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Nasrin Sotoudeh defended political prisoners and worked to abolish Iran’s death penalty. Human rights groups are worried her sentence could signal increased repression of peace activism in Iran under a judiciary with a history of human rights violations

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Iranian judges sentenced human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, according to her husband, Reza Khandan. The charges against her include propaganda against the state, disturbing the public peace and order, appearing in court without a headscarf, and encouraging corruption and prostitution. Some human rights groups have called this sentence, the hardest sentence in recent years, outrageous, suggesting that repression in Iran is increasing.

Joining us now to discuss the human rights situation in Iran is Tara Sepehri Far. She is a researcher in the Middle East and North African Division of Human Rights Watch, where she investigates human rights abuses in Iran and Oman. Tara, thank you for joining us today.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: Thank you for having me on your program.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Iranian courts have provided very little official information about the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh. Now, she has been allowed to speak to her husband. So a lot of the information we have right now is coming from him. What do you know about the reports we’re seeing in the mainstream press, such as The New York Times?

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: It appears, as you mentioned, that the Iranian court and judiciary system have been completely silent about different versions of the sentence that are coming out. On Monday, the judge was interviewed by domestic media, and he said the court has sentenced Sotoudeh to seven years in prison, something that has been disputed by the family, and Sotoudeh herself, according to her husband. And the family maintains that the total length of the prison sentence that she has received is 38 years. She’s currently serving a five-year prison sentence that she had received in absentia, and she was arrested for in June last year.

What is clear is that Sotoudeh is being penalized and sentenced for activities she has done as a human rights defender. What is not clear is that how long she will have to serve behind bars if this sentence is upheld in the appeals court. We and other human rights groups are calling for unconditional release of Sotoudeh based on her track record of peaceful activism, and the fact that her right to have access to a lawyer of her own choice has been limited by a provision that has been recently introduced in Iran’s criminal procedure that only allows judges from an certain group that have been approved by the Iranian judiciary to represent people who are facing national security charges.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, what is she exactly being accused of? The sentence is so harsh, 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Cover what you know in terms of her–you know, why she’s being given such a harsh sentence.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: Unfortunately, because of the lack of transparency in the Iranian judicial system, we know very little about the exact charges and the evidence that the court has used to sentence Sotoudeh to possibly 33 years of imprisonment. Often what happens is that the courts use–they vaguely define national security charges against human rights defenders, for example; acting against national security, assembly and collusion to disrupt national security. These are a very vague definition of possible crimes. And then when you go down into detail, you realize that activities such as speaking to media, posting on social media are used to to put human rights defenders behind bars.

We have analyzed the verdict of her previous sentence; basically the five-year one that she’s currently serving. And examples of evidence used against her include attempts to meet European diplomats; her activities in civil society groups, for example to abolish the death penalty in Iran, or defending the rights of political prisoners. And that is very, very concerning. We’re hoping that in the near future we could get more clarity about the charges and the sentence each charge carries, and be able to share more about about the extent the Iranian judiciary is willing to go to criminalize peaceful activism and peaceful dissent in Iran.

SHARMINI PERIES: In that regard, Tara, in a related development which has raised the criticism, especially among the Iranian left, is that Ebrahim Raizi has been appointed Iran’s new Chief of Justice. Members of the Tudeh Party, which is Iran’s Communist Party, say that Ebrahim Raizi was involved in mass executions and the purge of political opponents in the late 1980s. What does Raizi’s appointment as Chief Justice mean for human rights in Iran?

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: This is a very concerning development for us and other human rights groups. Raizi has had a long career in the judiciary, and he has been associated with serious human rights violations; the most serious one the mass execution of political opponents in late ’80s. According to credible reports, he served on a committee of four judges who looked into and ordered the executions of many of these political opponents. And throughout his career he also played a role in a crackdown against protesters after the 2009 movement, and had a possible role in execution of people on vaguely defined national security charges.

This is a very concerning development, given his track record. Raizi is someone who should actually be investigated for possible crimes, not being the one who oversees the investigation of the Iranian justice system. And with their pattern we have seen over the past years, often under foreign pressure, Iranian oppression becomes worse. We are very worried that this might lead to an increase in prosecution and arrest, and sentencing of human rights defenders and peaceful protesters in Iran.

SHARMINI PERIES: Tara, remind us who was in power at the time in Iran, and why this political purging was necessary for that government.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: At the time of the mass execution in the ’80s?


TARA SEPEHRI FAR: The mass executions happened shortly after an opposition group that was at the time based in a camp out of the neighboring country, Iraq, planned an attack against Iranian forces at the border of Iran-Iraq. And at the time, thousands of political prisoners were in Iranian prisons, many of them belonging to leftist group, or members of this opposition group, Mojahedin-e-Khalq, that was based–that had relocated at the time to Iraq. What we know is that possibly as a retaliation to efforts by Mojahedin-e-Khalq, authorities quickly mobilized judicial forces in prison to execute thousands arbitrarily and extrajudicially. According to families and according to information has been published by human rights groups, many of these people who have been executed were actually serving a previously issued prison sentence. And they had not committed any act, let alone any crime, that would be punishable by death in that fashion.

To this day, families don’t know where their loved ones are being buried. They’ve given absolutely zero information about about the due process they may or may not have received. And are continuing to seek justice. And it’s important to mention that actually some of the family members who have spoken out and tried to seek more information about the situation of their loved ones that were executed 30 years ago have also been put in prison or been prosecuted for it.

And about two years ago, an audiotape emerged where Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was at the time deputy supreme leader under Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader at the time, spoke to several members of this “death panel” about the egregious crimes that were being committed at the time, and calling it the worst crime that that the Islamic Republic of Iran will be blamed for forever. And that audiotape, coming from such such important and credible figure within the Iranian system, kind of reignited the debate around this issue, and took the message, I think, to a broader Iranian population that may not have been aware of the extent of these violations at the time they were committed. But unfortunately, to this day there has been no attempt to provide justice to families of people who have been executed in the late ’80s.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Tara, let’s fast forward to today. A number of teachers strikes have been going on in Iran for a while now which have faced repression, and arrests, and so on. Two weeks ago, another teacher’s strike began. Tell us about how this strike has been going so far, and the kind of repression the teachers are facing.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: This was this third strike, the walkout, that teachers have have organized since the beginning of this school year in Iran in September 2018. This is because of the increasing pressure on different groups of society, including teachers, amid deterioration of the economic situation, as well as a protest to certain economic and educational policies of the Iranian government. And teachers are only one of the many groups that have been protesting. The workers of Haft Tappeh sugarcane company, the steel company, truck drivers are only among the labor groups and unions that have been protesting over the past year.

What appears to be a response to these widespread labor protests and labor demands is an attempt by Iran’s security apparatus to kind of contain the protests and make sure that they don’t necessarily spread beyond those groups. But at the same time, target and harass the leaders of those protests. And as the Iranian New Year is approaching, several prominent and labor leaders remain in prison. Ismael Bakshi, a prominent representative of Haft Teppeh sugarcane company that led the protests of the workers union back in November and was arrested, and after he was released claimed that he had been tortured in prison, has been in detention since January, and possibly under pressure to retract his claim about torture. And I think that shows the level Iranian security apparatus is afraid of people who can actually be the best messengers to to deliver the message of confusion and frustration with the situation to policymakers. And this is only going to make the situation worse, and potentially contribute to popular frustration as opposed to silencing the society.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, what is the status of the bus drivers strike? The leader had been put in prison. And I know that the strike itself has been settled. But is this leader still in prison?

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: Reza Shahabi has been released from prison. But what happens is that even when these people are released from prison, they are being heavily monitored. And if they start their activities again, they are most likely going to end up in prison. For example, the secretary general of the teachers union, Esmail Abdi, and several other prominent members of the teachers union are currently in prison. But as you can see, the strikes are going on.

So the leader–just to respond to your question–the leader is not in prison right now. But independent unions face many, many restrictions for their minimal operation, or the attempt to organize any peaceful protest in Iran.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Tara, Much of these human rights violations are being cited when it comes to U.S. policy towards Iran; U.S. foreign policy towards Iran. While the Trump administration looks at the nuclear agreement as the way to reprimand or to hold them accountable, would you connect the two in terms of these human rights violations, and how the U.S. is actually addressing their foreign policy towards Iran?

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: The Iranian government surely deserves scrutiny for their very poor and troubling human rights record. But I think that the U.S. government, particularly the current administration, has very little clear the credibility to raise human rights concerns about Iran, and has very little leverage to do so, exactly because they have chosen such a blatantly selective and politicized approach to take on human rights issues. Human rights as a whole has not been a priority for the Trump administration, and many of the appointees. And it appears that the government is only picking human rights cases in the case of adversaries, when it serves the political agenda that they have. And at the same time they go in length to protect their allies, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, for example, when they commit serious human rights violations.

And I think that is very apparent only to the Iranian government, but also the Iranian people. So even if the U.S. government has all the intentions to improve the situation of human rights in Iran, when they take this very selective and politicized approach, they have very little credibility to be the messenger for that message.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Tara, we’ll leave it there for now. So much more to discuss. And I look forward to having you back on the Real News Network.

TARA SEPEHRI FAR: Thank you. Great to be with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).