Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor with the Bureau of Public Affairs
November 3, 2005
Iran: Voices Struggling To Be HeardPDF version
"The Iranian people are heirs to a great civilization - and they deserve a government that honors their ideals and unleashes their talent and creativity. The Iranian people deserve a genuinely democratic system in which elections are honest - and in which their leaders answer to them instead of the other way around. The Iranian people deserve a truly free and democratic society with a vibrant free press that informs the public and ensures transparency. They deserve freedom of assembly, so Iranians can gather and press for reform and a peaceful, loyal opposition can keep the government in check. They deserve a free economy that delivers opportunity and prosperity and economic independence from the state. They deserve an independent judiciary that will guarantee the rule of law and ensure equal justice for all Iranians. And they deserve a system that guarantees religious freedom, so that they can build a society in which compassion and tolerance prevail…
"America believes in the independence and territorial integrity of Iran. America believes in the right of the Iranian people to make their own decisions and determine their own future. America believes that freedom is the birthright and deep desire of every human soul. And to the Iranian people, I say: As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you."
The Iranian people have a tradition of expressing their views and feelings through art, literature, film, news media, or the political process. Unfortunately, Iran is ruled by a government that seeks to stifle the voices of the Iranian people as they call for their rights to be protected and their beliefs to be respected.
Iran's theocratic regime will not be successful in silencing Iranians who are fighting for their freedom. As President George W. Bush has said, "before history is written in books, it is written in courage: Those who place their hope in freedom may be attacked and challenged, but they will not ultimately be disappointed, because freedom is the design of humanity and freedom is the direction of history."
The Iranian people deserve to live in freedom and democracy, without fear of government repression, integrated into the community of nations.
Voices of Democracy - The Political Struggle
"The recent Iranian presidential elections were a triumph for the principle of one man, one vote. And the man with the vote this time, as always, was the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."
The political situation in Iran is a story of two drastically different worlds occupying the same reality. Throughout Iran there is widespread political alienation. Corrupt and oppressive government policies have consistently failed to address Iranians' yearning for liberty and an accountable, democratic system of government that will pursue policies that improve their daily lives.
After a series of elections in the late 1990s in which Iranians expressed their desire for change, recent trends point to a deterioration in Iran's political climate. In the June 2005 presidential elections, more than 1,000 aspiring candidates, including prominent dissidents and all of the female candidates, were disqualified from running by clerics. Candidates who campaigned on reformist platforms complained of massive election irregularities. In the run-off election, the conservative former Tehran mayor and former Revolutionary Guard officer, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, got 62 percent of the vote, nearly twice that of his opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran. Conservative hardliners now control every elected and unelected government institution in Iran.
In February 2004, deeply flawed elections were held for the 290-seat Iranian Majlis legislative assembly. More than 1,800 prospective candidates, including more than 80 reformists who held Majlis seats, were disqualified, limiting the democratic alternatives available to voters. Ultimately, conservative candidates did not face a reformist opponent in 132 of 290 seats. The Guardian Council exclusion of reformist voices in Parliament was the culmination of a four-year campaign against the reformist press.
What these elections illustrate is that increasingly in today's Iran the political aspirations of the public for a greater role in charting the direction of their society are only tolerated when they coincide with the wishes of entrenched conservative elites.
Iran's unelected clerical elite has systematically subverted the democratic process, eliminating viable competition and undermining the authority of Iran's elected institutions. This unelected ruling clique denies the Iranian people freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to freely choose their representatives.
The extent of control the unelected clerics exercised over the June 2005 presidential election is one more sign that they are out of step with the changes happening around them.
Iran's Constitutional Legacy
"The problem is that the underlying framework of the existing constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is structurally incompatible with achieving the goals the reformers have set - democracy, human rights and secular pluralism. In this constitution the leader is all-powerful. He can ratify everything and can veto anything - and the people are at his mercy. … No democracy can be made out of Iran's constitutional law."
The right of Iranian citizens to change their government is restricted significantly. According to Iran's post-revolutionary Constitution, the Supreme Leader, the recognized Head of State, is elected by the Assembly of Experts and can only be removed by a vote of this same Assembly. The Assembly is restricted to clerics, who serve an eight-year term and are chosen by popular vote from a list approved by the government. There is no separation of state and religion and clerical influence pervades the government, especially in appointed positions. The government controls the selection of candidates for elections. The Council of Guardians, which reviews all laws for consistency with Islamic law and the Constitution, also screens candidates for election based on ideological, political, and religious suitability. It accepts only candidates who support a theocratic state; clerics who disagree with government policies or with a conservative view of the Islamic state also have been disqualified. Regularly scheduled elections are held for the Presidency, the Majlis, and the Assembly of Experts.
Voices Suppressed: Attacks On The Free Press
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression…. To hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
The independent media in Iran is under constant attack. According to Reporters Without Borders' 2005 Annual Report, at least 14 journalists, editors, and publishers remained in prison. The most prominent is Akbar Ganji, sentenced to six years in prison in 2000 for reporting on the "serial murder" of prominent reformists by elements within the Intelligence Ministry (see Voices of Hope).
There is a clear pattern of interference and harassment of the press by government officials with dozens of reporters, editors, publishers, and web bloggers arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, harsh physical punishments, excessive fines, and suspensions of journalistic privileges. The following cases illustrate the types of abuses prevalent in Iran:
Voices Persecuted -Religious and Ethnic Minorities
The Constitution of Iran establishes Islam as the official religion, specifically that of the Ja'fari (Twelver) Shi'ism doctrine, and recognizes other Islamic denominations, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity. However, the freedom to practice other religions is restricted by the Iranian Government. Followers of minority religions are subject to harassment, intimidation and discrimination. With the exception of Sunni Muslims, religious minorities are prevented from serving in the judiciary and security services. Applicants for public sector employment are screened for their adherence to and knowledge of Islam.
Even though Iran is a multi-ethnic country in which minorities comprise approximately 50 percent of the population, minority rights are not fully respected. The lack of public school education in the Kurdish language remains a source of Kurdish frustration, and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) claims at least seven Kurdish party members have been executed.
There are new reports of Iranian Government repression of ethnic Kurds.
Kurds are not the only repressed ethnic group. Some Azeris complain of ethnic and linguistic discrimination, including banning the Azeri language in schools, harassing Azeri activists and changing Azeri geographic names. Ahwazi Arabs lack the right to study and speak Arabic.
In July 2005, Iranian authorities arrested Abdolfattah Soltani, the lawyer representing the family appeal of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who died in police custody in July 2003. Soltani was officially charged with unlawfully divulging Iran's nuclear secrets, to which he had no access. However, just days earlier, Soltani had stated before the court of appeals that judiciary and security agents had Kazemi in custody when she was murdered, and that the Judiciary's continued inaction two years after her death was a cover-up. He also demanded that former prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi appear for questioning. But the appellate court rejected Soltani's allegation, saying that a lower court had already ruled Kazemi's death unintentional. Soltani is co-founder with Shirin Ebadi of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Tehran.
The Iranian Government has repeatedly stated that Kazemi's death must have been an accident, despite forensic reports that stated otherwise. Over a year after Kazemi's death, Mohammad Reza Aqdam Ahmadi, a Ministry of Intelligence official, was tried but acquitted after two days. International observers - including UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, on the independence of judges and lawyers, and on torture - condemned the grossly flawed investigation and trial.
Although Kazemi was never charged with a crime, after being arrested for taking pictures outside Tehran's Evin prison, she spent 77 hours under police interrogation that included serious physical abuse. According to an Iranian doctor who examined her, Kazemi had suffered a brutal rape and severe beatings, including a skull fracture, two broken fingers, missing fingernails, a crushed big toe and a broken nose. In spite of an initial agreement made in the presence of the Canadian ambassador that Zahra's body would be repatriated to Canada, Iranian officials pressured Ezzet Kazemi, Zahra's mother, to have her buried in Shiraz, Iran, thereby preventing an independent autopsy.
"Whatever the verdict, it will be incorrect because the indictment was flawed."
Other political killings and crackdowns occurred in Iran, including:
Voices Of Hope
Imprisoned journalist and critic of the Iranian establishment Akbar Ganji went on an extended hunger strike in mid-June 2005 to protest his prison conditions and the denial of medical care. Ganji was arrested in April 2000 with 17 other Iranian journalists and intellectuals and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for taking part in an attempt against national security and propaganda against the Islamic system. The sentence was eventually reduced to six years on appeal. In his book Republican Manifesto, Ganji criticizes the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, claiming that real democracy will never be achieved under the country's current governmental system.
Ganji was temporarily released from jail at the end of May 2005 on medical grounds but was returned to jail shortly after calling for a boycott of the June 17 presidential election. According to Ganji's wife, Iranian officials have told him that he will not be released even after his jail term is over unless he recants his views. Ganji, through an open letter published on several websites, insists that he will never do so. After losing significant weight and allowing his health to severely deteriorate, Ganji reportedly ended his 70-day hunger strike in late August. He continues to be denied access to his family or lawyers, and is reportedly being held in solitary confinement.
Ganji is only one victim of a wave of human rights violations by the Iranian regime. Despite the recent declaration by the head of Tehran's Justice Department, Hojatoleslam Abbasali Alizadeh, that Iran has stopped torturing its prisoners and that its prisons are now among the best in the world, political prisoners are still subjected to harsh treatment.
"If the Islamic republic has been forced into a retreat under protests from inside the country and international pressure, it does not mean that torture does not exist, that solitary confinement [will] be eradicated, that all the political prisoners [will] be freed and that other prisoners [will] be treated humanely."
A White House statement noted, "Mr. Ganji's courageous efforts to investigate extra-judicial killings by Iranian security forces and his commitment to free speech and democratic government have earned him the respect of many around the world." Other voices of hope include:
Voices of the Future - The Aspirations Of Youth, Women, and Laborers
The power of Iran's young people will play a defining role in the future of the country due to sheer demographic strength (about two-thirds of the population) and their growing drive for personal liberties. Young Iranians are staging a non-violent but potent counter-protest calling for economic and political reforms through demonstrations, fashion, and music. Young people are said to be responsible for the pro-reform victories in the presidential elections in 2001 and 1997. Over the past few years, scores of Iranians have taken to the streets in open rebellion; most of these demonstrations have been led by students.
Women are a potential powerful source in Iran. Countless women have been arrested, imprisoned and executed for their efforts in the struggle against fundamentalism and theocratic government's strict laws that shape political and cultural life. After Iran's Guardians' Council barred 89 women candidates from running for the Presidency in June 2005, representatives from 12 women's rights groups formed Iran's Women Activist Movement. Also in early June, hundreds of women staged an unauthorized demonstration in Tehran protesting sex discrimination under Iran's Islamic leadership. Women also express their desire for freedom through silent fashion statements that pack a powerful message, such as by wearing pink coats, sweaters, headscarves and bags. Given that women make up 60 percent of all university graduates in Iran, it will be impossible to ignore their growing demands for freedom and reform.
Although Iran is a member of the International Labor Organization, the government does not allow workers the right to strike or bargain collectively. In the face of degenerating economic conditions, the Iranian labor movement has been struggling for the right to form free labor organizations.
Iranian youth, women, and laborers have aspirations for a better future. The United States supports their desires to live in freedom, to enjoy their human rights, and to determine their own destinies.