The meeting place of human rights and criminal justice in Iran is like a dark and frightening alley. It’s a country where dissidents are quietly disappeared, flogging is a common sentence of the courts, and hangings are still carried out in public plazas. Most recently, the country’s draconian penal system has attracted international opprobrium with the detention of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife journalist Yeganeh Salehi, along with two as yet unnamed photographers—all of them dual American citizens.
The four were arrested in Tehran on July 22 for reasons unknown. One photojournalist was released soon afterwards, but the other three have been held ever since, cut off from all contact with family, lawyers or employers.
On Monday, after almost a month of barely acknowledging the journalists’ incarceration (they were taken in “for some questioning,” an official confirmed), a spokesman for the Iranian judiciary issued a statement almost as opaque as its silence: “The reason behind their detention is not financial but security issues,” he said.
The mysterious and arbitrary arrests are just the latest mistreatment of those who do not toe the party line in a country where, in fact, that line often is hard to define because of conflicting parties with conflicting agendas. Any critique may be treated as a security issue or an offense against the faith. And this from a zealous judiciary that doesn’t hesitate to threaten, and sometimes carry out, executions of minors and relentless persecution of homosexuals.
In many cases Iranian law enforcement is using the reasoning of national security interests as explanation for detentions that violate basic human rights. Just four days after Rezaian, Salehi, and the photographers’ detention, another journalist was handed a six-year sentence for “meeting and plotting against the Islamic Republic” and “anti-government publicity.”
"Revolutionary court prosecutors often use vague and overly broad charges such as ‘assembly and collusion against the national security,’ ‘propaganda against the state,’ and ‘insulting’ government leaders and officials to go after speech and content they disapprove of,” says Faraz Sanei, the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch. “And revolutionary courts often convict and sentence journalists to prison on these baseless charges.”
A new report by Human Rights Watch released Tuesday is damning. It lays bare allegations of torture, unlawful detention, and unfair trials. According to the watchdog group, this systemic abuse has led to hundreds of political prisoners being detained across the country.
In “Locked Up in Karaj,” HRW provides a thorough investigation into 189 political prisoners—including 25 facing “imminent risk of execution”—being held in three prisons in Karaj, a city not far from Tehran. What it found, unsurprisingly, was that at least 126 of these dissidents, journalists, community leaders, and religious figures were unlawfully locked up simply for exercising their basic human rights of free speech or freedom of assembly.
Included in this prisoner count are nine reporters and bloggers whose cases resonate with similarities to the most recent detentions. Masoud Bastani was a reporter for a news site called Jomhuriyat before his arrest in 2009 and subsequent six-year sentence for “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion against the national security.” Many of the others were arbitrarily sentenced under similar charges of “acting” or “conspiring” against national security. Often, information about the prisoners’ whereabouts or cause for detention remain undisclosed even to their families.
Sanai says that HRW “has documented countless instances were Iranian authorities have targeted journalists simply for doing their job.”
In June, the Committee to Protect Journalists marked a five-year-long crackdown on journalists working in Iranian media with a nearly month-long social media protest. In 2009, as 39 journalists languished in jail, Iran became the world’s worst media jailer and little has changed since. “What was once unprecedented has simply become the new normal,” the campaign report said. Now, at least 58 journalists currently are being detained in notoriously harsh Iranian prisons—in 2012, a blogger named Sattar Beheshti died during an interrogation at Evin Prison in Tehran.
The election of President Hassan Rouhani last year brought hope for a reformed criminal justice system. But a year into his presidency, disappointment has replaced optimism: the moderate conservative has shown little sign of changing systemic persecution of the media. “There has been no significant improvement in freedom of information,” Reporters Without Borders wrote in a June report.
Iran’s track record on human rights and criminal justice is long and distinctive in all the worst ways, but it’s not unfixable. Human Rights Watch’s most recent report requests that the Iranian government simply abide by the most elementary international laws: stop prosecutions for exercising fundamental rights, and provide so-called criminals with fair trials. This transparency would explain why journalists like Rezaian—who recently published a wholly innocuous article about baseball titled, “In Iran, a spark of enthusiasm for America’s national pastime”, and Salehi, whose last piece described power outages during Ramadan —are sitting in undisclosed detention for undisclosed reasons.