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UN rapporteur calls for release of all prisoners of conscience

UN rapporteur calls for release of all prisoners of conscience

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has called for the release of all prisoners of conscience, even those on security-related charges, amid fears the coronavirus could spread rapidly within Iran’s overcrowded prisons.

Javaid Rehman, speaking yesterday at the launch of his latest report at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, welcomed the reported release of tens of thousands of prisoners on short-term leave to combat the spread of the virus, but called on the Iranian authorities to also release prisoners on longer-term, security-related sentences.

As Article18 reported last week, six Christians were among the initial 54,000 prisoners released – most on short-term furloughs. However, at least a further 11 remained in prison. Most are serving longer sentences on security-related charges, and such prisoners were not considered for furlough, even though one family member of a security prisoner noted that the virus is “unaware of [the length of] sentences when it infects people”.

Representatives of 30 UN members states made short statements in response to Mr Rehman’s report, with several highlighting the plight of religious minorities, especially the Baha’is, and one – the UK – specifically mentioning Christian converts.

Iran’s recent move to remove the “other religion” category from its national ID card application form was highlighted by several member states, and also by a spokesperson for the Baha’i International Community, who was one of ten representatives from NGOs who also gave short statements. 

Simin Fahandejsadi said the measure essentially rendered Baha’is as “non-persons” because, as a matter of principle, Baha’is would not lie about their faith, but they, and other unrecognised religious groups, must now choose from just one of four recognised faiths: Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity.

As Article18 highlighted in its recent analysis, Christian converts are also affected, because openly stating their newfound faith would bring the very real risk of prosecution under security-related charges.

Iran’s brutal crackdown against protesters was highlighted by several member states, as was the lack of due process and inhumane treatment of many prisoners of conscience, and poor conditions inside prisons, including denial of medical care – concerns that were the primary focus of Mr Rehman’s latest report.

One Christian prisoner of conscience was recently beaten so badly during her detention that the bruises were still visible on her body three weeks later

Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, who was among the prisoners recently granted temporary leave from prison, was also strip-searched twice by female officers, who told her that if she refused to remove her clothes, they would rip them from her, and forced to sit in a yard, for hours, in extremely cold weather and opposite the toilets.

Meanwhile, Article18 has reported on the denial of medical care to several Christian prisoners of conscience – most recently Zaman (Saheb) Fadaee in December.

‘Inherently flawed’

Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh, addresses the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Iran’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh, firmly rejected the rapporteur’s claims, saying the report was “inherently flawed because it is based on an innately prejudiced mandate and overly politicised agenda”, and was “far from a faithful reflection of Iran’s continuing progress in human rights performance”.

Nine of the UN member states came out in support of Iran – Iraq, Cuba, Russia, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, China, Armenia, Belarus – but the majority spoke in support of the rapporteur’s mandate, which has been in place since 2011, and called for its renewal.

Among the other NGO spokespeople was a BBC journalist, Rana Rahimpour, who highlighted the pressure placed on families of human rights defenders in Iran – another of the points made in Mr Rehman’s report.

Ms Rahimpour said she receives daily death threats online and that she was recently told she is not safe in London and that “they will cut my children’s throats and that I will be assassinated”.

Article18’s latest annual report noted how 2019 was the year in which Iranian intelligence agents began to harass family members of Iranian Christian converts who had fled the country, even though they may not be Christians themselves, such as in the case of Vahid (Nathan) Roufegarbashi and his wife Mahsa, both of whose parents were harassed. 

Mahsa’s father, Ismaeil Maghrebinejad, was recently given two jail sentences amounting to a total of five years

The Special Rapporteur also spoke of his “concern” that “in-person appeal hearings are now not required”. Article18 reported just last week that nine Christian converts from the northern city of Rasht had their five-year prison sentences upheld, even though neither they, nor their lawyers, were permitted to attend the hearing. 

Five of the men are among the at least 11 Christians known to be still in detention in Iran on charges related to the peaceful practice of their faith.