It is time Rouhani broke his silence on human rights abuses
Tehran Universitys outspoken professor, Sadegh Zibakalam, was asked
recently in a heated debate on national radio why he fought to overthrow
the Shah and endured two-year jail sentence.
Furious about Zibakalams views on foreign policy, especially his support
for normalising ties with the US, the hardline MP Hamid Rasaei sought to
embarrass him by reminding the true origins of his political life – as a
political prisoner under the US-backed Shah – and what he had stood for
then. Rasaei said: “This Zibakalam is different from the one from before
Zibakalam turned the tables on him. He answered: “[Under the Shah] I went
to jail so that we wouldn’t have political prisoners any more. So that we
would have free elections. So that we would have freedom of press. So that
Evin could be shut down.”
Thirty-five years since Iranians deposed the late Shah, Tehran’s notorious
Evin prison remains open despite post-revolutionary hopes for it to become
a museum displaying the despotic powers of the Savak, Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi’s brutal secret police.
It is today home to a large group of people held on political grounds or
because of their ethnic or religious background. They are Iran’s prisoners
of conscience, some of whom we identified here last year.
Iran’s judiciary often blurs reality by claiming those behind bars in
Evin’s political wings are held under security charges, such as vague
accusations of “acting against the national security” or “propaganda
against the Islamic republic”. “We don’t have political prisoners in Iran,”
Javad Larijani, the head of the state-run human rights council, has said.
Earlier this month, Evin’s ward 350 was scene of extreme violence as
intelligence officers subjected inmates to humiliating physical abuse,
forcing them to run a gauntlet of guards armed with batons. Some of them,
including the prominent laywer Abdolfattah Soltani, had their heads shaved
in a move activists saw as intended to hurt their dignity. In solidarity
with the prisoners, many Iranians launched a campaign posting their
pictures online with their heads shaved.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has been mute about the unprecedented use
of force in Evin, even though his office met a number of prisoners’
In fact, Rouhani has maintained a policy of not publicly addressing human
rights issues, some of which have put people like Zibakalam at odds with
the values they fought for at the establishment of the Islamic republic â€”
which was supposed to be a freer and fairer country than that ruled over by
After Rouhani’s win in the election, there was a glimpse of hope as a group
of activists, including the celebrated lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, were
released from Evin. But as we come close to the end of Rouhani’s first year
in office, that promise of change has faded.
Rouhani might have limited powers but human rights violations have
continued under his presidency, as highlighted by the UN secretary-general,
Ban Ki-moon, last month. Iran continues to execute convicts at staggering
rates. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials are rife. Discrimination
against minorities, including Bahais and homosexuals, mistreatment of
political prisoners, and restrictions on freedom of expression, are common.
This week authorities closed down Ebtekar, the third reformist newspaper to
be shut down under Rouhani. Last week, they arrested Hossein Nouraninejad,
a political activist.
Seven journalists and bloggers, including Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, were also
among those beaten up in Evin. Opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and
Mehdi Karroubi, have been held without trial under house arrest since
The violence in Evin, which left dozens with broken ribs, wounds and
swollen bodies, also underscores the challenges Rouhani faces from others
in the Iranian state. Within hours of members of his office meeting
prisoners’ families, Iran’s judiciary replaced the head of state prisons
and appointed him to a yet more senior position, a slap in the face for the
If Rouhani has been impervious to the kind of messages hardliners want him
to hear, there was yet another sign this week of their intent to pressure
him with the release of a documentary called I Am Rouhani. Seemingly
produced to undermine his power, it depicts him as too soft on the
country’s “enemies”, especially the US. It showed how far Rouhani’s
opponents are prepared to go to challenge him.
There are lessons Rouhani should learn from Mohammad Khatami, who is often
criticised to have done and said too little, too late during his own
reformist presidency. Rouhani should learn Khatami’s mistakes, trying to
protect perople’s rights while he still has the massive support given to
him during last year’s election.
It’s time he broke his silence on human rights in Iran.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan
Monday 28 April 2014