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Iran in the World Cup vs. Iran’s Political Prisoners

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Amir Bayani

20 Jun 2014

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The World Cup games and Twitter have been the ultimate avenues for Iran to showcase their new modern administration internationally. President Rouhani and the Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been openly showing support to Iran’s Team Melli by breaking boundaries. Rouhani made a telling move by posting a ‘tracksuit selfie’ in support of the Iranian Team. Iran Wire succinctly summarises why it is an important move for an Iranian cleric to take off his clerical robes and post a picture publically. Zarif’s nuclear negotiating team also told the P5+1 talks that Iran team will need to take a break from their intense talks to watch the much anticipated match with Nigeria. Additionally, Rouhani made interesting statements this week demanding answers from the Ministry of Sport on why women were banned from entering the stadium to watch the volleyball game. This was followed by the reopening of women’s magazine, Zanan, which had been shut down for the past 6 years.  Nonetheless, with all this commotion and excitement, there has been a highly menacing repressive backdrop.

For example, Iranian reformist journalist Hossein Noorani-Nejad was unable to join in with the jubilation. He was sentenced on the same day as the Iran – Nigeria match, to six years in prison by the notorious Judge Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court.  According to Noorani-Nejad’s GoPetition, Salavati issued a statement “explicitly stating that he wished by this verdict to intimidate any other oppositionist Iranians living abroad from returning to Iran”. Noorani Nejad who is part of the prominent reformist Mosharekat party and close ally of President Khatami, recently returned to Iran where he was apprehended on the 21 April 2014. He has been granted a right to appeal for this sentence.

Further, questions regarding Saba Azarpeik continue. It has been 20 days since the arrest of Azarpeik; she is still held incommunicado with her family. The Twitter campaign “Where is Saba Azarpeik” is called clarification of Azarpeik’s whereabouts and condition. There were reports on social media on Thursday that her family have been given some information. They were told Azarpeik will be held in solitary confinement for a month and will continue to be banned from contacting family. This is insufficient information. The continued blackout on Saba Azarpeik’s situation is concerning; we urge the Iranian authorities to provide information about her exact whereabouts and the grounds under which she has been arrested. Speculation is growing regarding Azarpeik, the prominent journalist working for a number of reformist publications in Tehran, including Etemaad daily. Her arrest is baseless and the continued secrecy on her exact whereabouts indicates that the authorities are attempting to conceal the case they are building against her.

On the Thursday of this week it was also reported that scholar and Tehran University Professor Sadeq Zibakalam is facing 18 months in jail for questioning the merit of Iran’s nuclear programme and whether the businessman convicted of fraud should have been executed. He wrote letters to Kayhan newspaper editor Hossein Shariatmadari and MP Hamid Rasaie, part of the “the Concerned”, who attacked the interim agreement. "I defended the government's efforts to resolve the nuclear issue, I asked them what gains the nuclear (programme) had produced for the country in terms of progress... and economic development" Zibakalam said on Facebook. He was also sentenced on the questions he posed regarding the execution of Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, once considered Iran's richest man, for his $2.6 billion scam. As Al-Monitor highlights, this is a warning showing that there are limits to how much Iranian intellectuals are allowed to question the nuclear program. Zibakalam, a supporter of Rouhani, was found guilty by a Revolutionary Court of "committing propaganda against the system, spreading rumours and insulting the judiciary." Whether we will witness more arrests of scholars examining the current economic and political moves of Iran is uncertain, although not unlikely.

Blogger Hossein Ronaghi is also unable to join in with Rouhani and Zarif’s excitement this week as he is continuing to suffer from his increasingly deteriorating health in prison. You can find his harrowing story on his Unlock Iran page. He is critically ill and was rushed to Hasheminejad hospital on Tuesday. Despite his serious condition he was returned to the notorious ward 350 without the required medical care. Alleged reports suggest that the blogger was told by the judiciary “you will die in prison”. He has been persistently refused adequate medical treatment causing his health to deteriorate further. In an interview this week Ronaghi’s mother said that he is currently suffering from increased heart rate, kidney infection, fever and an enlarged spleen. She warns that the authorities will be held accountable if anything happens to her son.  In the pre-Rouhani days political prisoners were openly refused medical treatment; recently the case has been that the prisoners are taken to hospital to pose for pictures and certify the security force’s credibility before being sent straight back to prison without treatment. These prisoners are being denied the basic right of medical assistance that they are entitled under international human rights law.

Iran must address its continued repression of those expressing their legitimate freedom of expression. These prisoners of conscience are subjected to maltreatment and human rights abuses, including an indefensible lack of medical aid. It is not enough for the current administration to showcase their modern outlook to the world during events such as the World Cup in Brazil, but rather focus needs to be based back home in ensuring that Iran fulfils its international law mandates and provides political prisoners with their basic human rights that they are entitled to. We call on the Iranian judiciary and prison authorities to quash the peaceful activists’ convictions and release them unconditionally.