UN HRC must continue freedom of expression scrutiny on Iran

UN HRC must continue freedom of expression scrutiny on Iran - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the report the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran to the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the first by Asma Jahangir since she assumed this mandate earlier this year. The report raises serious concerns regarding the alarming situation for freedom of expression in the country, and will be discussed in an “interactive dialogue” at the HRC on 13 March 2017.

During this UN debate, ARTICLE 19 urges all member and observer states at the HRC to address the continuing violations of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in Iran during the interactive dialogue on the Special Rapporteur’s report.

At the conclusion of the 34th Session of the HRC, States will consider a resolution to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a period of one year. The extension of the mandate is essential to maintain international scrutiny of the situation for freedom of expression and information in Iran, and to support calls for accountability and reform. ARTICLE 19 calls on all States to show full support to the Special Rapporteur through the negotiation of this resolution, including by co-sponsoring it.


As the Special Rapporteur’s report outlines, some positive declarations by the Iranian authorities on human rights in the past year have not translated to concrete action to resolve serious outstanding human rights concerns.

Notwithstanding the launch of the “Citizen Charter” by President Rouhani and assurances on the safety of journalists, severe violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and privacy, continue online as well as offline. Activists, journalists, trade unionists, lawyers, artists, women and ethnic and religious minorities are increasingly being harassed and intimidated, arbitrarily detained under draconian laws and subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, for exercising or demanding their rights.

Ahead of the May 2017 Presidential elections in Iran, the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate is essential. Without it, the possibility of meaningful and sustainable improvements to the human rights situation in Iran is far more remote.

The objective scrutiny provided by the Special Rapporteur on Iran has had a positive impact to date, notwithstanding insufficient cooperation between the government and previous mandate holders. Failure to support the mandate renewal at this point in time would send precisely the wrong message, at precisely the wrong time. It would only serve to embolden hard-liners in Iranian politics, and ultimately lead to the already precarious situation for freedom of expression and information deteriorating further.

Priority freedom of expression concerns

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the detailed attention in the Special Rapporteur’s reports to the present situation for the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and privacy in the country. This briefing highlights many of those concerns, supplementing additional information and case examples in support of the Special Rapporteur’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Islamic Penal Code

The continued criminalisation of dissent and criticism in Iran is in many cases attributed to the application of vague and overbroad criminal offenses for expression in the Islamic Penal Code. While the Special Rapporteur notes amendments to the Islamic Penal Code in recent years, ARTICLE 19 observes that these have not addressed long-standing freedom of expression concerns.

Journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and minority groups are often arrested, and in many cases charged and convicted, for insult and blasphemy, the dissemination of ‘propaganda against the State’, spreading false rumours or lies, and creating “anxiety and unease in the public’s mind” carrying severe penalties including long terms of imprisonment, flogging by up to 74 lashes in some cases, and even capital punishment.  Other often-abused provisions in the Islamic Penal Code often target protesters and civic organisers, in particular on charges of “acting against national security”, “membership in an illegal organization” and “participation in an illegal gathering”.

ARTICLE 19 shares the concern of the Special Rapporteur that the Political Crimes Bill, adopted in April 2016, expands further the government’s legislative arsenal for suppressing dissent, and calls for its repeal.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists

As of December 2016, 24 journalists continue to be arbitrarily detained in Iran. Several have been targeted by hardliners due to their perceived support for the more moderate President.

  • In August 2016, having spent months awaiting a verdict, prominent reformist journalist Issa Saharkhiz was convicted of “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda against the state” and sentenced to 27 months in prison.
  • In September 2016 Afarin Chitsaz, a foreign policy journalist and columnist for the Rouhani administration’s official newspaper Iran, was sentenced to 10 years for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “collaboration with enemy states”.
  • In December 2016, Tahereh Riahi, social affairs editor of the state-funded Borna News Agency, was detained on charges of  “propaganda against the state”, without evidence being provided and without access to her appointed legal counsel.
  • In January 2017, Zeinab Karimian, former reporter for the state-run Mehr news agency, was arbitrarily arrested and is yet to be informed of the accusations against her.

Citizen journalists, bloggers and popular social media users have also been arbitrarily arrested and detained:

  • Hamid Ataee, a news editor, was sentenced to four months in prison in November 2016 for spreading rumours online; he had shared a video on Telegram of an Iranian MP making disparaging comments about women. More than 20 administrators of public Telegram channels were arrested in the past year for sharing “immoral content”.
  • Mohammad Reza Fathi, a blogger and journalist, was sentenced to receive 459 lashes in August 2016 for his online social media posts criticising city officials of Saveh in Markazi province.
  • Soheil Arabi, detained since 2013, had his death sentence for Facebook posts that “insulted the prophet” commuted in 2015, but remains in detention and has been denied medical treatment for seizures.

Diminishing Press Freedom

Press freedom in Iran is heavily restricted. ARTICLE 19 supports the Special Rapporteur’s assessment that the situation has deteriorated in the past year.

Many vague or broadly interpreted content-based restrictions seek to protect Islam from criticism and suppress any diverse or dissenting expression around religion or belief, in particular Article 6 of the Press Law and Article 24 of the Constitution. Prior censorship together with sanctions such as forced closure, disproportionate fines, and prohibitions on individuals working in the press, lead to a media environment almost entirely under government control.

The proposed Comprehensive Mass Media Regulatory Plan, intended to replace the existing Press Law, threatens to make the situation worse still. It introduces new content restrictions which provide even greater scope for politically motivated charges against the media. Legislation establishing a Media Affairs Commission, when passed, will further undermine media independence through onerous, and partisan regulation favouring hard-line and conservative media, and with powers for the Commission to suspend individual journalists from the profession.

Crackdown on online expression

The Iranian government has intensified its efforts to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online. As the Special Rapporteur notes, of 5 million websites blocked, the top 500 relate to the arts, social issues, the news and other popular culture issues.

ARTICLE 19 is further concerned by reports of government sponsored hacking against individuals exercising their rights. Security researchers have uncovered practices such as the use of malware to target journalists, and the hijacking of Telegram accounts, and other sophisticated strategies to attack Iranians exercising their rights online, creating a climate of fear in online communities within and outside Iran.

Controls on users’ access to and use of digital communications tools, including those that offer encryption, such as Signal, as well as social media platforms, have been tightened. Facebook and Twitter remain blocked in Iran, and the government announced in May 2016 that to be uncensored platforms would need to transfer their servers to Iran, making them more vulnerable to government surveillance. Telegram, widely used by Iranians during the February 2016 elections, has been singled out for a new requirement that all public channels with over 5000 followers register with the Cyber Police, and add a government bot as co-administrator, enabling direct access to user information.

The Cyber Police often block user-generated content and takes over their accounts: in March 2016, the Instagram pages of several models were blocked under Article 472 of the Islamic Penal Code which prohibits producing and publishing “obscene images”, and articles 639 and 743 prohibit inciting others to commit “immoral acts”, and using cyberspace for this purpose.

Religious & ethnic minorities and leaders targeted for speaking out

Religious and ethnic minorities are often targeted for exercising their rights to free expression, assembly and association, and frequently face more severe punishments, including execution:

In August 2016, 5 Kurdish prisoners were executed, having been convicted of ‘moharebeh’ (enmity against god). Kurdish activists are often accused of this crime for their membership of political groups. For example, Khosro Kordpour, a Kurdish activist and founder of the Mukerian news website, remains in arbitrary detention following his arrest in March 2013. More than three years has passed since the United Nation’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) called for his urgent release.

In November 2016, Keywan Karimi, a prominent Kurdish filmmaker, received a sentence of 223 lashes. This came after a sentence in October 2015 to six years of imprisonment on charges including of “insulting Islamic sanctities” for a music video clip the authorities found on his hard drive.

There are currently 90 Baha’is in prison, all on spurious charges such as “propaganda against the regime”, false accusations clearly motivated by discrimination on the basis of religion. We welcome the Special Rapporteur’s inclusion of a full listing of these individuals in an annex to her report.  In January 2017, seven Baha’is were arbitrarily arrested in Yazd after masked officers raided their homes and confiscated religious books, computers and flash memory cards. Similar incidents occurred in Shiraz, Karaj and Yazd between August and September 2016 when 32 Baha’is had residences raided, and had all mobile phones and laptops confiscated.

In February 2017, four Azeri activists were given sentences of 10 and 15 years imprisonment followed by 2 years in internal exile for “forming an illegal group” and “assembly and collusion against national security”. They were arrested and detained three years previously at an International Mother Language Day event in February 2014.

Clampdown on Women’s Rights’ Defenders

Arbitrary arrests, arbitrary detentions and harassment against women’s rights activists have intensified since the February 2016 Parliamentary elections, in particular against those associated with the Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament and the Feminist School:

  • In June 2016, Homa Hoodfar was arbitrarily detained on accusations of  “entry into fields concerning feminism and national security offences”, and detained under undisclosed security charges. Media outlets affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards claimed she was “the Iran agent of a feminist network building operation”, and linked her to the Campaign for Changing the Male Dominated Face of Parliament. She was released on 26 September.
  • On 18 October 2016, the Intelligence Ministry raided the home of Alieh Matlabzadeh, a day after her return from a women’s empowerment workshop in the Republic of Georgia. She was summoned for questioning on 26 November and subsequently detained in the notorious Evin prison without charge. She has been subject to ongoing interrogation in detention, focused on her women’s rights activism and the workshop she attended.
  • On 23 February 2017 Kurdish women’s rights activist Farzaneh Jalali, who had previously been banned from higher education, was arrested after being summoned to her local Registry Office ostensibly to correct a mistake in her documents. She has been denied family visits, her medication, and her appointed lawyer.
  • Iran’s renowned women’s rights magazine Zanan-e Emrooz ceased publication after years of struggle with the government over its content. The magazine was finally shuttered permanently in July 2016. The crackdown has also prompted self-censorship; for example, the Feminist School’s website and Facebook page have not been updated since February 2016.

Targeting of Environmental Activists

The targeting of environmental activists has increased in the last year against groups involved i
civic organising, especially against activism by women or minority groups, and against campaigns backed by influential personalities.

  • On 15 July 2016, six environmental activists, were arrested while holding a gathering to discuss environmental affairs and transferred to the Shiraz Ministry of Intelligence detention centre and subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment over a period of 2 months, before being released on bail. Two other activists arrested the next day were later released on bail. One activist arrested, Yekta Saadi, is Baha’i and has been targeted and arrested by the government numerous times since 2011. There have been no charges and no possibility for those detained to access legal counsel.
  • An anti-pollution initiative was stymied in July 2016 when women were arrested for riding bicycles in a demonstration against the use of cars in the city of Marivan. The women were released after signing pledges to never ride bicycles again. On 2 August 2016, a demonstration was held protesting this ban, with women walking alongside their bicycles.
  • On 1 April 2016, 17 environmental activists, among them well-known actress Hediyeh Tehrani, were arrested at an animal rights’ event for “Nature Day” in Laleh Park. They were forced to disclose their passwords for their mobile phones, which were confiscated and not returned.

Targeting of human rights defenders and trade union activists

The Iranian authorities continue to target human rights defenders, prevent the formation of independent trade unions, and subject labour leaders to harassment and intimidation campaigns. Strikes, which are not legally recognised in Iran, are brutally repressed. Recent arrests of trade unionists include:

  • Narges Mohammadi, one of the best known human rights activists remaining in Iran was sentenced to 16-years in prison. Mohammadi is a supporter of the anti-death penalty campaign Legam and vice president of the Defender of Human Rights Center in Iran. She was was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison in October 2011 on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security”, “membership in the [now banned] Defenders of Human Rights Center”, and “propaganda against the state”. While on medical furlough in 2014 she met with EU High Representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton. She was taken back into custody after publicity over this meeting, and tried for an additional ten-years based on the old charges. She was denied proper legal representation, with the verdict later delivered to her lawyer on 17 May 2016.
  • Arash Sadeghi, known for his peaceful activism and arrests since 2009, began serving a 15-year prison sentence in June 2016 for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”, “spreading lies in cyberspace”, and “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic”. Four months into his sentence, his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, convicted to six-years imprisonment for the content of some of her Facebook posts and an unpublished work of literary fiction about stoning in Iran; she later released on furlough after a 71 day hunger strike by Arash Sadeghi. Iraee was re-arrested on 22 January 2017 while visiting her sick husband in hospital, while the review of her case is being deliberately held up in the courts by the revolutionary guards. Sadeghi continues to suffer from deteriorating health following his hunger strike.
  • Activist Ali Shariati began a 75-day hunger strike the day he began serving his five-year sentence, on October 31, 2016, for “acting against national security by participating in a protest against acid attacks in front of [Parliament] on 22 October 2014″.  He ended this strike on 14 January 2017, but continues to demand a judicial review of his case.
  • Esmail Abdi, Secretary General of Iran’s teachers’ association, had his sentence of six years imprisonment upheld and ordered back to prison in October 2016 for “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security”.
  • Reza Shahabi, a member of the governing board of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, was sentenced to six years in prison. His peaceful activism brought about the charge of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security”. He was released on furlough in 2014, but was told to return in January 2016. As of 22 February he has been resisting orders to return to jail.
  • A group of nine protesting workers from the Iran Central Iron Ore Company were sentenced to lashing on June 6, 2016 for “disrupting the order and public peace or preventing people from their business”.
  • Ebrahim Madadi, a labour activist and leading member of Tehran’s bus drivers’ union was sentenced to five years and three months imprisonment in February 2016 for “gathering and colluding with intent to act against national security” and “disrupting public order and peace by participating in illegal gatherings”.

Arrests of Dual Nationals

An increasing number of dual nationals have been arrested in the past year on national security and foreign espionage charges, despite assurances dual nationals could safety return to Iran. Many appear to have been targeted for their actual or perceived political opinions and for exercising their rights to freedom of expression:

  • Robin Shahini, arrested on 20 July 2016, is an Iranian-US citizen detained while visiting family who previously had made online comments criticizing Iran’s human rights record.
  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, arrested on 6 April 2016 and sentenced to five years on 14 August, is a British-Iranian woman held in Iran for months over accusations she planned the “soft toppling” of the government while visiting relatives with her young daughter
  • Siamak Namazi, arrested on 15 October 2015, is an Iranian-US businessman who has advocated for closer ties between the two countries and whose father, Bagher Namazi, also a dual citizen, is also held in Tehran’s Evin prison.

International scrutiny must be maintained

The situation for freedom of expression in Iran requires all stakeholders to speak out during the 34th Session of the HRC, calling on the Iranian government to release all those arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights, to cease the abuse of the Islamic Penal Code and other laws, and to commit to long-lasting structural and legal reforms to protect freedom of expression and information, as recommended by the Special Rapporteur.

Additionally, ARTICLE 19 calls on all states to co-sponsor the resolution on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will be considered at the conclusion of the 34th Session of the HRC. If a vote is called on the resolution, as in previous years, Member States of the HRC must vote in favour of the extension of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.