Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
The government and its agents reportedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, most commonly executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of “most serious crimes” or for crimes committed by juvenile offenders, as well as executions after trials without due process. As documented by international human rights observers, so-called revolutionary courts (see section 1.e., Trial Procedures) continued to issue the vast majority of death sentences and failed to grant defendants due process. The courts regularly denied defendants legal representation and, in many cases, solely considered as evidence confessions often extracted through torture. Judges also may impose the death penalty on appeal, which deterred appeals in criminal cases. On October 25, the UN special rapporteur (UNSR) on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, told the UN General Assembly that almost all executions in the country constituted an arbitrary deprivation of life, noting “extensive, vague and arbitrary grounds in Iran for imposing the death sentence, which quickly can turn this punishment into a political tool.”
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. NGOs Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), Human Rights News Activists (HRANA), Iran Human Rights (IHR), and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center reported there were almost 150 executions as of mid-August, while the government officially announced approximately 20 executions in that time. Amnesty International and IHR stressed that the real numbers of persons at risk of execution and those who had been secretly executed were likely much higher, since officials and domestic media avoided reporting figures. The government often did not release further information, such as names of those executed, execution dates, or crimes for which they were executed.
In early January IHR and the digital news outlet IranWire reported that authorities executed two Baloch prisoners, Hassan Dehvari and Elias Qalandarzehi, in Zahedan Prison; both were sentenced to death for “armed rebellion” based solely on their affiliation with family members belonging to dissident groups.
On January 30, according to Amnesty International and other NGOs, authorities executed Javid Dehghan in Zahedan Central Prison after sentencing him to death for “enmity against God” based on a “confession” extracted through torture. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court in Zahedan sentenced Dehghan to death in 2017 for alleged membership in the banned armed group Jaish al-Ald and alleged involvement in an armed ambush that killed two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldiers. Following Dehghan’s 2015 arrest, authorities concealed his whereabouts from his family for three months. IRGC intelligence agents held him in solitary confinement in an undisclosed detention facility affiliated with Zahedan Central Prison, where they subjected him to beatings, floggings, and nail extraction. On February 4, UN human rights experts expressed their shock at the execution of Dehghan in an open letter to the Iranian government, which took place despite their public appeal to have it halted because of “serious fair trial violations,” “lack of an effective right to appeal,” and a “torture-induced forced confession.” In the letter they noted that Dehghan’s execution was one of several carried out against prisoners from the Baloch ethnic minority in a short time; at least 21 Balochi prisoners were executed between mid-December 2020 and January 30. Many had been convicted on drug or national security charges, following flawed legal processes.
In a February letter to the UN secretary-general, imprisoned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh asked the international community to “pay attention to the issue of executions in Iranian society, especially that of religious, ethnic minorities, and women, and take necessary measures to prevent such extensive executions.” Sotoudeh cited the case of Zahra Esmaili, who was executed on February 17 with eight other prisoners. According to the United Kingdom-based Iran International television station, Esmaili was sentenced to death for shooting and killing her husband, Alireza Zamani, a Ministry of Intelligence official, in 2018. Media reports during her trial suggested Zamani abused his children and threatened to kill Esmaili. Didban Iran website reported a claim that one of the children had killed Zamani and her mother confessed to protect her.
On February 28, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), authorities at Sepidar Prison executed the following four ethnic Arab political prisoners: Jasem Heidary, Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Nasser Khafajian (Khafaji). Security forces summoned the prisoners’ relatives without informing them of the imminent executions. After a 20-minute visit, the families were told to wait near the visitation center, and a few hours later they were given the bodies of their relatives. Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Heidary in Tehran in 2017, and he “confessed” under torture to collaborating with a group opposed to the Islamic Republic. A revolutionary court in Ahvaz convicted Heidary of “armed insurrection” and sentenced him to death, and the Supreme Court upheld the verdict. Amnesty International reported he was held for months in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer or his family and was subjected to torture and other mistreatment. Security forces detained Silawi, Khasraji, and Khafajian in 2017 as alleged suspects in an armed attack on a police station and military outpost near Ahvaz. Authorities held the three in a Ministry of Intelligence detention center in Ahvaz without access to lawyers or their families and subjected them to torture. Prior to their execution, Amnesty International reported on February 12 that Khasraji, Silawi, and Heidary had sewn their lips together as part of a hunger strike since January 23 in Sheiban Prison “in protest at their prison conditions, denial of family visits, and the ongoing threat of execution.”
In February authorities killed 10 fuel carriers (sookhtbars) in Sistan va Baluchestan Province at the border with Pakistan, who were protesting government blockades of cross-border shipments. On February 22, IRGC units fired lethal ammunition on protesters and bystanders, adding two more to the death toll and injuring many. The death toll was difficult to verify following the disruption of local mobile data networks, according to the United Nations (see sections 1.b., 1.c., and 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
Islamic law 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 age 18. In June UN human rights experts expressed concern for the more than 85 individuals on death row for alleged offenses committed when they were younger than age 18, including Hossein Shahbazi and Arman Abdolali, who were arrested and sentenced to death for crimes they allegedly committed at age 17. According to Amnesty International, their trials included the use of “torture-tainted ‘confessions.’” According to widespread media reports, on November 24, Abdolali was executed.
According to Amnesty International and IHR, in August authorities at Kermanshah Central Prison (Dizelabad) hanged Sajad Sanjari for a murder he committed in 2010 when he was 15 years old. Sanjari claimed he acted in self-defense after the man tried to rape him, but the trial court rejected the self-defense claims after several witnesses attested to the deceased’s good character. Sanjari was granted a retrial in 2015; a criminal court resentenced him to death, and the Supreme Court later upheld the sentence.
According to UN and NGO reports, authorities executed at least six persons in 2020 who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes: Majid Esmaeilzadeh, Shayan Saaedpour, Arsalan Yasini, Movid Savadi, Abdollah Mohammadi, and Mohammad Hassan Rezaiee.
Responding to criticism from the United Nations, Majid Tafreshi, a senior official and member of the state-run High Council for Human Rights, stated in an English interview with Agence France-Presse in 2020 that the government was working to reduce juvenile executions eventually to zero by “trying to convince the victim’s family to pardon” and claimed “96 percent of cases” resulted in a pardon.
According to human rights organizations and media reports, the government continued to carry out some executions by torture, including hanging by cranes, in which prisoners are lifted from the ground by their necks and die slowly by asphyxiation. 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.
According to the United Nations, between January 1 and June 18, authorities executed at least 108 individuals, mostly from minority groups, including 35 for drug charges. 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 also 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 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 was previously convicted of drug crimes and sentenced to more than 15 years’ imprisonment. Prosecutors frequently charged political dissidents and journalists with the capital offense of “waging war against God” and accused 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 UNSR expressed deep concern in his July report that “vague and broadly formulated criminal offenses,” – including “waging war against God,” “corruption on earth,” and “armed rebellion” – had been used to sentence individuals to death for participation in protests or other forms of dissent, even absent evidence for the accusations. According to the report, authorities executed at least 15 individuals in 2020 for these offenses.
The judiciary is required to review and validate death sentences; however, this rarely happened.
In late 2020 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 in a trial UN experts said was “marred by numerous reports of due process and fair trial violations, including incommunicado detention, denial of access to a lawyer, and forced confession.” In March UN experts described Djalali’s situation as “truly horrific” and said his “prolonged solitary confinement for over 100 days with the threat of imminent execution” in Ward 209 of Evin Prison amounted to torture. Authorities were reportedly “shining bright lights in his small cell 24 hours a day to deprive him of sleep.” On April 14, he was moved out of solitary confinement. Prison officials repeatedly denied Djalali access to medical care, which led to dramatic weight loss, stomach pain, and breathing problems to the point where he had trouble speaking, according to his wife. As of November he remained in prison.
On August 29, Ebrahim Yousefi, one of death row prisoner Heydar (Heidar) Ghorbani’s former cellmates, published an audio file describing the marks of torture he had seen on Ghorbani’s body following his interrogation by authorities in the Ministry of Intelligence’s detention center in Sanandaj in 2017. In January 2020 a revolutionary court in Kurdistan Province convicted Ghorbani of “armed rebellion” and sentenced him to death, despite the court acknowledging in the verdict that he was never armed. According to a September 2020 report by Amnesty International, authorities arrested Ghorbani in 2016 following the killing of several IRGC members in the city of Kamyaran. The court sentenced him to 90 years in prison and 200 lashes for “assisting in intentional murder” and “membership and collaboration” with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, a banned political opposition group. On August 12, his lawyer said, “The accusation of armed rebellion against Mr. Ghorbani is not valid because a rebel is someone who is a member of an organization and uses a weapon against the Islamic Republic, and none of those apply to my client,” according to a report by CHRI.
On December 20, the government executed Ghorbani without prior notice. Authorities summoned his family to Sanandaj Prison in Kurdistan Province after his death to view his grave, but the family was not permitted to collect his body.
Media and human rights groups also documented suspicious deaths while in custody or following beatings of protesters by security forces throughout the year.
According to IHR, two days after 21-year-old Mehrdad Taleshi was arrested on February 1, he reportedly died at the Shapour criminal investigation department police station. His relatives told IHR that a Shapour police ambulance transferred his corpse to the Baharloo Hospital, where they reported seeing torture marks around his neck, as well as severe marks of injury on his head. Officials at the police station told Taleshi’s family they arrested him for marijuana possession; the family told IHR that Mehrdad was an athlete and did not even smoke cigarettes. As of August the findings of a postmortem forensic exam remained undetermined, and the family’s complaint to the criminal court had not been acknowledged.
In July UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed “extreme concern” regarding deaths and injuries, as well as widespread arrests and detentions, by authorities in response to protests that broke out across multiple cities on July 15 over severe water shortages in Khuzestan Province. According to an Amnesty International report, on July 22, security forces in Izeh attacked largely peaceful protesters with live ammunition, killing 11 persons, including 17-year-old Hadi Bahmani.
In a July report, UNSR Rehman reiterated his “alarm” that authorities had not undertaken a credible investigation into those responsible for the killing of at least 304 protesters responding to fuel price hikes in November 2019. Instead, authorities continued to prosecute individuals who participated in the protests on charges including “taking up arms to take lives or property and to create fear in the public” (moharabeh), which carries the death penalty, and national security charges that carry long prison sentences. In response, human rights organizations outside of the country held a nonbinding people’s tribunal, called the Aban Tribunal, in London to investigate the killing of protesters and numerous human rights violations that took place on November 15-18, 2019, in Iran.
On August 10, a Swedish court, drawing on the principle of universal jurisdiction, opened the trial of a former Iranian prosecutor, Hamid Nouri, for his alleged role in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in Iran in the 1980s. Human rights organizations and UNSR Rehman called for an independent inquiry into allegations of state-ordered executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, including the role played by newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi as Tehran’s deputy prosecutor at the time.
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.
On February 3, 36 civil society and international human rights organizations published an open letter calling for urgent attention to “an ongoing wave of arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and enforced disappearances by the Iranian authorities” targeting members of the Kurdish ethnic minority. Between January 6 and February 3, the intelligence unit of the IRGC or Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested 96 Kurdish individuals across 19 cities, and at least 40 of the detainees were subjected to forced disappearances, for whom authorities refused to reveal any information regarding their fate or whereabouts to their families.
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 vaginal and anal examinations, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, suspension, forced ingestion of chemical substances, deliberate deprivation of medical care, 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, Vakilabad, Zahedan, Isfahan Central Prison (Dastgerd), 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. Authorities also allegedly maintained unofficial secret prisons and detention centers outside the national prison system, where abuse reportedly occurred.
In August according to the Associated Press and widespread media reports, the hacker group Edalet-e Ali (Ali’s Justice) posted online security camera footage from Evin Prison of prison authorities beating and mistreating inmates, the attempted suicide of prisoners without authorities intervening, and emaciated inmates being dragged by their arms and left in stairwells. Human Rights Watch (HRW) assessed that the leaked footage was “likely the tip of the iceberg” of the abuses occurring in detention facilities, as it did not include footage from two prison wards inside Evin Prison controlled by the intelligence agencies, “where political prisoners often face serious abuse, including prolonged solitary confinement, use of blindfolds, and torture.”
According to a February report by IHR, authorities held a public interrogation session at the Palace of Justice for physics students Ali Younesi and Amir Hossein Moradi, both arrested in April 2020 on charges of affiliation with the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK) opposition group, which the Iranian regime has banned. The session revealed that beatings by Ministry of Intelligence agents of Younesi during his interrogation caused his eye to bleed for 60 days after his arrest. In August 2020 UN human rights experts sent a letter to the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations urging that he “take all necessary measures to guarantee the right of Mr. Younesi not to be deprived of his liberty, to protection from any act of torture or ill-treatment[,] and to fair-trial proceedings,” a reference to his 59 days of solitary confinement and possible exposure to COVID-19 in overcrowded cells. On July 3, Younesi and Moradi were charged with “corruption on earth,” which carries the death penalty, and other crimes. As of November 22, both students remained in Evin Prison’s Ward 209.
Before their execution in early January (see section 1.a.), Hassan Dehvari and Elias Qalandarzehi described in a letter the seven months of torture they endured. Dehvari wrote, “In the (Ministry of) Intelligence (detention center), we were subjected to physical and psychological torture including being threatened with rape, tying us to the “miracle bed” (a bed used for flogging prisoners), all types of instruments, like whips, cable wires, a metal helmet that would be wired with electric shocks to our heads, attempting to pull out hand and toe nails, turning on an electric drill and threatening to drill our arms and legs, bringing my wife and a video camera and [telling] me that either I accept the charge or they would rape her and film it in front of me.”
Judicially sanctioned corporal punishments continued. These included flogging, blinding, stoning, and amputation, which the government defends as “punishment” and does not consider to be torture. At least 148 crimes are punishable by flogging, while 20 may carry the penalty of amputation. According to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, between January 1 and September 2, authorities sentenced at least 77 individuals to amputation and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases. There were no recorded cases of amputation during the year.
According to Amnesty International, authorities flogged Hadi Rostami, an inmate at Orumiyeh Prison in West Azerbaijan Province, 60 times on February 14 for “disrupting prison order.” 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.
On September 9, labor rights activist Sepideh Gholian detailed, in a series of tweets while she was on temporary furlough from Bushehr Prison, the abuse she witnessed of fellow inmates in the women’s ward. Gholian described how the prison warden punished a female inmate for taking a shower “at the wrong hour” by hosing her down naked in a public space and forcing other inmates to watch and jeer. Gholian alleged the warden forcibly sent female inmates to the men’s wards where they were subjected to sexual assault under the guise of “temporary marriages” (sigheh). She also detailed officials’ abuse of an Afghan child living with his mother in prison and the denial of undergarments for female prisoners as punishment, including for some who were menstruating. On October 10, Gholian was rearrested and taken to Evin Prison, where she remained at year’s end.
Impunity remained a widespread problem throughout 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 punish security forces for 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. If any investigations took place during the year, the process was not transparent, and there were few reports of government actions to discipline abusers.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. Prisoner hunger strikes in protest of their treatment were frequent.
Physical Conditions: Overcrowding, widespread infrastructure deficiencies, lack of clean water and sanitary facilities, and insufficient numbers of beds continued to represent a serious threat to prisoners’ lives and health, according to a July report by UNSR Rehman.
Overall conditions worsened significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2020 report by Amnesty International, which cited letters written by senior prison authorities, prisons lacked the disinfectant products and protective equipment needed to address the spread of virus. The letters reportedly acknowledged many prisons held individuals with underlying health conditions, which increased their risk of complications if infected with COVID-19. According to CHRI, the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in July, greatly increased the risks of outbreaks among prisoners. CHRI cited multiple political prisoners describing how authorities had not taken appropriate steps to ensure prisoner safety, such as not disinfecting prison telephones or allowing prisoners to purchase personal hygiene products in Qarchak Prison. CHRI also quoted Saeid Janfada, the head of the State Prisons Organization in Khorasan Razavi Province, who stated on June 27 that “about nine” prisoners had died of COVID-19 in the province since March. According to UNSR Rehman’s July report, authorities claimed “no one had died inside prison due to COVID-19 but acknowledged the death of 38 prisoners or prison staff in hospitals or treatment centers.” Prisoners of conscience were mostly excluded from prison furloughs in 2020, including human rights defenders, foreign and dual nationals, environmentalists, individuals detained due to their religious beliefs, and persons arbitrarily detained in connection with the November 2019 protests.
There were reported deaths in custody and prisoner-on-prisoner violence, which authorities sometimes failed to control. In April 2020 Amnesty International reported at least 35 prisoners were killed and others injured in at least eight prisons across the country when security officials used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress riots because of COVID-19 safety fears. As of September there was no indication the government had investigated these events.
According to IranWire and human rights NGOs, guards beat both political and nonpolitical prisoners during raids on wards, performed nude body searches in front of other prisoners, and threatened prisoners’ families. In some instances, according to HRANA, guards singled out political prisoners for harsher treatment.
Prison authorities often refused to provide medical treatment for pre-existing conditions, injuries that prisoners suffered at the hands of prison authorities, or illnesses due to the poor sanitary conditions in prison. Human rights organizations reported that authorities used denial of medical care as a form of punishment for prisoners and as intimidation against prisoners who filed complaints or challenged authorities. Medical services for female prisoners were reported as grossly inadequate.
A 2020 statement by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed serious concern regarding a consistent government pattern of denying medical treatment to detainees, including political prisoners, which was heightened during the year due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout prisons. The statement called for the unconditional release of human rights defenders, lawyers, political prisoners, peaceful protesters, and all other individuals deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or otherwise exercising their rights. In July UNSR Rehman’s report documented that some political prisoners in particular had become critically ill because they had not received urgently needed medical care.
According to HRW, CHRI, and media reports, two political prisoners died in the hospital after being denied adequate health care. On February 21, Behnam Mahjoubi died in the hospital of multiple seizures. He had been transferred from Evin Prison after the State Medical Examiner concluded he was not fit to be incarcerated. Mahjoubi was a Gonabadi Sufi who had been serving a two-year sentence for “national security” charges since 2020. According to the Iranian Students’ News Agency, Sassan Niknafs died on June 5 after losing consciousness in the Greater Tehran Penitentiary. Niknafs was serving a five-year sentence on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state.”
Civil rights activist Saeed Eghbali reportedly suffered permanent hearing damage in Evin Prison after prison authorities denied him treatment for a ruptured ear drum. Notably, HRW reported that according to prisoner accounts, “Evin Prison, where most high-profile detainees are kept, actually has a higher standard of hygiene and access to medical care compared to other prisons, especially those far from [Tehran].”
The United Nations and NGOs consistently reported other unsafe and unsanitary detention conditions in prisons, including contaminated food and water, frequent water and food shortages, rodent and insect infestations, shortages of bedding, intolerable heat, and poor ventilation.
Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. Previous reports indicated a deliberate practice of holding political prisoners in wards with allegedly violent and dangerous criminals, with the goal of “breaking” the political prisoners’ will. A July 2020 report by UNSR Rehman noted that prisoners ordinarily held in wards controlled by the IRGC or Ministry of Intelligence were moved to public wards after the sharp increase in detainees following the 2019 protests, and child and juvenile detainees were reportedly held in the same cells as adults in some facilities, including Saghez Central Prison in Kurdistan Province. Male juvenile detainees were held in separate rehabilitation centers in most urban areas, but female juvenile detainees and male juvenile detainees in rural areas were held alongside adults in segregated detention facilities, according to NGO reports.
IranWire reported multiple prisons across the country held older children who lived with their incarcerated mothers without access to medical care or educational and recreational facilities.
There were numerous reports of attempted prisoner suicides throughout the year in response to prison conditions or mistreatment. According to a March 3 report by the human rights NGO United for Iran, political prisoner Mohammad Nourizad, who suffered from heart disease, cut his face and neck with a razor in Evin Prison during a visit with his family in March to protest being denied access to medical care. Imprisoned since 2019 for signing an open letter with 13 others calling for the resignation of the supreme leader, Nourizad was released from Evin Prison in July.
According to a June 12 report by IHR, a juvenile prisoner on death row, Ali Arjangi, attempted suicide by slitting his throat and veins in Ardabil Central Prison. Arjangi’s mother, a person with disabilities, was not able to pay the billion toman ($23,700) blood money (diya) to the victim’s family by May 12 for the alleged murder he committed at age 17. On June 30, he was released after charities and individuals helped raised the necessary funds.
Administration: In most cases authorities did not initiate credible investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions or suspicious deaths in custody. After videos of mistreatment in Evin Prison were made public, the head of the State Prisons Organization, Mohammad Mehdi Haj Mohammadi, apologized in a tweet “for these unacceptable behaviors” and promised to “deal seriously with wrongdoers.” Iran International reported that the judiciary began legal proceedings against six of the guards seen in the footage and announced, “a four-member committee to be based in Evin [Prison] to investigate the conditions and management of the prison.”
Prisoners were able to submit complaints to judicial authorities but often faced censorship or retribution in the form of slander, beatings, torture, and denial of medical care and medication or furlough requests, as well as charges of additional crimes.
In October 2020 HRW highlighted the cases of environmentalist Niloufar Bayani and student activist Parisa Rafiee, both of whom authorities had charged with “publishing false information,” and “propaganda against the state,” for reporting abuse in detention, including threats of sexual violence and rape. According to United for Iran, Rafiee was released. As of August 31, Bayani remained in Evin Prison.
According to reports from human rights NGOs, prison authorities regularly denied prisoners access to an attorney of their choice, visitors, telephone calls, and other correspondence privileges. Families of executed prisoners did not always receive notification of their scheduled executions, or if they did, it was often provided on very short notice (see section 1.a.). Authorities frequently denied families the ability to perform funeral rites or to have an impartial and timely autopsy performed.
Prisoners practicing a religion other than Shia Islam reported experiencing discrimination.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent monitoring of prison conditions. Prisoners and their families often wrote letters to authorities and, in some cases, to UN bodies to highlight and protest their treatment (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Although the constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, the practices occurred frequently during the year. Former president Rouhani’s 2016 Citizens’ Rights Charter enumerated various freedoms, including “security of their person, property, dignity, employment, legal and judicial process, social security, and the like,” but the government did not implement these provisions. Detainees may appeal their sentences in court but are not entitled to compensation for detention.
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 are 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 frequently 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 advises 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, which 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 holding 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 routinely 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 2019 protests.
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 were 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 September 23, at least 550 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. Courts 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 were not 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 or “exiled” political prisoners to prisons in remote provinces far from their families as a means of reprisal, denied them correspondence rights and access to legal counsel, 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.
In March, as reprisal for signing an open letter accusing the government of routinely denying medical care to prisoners, authorities transferred Maryam Akbari-Monfared from Evin Prison to a prison 124 miles away from her family. Akbari-Monfared had been imprisoned for nearly 12 years for seeking justice for her siblings, who were disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret in 1988. Authorities originally tried and convicted Akbari-Monfared on charges of supporting the banned MEK opposition group in 2010, on the offense of “waging war against God.”
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.
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.
On November 16, authorities rearrested human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi to serve a sentence handed down in May of 30 months in prison and 80 lashes for alleged propaganda, defamation, and “rebellion” crimes. She was arrested while attending a ceremony in Karaj to honor a protester killed during protests in 2019 and reportedly placed in solitary confinement in Evin Prison. Mohammadi had been previously arrested in 2015, convicted in 2016, and given a 16-year sentence for “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and establishing the illegal Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty organization. After her release in October 2020, Mohammadi led a high-profile lawsuit by civil rights activists against the use by authorities of prolonged and routine solitary confinement in prisons, describing it as a form of “white torture.” She also publicly detailed via a video message in February how Evin Prison warden Gholamreza Ziaei had beaten her for participating in a peaceful sit-in inside the prison in 2019. During her previous confinement, authorities repeatedly denied her telephone contact with her family and appropriate medical treatment following her contraction of COVID-19 in 2020, as well as treatment related to a major operation she underwent in 2019.
According to CHRI and IHR, in March authorities transferred activist Atena Daemi from Evin Prison to Rasht Central Prison, far from her family. As of August 21, Daemi was on an indefinite hunger strike to protest the frequent and unjustified restrictions on prisoners’ telephone use rights. In 2020 authorities arbitrarily extended her five-year prison sentence by two years, shortly before she was due to be released 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.
CHRI reported in July that authorities had sentenced at least three human rights attorneys to unjust prison sentences. Branch four of the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad, Judge Mansouri presiding, sentenced Javad Alikordi, a defense attorney and law professor, to prison for “creating and managing a channel on the Telegram messaging application with the intention of overthrowing the state” (six and one-half years), “insulting the supreme leader” (one and one-half years), and “propaganda against the state” (eight months). Alikordi was imprisoned in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad. He also received a two-year ban on teaching, a two-year ban on traveling abroad, and a two-year ban on membership in political and social groups.
On July 13, the Tehran Revolutionary Court reimposed on defense attorney Amirsalar Davoudi a sentence of 30 years and 111 lashes that had been revoked by the Supreme Court. Davoudi, also imprisoned for running a Telegram channel, was required to serve 15 years of the sentence. As of November 17, Davoudi was temporarily free on bail.
Mohammad Najafi, a defense attorney imprisoned in 2018 for speaking out about the death of a protester who died in police custody, was released on medical furlough in February, according to United for Iran. He was then ordered in July to serve 10 years behind bars on new charges of “propaganda against the state” and “calling for the boycott of elections and the removal of the supreme leader.”
According to CHRI, on August 14, judicial authorities in Tehran arrested six prominent lawyers and human rights activists – Arash Keykhosravi (lawyer), Mehdi Mahmoudian (civil activist), Mostafa Nili (lawyer), Leila Heydari (lawyer), Mohammad Reza Faghihi (lawyer), and Maryam Afrafaraz (civil activist) – and confiscated their cell phones and other personal belongings without a warrant. The six were preparing to file a lawsuit in accordance with Article 34 of the constitution against state officials for grossly mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic and negligence, “causing the death of thousands of Iranians.” Heydari was released the following day and Afrafaraz and Faghihi were subsequently released. They were pressured to drop the lawsuit and charged with national security crimes ostensibly relating to previous advocacy work. As of November 18, Keykhosravi, Nili, and Mahmoudian remained in prison.
According to IranWire, on September 1, Ministry of Intelligence agents rearrested journalist and workers’ rights activist Amirabbas Azarmvand on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and transported him to Ward 209 of Evin Prison. Azarmvand worked on economic and labor stories for SMT/Samt newspaper and was previously arrested in 2009, 2017, 2018, and on July 31 for his activism.
Human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh was temporarily released several times during the year on medical furloughs but remained in Qarchak Prison as of year’s end. A revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh in 2019 to a cumulative 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing a hijab. Sotoudeh was previously arrested in 2010 and pardoned in 2013. In August 2020 she launched a 46-day hunger strike in Evin Prison to protest poor health conditions in prisons.
As of August 31, seven environmentalists affiliated with the now-defunct Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation – Niloufar Bayani, Sepideh Kashani, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, and Morad Tahbaz – remained incarcerated in Evin Prison. According to HRW, in February 2020 a judiciary spokesperson announced a revolutionary court had upheld the prison sentences of eight environmentalists sentenced to between six and 10 years for various “national security” crimes. Authorities arrested the eight environmentalists, including U.S.-United Kingdom-Iranian national Morad Tahbaz, in 2018, and convicted them following an unfair trial in which a judge handed down the sentences in secret, did not allow the defendants access to defense lawyers, and ignored their claims of abuse in detention. The eighth environmentalist, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, was released on medical furlough in March 2020, and Iranian-Canadian national Kavous Sayed Emami died in detention in 2018, reportedly as a result of torture. Sayed Emami died only 18 days after his arrest, supporting the claim that he died as a result of torture. His family’s request for an autopsy was denied.
Hossein Sepanta’s request for parole was repeatedly denied, despite deteriorating health conditions and denial of medical care. He had been imprisoned since 2014 in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz on a 10-year sentence for charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside of the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: In July a New York federal court indicted four Iranian intelligence officials – Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani (aka Verezat Salimi and Haj Ali), Mahmoud Khazein, Kiya Sadeghi, and Omid Noori – for conspiracies related to kidnapping, sanctions violations, bank and wire fraud, and money laundering. The charges were connected to plotting since at least June 2020 to kidnap U.S.-based journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, to silence her criticism of the Iranian government. It was reported that, as part of the kidnapping plot, one of the intelligence officials researched methods of transporting Alinejad out of the United States for rendition to Iran, including placing her onto a military-style speedboat in New York City and transporting her by sea to Venezuela, whose government had friendly relations with Iran. The announcement stated these intelligence officials directed a “network” that also targeted victims in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States and had conducted similar surveillance of dissidents in those countries.
In August 2020 Reuters reported Ministry of Intelligence officials detained dual-national Jamshid Sharmahd, a member of the promonarchist group Tondar (Thunder) or Kingdom Assembly of Iran, which was based outside the country. While the government did not disclose how or where its officials detained Sharmahd, his son told Radio Free Europe that Sharmahd was likely captured in Dubai and taken to Iran. Sharmahd was 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. In April Amnesty International described his detention as “akin to an enforced disappearance” and stated he was being held “without trial and access to an independent lawyer of his choosing and consular assistance.”
In November 2020 al-Arabiya reported that Iranian-Swede Habib Asyud (also known as Habib Chaab), the former leader of a separatist group for the ethnic Arab minority in Khuzestan Province called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), 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 held ASMLA responsible for a terrorist attack in 2018 on a military parade that killed 25 individuals, including civilians.
In 2019 France-based Iranian activist Ruhollah Zam was abducted from Iraq. Iranian intelligence later took credit for the operation. Zam was executed in Iran in December 2020.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: In July the technology news site ZD Net reported a series of phishing attacks from an Iranian hacker group known as both Charming Kitten and Phosphorus, allegedly affiliated with Iran’s intelligence services. The hackers posed as academics at a United Kingdom university in phishing attacks designed to steal the passwords of experts in Middle Eastern affairs from universities, think tanks, and media. In January 2020 the same group used phishing attacks to target journalists as well as political and human rights activists.
According to international human rights organizations, the Ministry of Intelligence arrested and intimidated BBC employees’ family members in the country, including the elderly. The government 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. In June the BBC reported their legal representatives had urged the UN Human Rights Council to act on this issue. The same report noted that in a March 2020 internal survey of 102 BBC Persian staff, 71 claimed they had experienced harassment.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: 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, such as entering “red notices” for dozens of U.S. officials in 2021, including former U.S. president Donald Trump, through Interpol.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens had limited ability to sue the government and were not able to file lawsuits through the courts against the government for civil or human rights violations.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The constitution allows the government to confiscate property acquired illicitly or in a manner not in conformity with Islamic law. The government appeared to target ethnic and religious minorities in invoking this provision.
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.
Two brothers of Navid Afkari, executed in 2020 for the murder of a law enforcement officer during antigovernment protests in 2018 in Shiraz, remained in Adelabad Prison without access to their families or medical care. Vahid Afkari was arrested with his brother Navid and received a 25-year prison sentence for aiding him. In December 2020 according to HRANA, authorities arrested Afkari’s father and another brother, Habib, as they sought to clear a site in Fars Province to install a gravestone memorializing Navid Afkari’s death. Habib Afkari was sentenced to 27 years and three months in prison plus 74 lashes, and Vahid Afkari received a new sentence of 54 years and six months plus 74 lashes, both on vague “national security” charges. HRANA reported authorities tortured the brothers during interrogations and Vahid attempted suicide twice following “severe torture.” On August 23, HRANA reported that the Supreme Court rejected Vahid Afkari’s request for a retrial.
On April 28, according to Iran International, security forces assaulted and arrested Manouchehr Bakhtiari for a third time, on charges related to activism on behalf of his son, Pouya, killed by security forces in the city of Karaj during November 2019 demonstrations. They beat family members present at the time of the arrest, including two children. Authorities threw Bakhtiari in the trunk of their vehicle and took him to an undisclosed location. A revolutionary court subsequently sentenced him to six years in prison, two and one-half years in “internal exile,” and a two-year ban on leaving the country. 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 Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in July 2020 authorities arrested Farangis Mazloom, the mother of imprisoned photojournalist Soheil Arabi, and in October 2020 sentenced her to 18 months in prison on charges of “meeting and plotting against the national security” and antigovernment propaganda, presumably as a result of activism on behalf of her son. An appeals court confirmed the sentence in March. Arabi had been imprisoned since 2013 on blasphemy and other expression-related charges. According to Mazloom, in October 2020 Evin Prison authorities moved her son to solitary confinement. In January IHR published a letter from Arabi in which he claimed authorities broke his arm while transferring him between prisons and forced him to witness 200 executions in the 34 days he spent in “exile” at Rajai Shahr Prison.
No comprehensive data-protection laws exist that provide legal safeguards to protect users’ data from misuse. Online activity was heavily monitored by the state despite Article 37 of the nonbinding Citizens’ Rights Charter, which states that online privacy should be respected.
Because the operation of domestic messaging applications is based inside the country, content shared on these applications is more susceptible to government control and surveillance. Lack of data-protection and privacy laws also means there are no legal instruments providing protections against the misuse of applications data by authorities.
Syria: There continued to be reports the government, primarily through the IRGC, directly supported the Assad regime in Syria and recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters, as well as Syrians, 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 August pro-Iranian militias reinforced Syrian regime forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in southwestern Syria with the aim of disrupting ceasefire negotiations in Daraa. Fighting had restarted when Syrian government forces imposed a blockade on the main highways into the city of Daraa, leading to shortages of medical supplies and food, to punish the inhabitants of the area for not supporting the widely contested May presidential election that gave Bashar al-Assad a fourth term. The NGO Syrian Network for Human Rights attributed 88 percent of civilian deaths in Syria since the beginning of the conflict to government forces and Iranian-sponsored militias.
Iraq: The government supported 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 in Iraq (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Iraq).
Yemen: 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 there. 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 and Saudi Arabia).
In February 2020 the Baha’i International Community stated that a Houthi court in Yemen was prosecuting a group of Baha’is under “directives from Iranian authorities.” The court continued to prosecute the case despite the Houthis’ release and deportation of six Baha’i prisoners in July 2020. Baha’is continued to face harassment in Yemen throughout the year because of their religious affiliation (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Yemen).
Child Soldiers: In a 2017 report, HRW asserted that the IRGC had recruited Afghan children as young as age 14 to serve in the Fatemiyoun Brigade, reportedly an Iranian-supported Afghan group fighting alongside government forces in Syria and noted that at least 14 Afghan children had been killed fighting in the Syrian conflict. In a July 2020 interview by IranWire, a Fatemiyoun Brigade member claimed he had joined the brigade in 2018 at age 16, and another brigade member said he had joined at age 15.
Iran has, since 2015, provided funding and weapons to the Houthis, who launched attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure both within the country and in Saudi Arabia. (See the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Saudi Arabia and Yemen.)
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations. IRGC authorities constructed a new prison near the Zamla gas field in Raqqa, Syria, where most detainees were held on charges of being affiliated with ISIS or espionage, according to the news website Al-Monitor.