UN: don't let Iran nuclear concerns mean human rights are ignored

Iran is in the headlines once again today, as the UN Security Council prepares to vote on tougher sanctions against the country in response to its nuclear programme.  But a report from Amnesty today urges that political considerations – whether over Iran’s regional role or its nuclear ambitions – must not blind the international community to human rights abuses that continue on a frightening scale since last year’s disputed election.

Journalist Maziar Bahar, on his release from nearly 4 months in prison after reporting on the post-election protests, said that “the prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten”. Yet hundreds of people swept up in the post-election crackdown are still in prison and the net of repression has, if anything, been cast yet wider in the last 12 months.

Over 5,000 people, probably many more, were arrested during the mass demonstrations which started in Iran on 13 June 2009.  Most have now been released, often after suffering torture including beatings, rape and solitary confinement. Some are now serving prison terms, usually after being convicted in unfair trials on the basis of “confessions” that were forced out of them in detention. Others have been executed or are on death row.

Most were ordinary Iranians who joined street demonstrations against the announced election result. But others were targeted because they were perceived to challenge the authorities’ legitimacy: they include human rights campaigners, students, academics, former political prisoners and their relatives, members of Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, trade unionists, and lawyers who have defended political detainees.

Women’s rights activists have also been targeted, as Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi highlights in a powerful Comment is Free piece today.  Amnesty is campaigning for
Ronak Safarzadeh, an activist for an NGO affiliated to the Campaign for Equality, which calls for an end to legal discrimination against Iranian women. In April last year Ronak was sentenced to five years in prison for her supposed membership of an armed Kurdish opposition group, the PJAK, and one year for 'propaganda against the state'. Ronak's lawyer says that the evidence presented in court does not substantiate claims that Ronak has ever used or advocated violence. Her involvement with the PJAK was reportedly limited to researching women's participation in the party.

The Campaign for Equality has been targeted and undermined by the Iranian authorities for some time and its members arrested. But it is just one of many NGOs that the Iranian authorities will not tolerate. The government has criminalised contact with over 60 foreign institutions, media organisations and NGOs, isolating Iranians and preventing news, including on human rights violations, from leaving the country.

Websites and email services have also been filtered or blocked and the police have warned that SMS messages are monitored. Newspapers have been closed down. University staff have been fired on the grounds that they do not have sufficient “belief” in the Islamic Republic. Threats have been issued, backed up by executions of political prisoners, to make it absolutely clear that those who dissent – whether by speaking out, writing or attending demonstrations – will face the harshest penalties.

These widespread abuses against the Iranian people continue. Yet when we talk of Iran, it is almost always about the ‘nuclear issue’. I’m not saying that this can be ignored, of course – but we must take care to ensure that Maziar Bahari’s “worst nightmare” does not come true.

Our report today seeks to remind the international community that Iran’s appalling human rights record should not be overlooked. It aims to bring to the public’s attention the cases of prisoners who still remain in detention, and to mobilise people to demand their release. And most of all, it shows that these prisoners, jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression, will not be forgotten.

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