Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran


Roya Boroumand Headshot

Roya Boroumand
Executive director, Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation

Iranians aspired to look past the scandal and violence associated with the 2009 presidential elections in the weeks and months after President Hassan Rouhani's ascent to office last year. His campaign platform of "hope and prudence" led many citizens to believe that his election would be a first step to bring the long awaited changes necessary to improve the country's troubling human rights situation.

Business as usual when it comes to human rights has, however, eclipsed this optimism and turned many hopefuls into skeptics. Recently, the reappointment by the Supreme Leader of Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani as head of the Iran's judiciary has reinforced this increasing cynicism.

In 2009, at the age of 49, Sadeq Larijani became Iran's youngest chief of the Judiciary -- a position that wields considerable power in shaping the Iran's legal system and deciding the fate of its prisoners. From the beginning, Larijani's term has been rife with controversy. One of his first decisions as Chief was to appoint Saeed Mortazavi as deputy prosecutor general of Iran. This is despite Mortazavi's involvement in the death in 2003 of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian Canadian photographer, and in ordering in 2009 several protesters to be held in the notoriously violent Kahirzak Detention Center, leading to the death of three detainees.

During Larijani's tenure, executions have risen significantly. The number of reported executions during his first year in office was the highest in 10 years. Between 2005 and 2010, execution numbers quadrupled. But with more than 640 reported executions thus far this year, 2014 may well be the worst yet. This makes Iran number one worldwide in executions per capita, with many of these executions violating international human rights law. Larijani's reappointment can therefore only be described as a calamity for human rights.

And even though I want to believe that no Judiciary seeks to execute innocent people, the Iranian system makes the likelihood of unfair trials and arbitrary killings unacceptably high. Iranians are routinely subject to arbitrary detentions, beating and interrogations without the presence of a lawyer, vaguely worded national security laws, and prejudiced institutions that fail to protect them.

The fact that most executions are carried out in Iran for drug-related offenses -- even the possession of small amounts of less than 500 grams -- is one of many examples. Though such executions fail to meet international law standards, Larijani's response to the human rights defenders' outcry has been to call on the international community to perceive the judiciary's actions as a "great service to humanity", as they represent a result of Iran's clampdown on drug trafficking. These statements do little to address the international community's concerns about Iran's laws and practices, explain why the same punishment is meted out to a man convicted for possessing 215 grams of heroin in Varamin and a man accused of armed smuggling of more than 500 kilos of opium and crack in Kerman, or help the family of the woman hanged in Zanjan for possessing 49 grams of crystal meth.

Unfortunately, no independent system inside the country is allowed to monitor, check abusive institutions and individuals, or contribute to eliminate these violations.

The international mechanisms in place to assist the country in this regard have not had much luck in convincing Iran of the benefit of keeping its promise to improve transparency and open a meaningful dialogue on these issues either. Despite issuing a standing invitation in 2002 to UN monitors, the Iranian Government has denied request after request to visit the county since 2005 -- further undermining Iran's treaty obligations and its responsibility to cooperate with the United Nations.

So, it is hard to blame the skeptics. Despite some very modest actions that can be credited to Rouhani's government, this past year feels like many before it. Iranian leaders continue to forward promises to live up to their pledges and abide by the established international and domestic principles, and norms to protect its people, while flouting these laws in practice and punishing those who criticize them.

Small steps forward are important, but it is only through meaningful and deep reforms that the lives of Iranians will truly improve. These reforms will take time, will require more self-reflection, and necessitate strong will and the cooperation of various ministries and the judiciary. In the short term, however, Iran can begin by complying with the international and national laws already in place to protect citizens' rights to life, freedom of expression, association, assembly, belief, and religion. And it can grant a long overdue visit by the UN Special Rapporteur appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor the situation in Iran. This would offer a clear signal that the government is committed to cooperation and transparency in the protection and promotion of human rights.

Just a month ago, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, reiterated in a conversation with his Danish counterpart, the country's willingness to have "open and clear talks" about human rights. More than one year after Mr. Rouhani took office, statements alone do not suffice. Now is time for Iran to act and abide by its obligations.