Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
The government and its agents reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, most commonly by execution after arrest and trial without due process, or for crimes that did not meet the international threshold of “most serious crimes.” Media and human rights groups also documented suspicious deaths while in custody or following beatings of protesters by security forces throughout the year.
As documented by international human rights observers, revolutionary courts continued to issue the vast majority of death sentences and failed to grant defendants due process. The courts denied defendants legal representation and in most cases solely considered as evidence confessions extracted through torture. Judges may also impose the death penalty on appeal, which deterred appeals in criminal cases. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Activists in Iran, the government did not disclose accurate numbers of those executed and kept secret as many as 60 percent of executions. As of October 12, NGOs Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), Human Rights News Activists (HRANA), and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center reported there were close to 200 executions during the year, while the government officially announced only 36 executions in that time period. The government often did not release further information, such as names of those executed, execution dates, or crimes for which they were executed.
On December 12, according to widespread media reporting, authorities executed opposition journalist and activist Ruhollah Zam after sentencing him to death in June on five charges including “corruption on earth.” On December 8, the judiciary announced that the Supreme Court upheld a revolutionary court of Tehran’s death sentence. Zam was editor of a website and a popular channel on the social media platform Telegram called Amad News, which he managed from France, where he lived since 2011 under political asylum. Zam’s Telegram account had more than one million followers, and he used it to post information on Iranian officials and share logistics regarding protests in the country in 2017 and 2018. According to media reports, as part of an Iranian-led intelligence operation, Zam was lured to a business meeting in Iraq in 2019 and captured there by Iranian security agents. Zam appeared on state-affiliated news outlets soon after his detention and purportedly “confessed” to his alleged crimes, before an investigation or the judicial process had commenced. In February, Zam’s initial trial was held without the presence of a defense lawyer.
On September 12, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and widespread media reports, authorities executed professional wrestler Navid Afkari convicted of murdering a sanitation worker, who was also a law enforcement officer, during antigovernment protests in 2018 in Shiraz. Authorities arrested Afkari and his brother Vahid one month after the protests and charged them with taking part in illegal demonstrations, insulting the supreme leader, robbery, and “enmity against God.” In early September the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence imposed upon conviction by a criminal court in Shiraz against Navid and a 25-year prison sentence for Vahid convicted of assisting in the alleged murder, while simultaneously dismissing the brothers’ allegations that security officials obtained their confessions under torture and used as “evidence” against them a forced confession broadcast on state television Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Five UN special rapporteurs condemned the execution as “summary” and concluded that it appeared to have been used by the government “as a warning to its population in a climate of increasing social unrest.” According to HRANA, on December 17, authorities arrested Afkari’s father and a different brother as they sought to clear a site in Fars Province to install a gravestone memorializing Navid Afkari’s death.
In March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces home to Ahwazi Arabs, staged protests regarding fears of contracting COVID-19. Prison authorities and security forces responded with live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 prisoners and injuring hundreds of others, according to Amnesty International (see sections 1.b., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
UN human rights experts stated they were disturbed to hear authorities reacted to these prison riots by using “torture and ill-treatment that results in extrajudicial killings, or [through] executions.” In April, NGOs alleged authorities hastily executed political prisoner Mostafa Salimi, following his extradition from Iraq after escaping from prison during riots. Security forces initially arrested Salimi in 2003 and charged him with “enmity against God” for being a member of a Kurdish opposition party and allegedly engaging in armed conflict. On March 27, Salimi escaped during a riot that reportedly broke out due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Saqqez Prison. He crossed the border into the Iraqi Kurdistan Region before being extradited back to Iran without an opportunity to apply for asylum.
The Islamic penal code allows for the execution of juvenile offenders starting at age nine for girls and age 13 for boys, the legal age of maturity. The government continued to execute individuals sentenced for crimes committed before the age 18. In April, UN human rights experts expressed concern for the up to 90 individuals on death row for alleged offenses committed when they were younger than age 18.
According to widespread media, the United Nations, and NGO reports, in April authorities carried out two executions for conviction of crimes committed by juveniles. Majid Esmailzadeh, arrested in 2012 as a minor for allegedly committing murder, convicted, and executed in a prison in Ardabil Province. A few days later, authorities in Saqqez Prison executed by hanging Shayan Saeedpour for conviction of committing murder in 2015 when he was age 17. Saeedpour escaped from Saqqez Prison during COVID-19 related riots in March; he was rearrested a few days later.
On April 22, the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the death of Danial Zeinoalebedini, who died early April in prison from abuse while facing execution for a crime committed in 2017 when he was age 17. Security officials allegedly beat Zeinoalebedini to death in Miandoab Prison in West Azerbaijan Province after they transferred him from Mahabad Prison with other prisoners who had rioted because of COVID-19 concerns.
According to Amnesty International, authorities executed four persons in 2019 who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes–Amin Sedaghat, Mehdi Sohrabifar, Amir Ali Shadabi, and Touraj Aziz (Azizdeh) Ghassemi.
According to human rights organizations and media reports, the government continued to carry out some executions by torture, including hanging by cranes. Prisoners are lifted from the ground by their necks and die slowly by asphyxiation. In addition adultery remains punishable by death by stoning, although provincial authorities were reportedly ordered not to provide public information regarding stoning sentences since 2001, according to the NGO Justice for Iran.
Although the majority of executions during the year were reportedly for murder, the law also provides for the death penalty in cases of conviction for “attempts against the security of the state,” “outrage against high-ranking officials,” moharebeh (which has a variety of broad interpretations, including “waging war against God”), fisad fil-arz (corruption on earth, including apostasy or heresy, see section 1.e., Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals located Outside the Country), rape, adultery, recidivist alcohol use, consensual same-sex sexual conduct, and “insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini and against the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic.” Capital punishment applies to the possession, sale, or transport of more than approximately 110 pounds of natural drugs, such as opium, or approximately 4.4 to 6.6 pounds of manufactured narcotics, such as heroin or cocaine. It also applies to some drug offenses involving smaller quantities of narcotics, if the crime is carried out using weapons, employing minors, or involving someone in a leadership role in a trafficking ring or who has previously been convicted of drug crimes and given a prison sentence of more than 15 years.
Prosecutors frequently used “waging war against God” as a capital offense against political dissidents and journalists, accusing them of “struggling against the precepts of Islam” and against the state that upholds those precepts. Authorities expanded the scope of this charge to include “working to undermine the Islamic establishment” and “cooperating with foreign agents or entities.”
The judiciary is required to review and validate death sentences.
In late November the Supreme Court reaffirmed the death sentence of dual national scientist Ahmadreza Djalali, leading observers to believe his execution was imminent. A court initially sentenced Djalali to death in 2017 on espionage charges. According UN experts, Djalali’s trial was “marred by numerous reports of due process and fair trial violations, including incommunicado detention, denial of access to a lawyer, and forced confession.”
On July 19, the Associated Press reported the Supreme Court announced it would suspend the execution of three young men who participated in 2019 protests and review their case. A revolutionary court sentenced Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi to death on charges of “participation in armed conflict,” “illegal exit from the country,” “attending protests,” and “sabotage.” NGOs reported the court denied their lawyers access to them during the investigation phase and that security officials tortured them. Moradi said authorities coerced him into giving a “confession” and broadcast it on state television, using it as evidence to convict them.
In a July report, the UN special rapporteur (UNSR) on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman expressed “deep concern” regarding the “lack of independent, transparent and prompt investigations into the events of November 2019.” Estimates from Amnesty International and Reuters found security forces killed between 300 and 1,500 persons across the country in response to demonstrations against a fuel price hike. Authorities reportedly used firearms, water cannons, tear gas, and snipers against the largely peaceful protesters. The United Nations noted that seven months following the protests, authorities had still not announced official death and injury figures.
There continued to be reports the government directly supported the Assad regime in Syria, primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters, which contributed to prolonging the civil war and the deaths of thousands of Syrian civilians during the year (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Syria). According to IranWire, in June pro-Iranian militias reinforced Syrian regime forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in southwestern Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights attributed 89 percent of civilian deaths in Syria since the beginning of the conflict to government forces and Iranian-sponsored militias. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups in an effort to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The government directly supported certain pro-Iran militias operating inside Iraq, including terrorist organization Kata’ib Hizballah, which reportedly was complicit in summary executions, forced disappearances, and other human rights abuses of civilians in Iraq (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Iraq).
In May the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq reported that none of the “unidentified armed actors” responsible for 99 cases of abductions and disappearances of protesters and activists during protests across Iraq in October and November 2019 had been detained or tried. Activists blamed Iran-backed militia groups operating in Iraq for many of these deaths and abductions. Reuters reported that Kata’ib Hizballah member Abu Zainab al-Lami directed sniper shootings of peaceful Iraqi demonstrators during the 2019 protests.
Since 2015 the government has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and proliferated weapons that exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. Houthi rebels used Iranian funding and weapons to launch attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure both within Yemen and in Saudi Arabia (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
There were reports of politically motivated abductions during the year attributed to government officials. Plainclothes officials seized lawyers, journalists and activists without warning, and government officials refused to acknowledge custody or provide information on them. In most cases the government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such acts.
In May, Amnesty International reported on the disappearance of four death row prisoners–Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Naser Khafajian, members of the Ahwaz Arab minority, and Hedayat Abdollahpour, a member of the Kurdish minority. Family members feared the government executed them in secret. On March 31, Silawi, Khasraji, and Khafajian were transferred to an undisclosed location from Sheiban Prison in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province (see sections 1.a., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). On May 9, Hedayat Abdollahpour was transferred from the central prison in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province, to an unknown location.
In late June the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities were holding human rights lawyer Payam Derafshan incommunicado at an undisclosed location since his arrest without a warrant at his office in Tehran on June 8. Derafshan’s lawyer told CHRI the court had opened a case against him on an unspecified charge and refused to allow him to select his own counsel. In May, Derafshan received a suspended sentence for charges of “insulting the supreme leader,” but his lawyer said the second arrest was not connected to that case. On July 8, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to two and a half years, later reduced to two years, for “propaganda against the state,” “spreading falsehoods,” and “unauthorized disclosure.” As of August he was reportedly in poor health.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution prohibits all forms of torture “for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information,” use of physical and mental torture to coerce confessions remained prevalent, especially during pretrial detention. There were credible reports that security forces and prison personnel tortured and abused detainees and prisoners throughout the year.
Commonly reported methods of torture and abuse in prisons included threats of execution or rape, forced tests of virginity and “sodomy,” sleep deprivation, electroshock, including the shocking of genitals, burnings, the use of pressure positions, and severe and repeated beatings.
Human rights organizations frequently cited some prison facilities, including Evin Prison in Tehran, Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj, Greater Tehran Penitentiary, Qarchak Prison, Adel Abad Prison, and Orumiyeh Prison for their use of cruel and prolonged torture of political opponents, particularly Wards 209 and Two of Evin Prison, reportedly controlled by the IRGC.
In March and April, the suppression of riots by security officials in at least eight prisons led to the deaths of approximately 35 prisoners and left hundreds of others injured (see sections 1.a. and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
According to a May report by Amnesty International, Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was severely beaten in 2019. Sepanta was already critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for his spinal cord disorder (syringomyelia). In July 2019 CHRI reported that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” inside Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he trembled and had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta is serving a 14-year sentence since 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
According to a September 2 report by Amnesty International, police, intelligence agents, and prison officials used “widespread torture and other ill-treatment against men, women, and children” in detention following protests in November 2019. Methods of torture included severe beatings, forcible extraction of finger and toenails, electric shocks, mock executions, and sexual violence.
One anonymous protester interviewed by Amnesty stated that IRGC intelligence officials arrested him and several of his friends at a protest in November 2019. The security officers put him in the trunk of a car and took him to a detention center in Tehran, where they repeatedly kicked and punched him, suspended him from the ceiling, and administered electroshocks to his testicles. They subjected him twice to mock executions during which they informed him he had been sentenced to death by a court, placed a noose around his neck, and pushed a stool out from under his feet, only to have him fall to the ground instead of hang in the air. He was later convicted of a national security offense and sentenced to prison.
Authorities also allegedly maintained unofficial secret prisons and detention centers, outside the national prison system, where abuse reportedly occurred.
In early October according to media reports, videos posted on social media and apparently filmed in Tehran showed police beating detainees in pickup trucks in the middle of the street and forcing them to apologize for the “mistakes” they committed. On October 15, the judiciary announced a ban on the use of forced confessions, torture, and solitary confinement, and stressed the presumption of innocence and right to a lawyer. The judiciary chief called the public beatings a “violation of civil rights,” and stated measures would be taken to hold the violators responsible, according to online news website Bourse and Bazaar. There was no information on results of any investigation into the incident, and many of the purportedly banned activities continued to be reported after the order.
Judicially sanctioned corporal punishments continued. These included flogging, blinding, stoning, and amputation, which the government defends as “punishment,” not torture. Conviction of at least 148 crimes are punishable by flogging, while 20 may carry the penalty of amputation. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, from January 1 to September 24, authorities sentenced at least 237 individuals to amputation and carried out these sentences in at least 129 cases.
According to media and NGO reports, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s sentence ordering the amputation of all fingers on the right hand of four men convicted of theft, Hadi Rostami, Mehdi Sharafiyan, Mehdi Shahivand, and Kasra Karami. As of November 6, the men were held in Orumiyeh Prison in West Azerbaijan Province. There was no information available on whether the sentence was carried out.
According to the NGO Article 18, on October 14, authorities flogged Christian convert Mohammad Reza (Youhan) Omidi 80 times. A court had sentenced him to the flogging in 2016 for drinking wine as part of Holy Communion.
Authorities flogged four political prisoners in prisons across the country in the month of June, according to a report from Iran News Wire. On June 8, authorities flogged Azeri rights activists Ali Azizi and Eliar Hosseinzadeh for “disturbing public order,” by taking part in the November 2019 protests in the city of Orumiyeh. Prison officials at Greater Tehran Penitentiary flogged protester Mohamad Bagher Souri on the same day. Authorities flogged Tehran bus driver and labor activist Rasoul Taleb Moghadam 74 times for taking part in a peaceful Labor Day gathering outside parliament in 2019.
Extrajudicial punishments by authorities involving degrading public humiliation of alleged offenders were also frequently reported throughout the year. Authorities regularly forced alleged offenders to make videotaped confessions that the government later televised. According to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, on August 22, IRGC-affiliated Fars News posted a “documentary” on twin sisters Maryam and Matin Amiri, who had participated in “White Wednesday” demonstrations against mandatory veiling. The segment included a “confession” in which the women called themselves “naive, dumb, and passive” and “of weak personality,” for protesting hijab laws. Days after the segment aired, expatriate women’s rights activist and founder of the movement Masih Alinejad reported via Twitter a court sentenced the twins to 15 years in prison and that they were being held in solitary confinement.
Impunity remained a widespread problem within all security forces. Human rights groups frequently accused regular and paramilitary security forces, such as the Basij, of committing numerous human rights abuses, including torture, forced disappearances, and acts of violence against protesters and bystanders at public demonstrations. The government generally viewed protesters, critical journalists, and human rights activists as engaged in efforts to “undermine the 1979 revolution” and consequently did not seek to punish security force abuses against those persons, even when the abuses violated domestic law. According to Tehran prosecutor general Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, the attorney general is responsible for investigating and punishing security force abuses, but if any investigations took place, the process was not transparent, and there were few reports of government actions to discipline abusers.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, the practices occurred frequently during the year. President Rouhani’s 2016 Citizen’s Rights Charter enumerates various freedoms, including “security of their person, property, dignity, employment, legal and judicial process, social security, and the like.” The government did not implement these provisions. Detainees may appeal their sentences in court but are not entitled to compensation for detention.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The constitution and law require a warrant or subpoena for an arrest and state that arrested persons should be informed of the charges against them within 24 hours. Authorities, however, held some detainees, at times incommunicado, for prolonged periods without charge or trial and frequently denied them contact with family or timely access to legal representation.
The law obligates the government to provide indigent defendants with attorneys for certain types of crimes. The courts set prohibitively high bail, even for lesser crimes, and in many cases courts did not set bail. Authorities often compelled detainees and their families to submit property deeds to post bail, effectively silencing them due to fear of losing their families’ property.
The government continued to use house arrest without due process to restrict movement and communication. At year’s end former presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, remained under house arrest imposed in 2011 without formal charges. Security forces continued to restrict their access to visitors and information. In November it was reported that Mousavi and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. Concerns persisted regarding Karroubi’s deteriorating health, reportedly exacerbated by his treatment by authorities.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities commonly used arbitrary arrests to impede alleged antiregime activities, including by conducting mass arrests of persons in the vicinity of antigovernment demonstrations. According to Amnesty International, these arrests sometimes included children and bystanders at protests and were conducted in an often violent manner, involving beating detainees. Plainclothes officers arrived unannounced at homes or offices; arrested persons; conducted raids; and confiscated private documents, passports, computers, electronic media, and other personal items without warrants or assurances of due process.
Individuals often remained in detention facilities for long periods without charges or trials, and authorities sometimes prevented them from informing others of their whereabouts for several days. Authorities often denied detainees’ access to legal counsel during this period.
According to a September report by Amnesty International, at least 7,000 persons were arrested in relation to the November 2019 protests, and at least 500 were subjected to criminal investigations on vague and unsubstantiated charges as of August, although Amnesty estimated the number to be “far higher.”
International media and human rights organizations documented frequent detentions of dual nationals–individuals who are citizens of both Iran and another country–for arbitrary and prolonged detention on politically motivated charges. UNSR Rehman continued to highlight cases of dual and foreign nationals who authorities had arrested arbitrarily and subjected to mistreatment, denial of appropriate medical treatment, or both. The UNSR noted most dual and foreign nationals did not benefit from temporary furloughs granted by authorities to many other prisoners. The UNSR previously concluded the government subjected dual and foreign nationals to “sham trials which have failed to meet basic fair trial standards and convicted them of offenses on the basis of fabricated evidence or, in some cases, no evidence at all, and has attempted to use them as diplomatic leverage.” Dual nationals, like other citizens, faced a variety of due process violations, including lack of prompt access to a lawyer of their choosing and brief trials during which they were not allowed to defend themselves.
Authorities continued to detain dual nationals Emad Sharghi and Siamak Namazi in Evin Prison on “espionage” charges following lower court trials with numerous procedural irregularities, according to international media and NGO reports. Sharghi was initially detained in April 2018 and released on bail in December of that year. In December 2019 officials informed Sharghi he had been cleared of all charges, but he was re-arrested in December 2020 after having been convicted and sentenced in absentia. Authorities initially detained Namazi in 2015 along with his father, Baquer, who was granted medical furlough in 2018 but was not allowed to leave the country.
On February 23, the Bahai International Community stated that a Houthi court in Yemen was prosecuting a group of Bahai under “directives from Iranian authorities.” The Bahai prisoners were deported in July without a review of their citizenship status. Bahais continued to face arbitrary detention and harassment in Yemen throughout the year because of their religious affiliation (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention was often arbitrarily lengthy, particularly in cases involving alleged violations of “national security” law. Authorities sometimes held persons incommunicado for lengthy periods before permitting them to contact family members. Instances of unjust and arbitrary pretrial detention were commonplace and well documented throughout the year involving numerous protesters and prisoners of conscience who were not granted furloughs despite the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prison. According to HRW, a judge may prolong detention at his discretion, and pretrial detentions often lasted for months. Often authorities held pretrial detainees in custody with the general prison population.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The court system, however, was subjected to political influence, and judges were appointed “in accordance with religious criteria.”
The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary. The head of the judiciary, members of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general were clerics. International observers continued to criticize the lack of independence of the country’s judicial system and judges and maintained that trials disregarded international standards of fairness.
According to the constitution and law, a defendant has the right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent until convicted, to have access to a lawyer of his or her choice, and to appeal convictions in most cases that involve major penalties. These rights were not upheld.
Panels of judges adjudicate trials in civil and criminal courts. Human rights activists reported trials in which authorities appeared to have determined the verdicts in advance, and defendants did not have the opportunity to confront their accusers or meet with lawyers. For journalists and defendants charged with crimes against national security, the law restricts the choice of attorneys to a government-approved list.
When postrevolutionary statutes do not address a situation, the government advised judges to give precedence to their knowledge and interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Under this method judges may find a person guilty based on their own “divine knowledge.”
The constitution does not provide for the establishment or the mandate of the revolutionary courts. The courts were created pursuant to the former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s edict immediately following the 1979 revolution, with a sharia judge appointed as the head of the courts. They were intended as a temporary emergency measure to try high-level officials of the deposed monarchy and purge threats to the regime. The courts, however, became institutionalized and continue to operate in parallel to the criminal justice system. Human rights groups and international observers often identified the revolutionary courts, which are generally responsible for hearing the cases of political prisoners, as routinely employing grossly unfair trials without due process, handing down predetermined verdicts, and rubberstamping executions for political purposes. These unfair practices reportedly occur during all stages of criminal proceedings in revolutionary courts, including the initial prosecution and pretrial investigation, first instance trial, and review by higher courts.
The IRGC and Ministry of Intelligence reportedly determine many aspects of revolutionary court cases. Most of the important political cases are referred to a small number of branches of the revolutionary courts, whose judges often have negligible legal training and are not independent.
During the year human rights groups and international media noted the absence of procedural safeguards in criminal trials, and courts admitted as evidence confessions made under duress or torture. UNSR Rehman expressed concerns regarding allegations of confessions extracted by torture and a lack of due process or a fair trial, including in cases of persons arrested for participating in the November 2019 protests. In a July report, the UNSR cited unofficial reports documenting 75 court verdicts against protesters by April. For example, UNSR Rehman cited the case of Aref Zarei, whom a judge reportedly told not to bother hiring a lawyer because it would not help.
The Special Clerical Court is headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, overseen by the supreme leader, and charged with investigating alleged offenses committed by clerics and issuing rulings based on an independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. As with the revolutionary courts, the constitution does not provide for the Special Clerical Court, which operates outside the judiciary’s purview. Clerical courts have been used to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Official statistics regarding the number of citizens imprisoned for their political beliefs were not available. According to United for Iran, as of October 18, an estimated 500 prisoners of conscience were held in the country, including those jailed for their religious beliefs.
The government often charged political dissidents with vague crimes, such as “antirevolutionary behavior,” “corruption on earth,” “siding with global arrogance,” “waging war against God,” and “crimes against Islam.” Prosecutors imposed strict penalties on government critics for minor violations.
The political crimes law defines a political crime as an insult against the government, as well as “the publication of lies.” Political crimes are those acts “committed with the intent of reforming the domestic or foreign policies of Iran,” while those with the intent to damage “the foundations of the regime” are considered national security crimes. The court and the Public Prosecutor’s Office retain responsibility for determining the nature of the crime.
The political crimes law grants the accused certain rights during arrest and imprisonment. Political criminals should be held in detention facilities separate from ordinary criminals. Political criminals should also be exempt from wearing prison uniforms, not subject to rules governing repeat offenses, not subject to extradition, and exempt from solitary confinement unless judicial officials deem it necessary. Political criminals also have the right to see and correspond with immediate family regularly and to access books, newspapers, radio, and television.
Many of the law’s provisions have not been implemented, and the government continued to arrest and charge students, journalists, lawyers, political activists, women’s activists, artists, and members of religious minorities with “national security” crimes that do not fall under the political crimes law. Political prisoners were also at greater risk of torture and abuse in detention. They were often mixed with the general prison population, and former prisoners reported that authorities often threatened political prisoners with transfer to criminal wards, where attacks by fellow prisoners were more likely. Human rights activists and international media reported cases of political prisoners confined with accused and convicted violent criminals, being moved to public wards in cases of overcrowding, and having temporary furloughs inequitably applied during the COVID-19 pandemic (see section 1.c., Physical Conditions). The government often placed political prisoners in prisons far from their families, denied them correspondence rights, and held them in solitary confinement for long periods.
The government reportedly held some detainees in prison for years on unfounded charges of sympathizing with real or alleged terrorist groups.
The government issued travel bans on some former political prisoners, barred them from working in their occupations for years after incarceration, and imposed internal exile on some. During the year authorities occasionally gave political prisoners suspended sentences and released them on bail with the understanding that renewed political activity would result in their return to prison. The government did not permit international humanitarian organizations or UN representatives access to political prisoners.
According to CHRI, on September 26, Iran Writers Association members Reza Khandan Mahabahi, Baktash Abtin, and Keyvan Bajan began serving prison sentences for “assembly and collusion against national security,” related to publishing documents objecting to censorship and organizing memorial ceremonies for association members killed by state agents in the 1990s.
Also according to CHRI, authorities arbitrarily extended a five-year prison sentence by two years against activist Atena Daemi, shortly before she was due to be released in July after serving the full term on “national security” charges and for insulting the supreme leader. The additional two-year sentence reportedly stemmed from Daemi singing a song in prison honoring executed prisoners.
On October 7, judicial authorities ordered the release of human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi. Mohammadi was arrested in 2015 and sentenced by a revolutionary court to 16 years in prison for “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and establishing the illegal Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty organization. During her time in prison, authorities repeatedly denied her telephone contact with her family, as well as appropriate medical treatment related to a major operation she underwent in May 2019.
Lawyers who defended political prisoners were often arrested, detained, and subjected to excessive sentences and punishments for engaging in regular professional activities. The government continued to imprison lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group.
In June, CHRI reported that at least five human rights attorneys–Soheila Hejab, Payam Derafshan, Mohammad Nafari, Amirsalar Davoudi, and Nasrin Sotoudeh–were in prison for their human rights work. Hejab and Derafshan (see section 1.b.) were detained during the year. In late May security officials incarcerated Hejab on earlier charges of supporting dissident groups, after she had been temporarily freed in March. In November the Kurdish Human Rights Network reported authorities charged Hejab with additional crimes related to a letter she wrote from prison marking the first anniversary of the November 2019 protests.
On November 7, the judiciary reported it had temporarily released Nasrin Sotoudeh, amid reports her health was rapidly deteriorating. On December 2, she was returned to Qarchak Prison despite continuing health challenges. In March 2019 a revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing hijab. Sotoudeh was previously arrested in 2010 and pardoned in 2013.
According to HRW, on February 18, a judiciary spokesperson announced a revolutionary court upheld prison sentences against eight environmentalists sentenced to between six to 10 years for conviction of various “national security” crimes. Authorities arrested the environmentalists, including United States-British-Iranian triple national Morad Tahbaz, in 2018 and convicted them following an unfair trial, in which the judge handed down the sentences in secret, did not allow access to defense lawyers, and ignored the defendants’ claims of abuse in detention.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
There were credible reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as reprisals against specific individuals located outside the country.
In August, Reuters reported Ministry of Intelligence officials detained Jamshid Sharmahd, a member of a promonarchist group “Tondar” (Thunder) or “Kingdom Assembly of Iran” based outside the country, which it accused of responsibility for a deadly 2008 bombing at a religious center in Shiraz and of plotting other attacks. A man who identified himself as Sharmahd appeared on Iranian television blindfolded and “admitted” to providing explosives to attackers in Shiraz. The ministry did not disclose how or where they detained Sharmahd. His son told Radio Free Europe that Sharmahd was likely captured in Dubai and taken to Iran.
In November al-Arabiya reported the former leader of the separatist group for Iran’s ethnic Arab in minority in Khuzestan Province, the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), Habib Asyud also known as Habib Chaab, who also holds Swedish citizenship, was arrested in Turkey and later resurfaced in Iran under unclear circumstances. Neither Turkey nor Sweden officially commented on Asyud’s case. The Iranian government holds ASMLA responsible for a terror attack in 2018 on a military parade that killed 25 individuals including civilians.
In October 2019 France-based Iranian activist Ruhollah Zam was abducted from Iraq. Iranian intelligence later took credit for the operation. Zam was executed in December (see Section 1.a.).
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution states that “reputation, life, property, [and] dwelling[s]” are protected from trespass, except as “provided by law.” The government routinely infringed on this right. Security forces monitored the social activities of citizens, entered homes, offices, and places of worship, monitored telephone conversations and internet communications, and opened mail without court authorization. The government also routinely intimidated activists and government critics by detaining their family members as a form of reprisal.
On July 13, authorities arrested Manouchehr Bakhtiari for a second time related to activism on behalf of his son, Pouya, killed by security forces in the city of Karaj during the November 2019 demonstrations. The government previously detained 10 other members of Pouya Bakhtiari’s family, including his 11-year-old nephew and two of his elderly grandparents, to prevent them from holding a traditional memorial service for Bakhtiari 40 days after his death. According to media reports, in December Manouchehr Bakhtiari was released on bail.
According to international human rights organizations, the Ministry of Intelligence arrested and intimidated BBC employees’ family members, including elderly family members, based in Iran. The government also froze and seized assets of family members, demoted relatives employed by state-affiliated organizations, and confiscated passports. The government also compelled family members of journalists from other media outlets abroad to defame their relatives on state television.
On July 16, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Alireza Alinejad, brother of expatriate activist Masih Alinejad, to eight years in prison for “national security” crimes, and for insulting the supreme leader and “propaganda against the regime.”
On August 17, security officials detained and questioned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh’s daughter, Mehraveh, on unspecified charges, according to CHRI. She was later released on bail.
There are currently no comprehensive data-protection laws in place in the country, therefore there are no legal safeguards for users to protect their data from misuse. The online sphere is heavily monitored by the state despite Article 37 of the nonbinding Citizens’ Rights Charter, which states that online privacy should be respected.
The operation of domestic messaging apps is based inside the country, leaving content shared on these apps more susceptible to government control and surveillance. Lack of data protection and privacy laws also mean there are no legal instruments providing protections against the misuse of apps data by authorities.
In January, Certfa Lab reported a series of phishing attacks from an Iranian hacker group known as Charming Kitten, which was allegedly affiliated with Iran’s intelligence services. According to the report, the phishing attacks targeted journalists as well as political and human rights activists.
In March, Google removed a COVID-19 app known as AC19 from the Google Play store. No official reason was provided concerning the app’s removal, although Iranian users raised concerns regarding the app’s security, in light of its collection of geolocation data, and a lack of transparency from the government as to why the data were being collected and how it was being used.
In March, Comparitech reported that data from 42 million Iranian Telegram accounts were leaked online. Telegram released a statement alleging the data came from the two unofficial Telegram apps Hotgram and Telegram Talaei, which became popular after the platform’s ban in the country. There were reports the two client apps have ties to the government and Iranian hacker group Charming Kitten.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government restricted the operations of and did not cooperate with local or international human rights NGOs investigating alleged violations of human rights. The government restricted the work of domestic activists and often responded to their inquiries and reports with harassment, arrests, online hacking, and monitoring of individual activists and organization workplaces.
By law NGOs must register with the Ministry of Interior and apply for permission to receive foreign grants. Independent human rights groups and other NGOs faced harassment because of their activism, as well as the threat of closure by government officials, following prolonged and often arbitrary delays in obtaining official registration.
During the year the government prevented some human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and scholars from traveling abroad. Human rights activists reported intimidating telephone calls, threats of blackmail, online hacking attempts, and property damage from unidentified law enforcement and government officials. The government summoned activists repeatedly for questioning and confiscated personal belongings such as mobile phones, laptops, and passports. Government officials sometimes harassed and arrested family members of human rights activists. Courts routinely suspended sentences of convicted human rights activists, leaving open the option for authorities to arrest or imprison individuals arbitrarily at any time on the previous charges.
In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed “deep concern” regarding the harassment, imprisonment, and mistreatment in prison of human rights defenders and lawyers. He noted forcible prison transfers and lack of medical care appeared to be used as reprisals against activists for starting peaceful protests inside prisons or undertaking hunger strikes (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
According to NGO sources, including HRW and Amnesty International, the government’s human rights record and its level of cooperation with international rights institutions remained poor. The government continued to deny requests from international human rights NGOs to establish offices in or to conduct regular investigative visits to the country. The most recent visit of an international human rights NGO was by Amnesty International in 2004 as part of the EU’s human rights dialogue with the country.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: During the year the government continued to deny repeated requests by the UNSR on the situation of human rights in Iran to visit the country.
On November 18, for the eighth consecutive year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing serious concern regarding the country’s continuing human rights violations, including death sentences imposed following unfair trials and reports of forced confessions obtained through torture. The resolution repeated its call for the country to cooperate with UN special mechanisms, citing the government’s failure to approve any request from a UN thematic special procedures mandate holder to visit the country in more than a decade. It drew attention to the government’s continued failure to allow UNSR Rehman into the country to investigate human rights abuses despite repeated requests, in view of the absence of independent or transparent investigations into the regime’s killings of at least 304 protesters in November 2019. The most recent visit by a UN human rights agency to the country was in 2005.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The High Council for Human Rights, headed by Ali Bagheri Kani, is part of the judicial branch of the government and lacks independence. The council continued to defend the imprisonment of high-profile human rights defenders and political opposition leaders, and assured families they should not be concerned for the “security, well-being, comfort, and vitality” of their loved ones in prison, according to IRNA. Kani continued to call for an end to the position of the UNSR for Iran and asserted that Iran’s criteria for human rights was different because of the “religious lifestyle” of its citizens. There was no information available on whether the council challenged any laws or court rulings during the year.