From flogging journalists to crushing protests, the 'staggering' levels of repression in Iran

Dissidents, their lawyers, and even lawyers' advocates rounded up, jailed, tortured in widespread crackdown, says Amnesty 

Borzou Daragahi
Thursday 24 January 2019 10:52 GMT
A female prison guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison
A female prison guard stands along a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison

Iran arrested more than 7,000 political dissidents last year in what Amnesty International is calling a “shameless campaign of repression” targeting all who peacefully defy the Islamic Republic.

In a statement issued Thursday, Amnesty described “staggering” levels of repression that show the extent to which Iran utilised security forces to throttle demands for change across the country’s political and social spectrum during waves of protests last year against political repression, economic injustice and corruption.

The year “2018 will go down in history as a ‘year of shame’ for Iran,” Philip Luther, an Amnesty official, said in a statement. “Throughout the year Iran’s authorities sought to stifle any sign of dissent by stepping up their crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and carrying out mass arrests of protesters.”

An offiicial Iranian source rejected the Amnesty report and "its judgements about the social developments in Iran as awkwardly one-sided," saying it struck at the organisation's "international credibility."

Speaking on condition he not be named, he accused Amnesty of ignoring signs of social progress in Iran, being "negligent of the fact that some international players try to exploit any peaceful social demand by Iranian people, a legal and recognised process, as a leverage to create violence, unrest, propaganda, and make that a tool to push Iran towards accepting its illegal demands."

He also cited what he described as US and European support for militant and separatist groups, in refernece to several organisations considered terrorist organisations by Iran that have a presence in the West. He said the harsh US sanctions on Iran have made progress on "social issues" more difficult.

The Amnesty report says that among those swept up by police, semi-official hardline militias, and other branches of the security forces were labour leaders, journalists, student activists, environmentalists, human rights defendants and lawyers, women’s rights advocates, and those demanding equal rights for ethnic or religious minorities.

They were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences or whipped in accord with fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law that reign in Iran. At least 26 protesters were killed, mostly in a wave of nationwide demonstrations that began late December 2017, and nine died in custody.

Among those detained was Mohammad Hossein Sodagar, a journalist and member of Iran’s large Azerbaijani ethnic minority. He was flogged 74 times after being convicted on a charge of “spreading lies,” Amnesty said.

The protests last year, mostly in January and during the summer, caught the attention of the world. They came just months after the pragmatist president Hassan Rouhani won a landslide reelection against as hardline challenger amid hopes for political and economic change.

Unlike the mass uprising that followed a disputed 2009 election, the protests began in small towns and provincial capitals which had long been considered the base of support for Iran’s unique political system, overseen by conservative Shia Muslim clerics since a revolution which marks its 40th anniversary next month.

Last year also saw the coalescing of a movement by women to defy those clerical rulers by removing their headscarves in public and posting images of their acts to the internet. Amnesty counted at least 112 women’s rights activists arrested in connection to the peaceful gestures of civil disobedience, locked up in jail after sham trials, and subject to physical and mental abuse.

Shaparak Shajarizadeh received a sentence of 20 years, 18 of which were suspended. Fleeing Iran while out on bail, she later described torture and solitary confinement inside prison.

Her lawyer too, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was also arrested. This week, Ms Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, was himself sentenced to six years in prison for speaking out about her case.

Religious and ethnic minorities targeted included Iran’s largest Sufi order with some 200 arrested and sentenced to jail, as well Iran’s Christians, and members of the outlawed Baha’i faith. Also rounded up were hundreds of ethnic Arabs, Azerbaijanis, Baluchis, Kurds, and Turkmen who spoke out for the rights of their groups.

Footage of Nazanian Zagahri-Ratcliffe's arrest aired on Iranian state TV documentary

One Azerbaijani activist, Milad Akbari, was flogged and sentenced to jail in part for singing ethnic nationalist songs.

Perhaps the most stunning images of 2018 for Iran watchers came from small provincial towns where people long considered supporters of the Islamic system took to the streets chanting anti-government slogans to protest the country’s stagnant wages, inflation, and corruption.

Amnesty estimates that at least 467 workers, including teachers, lorry drivers and factory labourers were arrested, some tortured and sentenced to lengthy jail terms.

“Instead of ensuring workers’ demands are heard, the authorities have responded with heavy handedness, mass arrests and repression,” Mr Luther was quoted as saying.

“Governments which are engaged in dialogue with Iran must not stay silent while the net of repression rapidly widens.”

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