NEW YORK-BRUSSELS, 7 June (IPS) In one of its strongest condemnation of the Islamic Republic on the human rights situation, an international rights watchdog said Monday that the ruling theocracy has stepped up its crackdowns on political prisoners and suppression of press freedoms.
In a report distributed to the press, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Islamic Republic has stepped up suppression of political liberties and increased pressures on the opposition with an “intense campaign of torture and arbitrary arrests”.
The 72-page report, “Like the Dead in Their Coffins: Torture, Detention, and the Crushing of Dissent in Iran”, based on evidences offered by detainees, documents systematic abuses of political detainees in Tehran's Evin Prison and in secret jails around the capital since the government launched its current crackdown in 2000.
“The Iranian government has intensified its campaign of torture, arbitrary arrests, and detentions against political critics. Iran’s outgoing reformist parliament in May passed legislation to prohibit torture, but without effective implementation, the law remains an empty gesture”, HRW said in the report.
The document contains also a harsh criticism of the European Union’s approach to the situation of human rights in Iran, observing that since the adoption of the so-called critical dialogue with the Islamic Republic, the situation of political prisoners and freedoms have constantly deteriorated.
The Iranian government has intensified its campaign of torture, arbitrary arrests, and detentions against political critics
"Claims that reforms in Iran have put an end to torture are simply false", said Sarah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division.
"More than ever, journalists, intellectuals and activists are afraid to voice opinions critical of the government", Whitson added.
Masha’allah Shamsolva’ezin, a respected journalist who was jailed for two years and now is the spokesman for the Iranian Association for the Defence of Press Freedom (IADPF) confirmed the content of the report, pointing out that many journalists had spent months in solitary confinement under intense psychological pressures, forcing many to leave the country.
“There are these session of midnight or early morning interrogations, prevention of sleeping, long periods of solitary detention without any contact with lawyer or families, but we have not heard of journalists being tortures physically”, he told the Persian service of the BBC.
Former detainees also described basement solitary cells where they were left for weeks at a time without any human contact, and threats by judges that if they did not confess, they would be held in solitary confinement indefinitely.
The report documents the systematic use of prolonged solitary confinement as a tool to break the will of dissidents, and as a means to extract forced confessions. Individuals interviewed for the report, including a number of writers and journalists, told Human Rights Watch about brutal interrogations in which they were blindfolded, physically threatened, and forced to recant their political views. Former detainees also described basement solitary cells where they were left for weeks at a time without any human contact, and threats by judges that if they did not confess, they would be held in solitary confinement indefinitely.
There are these session of midnight or early morning interrogations, prevention of sleeping, long periods of solitary detention without any contact with lawyer or families
“Twice they took me to the courtyard in Evin, where the executions are carried out. They tied my feet. They took off my blindfold. One man was saying: “Tell me why you lied. Tell me what you did.” They hung me from my feet, and they put a bag over my head. For what I think was 30 minutes, they were kicking me and hitting me. They hit my chin, and the skin broke. Blood began to fill the bag that was tied over my head. Blood began to drip on the floor, and this is when they stopped. “The second time they took me in there, they hung me from my hands. They used a baton to beat my torso. They broke my hand, and I fell unconscious. When I regained consciousness, they said, “If you say you lied, we will stop.” I could not speak. It is not because I am brave that I did not confess, it is because I couldn’t talk”, Hossein T., an Iranian university student and activist told Human Rights Watch.
As an example of deterioration of the situation of the press and journalists in Iran, Mr. Shamsolva’ezin pointed to the case of Ms. Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist murdered by interrogators, including Judge Sa’id Mortazavi, the former head of the press tribunal promoted as Tehran and Islamic Revolution Courts Prosecutor by Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i, the leader of the Islamic Republic who directly controls the Judiciary.
On his order, Mr. Mortazavi shut down more than 120 publications and placed behind bars dozens of prominent and influential journalists, including Mr. Shamsolva’ezin, Editor of several popular pro-reform newspapers, all closed down on the decision of the Judiciary.
Human Rights Watch documented the participation of judges in interrogation rooms—often in secret prisons—overseeing abusive and coercive interrogations, interceding with detainees and urging them to sign false confessions, and even issuing threats of their own. “A number of judicial authorities, especially Chief Prosecutor Sa’id Mortazavi, have blatantly abandoned their duty to fairly administer justice and instead are known for ordering the torture of political detainees”, according to HRW.
The report argued that not only the anti-torture legislation passed by Iran's outgoing reformist-dominated Majles in May had not been effectively implemented, but over all, the situation of human rights has deteriorated during the years of Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Khatami’s presidency.
The new report confirms one published last month by the London-based Amnesty International, stigmatizing the Islamic Republic on torturing political prisoners, crackdowns on the press and journalists and abusing human rights.
“Twice they took me to the courtyard in Evin, where the executions are carried out. They tied my feet. They took off my blindfold
The long list of maltreatment documented in the report included arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture to extract confessions, prolonged solitary confinement, and physical and psychological abuse.
"The Iranian government's use of these harsh techniques has largely squelched the country's political opposition and independent media", HRW said, adding that as of June, the Iranian government had closed virtually all independent newspapers, several key journalists and writers had fled the country, many prominent writers and activists had been imprisoned, and scores of student activists intimidated into abandoning peaceful political activity.
Individuals interviewed for the report, including a number of writers and journalists, told Human Rights Watch about brutal interrogations in which they were blindfolded, physically threatened, and forced to recant their political views.
“In the first few hours, it is very hard. You have never been this close to walls in your life. You don’t want to sit, because it is chalk, and you are not used to sitting on chalk. You stand. You pace. You start to get dizzy. After you get dizzy, you lean on a wall. After three or four hours, your legs get tired, and you sit. And then you scream and no one hears you”, Mr. Mas’oud Behnoud, a veteran Iranian journalist described his experience of Evin prison.
“And you feel like they are holding you, like they are physically holding on to you. Your hair and nails grow faster. A lot of prisoners say that solitary is like being like “the dead in their coffins” because we had heard that the dead’s nails grow in their coffins. Even if they had given me something to read, they had taken my glasses. Even if I had had my glasses, there wasn’t enough light”, added Mr. Behnoud, who was forced to leave the country, fearing for his and family’s life, after receiving death threats.
The report documents cases of beatings, long confinement in contorted positions, kicking detainees with military boots, hanging them by the arms and legs, and threats of execution if individuals refused to confess.
A number of former detainees reported that they were treated more harshly after requesting the aid of defense counsel, or inquiring as to the legal status of their cases.
The report also describes in detail the plainclothes intelligence agencies that work for the judiciary and are directly responsible for detaining and torturing those who criticize the government. These agencies often operate outside of, or parallel to, the established administrative structure of government and report directly to Iran’s religious leadership. The members of these “parallel forces,” whom former detainees describe as foot soldiers in the campaign against dissent, have not been held accountable for their acts.
In its report, the Human Rights Watch also called on the 25-members European Union to step up pressure on Iran during the next round of their long-running human rights dialogue in Tehran on June 14 and 15.
"The European Union's weak response to continuing human rights violations in Iran is deeply disturbing," said Whitson, "It's time for the European Union to condemn Iran's record of persecution and torture and to set real benchmarks that the government must meet".
In its last session in Geneva, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights had scraped the Islamic Republic from its list of nations that violates human rights and as a result, a law banning the use of torture has been approved and the judiciary chief has circulated instructions that proper procedures must be followed during arrests and detentions.
“The report, one of the harshest compiled by a respected human rights organization and coming after the one published earlier by amnesty International, not only would place the European Union in a very difficult position, but might give the occasion to the United Nations to replace the Islamic Republic back on its black list”, said Mr. Sadeq Saba, BBC’s senior commentator on Iranian affairs.
According to Emamedin Baqi, a member of the IADPF and Head of the Iranian Association of the Defence of Political Prisoners, there are more than 50 to 55 dissident intellectuals and journalists behind bars, some of them detained on charges not always related to their professions.
“Using long periods of solitary confinement is a tested method to force prisoners to confess what the interrogators wants them to say”, he said.
But while HRW says that it has recorded no real improvement, Iranian analysts say one has to wait until the next anniversary of the regime’s savage crackdown on students uprising on 9 July 1999.
On orders from Ayatollah Khameneh’i and the tacit approval of President Khatami, security forces, police, the Revolutionary Guards and special units backed by plainclothes men of the Intelligence Ministry ruthlessly crushed an unprecedented six-days revolt by the students against the regime after their dormitories, where they were denouncing peacefully an ban on a popular newspaper, was raided, burned down and ransacked nightly, killing and wounding several protesters and arresting more than a thousand. ENDS HRW IRAN REPPORT 7604