This past January, Iran moved to scale back its death sentences for those incarcerated for drug-related crimes seemingly as an attempt to shift the international community’s focus away from Iran’s deplorable human rights record. While the move was greeted with optimism at the time, many were skeptical about whether this signaled the beginning of changes to a country long-viewed as one of the worst on human rights or whether it was a cheap political stunt meant to gain positive public attention. This begs another question: since the new year, has Iran managed to continue making positive changes to its criminal justice system or have things remained the same as usual?
The Human Rights Watch recently stated that since May the Iranian courts have sentenced over 200 Dervishes, (members of an an Islamic minority group) to prison terms and other punishments in trials that violate their basic rights. The courts issued sentences that included prison terms up to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups. International human rights laws classify flogging as a form of torture.
The country’s use of Sharia law has garnered significant criticism from the international community. Under these rules, some behaviors that could result in execution include insulting the Prophet, atheism, homosexuality, adultery, and drug-related crimes. While executions have declined, nearly three decades ago, Iran had the highest rate in the world. Currently, Iran is second only to China in the number of executions per year.
What likely prompted Iran’s need to appease international pressure was the descent of public opinion surrounding its political and economic systems. In May 2017, President Rouhani was elected to a second term in office, however many questioned the legitimacy of his victory due to the undeniable discrimination against hundreds of candidates on the basis of gender, religious belief, and political opinion. Beyond the presidency, there was civil unrest over the appointments of other high-level officials who have been implicated in severe human rights violations.
While many Iranian human rights defenders served prison sentences for communicating with the EU and the UN, those agencies worked with Iran to renew an existing human rights agreement that Iran was in violation of. In addition, many individual governments including Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland began bilateral human rights talks with Iran.
By the end of 2017, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest poverty, corruption, and political repression in the largest civil rights demonstration in Iran since 2009. The authorities suppressed freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and went so far as to jail peaceful protestors on the grounds of “national security” charges. Many of those targeted were political opponents of the party in power, journalists, social media influences, students, filmmakers, documentarians, musicians, writers and human rights activists ranging from women’s rights defenders to environmentalists. There is also evidence that there was a deliberate targeting of trade union leaders, anti-death penalty campaigners, civil rights lawyers and individuals demanding information on missing loved ones and suspicious disappearances from as far back as the 1980s. Many prisoners undertook hunger strikes to protest their unjust detainment.
Reports emerged that police and military personnel killed and injured unarmed protesters by using firearms and other excessive force. On December 31, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology blocked access to social media sites used by activists to coordinate demonstrations such as Instagram and the popular messaging application Telegram. Shortly after these events, the sentencing reforms to criminals of drug offenses was announced. The timing of the announcement was suspected to be intentional by many.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan think tank, has highlighted Iran’s deplorable human rights record and has called for greater accountability by the U.S. and the international community. Despite the protests and jailing, most media attention related to Iran focuses on the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Dubowitz and FDD have long been championing the need to hold Iran accountable for its regional aggression and domestic repression.