Iran’s abysmal record on press freedom and this spate of arrests raises a red flag. The burden now is on Iran’s judiciary to quickly investigate and order their release unless there is hard evidence that they have committed substantive crimes, not merely exercised their right to free speech.
Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director
(Beirut) – Iranian authorities should immediately ensure the release of three journalists and a fourth person arrested in recent days, including the Tehran correspondent for TheWashington Post, unless they plan to bring recognizable criminal charges against them and guarantee them fair trials. The arrests are the latest in a series of actions that Iran’s security and intelligence forces, supported by elements within the judiciary, have taken against at least 10 journalists in recent months.
The Washington Post correspondent, Jason Rezaian, has dual Iranian and American nationality. The Washington Post reported his arrest together with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, and two unnamed people, a photojournalist and her spouse, in a statement on July 24, 2014. Gholamhossein Esmaeili, the head of Tehran’s judiciary, confirmed Rezaian’s arrest on July 25, saying he had “been detained for some questions,” but gave no other explanation. He said the judiciary would issue further details after completing its investigation. Salehi is a correspondent for The National, an English-language news outlet based in the United Arab Emirates. The photojournalist and her spouse reportedly also have dual Iranian and American citizenship.
“Iran’s abysmal record on press freedom and this spate of arrests raises a red flag,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The burden now is on Iran’s judiciary to quickly investigate and order their release unless there is hard evidence that they have committed substantive crimes, not merely exercised their right to free speech.”
Mary Breme Rezaian, Jason’s mother, told Human Rights Watch that unidentified agents arrested the four people at her son’s home on the night of July 22. Iranian authorities have not said where they are holding the four or disclosed the legal basis for their arrest and detention. Nor have they allowed the journalists access to legal counsel or permitted Swiss consular officials, who represent US interests in Iran, to visit them in detention and ascertain their safety. Rezaian’s mother also noted that unless her son is being provided with his blood medication, his health is being compromised.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is responsible for accrediting journalists, reports to President Hassan Rouhani. But he appears to have little control over the country’s powerful security and intelligence agencies, including elements of the Interior and Intelligence ministries, the Revolutionary Guards, and revolutionary courts, which have mounted a sustained crackdown on media and other critics since the popular protests that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009.
Iranian security officials have also summoned for questioning or arrested at least seven other journalists in the past two months, Human Rights Watch said.
They arrested Serajeddin Mirdamadi on May 10. On July 27, BBC Persian reported that Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Mirdamadi to six years in prison for “collusion and gathering against the national security” and “propaganda against the state” for his journalistic activities.
Authorities summoned Sajedeh Arabsorkhi, a local journalist, to Evin prison on July 14 to begin serving a one-year sentence imposed in 2011 by a Tehran revolutionary court for “propaganda against the state,” reportedly for criticizing the arrest of her father, Faizollah Arabsorkhi, following the disputed 2009 presidential election. Faizollah Arabsorkhi was a high-ranking member of a reformist opposition party.
Saba Azarpeik, a local journalist with Etemad daily and Tejarat-e Farda, a weekly journal, was arrested on May 28 and reportedly faces trial on vague charges of “propaganda against the state” and “dissemination of falsehoods” charges Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented as being used against journalists and activists. She is thought to be held in Ward 2-A of Evin Prison. On July 25, her mother posted a message on addressed to Azarpeik’s interrogators, asking them to show mercy because her daughter is suffering from severe back pain.
On June 7, authorities summoned Mahnaz Mohammadi, a documentary filmmaker, lawyer, and women’s rights activist, to Evin prison to serve her five-year prison sentence on national security-related charges for allegedly cooperating and sending material to the BBC. The sentence was issued by a Tehran revolutionary court in 2012. Maryam Kianersi, Mohammadi’s lawyer, denied the charges and told Human Rights Watch that her client was convicted by the judiciary even though she never sent any of the films to the BBC, and the BBC never broadcast them. She also said that the judge did not allow her permission to be present with her client during the investigation and interrogation phase of the trial, noting that under Iranian law providing such access in national security cases is a discretionary matter.
Authorities summoned Reyhaneh Tabatabaei, a local journalist formerly working with the Shargh daily, to Evin Prison on June 21 to begin serving a six-month sentence that a Tehran revolutionary court imposed on her in 2012 for “propaganda against the state” for critical articles she had written in connection with the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Marzieh Rasouli, a local journalist, used to announce on July 7 that authorities had summoned her to Evin Prison on July 8 to begin serving a two-year prison term although an appeals court had yet to confirm the sentence. A Tehran revolutionary court convicted her of “propaganda against the state” and “disturbing public order by participating in gatherings.” Authorities previously detained Rasouli for 40 days in late 2011 in Section 2-A of Evin Prison which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a veteran journalist who headed the Iran Journalists Association before the government banned it, posted a message on his Facebook page on June 29 saying that the judiciary has charged him with “propaganda against the state” for speeches he made at recent international conferences discussing the state of journalism in Iran, and barred him from leaving Iran. He had told Human Rights Watch earlier in the month that the judiciary had summoned him for questioning, and that he expected them to open a new case against him, which could result in his imprisonment. He said that authorities had arrested him seven times in the previous 15 years solely for his journalistic activities.
Iranian authorities are currently detaining “65 journalists and netizens in prison – five of them foreign nationals,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on July 25.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, forbids prolonged pretrial detention without charge. It also requires authorities to provide detainees with “adequate time and facilities for the preparation of [their] defense” and to allow them “to communicate with counsel of [their] own choosing.”
Article 128 of Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure runs directly counter to this international treaty obligation. It empowers the detaining authorities to hold a suspect for up to a month during the investigation phase of a case or indefinitely if sanctioned by a judge, during which the detainee can be denied access to counsel “in cases where the issue has a secretive aspect or the judge believes that the presence of anyone other than the accused may lead to corruption.” Article 133 also allows judicial authorities to renew a detainee’s pretrial detention indefinitely.
“These latest arrests, coming hard on the heels of other cases of arrest and imprisonment of journalists, suggests that little has changed with respect to freedom of expression almost a year after President Hassan Rouhani swept to power on a promise of reform,” Goldstein said. “Rouhani may have little control over all-powerful security, intelligence, and judicial apparatus, but silence in the face of such repression is deafening.”