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On the un-universal application of universal human rights

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

REUTERS/Stringer

This statement was originally published on article19.org's Azad Tribune on 30 January 2015.

By Afsaneh Rigot

"Free speech in Iran"

"Freedom of expression in Iran"

"The right to privacy in Iran"


Three sentences that seem to rattle and bemuse Iran's ruling elite who apparently consider these universal rights as a privilege only afforded to a handful of high-ranking Iranian officials. Yet when the last two words in the sentences are removed, they become inalienable rights that must be protected. This double-standard has dumbfounded Iranian human rights defenders for years.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Ayatollah Khamenei pushed to Western audiences in an attempt to highlight the atmosphere of Islamophobia in Europe, calling Western leaders "hypocrites" and "arrogant" for their lack of religious tolerance.

There is a point to be made that the right to free speech is not a license to spread hate, and nor are these terrorist attacks a gateway for governments to pursue further crackdowns on free expression by misusing or expanding current terror laws. However, Khamenei is hardly an ideal candidate to highlight inconsistencies in state human rights records. His control of the Islamic Republic's intelligence and security operations, as well as his overwhelming influence on the judiciary, provides unchecked power to his decisions.

Recent events highlight the repeated restrictions on the aforementioned freedoms in Iran within this system that sees itself as a champion of tolerance. The four recent examples below highlight the regressive stance of Khamenei's regime:

Shutting down press outlets

The Supreme Leader has led the prevalent crackdown of free expression on the online and offline spheres in recent years. Whilst making statements about the hypocritical moves of Western leaders in dealing with free expression, the Iranian newspaper Mardom-e Emrooz was shut down by the Iranian judiciary (the leaders of which are appointed by Khamenei) for simply publishing a picture of George Clooney wearing a “Je suis Charlie” pin, without any open support for the statement. According to IranWire, this was followed by the proposal of new emergency legislation that would issue lifetime bans on journalists who repeatedly publish material that is deemed offensive under the law. The implications of this for Iran's press freedom is of course clear — it would grant greater power to create a one-dimensional and (mono) discourse press in Iran. Furthermore, repression of Iranian journalists will become institutionalised, something that has previously been arbitrarily and spontaneously enforced.

#JeSuisSoheilArabi

This infringement on free expression extends far beyond the realm of journalists, but also to those expressing their opinion on a public platform – regardless of their background. Unfortunately, the #JeSuisSoheilArabi hashtag did not gain the same traction as #JeSuisCharlie. The devastating case of Arabi is the prime example of how far Iran will go to silence any voice not in unison with the regime. Arabi, father to a 5-year-old daughter, was sentenced to death for 'insulting the Prophet' on his Facebook page, despite questions about his psychological condition (which should overturn his conviction). Justice for Iran (JFI) reports that, unfortunately, Arabi has now been refused the right to have his case reviewed by the Supreme Court. Which was the main hope campaigners had for his case.

In a detailed report, JFI revealed the severe human rights violations that have taken place during Arabi's arrest, interrogation and subsequent trial. This refusal to review is an addition to the abysmal manner the case has been conducted.

This case requires international attention more now than ever to save Arabi's life – with or without a hashtag.

Proud extension of surveillance

The latest tech news from Iran indicates that Iran's mobile-using community will face further surveillance. According to a report from the Government Information Centre, on 26 January 2015, Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance proudly set up a “Contents Working Group” in order to monitor SMS messages. The approval of this working group shows that the Council of Cyberspace has once again become active in their mass-surveillance projects. The purpose of the groups “is to monitor and inspect the contents of SMS messages to make sure they “comply with the rules and regulations of the country and Islamic Iranian values””, as reported by to IranWire.

January and the hunting of human rights defenders

The final blow to add to this list of violations of international human rights standards is the recent spate of arrests of prominent human rights activists. In theory, human rights activists should not be under attack in Iran as their work is not considered illegal, even under the laws of the Islamic republic. Human rights activism is separate from political activism that is deemed to threaten the structure of the political system. Yet in Iran human rights activism has been seen as a dangerous political act, orchestrated by the West. The recent arrests of human rights defenders Nargess Mohammadi, Mahdieh Golrou and Mohammad Seifzadeh are testament to this.

“Free speech in Iran

“Freedom of expression in Iran

“The right to privacy in Iran


In order to have Iran's approval on human rights issues, one must pay special attention to the wording of the phrases used. It is concerning that the Iranian regime ignores the universal nature of the above rights and only accepts them when they are censored and not accusatory. We urge Iran to take serious and substantive steps to remedy these human rights abuses; to release its HRDs; to provide fair and transparent trials for the Soheil Arabis on death row and to cultivate an atmosphere free from surveillance and press repression.

To learn more about their cases and the charges they will be held under click on this link and this link.

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