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Roya Boroumand Headshot

No Celebration of 2012 World Human Rights Day in Iran

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Every year on December 10, countries around the world honor World Human Rights Day. This year, the United Nation's focus was the right to all people "to make their voices heard in public life and be included in political decision-making." This was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's last chance to honor the occasion, as his two-term presidency is coming to a close. Yet, no one celebrated. In fact, since his election in 2005, the human rights situation in Iran has steadily deteriorated. His second term started with peaceful protesters being shot in the streets or killed in detention centers. There is no cause for celebration, but the World Human Rights Day is an appropriate opportunity to look at the government's bleak record and provide numbers. However, highlighting abuses is only a step in the right direction. Iran's abysmal human rights situation should draw attention on its own merits, and trigger concerted international efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable and ensure that Iranian authorities respect their obligations under international law.

A cursory look at the Islamic Republic's list of human rights violations in the past seven and a half years brings up the executions as the top concern. From June 2005 to date, the Boroumand Foundation has collected more than 4,800 reports of executions, mostly from official and semi-official sources. Based on these reports, there were close to 2,600 executions during Mr. Ahmadinejad's first term, and more than 2,250 from July 2009 through November 2012. This represents a dramatic increase from 458 executions reported from June 2001 to June 2005. The killings, mostly in the form of hanging, are not limited to prisons and public squares.

Between July 2005 and November 2012, more than 2,400 people were reportedly killed in clashes with security forces. In more than 600 cases, the official reports do not mention the discovery of fire arms or the use of arms by those who were killed. At least seven instances of hasty shootings by security forces were reported in the four years preceding Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency, and 39 cases during his tenure: a sharp increase that can be attributed in great part to the impunity granted to the members of the Law Enforcement Forces. Most concerning are the cases of individuals who die in detention. We have documented four cases for the 2001-2005-period and 95 since July 2005.

And then, there are those citizens who have been subjected to cruel and inhuman punishments. When Shari'a law was restored in Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, flogging has become a favored mode of punishment and an effective tool for interrogators. Almost all political prisoners testifying about their detention in the 1980s' report having been flogged on the soles of their feet, sometimes up to several hundred times, to confess to crimes they may or may not have committed. And they run into the tens of thousands. Though flogging has been replaced by other forms of torture for political prisoners, at least in prisons in Tehran and other provincial centers with high visibility, it remains a favorite and under-reported punishment for ordinary crimes, including those of participating in parties with members of the opposite sex, and drinking alcohol. From July 2005 to date, at least 3,000 individuals have been flogged, most often around 50 to 70 times and, sometimes, as many as 279 lashes. The silence imposed by Iranian authorities on those who fight for due process of law and other international human rights (which Iran is under legal obligation to observe) has intensified this trend.

During his presidency, Mr. Ahmadinejad has gravely undermined a burgeoning and active civil society. Groups defending human rights such as the Defenders of Human Rights Center headed by the Nobel Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, the One Million Signatures Campaign, Human Rights Activists in Iran, the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, to name a few, and many other organizations working against discrimination in universities, on children's rights, AIDS, etc... have either closed down, been declared illegal and closed down by the government, or have reduced their activities to a minimum. Scores of activists have been imprisoned and many are serving sentences for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression. Many more, with pending prison sentences or open court cases, have fled the country. Today prisons across the country hold hundreds of political prisoners convicted on vague charges, mostly for what they wrote or said, and many more remain silent to avoid the fate of their colleagues.

Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies are no doubt responsible for the alarming deterioration of the human rights situation in Iran as is the structural impunity with which the Spiritual Leader, the Revolutionary Guards Corp, the intelligence apparatus, and the Judiciary operate. So can Iranians realistically hope for a safer environment after the upcoming June 2013 presidential elections? Perhaps not, unless there are serious and consistent efforts, on the part of the international community, to hold accountable those guilty of gross human rights violations. I urge those well-intentioned friends of the Islamic Republic's leaders who overlook their catastrophic human rights record just because they appreciate their foreign policy, or because they prioritize the misdeeds of other governments, to take a moment to reflect. Certainly, the fact that the policies of the U.S. or any other government have been or are harmful to others is relevant and deserves attention but not in this context and not at the expense of victims in Iran.