worsened?
It’s hard to establish exactly why but one of the reasons may be that hardliners have tried to discourage any claims that the president is a reformist. Secondly, changes to the penal code, effective about 18 months back, may be seen to have sped up executions. For instance, there were 13 juveniles executed during the course of the past year.
On what basis were the 13 juveniles sentenced to death?
In most cases, they were accused of Moharebeh, which is the use of lethal weapons in public crime. In every case except one, the juveniles passed their 18th birthdays whilst in custody. By and large, they were all accused of serious national security crimes. One of the juveniles was under the age of 17 but the rest were older than 19 years old when they were executed. But they all committed their offences when they were younger than 18.
And how does this violate international human rights law?
International human rights law has a very strong, strict prohibition on the execution of children under the age of 18 even if the execution happens after their 18th birthday — it’s a very clear, unambiguous prohibition. And Iran is party to the child’s rights convention. Although Iran says its implementation of the convention is subject to Islamic sharia and that Islamic sharia doesn’t have the 18-year-old restriction that international law has, there’s a clear customary law that says you can’t put to death juvenile offenders.
Which offences warrant the death penalty according to Iranian law?
There are dozens but the bulk of those executed last year were for drug offences, 80 percent or so, of which half were for non-homicide offences. So if a person was caught in possession of a certain amount of drugs, this can result in a death penalty even if a person isn’t a trafficker in the traditional sense. If you were involved in organized crime in drug trafficking that would also receive a death penalty. The death penalty is also given for certain sexual crimes, such as adultery, sodomy and rape. Then you also have issues like alcohol consumption, which warrant the death penalty.
Is President Rouhani doing all within his power to improve the human rights situation in Iran?
Rouhani is not powerless to improve the human rights situation in Iran. However, he has not yet devoted sufficient attention to improving human rights in the country to the same level he’s invested his efforts into nuclear negotiations. I think once that’s sorted, he’ll be capable of doing more. However, in some areas, there are serious signs that efforts are being made. For instance, he doubled the budget for women’s affairs this year, which is almost a 90 percent increase from last year. So, altogether I think President Rouhani is doing more to deliver on his pledges, but at the time being he isn’t doing all that he could.
You mentioned that there were 92 Christians behind bars in your speech yesterday. How has the situation for religious minorities changed since your last report?
The situation remains dire, as it has been for the past several years. So although there hasn’t been a surge in the expanse of persecution, it remains at a various serious level. In terms of the 92 Christians in prison, most of them were new converts and there were reports last Christmas of assemblies and services being destroyed around that time. But at the same time, there was a case of someone being released upon appeal, which I think was a one-off incident. By and large, Iran is very harsh on new converts from Islam to Christianity, and the persecution and incitement against Baha’is continues. The situation of religious tolerance is very poor in the country.
What about the Jewish community in Iran?
The Jewish community is not tripped up by the ban on conversions and there are no reports of great or overt persecution of the Jewish community. Some members I’ve spoken are relatively content with the status quo, but it’s a poor status quo, with the community being reduced to very small numbers. And, although they don’t seem to have had any direct friction with law enforcement like other minorities have, they remain in a state where they accept their subservient status, granted to them by the constitution.
Do Iranian authorities continue to target journalists and bloggers?
The situation hasn’t changed – the government’s persecution of those who are critical of the regime has resulted in people like Soheil Arabi being given the death penalty and other journalists’ receiving a range of other very serious sentences, including people who’ve posted things on social media. There were 30 journalists in detention as the start of this year; this makes Iran one of the world’s worst offenders for jailed journalists.
To what extent are deficiencies in the justice system responsible for these arrests and other human rights abuses?
Iran maintains it does not detain journalists for their media work, but rather for national security crimes. However if you look at the current press law, there are 17 impermissible things that result in penalties. This includes the likes of offending the Supreme Leader. If you’re a journalist, how can you know where that line is? And how fair is that line? If you can’t criticize the authorities, or question public officials, then the scope of freedom of expression is restricted — and this is an impermissible restriction to that right.
These deficiencies include issues of prolonged periods of solitary confinement, various forms of torture, trumped-up charges and hasty trials, where lawyers are unable to provide sufficient defence for their clients or have a lack of access to detainees.
You mentioned in your speech yesterday that you were concerned about new legislation being considered by Iranian government agencies that would further curtail the independence of the media, civil society, political organizations and the legal community. What legislation were you talking about?
There are several, but it includes things such as a non-governmental organization (NGO) bill, which would empower state authorities to have the power to vet, approve and give clearance to NGOs that are allowed to operate in the country. Or the political parties bill, which will regulate who can form a party and how — and ban someone from doing so who has had past “political offences”.
What do you foresee in the coming months for human rights in Iran?
There could be both good and bad things. If a nuclear deal is reached and sanctions are removed, I think there will be improvements in certain areas. But equally, it could give Iran more elbow room domestically, which could enable less public scrutiny and so further violations of rights. However, in my view, it will mean more scope for Iran’s incorporation in the global community, thereby requiring them to respect human rights more than they do today.
What would a nuclear deal mean for Iran?
Executions in Iran Highest in 12 Years