The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, issued another scathing report on the state of human rights there. He does mention that Tehran is “cooperating” but there seems to be no real change for the better for the oppressed there.
Although some would like to believe that human rights should be independent of community, nationality, geography, religion and culture, the reality is that human rights remain relative to the person judging the situation. In fact, the biggest problem of discussing the state of human rights is agreeing on what are basic human rights. Without a common definition, any discussion is bound to deteriorate into arguments on how to define human rights and accusations of politicization and arrogance on either side.
Tehran under Rouhani has mastered the art of redefining issues in order to fit its worldview and aspirations:
- Tehran redefined terrorism by fighting ISIS, thereby covering up its own support of terrorism all over the world.
- Tehran redefined subversion as “help” to neighboring countries, thereby acquitting itself of being the biggest meddlers in the Middle East.
- Tehran redefined oppression to mean the conduct of the “arrogant powers” (US/West), thereby side-stepping the regime’s oppression of Iranians.
- And…Tehran redefined human rights according to Islamic Sharia law, thereby absolving itself of Western standards of human rights.
Any criticism of the state of human rights in Iran is usually answered by Tehran with indifference coupled with accusations of double standards and of politicization of the issue by its enemies and although there may be some credit to such accusations from Tehran, the fact remains that Tehran is a serial abuser of human rights by Western standards: Women, gays, religious minorities, political dissidents and anyone who isn’t in complete acceptance of the Islamic/Sharia laws are doomed to be oppressed, harassed, imprisoned, tortured or hanged.
Shaheed knows this only too well: Every report he issued was dismissed, vilified, criticized and politicized by Tehran and he himself is banned from entering the country.
Here are some issues of human rights which have been redefined by the regime – you be the judge whether these rights should be universal or interpreted locally.
Redefining Journalism as Spying
Iran ranks second, after China, for jailing (and harassing) reporters and journalists. Jason Rezaian is just one such reporter although the fact that he holds dual American/Iranian citizenships, that he works for the Washington Post and that his imprisonment and trial occurred in conjunction with the nuclear deal hammered out with Tehran makes him “special”.
Rezaian had been working in Iran since 2008, corresponding for WaPo on Iran. During these years he wrote numerous articles on Iranian culture and economics and met with leading Iranian politicians. In July 2014, he and his journalist wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were picked up by the Iranian authorities and incarcerated. The charges were not clear for a long time and ranged from propaganda to spying. Salehi was released but Rezaian was to remain in jail for 447 days until the verdict of guilty of spying (details of his sentence are still secret). During this time, Rezaian’s communication with the outside world and even with his lawyer was limited and information about his trial leaked out from the closed-door trial infrequently.
The negotiations surrounding the nuclear deal turned Rezaian into a pawn by hardliners who used him to attack Rouhani’s more liberal attitudes to the West as well as a pawn by FM Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani: Zarif, who was focused on the nuclear deal not only tried to defend Rezaian’s imprisonment (“We do not jail people for their opinions“), he, along with Rouhani (“I do not believe that an individual would be detained or put in prison for being a journalist“) hinted at the possibility of a prisoner swap which was quickly buried following Khamenei’s criticism on the issue.
To this day, Rezaian maintains his innocence and that he was only doing his job without any ulterior motives to hurt the regime. The case of Rezaian represents numerous abuses of human rights in regards to fair trials, due process, politicization of “criminal” cases etc… and his future looks bleak.
Redefining Satire as Propaganda and a Handshake as Adultery
Being a satirist in Iran is fine unless if the satire is aimed at the regime. 28 year old Iranian artist Athena Farghadani knows this too well and is now paying dearly for her efforts at satirizing the Iranian parliament over the issue of birth control: following discussions in parliament regarding banning birth control in an effort to increase the birth-rate in Iran (a directive straight form Khamenei), Farghadani drew a satirical cartoon of the Iranian parliament as animals and posted her cartoon on facebook and was picked up by the authorities in August 2014. After three months she was released and then re-imprisoned 6 weeks later. She was kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time, interrogated brutally for 9 hours a day, was forced to strip naked in front of the prison guards and was verbally and physically abused repeatedly. Her “crime” was described by the Iranian courts as an “insult” to the MP’s, to the IRGC and to Khamenei himself and she was finally convicted to 12 years in jail in June 2015.
As in Rezaian’s case, Farghadani had limited communications with the outside world, including her lawyer – in fact, a handshake with her lawyer brought up new charges against her for sexual misconduct which led to having to take a “virginity test” which could lead to an extension of her sentence.
Farghadani was sentenced It’s not that Tehran doesn’t appreciate satirical cartoons – in fact, Iran Cartoon, a site supported by the municipality of Tehran continuously invite artists to submit their satires in contests and exhibition on a wide range of issues including Saudi aggression in Yemen, questioning/denying the Holocaust, the plight of Syrian immigrants in Europe, fighting ISIS etc…all fine and good as long as the target of the satire is not connected to the regime in any way. Tehran’s response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was exemplary in its accusations against the artists: unanimous: freedom of speech is permitted as long as it doesn’t target the prophet Mohammad, Islam or the Iranian regime.
Redefining Women as Corruptors
Iranian women may represent half of the population of Iran but they are continuously being mistreated under the harsh Sharia laws of Islam. Women are not equal to men under Islamic law in many respects and gender segregation is legally supported in Iran: women are not allowed to watch sports at stadiums, to perform on stage in front of men or to even to attend concerts with men in the audience.
Ghoncheh Ghavami, a young British-Iranian woman activist was arrested for attending a volley-ball game on charges of propaganda and spying only to be released after 17 months (but forced to remain in Iran for at least 2 years).
Furthermore, Iranian women have to adhere to strict dress-code laws which allow the authorities to fine women who are not adequately covered by their hijabs, for wearing make-up or “forbidden” sunglasses, for thin stockings or short socks or wearing clothes with “forbidden” symbols. The legal punishment for these crimes is a monetary fine or jail but their fate is infinitely worst if they are apprehended by the “anti-corruption” enforcers, usually Basij or Hezbollah volunteers: These men base their legitimacy on laws to enforce dress-codes and are eager to do their part to oppress women. They patrol the streets, harass women who do not meet strict dress-code rules and, in some case, throw acid at the faces of “offenders”. Why? Because women without “proper” hijab are seen to “oppress” men by sexually arousing them and therefore justify being raped. For them, women who do not adhere to strict Sharia laws are provocative “prostitutes” at best and “devils” at worst.
And what do the Iranian authorities have to say about these “fashion police” militias: timid denouncements and silent encouragement: Rouhani may have denounced the acid throwing sprees last year but since then none of the acid throwers were caught.
As the nuclear deal begins to take effect, the regime is justifiably terrified that it will open the doors for new ideas which may empower women to finally demand for equal rights – the big question remains whether Rouhani will side with the regime or with the women.
Redefining Criticism as a Sin
Criticizing the regime, its leaders or Islam, is not only illegal in Iran, it is now a sin. This may sound naïve and inconsequential to a Westerner but Iranian courts take the issue of sin very seriously with punishments that can lead to death sentences. This means that anyone who openly criticizes or opposes the regime may find himself/herself hanging from a crane.
Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi posted a criticism of the prophet and of Khamenei on his facebook page and was subsequently picked up by Iranian authorities in November 2013 for “insulting” the prophet and Khamenei: In December 2014, he was sentenced to death for his “crimes” but his sentence was miraculously commuted in September 2015 – apart from the jail time that he has served since being picked up, he will serve another two years studying Islam and another seven and half years for insulting Khamenei.
But Arabi is not alone in finding his freedom curtailed for opposing the regime: during the 2009 elections, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi led the “Green Movement” against Mahmud Ahmadinejad and made the mistake of claiming that the election results were tampered with. Khamenei ruled that the elections were legitimate and Ahmadinejad became president. For two years, the two men were kept under the scrutiny of the Iranian authorities and in 2011, following the rumbles of the Arab spring and the growing criticism by the two for the unelected regime, they were de facto forced to house arrest where they remain to this date. None of them were tried in court and have not even been officially accused. This may actually save their lives because if they were tried they would probably be sentenced to death for the “unforgivable sin” of “corrupting the earth” with their presence.
Iranians who want to oppose the regime are forced to do so in secret or whispered tones for fear of hearing that fateful knock at the door which will end their freedoms and since they understand that the courts are stacked against them, they might find that their criticism also means an end to their lives.
Redefining Abuses as Rights
The list of oppressions by the regime to “offending” Iranians goes on and on and includes religious minorities (specially Baha’is and Christians), gays, dissenters living abroad, pet owners etc…The crimes of these Iranians may be diverse but are viewed by the regime as one crime: not adhering to Islamic Sharia laws. These “offenders” are tried under Islamic laws which place journalists and bloggers on par with murderers and rapists under the death penalty laws. These “offenders” would not even be deemed offenders in the West in countries which value personal human rights. The UN regularly produces scathing reports on the numerous cases of abuses of human rights in Iran but these reports are immediately dismissed by the Iranian authorities as irrelevant or politicized. Javad Larijani, the Iranian chief of human rights, prefers to simply ignore any criticism and to lie with a straight face. According to him, Iran has no problems of human rights, that the “will of the people” is being upheld, that there is no discrimination of any kind, that women and Baha’is are protected, that all Iranians are equal under the law, that there are no cases of arbitrary arrests or torture etc… Listening to him, Iran is a haven for personal freedoms and all of the prisoners of conscience simply do not exist.
Rouhani became president through his promises to carry out drastic changes in Iran – he may have succeeded in his foreign policy but he has failed dismally on the issues of human rights. Perhaps he is not to blame since he values his political career and his own personal freedoms enough to not anger the regime too much but the reality is such that the abuses of human rights have increased under his presidency.
As the nuclear deal opens Iran up to foreign investment, foreign influence and foreign tourists, the time has come to decide whether to believe Larijani or to believe the thousands of cases of people whose rights were brutally curtailed because of “crimes” against the regime or against Islam. Now is the time to either accept the regime’s abuses of human rights as local interpretations which are not related to the basic human rights awarded by Western countries or to stand up to the regime and call for a fundamental change in how human rights are treated in Iran.