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Iran Report: Activists Fleeing the Assault on Civil Society (Human Rights Watch)

Faraz Sanei talks to CNN about the suppression of civil society in Iran over the last decade

On Friday, Human Rights Watch released a 60-page report, "Why They Left: Stories of Iranian Activists in Exile", based on "the experiences of dozens of rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, and lawyers whom security and intelligence forces targeted because they spoke out against the government". 

The Summary:

Security forces arrested Rebin Rahmani on November 19, 2006, in Kermanshah, the capital of the western Iranian province of the same name. He had been researching the prevalence of drug addiction and HIV infections in Iran’s Kurdish-majority areas. Rahmani spent two months in detention facilities run by the Intelligence Ministry, and was interrogated by intelligence agents in both Kermanshah and Sanandaj, the main city in the adjacent Iranian province of Kurdistan. During his time in detention, he was subjected to several rounds of interrogation accompanied by physical and psychological torture. In January 2007, a revolutionary court sentenced Rahmani to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state". The sentence was handed down after a 15-minute trial during which Rahmani had no access to a lawyer.

Upon his release from prison in the latter part 2008, Rahmani learned that he had been dismissed from university and could no longer continue his education. He became active with a local rights group, but was forced to leave the country in 2011 and apply for refugee status in Iraqi Kurdistan due to mounting pressure against him and his family.

Rahmani is one of scores of journalists, bloggers, human rights activists, and lawyers who have fled Iran since the government embarked on a major campaign of repression following the widespread popular demonstrations against alleged vote-rigging in the June 2009 presidential election, which handed a second term of office to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government’s repression has involved a range of serious and intensifying human rights violations that include extra-judicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and widespread infringements of Iranians’ rights to freedom of assembly and expression.

This report gathers evidence of this campaign of repression from some of its principal victims: Iranian civil society activists. Because Human Rights Watch is unable to work in Iran, most of documentation presented in the report is based on interviews with activists like Rahmani who fled the country to seek refugee status in neighboring Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan following the 2009 post-election crackdown. The report focuses on four groups: human rights activists, journalists and bloggers, human rights lawyers, and protesters or persons who volunteered for the presidential campaigns of opposition members Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and were targeted by security and intelligence forces. This report discusses why they left and some of the challenges they face in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan as asylum seekers and refugees.

Although most of the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets to protest the June 2009 presidential election result had not been political or civil society activists, they nonetheless found themselves targets of security and intelligence forces.  After public protests came to an end, the authorities continued their relentless assault on all forms of dissent, targeting civil society groups and activists who had little if any connection to the protests themselves but whom they deemed to be supporters of a “velvet revolution” working to undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic.

Along with members of the political opposition, human rights activists, journalists and bloggers, and rights lawyers bore the brunt of these attacks. Security forces arrested and detained scores of activists, including those advocating on behalf of ethnic minorities, women, and students, and subjected many to trials that did not meet international fair trial standards. Dozens remain in prison on charges of speech crimes such as “acting against the national security,” “propaganda against the state,” or “membership in illegal groups or organizations".

In addition to the several show trials that authorities convened before television cameras where civil society activists and members of the opposition were indicted for attempting to bring about a “velvet revolution", one of several landmark events which cast a chilling shadow over Iranian civil society in the months following the June 2009 election was the so called “Iran Proxy” affair. In March 2010, the public prosecutor announced they had arrested 30 or so persons involved in what the authorities said was a plot by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to destabilize the government. The prosecutor accused those arrested of implementing a plot code-named “Iran Proxy” under the cover of several local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Revolutionary courts tried, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences several of those arrested on national security charged based largely on forced confessions.  

The post-2009 crackdown has had a profound impact on civil society in Iran. No truly independent rights organizations can openly operate in the country in the current political climate. Many of the most prominent human rights defenders and journalists are in prison or exile, and other activists are subjected to constant harassment and arbitrary arrest. An indication of the lengths to which the government has gone to stifle civil society and dissent is its targeting of lawyers who have chosen to defend activists and dissidents arrested and charged by the authorities. In recent years, the pressure on rights lawyers defending activists has been unprecedented. Several prominent lawyers, like Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, traveled to European countries and stayed there after it became clear they could not go back without facing harassment, arrest or imprisonment on politically motivated charges.

Others, like Mohammad Mostafaei and Mohammad Olyaeifard, sought refuge abroad. Mostafaei fled Iran after authorities repeatedly summoned him for questioning and detained his wife, father-in-law, and brother-in-law. He is currently residing in Norway. More recently, Olyaeifard, another prominent Iranian lawyer who represented many high profile cases before Iran’s civil and revolutionary courts, was forced to leave the country after serving a one year prison sentence for “propaganda against the state,” imposed by the authorities because he spoke out against the execution of one of his clients during interviews with international media.   

The targeting of civil society began well before 2009. The election of Ahmadinejad to his first term as president in 2005 signaled the rise of a populist conservative force, headed by Revolutionary Guards and the associated Basij forces (a paramilitary volunteer militia closely linked with the Revolutionary Guards), with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies.

Under Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the attitude of the government shifted from the cautious encouragement of NGOs that had characterized the approach under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohamed Khatami, to one of suspicion and open hostility. The government increasingly applied a “security framework” in its approach to NGOs, often accusing them of being “tools of foreign agendas.” Authorities also suppressed the work of activists by denying permits to NGOs to operate, often refusing to provide written explanations when rejecting applications, as required by Iranian law.

The increased pressures on civil society activists under Ahmadinejad led some to seek refuge abroad. Since 2009, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of civil society activists who have applied for asylum and resettlement to third countries. According to statistics compiled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 44 industrialized countries that conduct individual asylum procedures, there were 11, 537 new asylum applications from Iranians to these 44 countries in 2009; 15,185 in 2010; and 18,128 in 2011. The largest number of new asylum applications was lodged in neighboring Turkey, which saw a 72 percent increase in the number of Iranian asylum seekers between 2009 and 2011.

The majority of Iranian activists fleeing persecution or the threat of persecution registered refugee claims with the offices of UNHCR in Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish government has only been willing to provide temporary asylum to Iranian refugees, contingent on UNHCR’s commitment to try to resettle them in third countries. Some activists, especially members of the Kurdish minority, have sought refuge in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Iranian refugees there said they did not feel fully secure and were desperate to resettle to a third country as soon as possible. 

Human Rights Watch calls on Iran to end its repression of protesters and civil society activists. Iranian activists, government critics, and dissidents should not face the stark choice of risking imprisonment or abandoning their country because they chose to exercise their rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, or association.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to protect the safety and welfare of Iranian refugees and refrain from threats or harassment against those who continue to pursue nonviolent political or rights activities during their time as refugees, and the Turkish government to create conditions that will allow registered refugees and asylum seekers to live and work comfortably while they are waiting for resettlement to a third country. Turkey should also allow Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, access to the country in his official capacity so that he may meet with Iranian refugees and document cases of rights abuses per his mandate.

Finally, Human Rights Watch calls on countries outside the region to speedily process claims of Iranian refugees who urgently need to leave the region and to offer generous numbers of resettlement places for refugees with no other options for durable asylum.

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