Human Rights Watch Letter to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw








February 3, 2003.
Dear Foreign Secretary,
We are writing in advance of your meeting on February 5 with Kamal Kharrazi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to urge you to use this opportunity to send a clear message to the government of Iran about human rights conditions in the country. With the looming crisis in Iraq likely to dominate this meeting, it is important that Iranian leaders understand that Britain, and the European Union as a whole, will not lower the priority of human rights in their discourse with Iran.
We welcome your government's efforts to develop better ties with Iran and to encourage the country's closer integration with the norms and standards of the international community. We hope that your government uses this relationship to ensure better compliance with human rights standards by the Iranian government and to remind the Foreign Minister of the promises made by the government of President Mohammad Khatami to pursue an agenda of reform in the human rights field. Such reforms have yielded very little concrete progress as yet. Moreover, in international fora, such as the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Iranian government has repeatedly promised to comply with its commitments as a State Party to numerous international human rights treaties.
As you are aware, human rights progress in Iran is caught in a continuing power struggle between popularly elected reformers, who control both the presidency and parliament, and clerical conservatives, who exercise authority through the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; the judiciary, including the Council of Guardians; and through elements of the security forces that fall under the Leader's ultimate control.
In remarks made by Foreign Minister Kharazi in the European Parliament on January 22, he called on Europe to support Iran's reform process, saying: "This is a process that needs to be appreciated and supported." We are concerned that these much-promised reforms have not materialized and urge you not to accept mere words but to push for measurable improvements in specific areas of concern.
In the last two years more than fifty pieces of reform legislation have been vetoed by the Council of Guardians in such key areas as women's rights, the prevention of torture and the rights of children. The judiciary plays an overtly political role in targeting for prosecution leading reformist personalities, and ordering the closure of scores of independent newspapers and magazines. The Council's members and the Head of Judiciary are accountable to the Supreme Leader. We urge you to impress upon Foreign Minister Kharazi that the performance of the Iranian government as a whole will be judged according to its compliance with international human rights norms, and that improving relations between Britain and the Islamic Republic, and between the EU and the Islamic Republic will be influenced by human rights concerns.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the lifting of the house arrest on 81-year-old Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of the most prominent religious figures in contemporary Iran, on January 30. Ayatollah Montazeri has been a critic of the ruling clerical conservatives, and has been suffering from serious illness. It has been reported that the motive behind the Ayatollah's release was to avoid the unrest that might follow if the Ayatollah died while under house arrest. While welcoming the Ayatollah's release, we remain concerned that religious critics of the ruling clerical elite continue to be targeted for persecution, and their freedom of expression is limited.
In recent months, the arbitrary detention of students, and the targeting of government critics and independent thinkers for prosecution -- and in some cases executions after unfair trials -- have all increased. Elements within the government continue to tolerate or encourage the activities of shadowy underground paramilitary forces, linked to hardline conservative clerical leaders unwilling to relinquish their continuing grip on power, undermining the rule of law and creating a climate of fear. The situation of religious and ethnic minorities remains a cause for serious concern.
Scholars and students who criticize the ruling clerical establishment have faced death sentences, teaching bans or long prison terms. Dr. Hashem Aghajari, a university lecturer, was sentenced to death for his criticism of the role of the clergy in politics. Philosopher Abdol Karim Soroush, one of the intellectual leaders of the reform movement has been banned from teaching since 1995. Ahmad Batebi and at least six other students have been in prison since 1999 for participating in non-violent demonstrations. In recent months several lawyers known for their defense of human rights have been targets of prosecution. Mohammad Dadkhah, Abdolfath Soltani, and Naser Zarafshan have been sentenced to months of imprisonment for carrying out their professional duties.
Government officials and close associates of President Khatami have been held incommunicado for months under interrogation after publishing a poll showing that a majority of Iranians favour restoring relations with the United States. Abbas Abdi, a prominent journalist and Hossein Ali Ghazian, a scholar have been in detention, charged with "collaboration with U.S. elements and British intelligence" and of conducting "psychological warfare" against the government.
These types of attacks on individuals are indicative of a continuing absence of protections for basic freedoms in Iran that must be remedied if true progress in the human rights field is to occur.
Since April 2000 more than 90 publications related to reformists have been closed. In recent weeks attacks against the independent news media have further intensified. In January, during one week three newspapers were closed. The conservative-dominated judiciary has convicted several journalists and writers, allied with President Khatami. They include: Emadedin Baghi, Akbar Ganji, Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari, Ali Afshari, Khalil Rostamkhani, and Saeid Sadre, who continue serving sentences for their participation in the March 2000 Berlin Conference - a conference on political reform in Iran, held in Berlin, that became the particular target of criticism from the conservative establishment.
Iran's religious and ethnic minorities remain subject to discrimination and persecution. The banned Kurdish opposition parties claimed that their supporters have received death sentences, and at least five their members were executed during 2002, after unfair trials. Baha'is also continue to face intense persecution, including being denied permission to worship, and access to higher education or to carry out other communal affairs publicly. At least four Baha'is are serving prison terms for their religious beliefs.
We welcome the intention of your government to engage more closely with Iran. There are many benefits to be gained through such engagement and it could contribute to stemming the flow of increasing violations of human rights in Iran, and to putting an end to paralysis in the reform process resulting from power struggles.
Should the Iranian government fail to improve human rights conditions in the country, especially on the above points, we hope that Britain and other E.U. members will use the forthcoming U.N. Commission on Human Rights to make clear that it is not prepared to overlook continuing serious violations of human rights in Iran
We thank you for your attention to these concerns.

Hanny Megally
Steve Crawshaw

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