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MIDDLE EAST AND NORTHERN AFRICA: Countries in Focus

Update on Iran

 

2018 XpA Scores:
Freedom of Expression – 0.10 Civic Space – 0.07
Digital – 0.07 Media – 0.05
Protection – 0.13 Transparency – 0.24

 

Iran remains comfortably near the bottom of the freedom of expression scores following a strong decline in the protection environment for journalists, lawyers, environmentalists, and HRDs in 2018.

President Hassan Rouhani has presided over a deteriorating human rights situation more broadly in Iran, where dissenting voices of all types continue to be repressed and punished.

An estimated 28 journalists were detained in Iran in 2018 alone. Mostafa Abdi – administrator of the Majzooban-e-Noor website, which reports on human rights abuses against the Gonabadi Dervish religious minority – was sentenced to 26 years and 3 months in prison, and 148 lashes, in August 2018. The charges are not publicly available.[1]

Lawyers are increasingly at risk in Iran. At least seven attorneys were arrested and detained in 2018 in connection with their work.[2] In June, prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested and charged with ‘propaganda against the state’, having defended several women detained for protesting the compulsory hijab earlier in the year (see below).

Protests broke out across the country in December 2017 and continued into January 2018, mostly focusing on the worsening economic situation and corruption. Security forces brutally repressed the protests, killing at least 21 people.

On 31 August 2018, Farokh Forouzan and Payam Dorafshan (legal counsel for Nasrin Sotoudeh) were arrested in Karaj. They are on bail awaiting trial on a range of trumped-up national security charges for their legal support of Sotoudeh.

The period during and following the 2018 protests saw some of the most severe roundups and arrests since the 2009 protests, with around 4,970 people arrested.[3] Issues of persecution and unjust prosecution are not new in Iran, but lack of due process and violation of privacy rights in the seizure and search of devices hit new lows in 2018.[4]

At least nine people died in custody under suspicious circumstances following their arrests in connection with these protests. Officials claimed some had committed suicide – claims their families disputed.

After reporting evidence of torture on the bodies of some of the victims, lawyer Mohammad Najafi was arrested and sentenced to a total of 14 years in prison and 74 lashes for charges including ‘disturbing public order’, in one of the worst years on record for lawyers who engage in human rights cases.[5]

Digital repression continues and the national internet marches forward

The protests were also marked by censorship of coverage[6] and restricted access to social media platforms used to spread information about the protests.[7] Internet users reported intermittent periods of disconnection across various internet service providers (ISPs) throughout Iran, where users could not connect to websites and applications hosted outside the country.[8]

Telegram – a secure app with around 40 million Iranian users – was blocked in April in a move believed to have been chiefly motivated by the platform’s perceived role in the January 2018 protests. The Iranian government has a difficult relationship with Telegram, as reported by the XpA 17/18. Blocking the app resulted in significant collateral blocking: internet users reported difficulties accessing the Apple App store, WhatsApp, and circumvention tools, as well as slower connections and throttling of encrypted traffic.[9] VPNs stopped working, and those with iPhones were unable to download new VPNs.

The XpA 17/18 reported on Iran’s plan to create a ‘National Information Network’ – a sovereign national internet with restricted connected to the world wide web. Iran took further steps towards that aim in 2018.

In July, the Preservation and Protection of Personal Data Bill was announced. The Bill would enable surveillance and reduce the availability of foreign-owned apps and social media platforms, increasing reliance on Iranian technologies.[10] Article 38 of the Bill would force ISPs and platforms to relocate data-processing centres to Iranian territory, and to store data relating to Iranian nationals exclusively inside Iran. The draft Bill fails to include a provision that explicitly protects the right to freedom of expression, media freedom, academia, the arts, and literature.

Iran also published a draft Social Media Organisation Bill on 19 November.[11] Article 27 of the Bill states that individuals who attempt to access or operate unlicensed social media, provide services in violation of blocking orders, or commit unlawful violations of the blocking measures shall be sentenced to six months to two years in prison. The Bill also aims to centre control of Iran’s Telecommunication Infrastructure Company into the hands of the armed forces, restructuring its position from within the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. In the hands of the armed forces, the administration of this central authority for internet access would become further bound up with national security concerns – often used to tighten controls and access to the internet.

The continued filtering of popular platforms and policies to subsidise access to local platforms further confirm concerns around the expansion of government control enabled by Iran’s National Information Network – also known as the ‘halal internet’ or national internet project – which first launched in 2012.[12]

US sanctions on Iran also continue to affect freedom of expression and information, particularly when it comes to technology-mediated communication.[13]

Harsh consequences for women in online protests

Authorities arrested and detained, prosecuted, or continued to imprison at least 112 women HRDs in 2018.[14] In February, police arrested 29 women for publicly removing their hijabs in protest of the law, and at least three received prison sentences after being convicted for their role in the demonstrations.

In May, 17-year-old Maedeh Hojabri was detained for posting videos of herself dancing on her Instagram account. Her forced ‘confession’ was broadcast on state television.[15] High-profile instagrammers Elnar Ghasemi, Shadab Shakib, and Kami Yousefi were also arrested in May; the judiciary increasingly focused on Instagram, and calls for filtering became louder.

HRDs and EHRDs

Environmental HRDs (EHRDs) have come under intense pressure for their work on environmental degradation – an increasingly key issue in Iran. Record numbers of environmental activists were arbitrarily detained over the course of 2018, with more than 50 arrests in the first half of the year alone.[16]

In January, Managing Director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in custody in Evin Prison under suspicious circumstances (though the authorities claimed it was suicide). His death has not been independently investigated, and his widow Maryam Mobeini has faced harassment and a travel ban.[17]

Eight other members of the PWHF were arrested with Seyed-Emami and kept in pre-trial detention for an entire year. All defendants were initially accused of ‘espionage’ and ‘temporarily detained’, but, on 24 October, Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi announced that charges against four of them had been changed to ‘spreading corruption on earth’ – a crime punishable by death.

The EHRDs were reportedly subjected to months of solitary confinement and psychological torture, including being threatened with death, threatened with being injected with hallucinogenic drugs, and threatened with arrest and the death of family members.[18] Their trial – ongoing since January 2019 – is marred by allegations that their confessions were extracted through torture.[19]

Between 31 December 2018 and 6 January 2019, eight more EHRDs were arrested in Kurdistan. So far, they have not had access to lawyers, and their charges are unknown.[20]

Hunger strikes among political prisoners continued to be reported in 2018. In December, activist and political prisoner Vahid Sayadi Nasiri died after a 60-day hunger strike in protest of inhumane conditions at the Qom Prison.

Members of minorities who spoke out against rights violations faced arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill treatment, unfair trials, and imprisonment. Hundreds of Azerbaijani Turks, including minority rights activists, were violently arrested in connection with peaceful cultural gatherings, and up to 400 members of the Ahwazi Arab minority were arrested in connection with protests.

In a crackdown in October, over 700 people, including minority rights activists, were arrested and detained incommunicado. Ahwazi Arab activists outside Iran reported that 22 were executed in secret.[21]

Trade unions

Bans on independent trade unions persisted in 2018. Thousands of workers staged peaceful demonstrations and strikes in protest against unpaid wages, poor working conditions, and other grievances. Authorities arrested hundreds, sentencing many to prison terms and flogging.

Those involved in unions routinely faced charges like ‘spreading propaganda against the state’ and attempting to ‘collude and conspire to commit crimes against’ the state.

Worker protests at the Haft Tappeh sugar factory resurfaced in November 2018, and 24 individuals were arrested on national security charges. On their release in December 2018, Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian alleged they had been subject to torture in detention, including physical assault and threats of sexual violence and execution. Both were re-arrested a day later in apparent reprisal for speaking publicly about these violations.[22]

In August, teacher Mohammad Habibi was sentenced to 10.5 years in prison, 74 lashes, a 2-year travel ban, and a 2-year ban on ‘membership in political and social parties, groups or collectives’ for charges stemming from his peaceful trade union activities. In September, six more teachers were sentenced to flogging and prison terms for taking part in a peaceful protest calling for higher wages. Hundreds more were arrested between September and December as truck drivers, steel workers, and factory workers engaged in weeks of strike action.[23]

 

 

[1] ARTICLE 19 and Access Now, Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 4 April 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IRAN-UPR-ARTICLE-19-Access-Iran-FINAL-English.pdf

[2] Freedom House, ‘Iran’, Freedom in the World 2019, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/iran

[3] ARTICLE 19, Tightening the Net: Internet Controls During and After Iran’s Protests, March 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/TTN_Internet-controls-during-and-after.pdf

[4] ARTICLE 19, Tightening the Net: Internet Controls During and After Iran’s Protests, March 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/TTN_Internet-controls-during-and-after.pdf

[5] Amnesty International, Iran 2018, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/iran/report-iran/

[6] Reporters without Borders, Iran Tries to Censor Coverage of Protests by Media Based Abroad, 5 January 2018, available at https://rsf.org/en/news/iran-tries-censor-coverage-protests-media-based-abroad

[7] Freedom House, ‘Iran’, Freedom in the World 2019, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/iran

[8] Centre for Human Rights in Iran, Iran’s Severely Disrupted Internet During Protests: ‘Websites Hardly Open’, 2 January 2018, available at https://www.iranhumanrights.org/2018/01/irans-severely-disrupted-internet-during-protests-websites-hardly-open/; see also ARTICLE 19, Tightening the Net: Internet Controls During and after Iran’s Protests, March 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/TTN_Internet-controls-during-and-after.pdf

[9] Islamic Republic News Agency, Filter Breakers Have Started, 1 May 2018, available at http://www.irna.ir/fa/News/82916267

[10] ARTICLE 19, Iran’s Draft Data Protection Act: Too Little But Not Too Late, 27 June 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/resources/irans-draft-data-protection-act-too-little-but-not-too-late/

[11] ISNA, ‘The social media organisation bill,’ 19 November 2018, available at https://www.isna.ir/news/97082813960/%D9%85%D8%AA%D9%86-%D8%B7%D8%B1%D8%AD-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%87%DB%8C-%D9%BE%DB%8C%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%B1%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B9%DB%8C

[12] ARTICLE 19, Tightening the Net: Iran’s National Internet Project, 29 March 2017, available at https://www.article19.org/resources/tightening-the-net-irans-national-Internet-project/

[13] ARTICLE 19 and Access Now, Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 4 April 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IRAN-UPR-ARTICLE-19-Access-Iran-FINAL-English.pdf

[14] Amnesty International, Iran 2018, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/iran/report-iran/

[15] ARTICLE 19, Iran: Arrest of Instagram Celebrities Part of Efforts Towards Filtering the Platform, 11 July 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/resources/iran-arrest-of-instagram-celebrities-part-of-efforts-towards-filtering-the-platform/

[16] Human Rights Watch, Iran: Environmentalists Face Arbitrary Detention, 3 August 2018, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/03/iran-environmentalists-face-arbitrary-detention

[17] ARTICLE 19 and Access Now, Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 4 April 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IRAN-UPR-ARTICLE-19-Access-Iran-FINAL-English.pdf

[18] ARTICLE 19, Iran: Environmental Activists Facing Trial Based on Forced Confessions, 6 February 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/resources/iran-environmental-activists-facing-trial-based-on-forced-confessions/

[19] ARTICLE 19 and Access Now, Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 4 April 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IRAN-UPR-ARTICLE-19-Access-Iran-FINAL-English.pdf

[20] ARTICLE 19 and Access Now, Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 4 April 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IRAN-UPR-ARTICLE-19-Access-Iran-FINAL-English.pdf

[21] Amnesty International, Iran 2018, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/iran/report-iran/

[22] ARTICLE 19 and Access Now, Joint Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 4 April 2019, available at https://www.article19.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IRAN-UPR-ARTICLE-19-Access-Iran-FINAL-English.pdf

[23] Amnesty International, Iran 2018, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/iran/report-iran/

 

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