UN criticises Iran’s wave of lengthy jail terms for activists

Those who defy Iranian officials frequently end up behind bars for more than 10 years

Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh hugs get son Nima at her home in Tehran on September 18, 2013, after being freed after three years in prison. Sotoudeh told AFP she was in "good" physical and psychological condition, and pledged to continue her human rights work. Her release came a week before Iran’s new moderate President Hassan Rowhani, who has promised more freedoms at home and constructive engagement with the world, travels to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.  AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP)

The UN on Tuesday criticised Iranian authorities for locking up human rights activists and subjecting some of them to torture in an effort to stifle dissenting voices.

Mary Lawlor, the UN’s investigator on the situation of human rights defenders, said Iranian campaigners for the rights of women, children, minority groups, workers, those accused of crimes and others often receive long jail terms for carrying out their legitimate work.

She pointed to Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who was in 2019 sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for various charges, and Esmail Abdi, a teachers’ union leader who has been behind bars since 2016, as well as several others.

“It is too easy for human rights defenders in Iran to find themselves condemned to 10 years or more in prison for carrying out work that is legitimate in the eyes of human rights law,” Ms Lawlor said in a statement.

Iran has frequently come under fire from UN investigators and western nations over its criminal justice system. Tehran’s mission to the UN in New York did not immediately respond to The National’s request for comment.

Ms Lawlor says that Iranian women activists are frequent targets in a nation that has, in recent years, doubled down on the conservative values that inspired the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

She pointed to the fates of Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi and other women who have campaigned against the mandatory hijab, receiving double-digit prison sentences for charges linked to corruption and prostitution.

“Until all human rights defenders are released and laws are made that specifically protect them, this grim cycle of detentions will not be broken,” Ms Lawlor said.

Separately, UN experts on Tuesday also criticised a crackdown on critics by the Palestinian Authority (PA), including the death in custody of well-known opposition candidate Nizar Banat on June 24.

Banat, one of the fiercest critics of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, died in PA custody in the West Bank. Relatives say he was beaten repeatedly with a metal rod before being arrested in Hebron.

The 43-year-old’s death has “all the makings of a criminal act,” Michael Lynk, the UN’s investigator on Palestinian issues, and other human rights experts said in a statement.

“His death must be investigated in a truly impartial and transparent manner” and those responsible “must be held fully accountable, regardless of rank or command and full reparations must be granted” to his family, the statement said.

As well as being a vocal critic of the PA, Banat had registered to run as a candidate in Palestinian parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled for May but were later put on hold by Mr Abbas.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said those responsible for Banat's death would face justice. A high-level PA investigation found that he had suffered violence and that the death was “unnatural”.

“Mr Banat’s public criticisms, however harsh, were protected by the basic human rights of freedom of expression and of association,” said the UN statement.

“The ability for critics to exercise these freedoms and hold governments and public authorities to account is a vital means to measure how much, or how little, public freedoms are enjoyed in the society.”

Updated: July 6th 2021, 6:09 PM