Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 - Iran


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrated its 60th anniversary this year. One of its forerunners was the 'Cyrus Cylinder', a declaration by Cyrus, King of Persia until 530 BCE, which is sometimes described as the first known charter of human rights. However, Iran's human rights record today is dismal. In 2008, Iran has continued to execute juveniles, harass activists and human rights defenders, and demonstrated no tolerance toward activists; it has clamped down rigidly on any form of dissent, opposition or organised protest. Charges such as propaganda against the Islamic Republic', 'acting against national security' and 'organising illegal gatherings' have become increasingly common. A Human Rights Watch report of January 2008 quoted an Iranian activist as saying "The articles on security are so general that you can detain anyone for anything and give him a prison sentence".

Key concerns

Death penalty

We have repeatedly called on Iran to abolish the use of the death penalty and yet the overall number of executions in Iran remains high. According to international estimates, at least 320 people were executed in 2008, and Iran has the highest execution rate per capita in the world. Many of the most basic minimum standards surrounding the use of capital punishment remain absent in Iran. Executions have been carried out in public, and there have been instances of mass executions: 29 people were hanged in July and 10 people were executed at Evin prison on 26 November. Sentences such as stoning to death and 'being thrown from a height' continue to be handed down by judges, and the death penalty remains on the statute books for adultery and consenting same-sex relations.

Despite international condemnation, Iran continues the practice of juvenile executions, and according to Amnesty International at least 130 young offenders remain on death row in Iran's prisons. At least seven juvenile offenders were executed in 2008, one of whom was under the age of 18 at the time of execution. The age of criminal responsibility in Iran is stipulated by Shari'a law: age 9 for girls and 15 for boys. However, Iran is signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which set the age of maturity as 18 years old and forbid the sentencing of juvenile offenders to capital punishment or life imprisonment without the possibility of release. We are calling for Iran to respect its international obligations and end its practice of executing juveniles.

Freedom of expression

"Iran is the only country that can ban a journalist from writing for the rest of his life," said Akbar Ganji, journalist and human rights defender, who served six years in prison for his contributions to several reformist dailies.

The Iranian constitution contains provisions that should protect freedom of expression and belief: Article 23 states that "No one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief" and Article 24 provides for freedom of expression in press and publications. In practice, however, those who exercise these rights are liable to arrest and imprisonment, and several reformist publications have been closed down or had their licences revoked. Shahrvand-e Emruz, the leading reformist weekly current affairs magazine, had its licence revoked in October, and a leading centrist newspaper, Tehran-e Emruz, was shut down in early 2008. One of the leading remaining reformist newspapers, Kargozaran, was closed down in December – the authorities explained that this was because it had printed a letter from a student activist group which was critical of Hamas.

We have witnessed that there is an increasing focus on individuals' connections to foreign institutions, individuals or sources of funding. The government routinely applies broadly conceived security laws to accuse anyone from students to women's rights campaigners to trade unionists of 'acting against national security', 'receiving funding from abroad' or 'planning a revolution'. Many of those detained for expressing their beliefs are routinely subjected to physical and psychological abuse as part of the interrogation process. We have received reports of prisoners being kept in solitary confinement and denied access to friends and family, and even legal counsel. Sleep deprivation, beatings, threats and 24-hour interrogations are common tactics. After being held for weeks or even months without formal charge, many detainees are then released on bail or with a suspended prison sentence. The threat of being returned to jail is often used to intimidate them against any further activism or dissent. Many are subject to travel bans preventing them from leaving the country.

Prominent human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi has been subject to a campaign of intimidation since December 2008, when her Centre for Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) was forcibly closed. The authorities claimed this was because the Centre was not officially registered – but in reality the Ministry of the Interior has been sitting on the centre's registration application for years. The CHRD campaigns for human rights in Iran and provides legal representation to political prisoners and support to their families. Many of its members – such as lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani – have been detained in the past for no more than carrying out their duties as a lawyer. International attention has been considerable, and the EU and UN Secretary-General have condemned the actions of the Iranian authorities, which represent an attack on the entire human rights movement in Iran.


Given Iran's history of tolerance and the rich and diverse mix of religion and ethnic groups that make up Iranian society, it is disappointing that members of religious and ethnic minorities are so often subject to human rights violations, including intimidation, arbitrary detention, confiscation of property, denial of education and inequality in legal matters. Large numbers of Iranian Kurd and Azeri activists remain detained on charges of endangering national security.

The Bahá'í faith is not recognised as an official minority religion under the Iranian constitution, and Iranian officials often refer to Bahá'ísm as a 'perverse sect'. Recent information suggests that the situation is worsening with Bahá'ís facing state-sponsored persecution, personal threats, restrictions on employment, expulsion from university and high school, and continued defamation in the media. On 14 May, six members of the Bahá'í national coordination group were arrested: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm. Mahvash Sabet, the first leader to be detained, was arrested on 5 March. They remain detained without formal charges, and have been denied access to appropriate legal counsel.

Although Christianity is one of the three minority religions recognised by Iran's constitution, we have serious concerns about the treatment of those Iranians who have converted to Christianity. We have received a number of worrying reports in recent months about the detention of Christian converts, including Mahmoud Matin-Azad and Arash Basirat, who were arrested in May and charged with apostasy. Ramtin Soodmand was released on bail in November having served three months and after having been reportedly charged with 'propaganda against the regime'. Concerns remain over his future as he may still face charges of apostasy, and could ultimately face the death penalty should a draft penal code currently under consideration by the Iranian parliament be adopted. This draft code stipulates that apostasy, heresy and witchcraft be punishable by death – the first time this would be mandatory in Iran. There is widespread international concern about the impact that these provisions, if adopted, would have on religious minorities in Iran, and the Bahá'í community in particular.


Women continue to face widespread discrimination in law and practice, despite President Ahmadinejad's claims that Iranian women are the 'freest in the world'. Gender inequality is widespread and sustained by Iranian law. For example, unless her ex-husband is a drug addict or in prison, a divorced woman must hand over custody of her sons when they reach two years of age, and of her daughters when they reach seven. Judicial officials often discriminate between the sexes, and sentences of stoning to death for adultery are disproportionately handed down to women.

We are concerned by growing repression against women's rights defenders, who are peacefully campaigning to redress gender-based discrimination in Iran. Negin Sheykholeslami, a Kurdish woman campaigning for women's rights, was recently released on bail having been detained since October and denied access to medical care. Dozens of women connected to the Campaign for Equality (which aims to collect a million signatures in Iran and calls for an end to legalised discrimination against women) face harassment and arrest for 'actions against national security' and 'propaganda against the system'. At the end of 2008, several campaign activists remained in detention without charge or trial. A student, Esha Momeni, was recently released on bail having been charged with national security offences for documenting the campaign's activities for her thesis.

Trades unions

The UK condemns the continued harassment, persecution and ill treatment of trades unionists and labour activists in Iran. This is in breach of Iran's international legal obligations: as a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it is committed to uphold the right to freedom of association and to collective bargaining. This includes the obligation to allow for independent trades union activities, which remain illegal in Iran.

Farzad Khamangar is a 33-year old teacher and union and human rights activist from Kurdistan province. He has been sentenced to death by the Iranian government and has reportedly been severely tortured. Despite international protests his execution sentence has not been revoked. Our 2007 Report drew attention to the cases of Mansour Ossanlou, President of the Syndicate of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, and Mahmoud Salehi, a labour rights activist serving four years' imprisonment for having organised an independent rally on International Labour Day. The UK has consistently condemned their imprisonment for legitimate labour rights activities, and they have been the object of strong international lobbying by international trades unions and numerous human rights organisations. Mr Salehi was released after serving one year of his four year sentence, but Mr Ossanlou remains in prison and has been charged with alleged distribution of propaganda against the regime. In November, Ossanlou was reportedly beaten up on his return to prison after a hospital visit, and his health check-ups have since been cancelled.

UK action

There are countless individuals in Iran committed to improving the human rights situation in their country despite the intimidation and harassment that they face. Iranian human rights defenders tell us that international attention does have an impact on the situation on the ground. In addition to offering them moral support by showing that their efforts and the difficult circumstances they are facing are not being ignored, it has also contributed to positive developments in individual cases such as the commuting of death sentences and the revocation of stoning sentences.

To this end the UK, along with our EU partners, monitors the situation in Iran closely, and adopts a strong public line when human rights violations occur. We have raised human rights concerns with Iranian officials on at least 40 occasions in 2008 through bilateral meetings and with our EU partners, calling for Iran to uphold its obligations under international human rights conventions. We also take action at the UN and co-sponsored a resolution on human rights in Iran at the UN General Assembly in December That this resolution was adopted for the sixth consecutive year sends a strong and consistent message of the international concern at the human rights situation in Iran to the Iranian government.

Forward look

We will be closely monitoring developments in the presidential elections in June 2009, as we have concerns over how free or fair the electoral system really is. The Iranian people deserve a genuine democratic choice about their country's future and the chance to elect representatives with a wide range of views. However, in this election, as in every other, all candidates are subject to strict vetting by the conservative Guardian Council, whose clerical members are all appointed by the Supreme Leader himself.

We are disappointed by Iran's continued disinclination to engage constructively with the international community to address human rights concerns, including refusing to accept formal representations on human rights from the EU, and their reluctance to talk seriously about human rights in any forum. In this context the most significant impact we can have is to ensure that international attention remains focused on the human rights environment in Iran.


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