Iran’s judiciary convicted at least 24 protesters on vaguely defined national security charges, Human Rights Watch said. Their prison sentences ranged from six months to six years.
They were among more than 50 people arrested on August 2 during a protest in Tehran about deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. On October 28, authorities also arrested a human rights lawyer who had been convicted to three years in prison for reporting a protester’s death in detention.
“Iranian government officials repeatedly advertise to the world that the repeated protests in the country signal that there are real freedoms in Iran, while these same protestors languish in prison for years,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecuting peaceful protesters will only add fuel to Iranians’ boiling frustration and discontent with the situation.”
Three sources with close knowledge of the protesters’ cases told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors charged them with “assembly and collusion against national security” due to “participating in a protest without a permit that disrupted public order.” In the sentencing of at least two people, including Saba Kordafshari, 19, the evidence prosecutors presented was solely their social media posts reporting on the protest.
Two sources reported that prosecutors and prison officials denied the detainees access to a lawyer throughout the investigation and the trial and pressured them to plead guilty. Iranian law restricts the rights of detainees charged with national security crimes to see a lawyer during the investigation period. In June, the judiciary released a list of 20 lawyers permitted to represent detained people facing national security charges in Tehran province during investigations. The list does not include any human rights lawyer. During the trials, authorities prevented the lawyers the families had chosen from the approved list to review the indictments or be present in the court room, the sources added.
On July 31, a wave of protests began in the city of Esfahan and quickly spread to other cities, including Karaj in Alborz province and Tehran, the capital. On August 3, a protester identified by social media accounts as Reza Otadi was shot and killed during protests in Karaj. Authorities announced the establishment of a special committee to investigate his death, consisting of the Revolutionary Guards, police counterintelligence units, and a prosecutor, but have yet to disclose their findings.
Based on officials’ statements, at least 30 people including law enforcement agents have been killed in protests since January, but officials have shown no sign of conducting impartial investigations either into those deaths or into law enforcement officials’ use of excessive force to repress protests. Human rights groups have documented the deaths in custody of two protesters, Sina Ghanbari and Vahid Heidari, as well as an environmental activist, Kavous Seyed Emami, and a Dervish minority protester, Mohammad Raji. Authorities claim the first three committed suicide and provided no explanation about Raji’s death. He had been severely injured during his arrest, on February 20.
In reprisal for exposing Heidari’s death in custody and reporting that his body bore marks of torture and other ill-treatment, including cuts and bruises, the authorities arrested Mohammad Najafi, a lawyer. On July 26, Branch 2 of Arak’s criminal court sentenced Najafi to three years in prison for “disrupting public order through unconventional acts such as chanting slogans” and “publishing false information to disturb public opinion.” He began serving his sentence on October 28.
The court also sentenced 10 other protesters who were arrested during the December and January protests on charges such as disturbing public order and publishing false information to prison terms ranging from one to three years.
Under international law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that security forces should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and minimize injury.
Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are banned at all times, and evidence obtained by torture or other coercion may not be submitted as evidence in a trial. The ICCPR also guarantees the right to a fair criminal trial, including to be informed promptly of the nature and cause of the charges; to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense; to communicate with counsel of one’s choosing; to be present at the trial; and to examine the prosecution’s witnesses.
“Countries that engage with Iran should press authorities for independent investigations into the proliferating number of abuses committed by Iran’s repressive intelligence and security apparatus,” Page said.