Two new additional provisions to Iran’s Islamic Penal Code will pose serious risks to the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief in Iran. ARTICLE 19 is deeply dismayed that Iran’s parliament has passed these provisions in breach of international law and standards. The Iranian authorities must immediately repeal them and take measures to bring the country’s legal framework in line with the country’s international human rights obligations.
Iran’s Parliament passed the law to add two provisions with regards to “insulting legally-recognised religions and Iranian ethnicities” to the Islamic Penal Code on 13 January 2021. The law was then approved by the Guardian Council, a body tasked with ensuring legislative compliance with the Constitution and Sharia law, on 3 February and signed by President Hassan Rouhani yesterday, 18 February. The new law will enter into force 15 days after its publication in the Official Gazette, a paper under the auspices of the Judiciary publishing all new laws.
“In just a few weeks, Iran’s law enforcement and prosecutorial and judicial authorities will be equipped with an even more expansive set of repressive laws to further choke freedoms and crack down on the already persecuted individuals and groups solely for exercising their human rights,” said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“The passage of these provisions despite warnings about their grave consequences for human rights only demonstrates that the Iranian authorities are adamant to stifle any expression that does not align with their liking”, Ghazouani added.
ARTICLE 19 further warns that while the new provisions impose a threat to anyone who refuses to subscribe to state-sanctioned beliefs and ideologies, they will disproportionately impact individuals belonging to religious and faith-based minorities and ethnic groups.
In December 2020, ARTICLE 19 had warned about the risks posed by the then Draft Bill for adding provisions to the Islamic Penal Code for “insulting legally-recognised religions and Iranian ethnicities.” It called on the Iranian authorities to withdraw the Bill in its entirety. This Bill has been ushered in alongside a number of problematic new Bills ARTICLE 19 has been following, and which target freedom of online expression, access to information and data protection rights. The authorities must stop this onslaught of attacks against rights and freedoms. With a matter of urgency, all legislative initiatives impinging upon human rights must be dropped.
A Fertile Ground for Arbitrary Arrest
Under Article 499 bis, now added to the Islamic Penal Code, “anyone who insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognised under the Constitutions with the intent to cause violence or tensions in the society or with the knowledge that such [consequences] will follow” will be subjected to harsh punishments. The prescribed punishment in cases where the outlawed conduct “leads to violence or tensions” is an imprisonment sentence of between two and five years and/or a monetary fine. If no “violence and tension” is caused, an imprisonment sentence of between six months and two years and/or a monetary fine can be imposed.
Restrictions imposed on the right to freedom of expression under this provision do not comply with the exceptional nature of permissible restrictions on this right under international law and fail to meet the three-part test of legality, legitimate aim and necessity and proportionality. The provision merely refers to “religions” and “ethnicities” in general terms without specifying the groups concerned. While the Article makes references to “violence”, it does not require an act of expression to have constituted incitement to violence or discrimination or have sought to promote discriminatory hatred towards a target group as required under international law.
It is also not clear what the meaning of “insult” is or what one has to do to “insult” or to cause “tensions”. Such vaguely-worded provisions grant extensive interpretive discretion to the prosecutorial and judicial authorities providing a fertile ground for arbitrary arrest and detention.
Moreover, despite its wording which might suggest a protective role for individuals belonging to ethnic and religious minorities, Article 499 bis will not provide any protection for ethnic and religious minorities who face systematic discrimination and human rights violations, as well as demeaning and stereotypical representations and portrayals, on some occasions by state institutions and on others in the public sphere and by non-state actors. Instead, it will further tighten the already shrunken space for freedom of expression in the country. In fact, it is likely to be used against individuals belonging to ethnic groups who have simply been exercising their human rights.
Individuals belonging to religious and faith and belief-based minorities, including Baha’is, Yaresan, Mandaeans, Dervishes, Christian converts, atheists, and followers of Erfan-e Halgheh (Inter-Universalism), who have faced systematic persecution over the past decades are also feared to be at greater risk of persecution as a result of these new provisions.
The second provision added to the Penal Code, Article 500 bis, launches a full-on attack on the right to freedom of religion and belief. Under the provision, heavy punishments including an imprisonment sentence of between two and five years and/or a monetary fine can be imposed on anyone who commits “any deviant educational or proselytising activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” when it is – among others – part of a “sect”, or through the use of “mind control methods and psychological indoctrination”. The prescribed activities include “making false claims or lying in religious and Islamic spheres, such as claiming divinity.”
Educational or proselytising activity and other forms of religious expression, such as claiming divinity or prophecy and claiming to be in communication with the prophets – which have been outlawed under Article 500 bis – are all protected under the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion and belief. Restrictions on these activities would only be allowed if they fall under the narrowly defined permissible grounds. The mere contradiction or interference of such conduct with Islam, or the state’s official religion, therefore, could not be considered a permissible ground for restriction.
ARTICLE 19 emphasises that the exceptional nature of permissible restrictions on the right to freedom of expression under international law does not mean states do not have an obligation to respond to incidents of intolerance. States are under an obligation to create an enabling environment for the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief and to ensure the right to equality and non-discrimination. These include preventative measures, such as those in the field of education, and reactive measures, including speaking out against incidents of intolerance.
 These articles referred to as “recurrent” articles – often marked as “bis” are provisions that are subsequently added to a piece of legislation without replacing the provision carrying the same number.