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Members of Iran’s labor movement are demanding the release of activists Mahmoud Salehi, who is reportedly close to death, and Reza Shahabi, from government detention

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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Members of Iran’s labor movement are warning that one of their leaders is close to death in government detention. Mahmoud Salehi has been arrested multiple times for his labor activism. His family says he was recently denied medical treatment and forced into a one-year detention. His ordeal comes as authorities have reportedly detained another labor activist, Reza Shahabi. I’m joined now by Tara Sepehri Far, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Welcome, Tara. Let’s speak about these two men and what we know about their plight, Mahmoud Salehi and Reza Shahabi. What can you tell us about them? T. SEPEHRI FAR: These two men are both prominent labor rights activists who have been arrested by Iranian government for their activism. There’s unfortunately a long history of prosecuting independent labor rights activists for legitimate exercise of their rights. Unfortunately, there’s also a trend of denying prisoners, particularly the ones facing national security charges, with adequate healthcare. Some of these people have preexisting condition when they are arrested and detained, like Mahmoud Salehi, but many of these people also develop a health complication under detention, and often authorities use that as a means of pressure to basically increase the suffering of these prisoners and unfortunately deny them adequate healthcare they need, usually outside prison facilities. AARON MATÉ: Why is this happening? Why have they been targeted with arrest? T. SEPEHRI FAR: Independent labor unions are banned in Iran. Activists who get together to organize and to advocate for their rights are often prosecuted for their activism. Unfortunately, this is the same trend that we see with repression against other human rights defenders and journalists and the government that is trying to control the space for activism and not allowing for different groups in the society to organize and advocate for their rights. AARON MATÉ: There have been strikes by different labor groups inside Iran over the years, teachers among them. What has been the response and the impact of actions like that? T. SEPEHRI FAR: Well, there is a long history of labor movements inside the country. Actually, the Iranian Revolution came out of a movement that was very close to some of these labor rights movements, but unfortunately, those independent activities have been repressed. Under the difficult economic condition, many of the labor forces are suffering. We’ve seen strikes over minimal wage, or benefits, denial of benefits, or sometimes, in the case of teachers for example, issues related to pension. While some authorities, such as members of Parliament, are open to hearing the pledges and following up on the demands, the problem is that the system is highly skeptical and suspicious of independent groups advocating for their rights. While they might be open to hearing some of the pledges and trying to address them, they’re not really open to allowing some of these activists to take the lead to organize and have their own independent union to best protect their rights and advocate for their rights. AARON MATÉ: Has anything improved under President Rouhani, who has voiced some sympathy with the leaders of the Green Movement, talking about getting some of them out of jail? Has anything improved on the labor rights front under Rouhani? T. SEPEHRI FAR: Unfortunately, I don’t think anything tangible has improved with the situation of labor rights movement, particularly their access to form independent union. The only thing that I could talk about that I think has had an impact on the community of workers at large is a healthcare plan that has expanded under President Rouhani’s first term, kind of facilitating access to medication for the general public. That has definitely impacted labor forces as well, but nothing specifically to empower labor unions and their condition. I would like to highlight that their situation is tied to the broader economic situation that President Rouhani was hoping to improve after the Nuclear Agreement was signed between Iran and other global powers. With that having an uncertain future, many of the demands by people inside the country are also being pushed in the margin. AARON MATÉ: Right. Let me ask you, on Iran’s economic conditions and the prospects for improving that under the Iran deal … I mean, a big reason why Iran’s economy has struggled is because of the international sanctions. I’m wondering, especially now with Trump doing what he can to undermine the relief that Iran was supposed to get under the Iran Nuclear Deal, how have the sanctions impacted movements like that of workers inside Iran and their plight? How has the dire economy and the sanctions impacted their struggle? T. SEPEHRI FAR: The Nuclear Deal, as you mentioned, was purely about Iran’s nuclear activities and the scope of the activities, but promised certain economic benefits for the Iranian government. I think the approach by the U.S. government to undermine an internationally agreed agreement basically and introducing uncertainties to that has weakened generally the reform agenda in Iran and has given the upper hand to hardliners who’ve always argued against trusting the international community for cooperation. Of course, many actors and stakeholders hope that new engagement with Iran would also come in a package that certainly includes human rights, particularly the rights of workers, if any investment is about to open. But because all of those have been slowed down as a result of the uncertainty introduced into this environment, many of those issues are also kind of up in the air, and everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen in the coming future. But I don’t think the U.S. government’s rhetoric that has unfortunately been politicizing the human rights problems in Iran has helped the pledge of Iranian people to improve their rights. AARON MATÉ: Right. Just from and organizing perspective, I imagine that when your economy is crippled, it just makes it that much harder to organize workers, because everyone is all the more focused on trying to survive and make ends meet. T. SEPEHRI FAR: I would imagine so. I don’t think the economy has felt the impact of U.S. new policy yet, but because of the external threat that the system perceives to exist at this point, the space for organizing could shrink, and we had seen that before when basically the threat of war or any sort of aggression rises, the Iranian government is more aggressive in cracking down against dissent, so that would also be a danger, not just the economic impact, but also the space for activism. AARON MATÉ: Right. Finally, with these two men, these two imprisoned labor activists, Mahmoud Salehi and Reza Shahabi, what is Human Rights Watch calling for? T. SEPEHRI FAR: We are calling for their unconditional release, because we believe they have been prosecuted for their activism, and meanwhile, I think first thing that the Iranian government, particularly the Iranian judiciary, should secure is their adequate access to medical care, because there are reports that Reza Shahabi was also transferred to a hospital to see a specialist, but he was shackled in the hospital. Those are clearly inhumane treatment, and they should stop, and these men should have access to adequate healthcare immediately and be freed unconditionally, because they are being prosecuted for something that is not a crime. AARON MATÉ: Tara Sepehri Far, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division a Human Rights Watch. Thank you. T. SEPEHRI FAR: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Tara Sepehri Far is a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division, where she investigates human rights abuses in Iran and Oman. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, she was the Deputy Director of the Human Rights in Iran Unit at the City University New York, where she worked on a project supporting the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran.