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Mohsen Amiraslani, prisoner of conscience, executed on 24 September 2014

Yesterday, 24 September 2014, reports emerged that the prisoner of conscience Mohsen Amiraslani was executed under charges of corruption, heresy, insulting the Prophet Jonah and committing unlawful acts, charges that he had been in and out of prison for the past 10 years. The evidence used against Amiraslani was based on his work that was deemed by the Islamic regime to be an insult to the prophet Jonah and for his “psychoanalytical interpretation” of the Quran. Amiraslani’s execution again reminds us of the limited freedom of speech in Iran and the criminalisation differing religious beliefs. As Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM) also point out, it demonstrates the “lack of due process in Iran’s legal system”. Since his interception by the security services, ARAM note, Aslani’s execution order had been annulled three times by the Supreme Court. “A final dispute between Branch 31 and Branch 15 led to what appears to be a speedy decision to perform the execution.” News agencies and advocacy organisations were only informed of this final decision 24 hours prior to his execution, which led to limited publicity and advocacy for his case. ARAM add that “(r)eports from Iran indicate that the saga continues for Aslani’s family as they try to recover his body, amid conflicting and inconclusive instructions from the authorities.”

Amiraslani’s attempt to provide an interpretation of the Quran is an act that is fully prohibited in Iran. Even a reference to the Quran or Islam, which may be seen as inappropriate within the regimes eyes, can be very dangerous act. For example, in 2012, the Iranian rapper, Shahin Najafi, also faced death threats for lyrics that referred to the 10th Shia Imam, Ali Ibn Muhammad – a response that was totally unsuspected by the rapper who is currently in exile. Najafi’s satirical song sparked an uproar amongst religious conservatives in Iran leading to the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem issuing a fatwa “declaring the singer an apostate”.

Since the revolution the number of executions that have been based on insults against the Quran and Islam have unfortunately been high. The execution of Amiraslani is yet another reminder of the harsh and unwarranted punishment for acts of free expression or interpretation of religion in Iran.

Further bad news came as the campaign continued for the release of British-Iranian, Ghoncheh Ghavami. The Guardian reports that Ghavami was informed for the first time after 3 months in prison that she had been formally charged with “propaganda against the regime”. This after only attempting to enter a volleyball match… Her brother revealed to the Guardian that her case is to be heard in Tehran’s notorious Revolutionary Court that deals with sensitive national security cases. Ghavami’s family has been in distress and for the last three months, with her father, a surgeon, being unable to work under the current conditions. It seems that Ghavami’s dual nationality may have been the trigger for her re-arrest and the new charges against her.  The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has raised her case with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, at the UN in New York on Monday, yet no response has been given.

Ghavami’s sentence, which has been perplexing for most due the simplicity of the act she was performing, is reminiscent of Jason Rezaian’s and Yeganeh Salehi arrests who were arrested on July 22 of this year, after having their homes raided and their belonging confiscated by security forces. Payvand reports that since their arrest the couple have suffered from “shocking” weight loss leading to concerns for their health in prison. Their official charges have not been released, yet Iran’s Foreign Minister has said the couple know their charges and are aware that they will be charged as Iranian citizens – again meaning that there is no method for them to gain consular assistance from the US. Their arrests come despite the couple both having licences for their work as correspondents for Washington Post and the UAE’s National newspaper in Iran.

These increasingly harsh sentences are coming at a time of the moderate President Rouhani who in his election campaign, now more than a year ago, promised a better atmosphere for the freedom of expression. This has unfortunately not been the case even during this period where Rouhani is making a historic trip to New York City for the UN General Assembly.

Jila Baniyaghoob, an Iranian journalist and activist for freedom of speech in Iran, reflected these concerns in a recent interview with the Guardian; Jila notes that there has been no change for Iranians:

“Nothing has changed. Freedom of speech and the press are no better than before. My husband and I are a good example. I’m still banned from writing. I’m still banned even though Rouhani said in a television interview here that the issue has been resolved. He said no one in the country is banned from writing. That night I wrote something to Rouhani on my Facebook page: ‘Mr President, I, Jila Baniyaghoob, have been tried by the revolutionary court and banned from writing and journalism for 30 years. I remain banned.’ My post was shared widely and quoted by the press.

I still never got an answer.”

This interview was conducted to discuss Jila’s book “Women of Evin: Ward 209” where she reminisces about her time in Evin prison, alongside other female activists, showing the harrowing torment these women suffer on a daily bases. This book brings focus on the women’s rights issues that are prevalent for Iran’s political prisoners.

With increasing tensions and a rise in arrest, freedom of expression has been slowly squeezed out. Yet, time has come again for Iran’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is an important way the United Nations helps promote human rights worldwide. The UPR conducts a review of an UN member state’s human rights record around every 4 years. This is a voluntary process that takes place at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During this UPR, the member state which is under review is given recommendations by other states.  In 2012, in Iran’s first review, it received 212 recommendations from 51 countries and accepted 126. Yet, many of these promises have obviously not been fulfilled. For a clear outline of which recommendation have been implemented, the UPR Iran has created an accessible infographic. As seen, only 5 of the 112 accepted recommendations have been implemented.

As a result, a joint letter was issued on behalf of a number of human rights and civil society groups – which includes ARTICLE19 – to the Iranian authorities on the 23rd of this month urging Iran for an “open, full, and effective cooperation with the United Nations Special Procedures, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” This letter reminds Iran of its standing invitation issue to the Special Procedures in 2002. Yet, despite this standing invitation, Iran has not permitted any special procedure to visit Iran in nearly a decade (since 2005), regardless of Iran’s commitment to cooperate in the Special Procedures during the UPR processes in 2009 and 2010. To read the full letter please visit the Iran Press Watch here.

Whether there will be a change in tone in this year’s review will need to be seen, but it is clear that further pressure needs to be placed on Iran to respect the right to free expression and uphold the promises made in such sessions.


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