Iran: How the Judicial System is used to Target Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Five Iranian Christians were arrested by Iranian Intelligence (VEVAK) Officers on 26 August while picnicking with their wives in a private garden in Firouzkooh, an area 90 miles east of Tehran. They were not holding a religious service. They were simply enjoying a picnic. Now they are detained in Evin Prison in Tehran.

Since President Rouhani came to office in August 2013 there has been an increase in the number of religious minorities imprisoned on account of their faith. The rise in harassment, arrests and restrictions on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) are a major concern for non-Muslims, converts to Christianity, members of the Baha’i faith and minority Muslim groups.

Theocratic Government Undermines Constitutional FoRB Guarantees

Article 23 of the Iranian constitution states that “the investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief”. However, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution religious minorities have been targeted by successive governments. They are viewed with suspicion and treated as a threat to a theocratic regime that promotes a strict interpretation of Shia Islam.

Although the Iranian constitution recognises Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected religious minorities, the Twelver Jaafari School of Islam is considered the official religion of the country and the constitutional theocracy systematically discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion.

Consequently, Christians, Baha’is, and Sunni Muslims have been known to face harassment, imprisonment, torture and even death. Sufi Muslims and dissenting Shia Muslims also face harassment and imprisonment. Any gathering of Christians, including social gatherings such as birthday or engagement parties, is perceived as potential underground church activity and deemed a threat to national security. Anti-Baha’i and anti-Semitic rhetoric is widely used by the Iranian clerical establishment. However, there has been a decline in the use of anti-Semitic narratives by government officials since the 2014 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany).

The government of Iran has also designed, and continues to use, special religious laws to oppress reformers, political activists, human rights defenders and journalists. Many have been charged with “enmity against God”, sentenced to death, and executed.

Capital Punishment

Iran remains one of the few countries to execute children and minors, homosexuals, as well as women claiming self-defence against rapists. Most victims are hanged, often in public.

In his final statement to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on 28 October, outgoing Special Rapporteur on Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, said “the right to life is still under heavy assault in Iran today. Iran continues to execute more individuals per capita than any other country in the world. Human rights organisations estimate that between 966 and 1,054 executions took place in 2015, the highest rate in over 20 years. And at least 420 executions were reportedly carried out between January and October 2016”.

A large proportion of those executed are members of minority religious and ethnic groups, particularly Sunni Muslims and Kurds. Political opponents are often accused of being foreign agents or spies, while many from ethnic and religious minorities face trial on drug related charges.  Many are executed after trials that fall far short of international fair trial standards.

“Many are executed after trials that fall far short of international fair trial standards.”

In his final statement Dr Shaheed also stressed the need to reform the “deeply flawed justice system that systematically obstructs the rights of defendants to fair trials”.  Under Iranian law the accused has no right to legal representation prior to being formally charged. In addition “convictions are frequently made in the absence of defence lawyers, on the basis of confessions or other information allegedly obtained under torture in pre-trial detention. Courts often accept such confessions as evidence without investigating how they were obtained.”  Detainees held for lengthy periods before facing trial are vulnerable to torture or other mistreatment, particularly when held incommunicado. Those detained on political grounds also face vaguely worded charges that do not amount to recognisable offences. Several report only being able to see a lawyer on the day of their trial, and trials are often summary, lasting only a few minutes.

Under the Law of Appeals and the Code of Criminal Procedures, all death sentences are subject to appeal, within 20 days of the verdict, initially to the Supreme Court, then to the Head of the Judiciary, and finally to the Supreme Leader, who has the power to commute sentences. However, in practice there is only a limited possibility of pardon or commutation for some crimes punishable by death, and for others there is none at all, especially where there has been no confession.

Accountability key to protecting human rights

The landmark Nuclear Deal of 14 July 2015 put an end to Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme and resulted in the lifting of sanctions that have been in place. However, it made no mention of the worsening human rights situation in Iran.

It is the responsibility of the Iranian government to respect its constitutional and international obligations to uphold the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and of peaceful political opponents. It is also the responsibility of the international community to remind Iran of these obligations, and urge an end to the judicial intimidation and punishment of individuals exercising their rights under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR to adopt a religion of their choice, and of those peaceably expressing a differing opinion, as stipulated in Article 19.

Moreover, Iran must be urged to end the use of revolutionary courts in cases involving prisoners of conscience, to release all prisoners of conscience, including those detained on account of their religious beliefs, and to address the constitutionality of these courts.

By CSW’s Iran Advocacy Officer