Iran still among world’s worst human rights abusers, U.S. says

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures as speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gestures as speaks during a session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. AP

Even as they make gestures toward rapprochement with the West, Iran’s leaders remain among the world’s worst human rights offenders, according to a State Department report Thursday that shows an increase in reported violations since the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani took office last year.

The State Department didn’t appear to pull punches in highlighting Iran’s alleged abuses even though doing so risks upsetting sensitive diplomacy surrounding nuclear negotiations and the Syrian conflict, just two areas where Washington would like Tehran’s cooperation. The report documented Iran’s record of floggings and court-ordered amputations, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, crackdown on press freedoms and 624 executions – many after flimsy trials.

“We’ve seen little meaningful improvement in human rights in Iran under the new government, including torture, political imprisonment, harassment of religious and ethnic minorities,” said Uzra Zeya, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “Overall the situation remains poor.”

The same line of criticism was aimed at other partners the Obama administration needs to help resolve or contain world conflicts: Egypt, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia were chided for their human rights records despite their importance to high-stakes diplomacy. In almost all the countries, the report said, violators operated in a climate of virtual impunity.

In introducing the report, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was no coincidence that places that posed some of the greatest challenges to U.S. national security were also places where governments denied residents basic human rights. Trying to pre-empt criticism of the United States’ own human rights record – one frequent target is the U.S.-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – Kerry said the United States evaluated other countries “without a hint of arrogance or apology.” He said the report was not just “some high-minded exercise.”

Kerry singled out the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad as among the most egregious offenders, especially after a U.N.-confirmed deadly gas attack that was blamed on government forces.

“In Syria, hundreds were murdered in the dead of night when a disaster occurred at the hands of a dictator who decided to infect the air of Damascus with poisonous gas, and many more have been, unfortunately, confined to die under a barrage of barrel bombs, Scud missiles, artillery and other conventional weapons,” Kerry said at the State Department.

What he didn’t mention in the public remarks was that Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s forces also stand accused of atrocities. The report notes that armed rebel groups engaged in abuses such as massacres, bombings and kidnappings.

In his introductory remarks, Kerry mentioned Iran only once, noting that it was among 80 countries where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face discriminatory practices. However, the report contains a long and detailed section on Iran that reads like a compilation of miseries – a cautionary tale for any would-be Iranian dissident.

On Feb. 20, according to the report, a judge sentenced a human rights lawyer to six extra years in prison for “spreading propaganda against the system” because he’d written an open letter that was critical of the Iranian judicial system. In another case, a blogger was arrested and tortured into confessing that he’d published “lies,” insulted religious authorities and acted against national security, according to the report.

The report did note the release of some political prisoners, including Faezah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of a former president and an outspoken women’s rights activist who served six months in prison for “propaganda against the system.” Another prisoner, Fariborz Rais-Dana, was released after a one-year term in connection with remarks he’d made during a 2010 interview with the BBC’s Persian service.

Even though President Barack Obama bought Rouhani’s reform pledges enough to have a cordial phone call with him – the first direct U.S.-Iranian contact at that level since 1979 – it’s clear that Washington remains deeply skeptical of Tehran’s overtures. Even the elections that brought Rouhani to power as an almost universally welcomed change from his bombastic, ultraconservative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came under fire.

Iranians vote for their leaders, but only after a small and powerful group of religious authorities with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the top decides the list of candidates and most other aspects of the election.

“Despite high popular participation in the country’s June 14 presidential election, candidate vetting conducted by unelected bodies based on arbitrary criteria, as well as limitations on civil society, print and electronic media, and election monitoring by credible nongovernmental observers, continued to undermine the freedom and fairness of the electoral system,” the report concluded.

A footnote to the report notes that the preparers drew heavily from non-U.S. government sources because “the United States does not have an embassy in Iran.” That leaves wiggle room for Tehran to claim that the information was inaccurate or biased.