Europe must not turn a blind eye to Iran’s human rights abuses

Struan Stevenson
Struan Stevenson - Special to Al arabiya English
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Amnesty International has just published a 94-page report entitled “Caught in a web of repression: Iran’s human rights defenders under attack.” It details 45 specific instances of what the organization has described as a “vicious crackdown” coinciding with the supposedly moderate presidency of Hassan Rouhani, who begins his second term in office this week.

The overall takeaway is that Iranian authorities have repeatedly diminished the standards by which they accuse and convict activists and dissenters of national security crimes, while also increasing the severity of punishments that are meted out to those same people. The abusive nature of those punishments was reinforced by new revelations that emerged alongside the Amnesty International report, mainly regarding the Islamic Republic’s notorious overuse of the death penalty.

Iran has long maintained world-leading rates of execution, and the violence and repression of the past few years have been reflected in a pattern of hangings that includes periodic spikes during which dozens of people are put to death in a single month. Last month saw just such a spike, with at least 101 death sentences being carried out, to say nothing of those that might have gone ahead in secret.

iran execution reuters
iran execution reuters

In Iran, political prisoners are sentenced to hang with some frequency, usually on the basis of vague, religious charges like “enmity against God” or “insulting the sacred.”

Executions speak to the repressive nature of the theocratic regime, which has only grown worse in the era of Rouhani, when the government is fractured between two factions, neither of which represents reform. Maryam Rajavi, the president of the leading coalition of Iranian dissidents, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, responded to the new death penalty figures by saying, “Beset by crises and fearing popular uprisings, Iran’s ruling theocracy has found no other way out but to escalate repression especially by mass and arbitrary executions.”

RELATED: Iran executes 100 people in one month alone

The NCRI statement went on to recommend that the international community disregard economic and political incentives to expand relations with the Islamic Republic, and instead undertake measures to hold its officials accountable not only for recent crackdowns and executions, but also for long-neglected past crimes, like the massacre of some 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

Naturally, being “beset by crises” and the possibility of popular overthrow, the regime is deeply fearful of this sort of pressure, which would imply Western readiness to stand behind a domestic uprising in Iran, and to aid it by making sure that Tehran is not free to carry out reprisals against dissenters as it sees fit.

Last month, Iran’s own so-called human rights monitor, Javad Larijani, made the absurd claim that the country does not hold any political prisoners. Immediately thereafter, foreign diplomats in Tehran were taken on a tour of the notorious Evin Prison, but human rights investigators were kept far away from the public relations stunt, while the diplomats were kept far away from wards that are known to house political prisoners almost exclusively.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has made similarly bold, easily ridiculed statements asserting the country’s innocence. But with or without the new Amnesty International report, no one with a modicum of knowledge of the Islamic Republic should ever take such claims seriously. Unfortunately, Zarif and other members of the Rouhani administration appear to be masterful at putting a friendly face on Iran’s clerical regime, even as its domestic abuses and foreign provocations continue to escalate.

Justice will only be achieved when the international community has the courage to reject Iran’s absurd, anemic denials and to instead respond with new economic and diplomatic pressure to the regime’s human rights abuses.

Struan Stevenson

This is the only explanation for the fact that some Western officials, including European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, agreed to attend this week’s re-inauguration of President Rouhani. These decisions were profoundly misguided, insofar as any Western presence at an Iranian state function presupposes that the relevant officials are turning a blind eye to human rights abuses that are not only continuing but escalating on Rouhani’s watch.

It is simply inconceivable that any of those officials are unaware of the information being shared by Amnesty and others. The most charitable explanation for their actions is that they do not hold Rouhani personally responsible for the crackdowns and are willing to offer their support to his administration in the hope that it will finally, after four years in office, begin to promote serious domestic reforms.

But if this is their thinking, it is painfully naïve. Rouhani has never been anything other than a loyal servant of the regime that tortures its citizens and imprisons them for upwards of 10 years simply for protesting previous human rights abuses. Soon after taking office in 2013 amidst the applause of Western officials, Rouhani thoroughly turned his back on human rights by appointing Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a leading figure in the 1988 massacre, as his justice minister.

Such officials must be brought to justice, lest the Iranian regime be convinced that it can get away with thousands of unlawful killings and still enjoy the presence of friendly European faces at its state functions. Justice will only be achieved when the international community has the courage to reject Iran’s absurd, anemic denials and to instead respond with new economic and diplomatic pressure to the regime’s human rights abuses.

Struan Stevenson is president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association (EIFA). He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East..

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