Iranian authorities systematically violate people’s right to protest and assemble, deceive and lie about the violations they commit and unlawfully keep people seeking transparency and accountability in the dark.
ARTICLE 19’s report Deceit, denials, delays: How Iran keeps its public in the dark, published today, confirms that the Iranian authorities:
- require advanced permission for all assemblies – in contravention of international law — but do not provide any avenues for individuals to seek and obtain licences;
- systematically deny licences for assemblies that do not align with state policies and ideologies;
- keep the people of Iran in the dark by refusing to release information about assemblies and protests, falsely claiming that such information is classified;
- refer to assemblies they consider illegal and violently repress to showcase their tolerance for protests before the international community.
Assembly and protest-related access to information requests submitted by people in Iran in 2019 – and the state’s responses to them – are further proof that the Iranian authorities systematically violate the right to assembly and protest, deceive and lie about the violations they commit and unlawfully and arbitrarily keep their people in the dark in the face of their attempts to seek transparency and accountability.
The report examines 117 officially published assembly- and protest-related access to information requests submitted under Iran’s Publication and Free Access to Information Act in 2019. These requests asked state institutions for a range of information, including the human rights violations committed during protests, such as:
- the number of individuals arrested and killed during the nationwide protests in 2017, 2018 and November 2019;
- the numbers of assembly licences granted and denied since 2013;
- who has been granted and denied a licence;
- and why licences have been denied.
“The Iranian authorities’ zero tolerance towards protests that challenge them hardly needs any proof. The increasing levels of violence, including unlawful lethal force, used by the state against those who take the street to protest resulting in harrowing killings and maiming of protestors and bystanders – as was the case during the November 2019 nationwide protests as well as during the recent protests in Khuzestan and Isfahan – provide ample evidence of this policy. Yet ARTICLE 19’s research further reveals on-paper evidence provided by State institutions themselves, demonstrating how the state violates the rights to protest and access information and refuting their claims about respecting people’s rights made before the international community ,” said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
ARTICLE 19’s research shows that state institutions either simply ignored the majority of these requests or refused to release the requested information. The few instances where they provided insufficient and partial information are themselves damning proof of Iran’s failure to uphold the human rights of its people.
“The information revealed through the access to information requests studied by ARTICLE 19, and the responses to them, vividly show that the Iranian authorities first ask people the impossible — that is obtaining advanced permissions for assemblies, when the law does not even provide for the issuance of a licence in the absolute majority of cases. They then subject those who have not met this impossible and unlawful demand to further violations by labelling all assemblies that have not received a licence illegal and deploying security forces to repress them, including through the use of lethal force,” Saloua Ghazouani added.
Arbitrary and unlawful denial of assembly and protest-related access to information requests
In 2021, ARTICLE 19 identified and examined 117 access to information requests submitted by people in Iran in 2019 demanding state institutions, in particular the Ministry of Interior and Governors’ Offices in all 31 provinces. Of these, 93 ATI requests demanded almost identical information about the number of assembly licence requests Governors’ Offices had received since 2013, the number of licences granted and denied, what the assemblies were about, who requested them and why they were denied.
ARTICLE 19’s examination of the official records of the responses as published by the Secretary of the Commission for Free Publication and Access to Information reveals that state institutions did not respond to 62 out of 93 requests, meaning that 67% of the requests were simply ignored by state institutions.
Not all ATI requests have been ignored. Information published by the Information Commission shows that the Governors’ Offices provided a response to ATI requests in 31 instances. However, according to officially-published information, in 18 instances where a response was given, the institution in question denied the request on grounds that it was ‘classified’ or constituted ‘confidential’ information; that the release of information was not ‘prudent’; or that it could only be accessed by individuals holding certain positions or it required approval from ‘higher authorities’.
ARTICLE 19’s examination of responses by State institutions also reveals major discrepancies and contradictions. Most notably, while a large number of Governors’ Offices refused to release the requested information on the grounds of this information being classified, some, in a contradictory manner, have in fact released partial information. For example, the Governor’s Office in Qom stated that between March 2013 and September 2018, it had received 10 applications for assembly licences, two of which were granted and the rest of which were rejected. It further stated that during the same period, a total of 288 assemblies were held, 286 of which did not have a licence. The office did not provide any information on other aspects of the ATI requests, most notably regarding the reasons why licences were denied for these assemblies.
Moreover, a number of Governors’ Offices in large provinces, including those in Bushehr and Qazvin, stated that they had not received any requests for assembly licences, while other offices referred to very low figures of requests over the years. For example, the Governor’s Office in Markazi province stated it had granted licences to demonstrations in support of hijab and decency and in support of Yemeni children, while the office in Southern Khorasan said it had only received a request in 2015 for a demonstration by children to promote reading books, which had been granted. The Office in Yazd stated that it had received eight requests for assembly licences since 2013 and that none of these requests were granted.
The contradictory manner in which different Governors’ Offices treated ATI requests about assemblies reveals that no overarching confidentiality regulation governing the release of the requested information exists. Instead, ignoring the requests, and denying them, are part of the Iranian authorities’ tactics to keep people in the dark, including about the human rights violations these authorities commit.
Access to information requests regarding 2017, 2018 and November 2019 protests
The right to know about human rights violations is a human right guaranteed under international law. In fact, governments are prohibited from restricting access to information that exposes wrongdoing, including human rights violations. ARTICLE 19’s research reveals that, despite the climate of fear and reprisals, people in Iran have indeed submitted ATI requests seeking information about protest-related violations of rights, including those that were committed during the nationwide protests of 2017, 2018 and 2019.
For example, an ATI request questioned the Ministry of Interior about the number of people arrested and detained during the protests of December 2017 and January 2019, while another submitted to the Governor’s Office in Khuzestan province referred to reports about the high number of people killed in Mahshahr, Khuzestan during the protests and asked for the latest official death toll. Two requests were submitted to Melli and Sepah banks, both of which are government-owned corporations, asking for the number of branches that sustained damages on 17 and 18 November 2019 during the nationwide protests. According to the official Information Commission spreadsheet, none of the institutions released the requested information.
ARTICLE 19 also identified over 10 ATI requests submitted primarily to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) asking for information about the Internet shutdown in November 2019 that facilitated the commission and concealment of the egregious violations committed by the state, including the killing of protesters. A small number of these requests received some response. For example, in response to a request about the costs of the shutdown, the Ministry of ICT stated that the damage to communication operators alone amounted to approximately US $54 million (10,080 billion Rials) and that the damages incurred by other businesses were still being calculated. However, the majority of responses to these ATI requests were insufficient or constituted refusals to release information on the grounds that it was classified.
“The violations of human rights committed when the Iranian authorities deny permission for assemblies do not end there. They continue with more egregious violations of the right to life and freedom, from torture committed against those who dare to take to the street and the ongoing denial of the right to truth of the victims and the society as whole. The Iranian authorities must once and for all put an end to these violations by overhauling the country’s legal framework and bringing it in line with international law,” said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
Iran fails to fully guarantee the right to assembly in law and in practice. The Constitution subjects the right to assembly to vague qualifications, while further restrictions are imposed on the right by other laws. The 2016 Law on Operation of Political Groups and Parties requires assemblies to obtain prior permission but only allows established political parties to request permissions. There are no avenues for individuals and groups to seek permission, other than through political parties. These restrictions mean that only assemblies aligned with state-sanctioned ideologies and organised through state-approved political parties are legally permitted. In practice, unlicensed assemblies that further the state’s ideologies and policies or do not challenge or criticise them are also allowed. All other assemblies are considered illegal and their organisers and participants face systematic and often violent repression.