FPI Fact Sheet: Iran’s Human Rights Violations Under Rouhani

June 9, 2014

By FPI Senior Policy Analyst Patrick Christy & Policy Director Robert Zarate

While U.S. policymakers and lawmakers are focused on reversing Iran’s nuclear threat, Iran continues to pose other serious challenges to America’s national security interests and core values.  This fact sheet focuses on Iran’s human rights record since Hassan Rouhani assumed the regime’s presidency under Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei.

I.  Overview

The Iranian regime’s systematic violations of human rights have continued since President Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August 2013.  As the U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices noted in February 2014:  “The most egregious human rights problems were the government’s manipulation of the electoral process, which severely limited citizens’ right to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; and disregard for the physical integrity of persons whom it arbitrarily and unlawfully detained, tortured, or killed.”

  • Under Rouhani, Iran holds roughly 900 political prisoners, including reform activists, human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, and students.  Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, warned in a March 2014 statement:  “hundreds of individuals reportedly remain in some form of confinement for exercising their fundamental rights; including some 39 journalists and bloggers, 92 human rights defenders, 179 Baha’i, 98 Sunni Muslims, 49 Christians, and 14 Dervish Muslims.  It is also distressing that the leaders of the Green Movement, Mr. Mir Hussain Mosavi and Mr. Mehdi Keroubi remain in detention after three years in the absence of charges.”
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported in December 2013 that the Iranian regime “continued to make new arrests and to condemn minority and reformist journalists to lengthy prison sentences despite the election in June of a new president, Hassan Rouhani,” adding that Iranian authorities were holding at least 35 journalists in prison, the second-highest total in the world.
  • Being an LGBT person in Iran “may be punishable by death or flogging.”  As the U.S. State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices noted in February 2014:  “The law [in Iran] criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity, which may be punishable by death or flogging.  Security forces harassed, arrested, and detained individuals they suspected of being gay.  In some cases security forces raided houses and monitored internet sites for information on LGBT persons.  Those accused of sodomy often faced summary trials, and evidentiary standards were not always met.”

The Iranian regime executed more people per capita than any other country, executing as many as 687 people in 2013—an increase of 165 over the prior year.  In March 2014, Reuters quoted Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, as saying:  "I am still at a loss to understand how a reformist president should be in office and see such a sharp rise in executions.  The government hasn't given an explanation, which I would like to hear.”

  • The United Nations cited an increase in the rate of executions in Iran under Rouhani’s presidency in the second half of 2013.  As the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted in an April 2014 report:  “An escalation in executions, including of political prisoners and individuals belonging to ethnic minority groups such as Baloch, Ahwazi Arabs and Kurds, was notable in the second half of 2013.  At least 500 persons are known to have been executed in 2013, including 57 in public.  According to some sources, the figure may be as high as 625.”
  • Hashem Shaabani Nejad, an Iranian poet, was executed in January for charges that included “waging war on god.”  As the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) reported in January 2014:  “According to an IHRDC source, intelligence officials called the homes of these two individuals on January 29 and informed their families that they have been executed.  The second branch of the Ahvaz Islamic Revolutionary Court had sentenced them to death on charges of muharibih (or ‘waging war on God’), sowing corruption on earth, propaganda against the Islamic Republic and acting against national security.  Mr. Rashedi and Mr. Sha’baninejad were teachers from the town of Ramshir in Khuzestan Province.”
  • Under Rouhani, Iranian authorities have executed more than two people per day in 2014.  As Iran Human Rights reported in June 2014:  “at least 320 prisoners have been executed in 2014 in Iran. Iranian official sources have announced at least 147 executions in the period between 1. January and 1. June 2014.  In addition, more than 180 executions have been reported by human rights groups and not announced by the official sources.  Based on these numbers, the Iranian authorities have executed in average, more than 2 people every day in the first five months of 2014.  This is despite the fact that there has been a 3 week’s halt in the executions around the Iranian New Year in March.”

II.  Religious Persecution and Political Repression

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2014 Annual Report listed Iran among the worst violators of religious freedom, writing:  “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”

  • Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated in its World Report 2014 that the Iranian regime “denies freedom of religion to adherents of the Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, and discriminates against them.”  In May 2014, HRW reported:  “The Baha’i International Community says that as of December 2013, there are 136 Baha’is that are in prison in Iran solely on religious grounds.  Among those are the seven former Baha’i leaders, who are nearly six years into 20-year sentences in a trial that fell short of international standards.”

Iran has kept under house arrest leading opposition figures such as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi whom the regime detained after they called for street protests in February 2011.  As Human Rights Watch stated in January 2014:  “Authorities have released some prominent political prisoners but executions continued at high rates.  Officials continued to detain many civil society activists and leading opposition figures, including the 2009 presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi; and the government denied entry to the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.”

  • Neither candidate has been charged with a crime.  As the Guardian reported in May 2014:  “Both Mousavi and Karroubi are suffering age-related medical complications:  both are over 70 and were taken to hospital a number of times last year.  Neither has been put on trial nor publicly charged....”

Iran’s judiciary and laws are used by the regime in Tehran to silence perceived critics.  As Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, said in March 2014:  “Iran is still overlaid by very draconian, as it were, sorts of practices in the judiciary, the intelligence officials (and) the Revolutionary Guard in a system that is actually working to suppress the rights of people.”

  • Iranian authorities use cruel and degrading punishments prohibited under international law.  The U.N.’s April 7th Report of the Secretary-General states:  “The recurrence of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, such as amputation of limbs and flogging remains a cause for concern.  The judiciary has frequently applied punishments which are prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a State party.  The revised Islamic Penal Code provides for limb amputations for offences including muharaba [enmity or war against God] and theft, and flogging for drinking alcohol, theft and certain sexual offences.”
  • Laws are “seemingly flouted by individuals and groups with impunity.”  Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, warned in March 2014 that “despite the existence of laws and provisions, in practice these laws are seemingly flouted by individuals and groups with impunity.”
  • International lawmakers warn Rouhani’s appointee as justice minister has been implicated in major human rights abuses.  As Irwin Cotler, Member of the Canadian Parliament, wrote in May 2014:  “There is a complete absence of judicial independence and rule of law in Iran. Indeed, the entire legal system is designed to enable and enforce the regime’s massive repression of human rights, and underpinning a culture of impunity for its violators.  In this regard, it is outrageous that Rouhani’s appointee as justice minister is Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi – a man implicated in a litany of major human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre of 5,000 political prisoners.”
  • In April 2014, dozens in the political prisoner block of Tehran’s Evin Prison were beaten, denied medical care, or placed in solitary confinement, according to reports.  As Amnesty International stated in May 2014:  “According to information available to Amnesty International, prison guards blindfolded and handcuffed many prisoners before forcing them to run the gauntlet of the ‘baton tunnel’, where they were repeatedly struck on their backs, heads and faces.  Some were then taken by minibus to another section of Evin Prison, Section 240, which is used to hold prisoners in solitary confinement.  They did not receive medical attention, despite their injuries, but rather were subjected to forcible shaving of their heads and facial hair and then placed in solitary confinement.”

The Iranian regime continues to limit the public’s freedom of expression and public access to information.  As the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance reported in March 2014:  “The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, command one of the world’s most extensive Internet tracking and censorship operations.  For years, Twitter, Facebook, and millions of smaller websites have been blocked.  Internet users have been dogged by surveillance, intimated by cyber police, and arrested for their online activities, particularly those deemed to be critical of the government or contrary to official interpretations of Islam.”

  • Freedom House’s 2014 report Freedom in the World rated Iran “not free,” writing:  “Freedom of expression is severely limited.  The government directly controls all television and radio broadcasting.  Satellite dishes are popular, despite being illegal.  Censorship, both official and self-imposed, is widespread, and cooperation with Persian-language satellite news channels based abroad is banned.”
  • Attacks against online users in Iran are on the rise.  As the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance noted in March 2014:  “When Rouhani won a surprise victory in June 2013, optimism swept the Iranian blogosphere…  Months later, hope for a freer Internet has faded.  Attacks against online users are escalating and, so far, the president has not spoken out publicly in their behalf. ‘Censorship of the Internet has only gotten worse, but it’s more and more clear that Rouhani does not have complete control over this process,’ said cyber security expert Collin Anderson who has conducted research on Iran’s Internet infrastructure.”
  • In May 2014, the Iranian regime reportedly sentenced eight Facebook users to prison terms ranging between seven and 20 years.  As The New York Times reported on May 27th:  “Kaleme, an opposition website based abroad, reported on Tuesday that a judge in a Tehran revolutionary court had convicted eight Facebook users of numerous offenses, including propaganda against the state, insulting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, blasphemy and spreading falsehoods.  All were arrested by the cybercrime unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards last year, the website reported, and received unusually tough sentences, ranging from seven to 20 years.”

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