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Iran steps up arrest and sentencing of teachers as school years begins

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 23 September 2015.

The Iranian authorities should immediately release seven teachers apparently detained for peaceful union activities. By stepping up the arrests and sentencing of outspoken teachers in the weeks prior to the start of the school year on September 23, 2015, the authorities appear to be sending a message to other educators not to speak out about their concerns.

Since April 2015, security forces have detained five prominent members of Iran's Teachers' Association, as well as the secretary general of the Teachers Organization of Iran. Authorities have brought new charges against another educator who had recently completed a six-year sentence in connection with his union activities. In all of the cases, the authorities have cited “security concerns” to justify the detentions.

“Iran has a clear pattern of arresting and harassing teachers for speaking out about the problems that they and their students face,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director. “The government should encourage those who seek to improve education rather than arresting them on apparently spurious security charges.”

Sources knowledgeable about the arrests told Human Rights Watch that the educators had been detained for their activities on behalf of students' and teachers' rights. Two of the sources who are active with teachers' groups shared their own experiences of being called in by authorities to answer for their union activities.

The semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported that security forces arrested Alireza Hashemi, the secretary general of the Teachers Organization of Iran, at his home on April 19 and transferred him to Evin prison. In 2011, Hashemi was convicted of “gathering and colluding to disrupt national security” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and was given a suspended five-year sentence.

In May 2015, authorities summoned Ali Akbar Baghani to serve a suspended six-year sentence issued in 2006. A Teachers' Association member told Human Rights Watch that the authorities provided no information about why the sentence was being carried out at this time. Baghani is in Gohardasht prison, outside of Tehran.

On June 27, 2015, authorities at Branch Two of Evin Court detained Esmail Abdi, the secretary general of the Teachers' Association, when he went to the court to ask why authorities had prevented him from traveling to Armenia the previous week. A source close to his case told Human Rights Watch that the court authorities told him he was being detained to answer questions about his union activities. He is accused of engaging in “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” under article 500 of the penal code, and conspiring “against the national or foreign security of the country,” under article 610.

The authorities had previously detained Abdi in 2011 on similar grounds. The source told Human Rights Watch that in 2011 authorities held Abdi in Evin prison for 44 days, 33 of them in solitary confinement, and the remainder in Ward 209, a section of the prison where Human Rights Watch has previously documented abuses. On June 29, 2011, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court convicted Abdi of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “disrupting national security,” under article 505 of the penal code, and issued a suspended 10-year sentence.

Reports published on the Teachers' Association's website said that authorities with orders from Branch Two of Evin Court detained Mohammad Reza Niknejad, an active union member, and Mehdi Behloli, a previous member of the association's governing board, on August 31, 2015. Another member told Human Rights Watch that security forces confiscated Niknejad's computer and mobile phone and accused him of having contact with foreign organizations and the foreign press. The source told Human Rights Watch Behloli and Niknejad are being held in Wards 7 and 8 of Evin prison, units housing prisoners for petty financial crimes. Niknejad and Behloli had spoken with Education Minister Ali Asghar Fani about problems teachers face shortly before their arrests, the source and the Teachers' Association website said.

On September 6, security forces with a warrant dated July 27 from Branch Two of Evin Court searched the Tehran home of Mahmoud Beheshti, the Teachers' Association spokesman, and took him into custody. The day before his arrest, Beheshti had participated in a meeting between the association and Vice President Mohammad Baqer Nowbakht, during which he also had spoken about the problems teachers face.

In an interview published by the website of the Teachers' Association, Peyman Attar, the attorney for Rasoul Bodaghi, said that his client should have been released after the completion of his sentence on August 4. Instead, authorities transferred Bodaghi from Rajaii Shahr prison to Cell Block Aleph of Evin prison, which is run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Two members of the Teachers' Association told Human Rights Watch that Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Bodaghi to a new three-year term.

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