7.30.2007

Syria and Iran's Human Rights 2007

These are the Amnesty International's 2007 reports on the state of human rights in Iran and its ally Syria, the Middle East's totalitarian states.


SYRIA

Freedom of expression and association continued to be severely restricted. Scores of people were arrested and hundreds remained imprisoned for political reasons, including prisoners of conscience and others sentenced after unfair trials. Discriminatory legislation and practices remained in force against women and the Kurdish minority. Torture and ill-treatment in detention continued to be reported and carried out with impunity. Human rights defenders continued to face arrest, harassment and restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Background

The state of emergency imposed in 1962 remained in force. A UN investigation continued to indicate high-level Syrian involvement in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which Syria denied.

Syria hosted more than 200,000 Lebanese refugees who fled to the country during the July/August conflict, as well as some 500,000 Iraqi refugees displaced by the continuing conflict in Iraq. There were also some 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria and tens of thousands of Syrians remained displaced due to Israel's continuing occupation of the Golan.

A European Union-funded human rights centre was closed down in March, shortly after opening. The Association Agreement between Syria and the European Union, initialled in October 2004 and containing a human rights clause, remained frozen for a further year at the final approval stage. Syria's relations with the USA remained strained.

Releases

Five of the remaining prisoners from the pro-reform movement referred to as the "Damascus Spring" - Riad Seif and Ma'mun al-Homsi, both former parliamentary deputies, Walid al-Bunni, Habib 'Issa and Fawaz Tello - were freed on 18 January, seven months before the expiry of their five-year sentences.

Imprisonment for political reasons

Scores of people were arrested during 2006 for political reasons, including tens of prisoners of conscience. Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, remained imprisoned. Scores faced trial before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), Criminal Court or Military Court, all of which failed to respect international standards for fair trials.

• In April, Riad Drar al-Hamood was sentenced by the SSSC to five years' imprisonment on charges of belonging to a "secret organization", "publishing false news" and "inciting sectarian strife". A member of the Committees for Revival of Civil Society, an unauthorized network of people engaging in human rights-related and political discussion, he was arrested in June 2005 after making a speech at the funeral of the prominent Kurdish Islamic scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Ma'shuq al-Khiznawi, who had been abducted and killed. The charge of "inciting sectarian strife" was commonly used against human rights defenders and activists seeking to promote the rights of Syrian Kurds.

• Ten of the scores of signatories to the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration" that sought normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon were arrested between 14 and 18 May. Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, writer Michel Kilo and Mahmoud 'Issa - who was rearrested in October after being released on bail in September with former prisoner of conscience Khalil Hussein and Suleyman Shummar - remained detained at the end of the year. The five men faced multiple charges including one common charge of insulting the President, government officials or public servants.

• There were increased concerns for the health of Dr 'Aref Dalilah, aged 63. He was said to have suffered a stroke in mid-2006 and continued to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure. He remained imprisoned in a small, isolated cell serving the 10-year sentence imposed on him for his involvement in the 2001 pro-reform movement referred to as the "Damascus Spring".

• The trial of former "Damascus Spring" prisoner Kamal al-Labwani, who was arrested in November 2005 on his return to Syria after several months in Europe and the USA during which he peacefully called for democratic reform, continued before the Criminal Court. He was charged with "encouraging foreign aggression against Syria", an offence punishable by life imprisonment. In November he was badly beaten by a criminal prisoner, reportedly at the instigation of the authorities.

• Eight young men remained detained incommunicado at the end of 2006 after being arrested between January and March, apparently in connection with their involvement in developing a political discussion group. They were reportedly tortured during their interrogation. They were being tried by the SSSC. Seven of the men were charged with "subjecting Syria to the risk of hostile acts", and all eight with "publishing false news that may offend the dignity of the State".

• In August former "Damascus Spring" prisoner of conscience Habib Saleh was sentenced by the military court in Homs to three years' imprisonment for "weakening nationalist sentiments" and "spreading false news". The charges related to articles critical of the Syrian authorities that he had published on the Internet.

• Scores of individuals were facing trial for their alleged following of the "Islamist trend". On 14 November the SSSC sentenced 11 men from al-'Otaybe who were arrested in April 2004 to prison terms of six to nine years for membership of a Salafi organization. Some 23 young men from Qatana remained detained following their arrests in July 2004. Members of both groups were reportedly tortured and ill-treated during long periods of incommunicado detention.

• On 20 December, Kurdish activist and secretary of the outlawed Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, Muhi al-Din Sheikh Aali, was reportedly arrested by Military Intelligence, in Aleppo, northern Syria. At the end of the year he remained in incommunicado detention at an unknown location.

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression remained strictly controlled.

• Seventeen state employees working in various government ministries were dismissed without explanation but apparently on account of their links to the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration". The dismissals were ordered by Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-'Otri on 14 June.

• Upon his release in September after serving a six-month sentence imposed by the Military Court for "insulting the President", "harming the dignity of the State" and "inciting sectarian strife", writer Muhammad Ghanem was also reportedly suspended from his employment in the Education Directorate in al-Raqqa.

• Dozens of Syrian Internet news sites were reportedly blocked during 2006, including www.syriaview.net, www.thisissyria.net, www.kurdroj.com, www.shril.info and www.arraee.com.

Torture and ill-treatment

Torture and ill-treatment in custody continued to be reported, and allegations of such ill-treatment were not investigated.

• It was reported in April that Muhammad Shaher Haysa died in custody in Damascus as a result of torture and ill-treatment he was subjected to while detained for six months. He was reportedly arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Jund al-Sham organization.

• 'Ali Sayed al-Shihabi, a former prisoner of conscience for nine years, remained detained at the end of the year following his arrest in August, apparently in relation to articles he had written for the Internet. While held at the Investigation Branch in Damascus he was beaten with sticks on his feet and hands.

• In October, Muhammad Haydar Zammar, a German national of Syrian origin held in secret, incommunicado detention since December 2001 and reportedly tortured, was brought before the SSSC on charges including membership of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for which, if convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Violence and discrimination against women

At least 10 women were reportedly killed by close male relatives for alleged reasons of "honour". Perpetrators continued to enjoy near impunity for the crimes on account of inadequate investigations and of provisions in the Penal Code that allow for reduced sentences for killing a female member of the family who is allegedly committing "adultery" or having other "sexual relations". Women's rights activists worked to end discriminatory legislation including in the areas of marriage, divorce, the family, inheritance and nationality, and to achieve greater protection against domestic and other forms of violence.

• In a village near Sweida in July, a teenage woman with learning difficulties was reportedly killed by her brother, following her rape by a relative. A trial was ongoing at the end of the year.

• In March a young woman was reportedly forced to marry the man who had raped her and thereby absolve him of any crime, in accordance with article 508 of the Penal Code.

Discrimination against Kurds

Syrian Kurds continued to suffer from identity-based discrimination, including restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language and culture. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds remained effectively stateless and as such continued to be denied equal access to social and economic rights.

• Some 75 Kurds were reportedly released in September following their arrests in March for peacefully celebrating Nowruz (the lunar New Year) in Aleppo. The celebration was violently broken up by the security forces.

• Four teachers were reportedly detained for one month from 4 August for teaching the Kurdish language.

Human rights defenders

Several unauthorized human rights organizations continued to be active, although their members were at risk of arrest, harassment and travel bans.

• Dr 'Ammar Qurabi, media spokesman of the National Organization for Human Rights, was detained for four days in March at Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus, then released without charge.

• On 11 July the offices of the Human Rights Association of Syria were attacked, with windows broken and animal faeces smeared on the walls.

• On 27 July Muhannad al-Hasani, head of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, was prevented from travelling to a meeting on organizational systems in Jordan, by order of the security services. In October he was prevented from travelling to Morocco to attend the Euro-Mediterranean Civil Forum.

• In November, Nizar Ristnawi, a founding member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria, was sentenced by the SSSC to four years' imprisonment for "spreading false news" and "insulting the President". The charges and sentence appeared to be based on his work promoting human rights and democracy. Nizar Ristnawi was arrested in April 2005 and detained incommunicado until August 2005.

UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

In May the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that the detention of five individuals deported to Syria was arbitrary, given "the gravity of the violation of the right to a fair trial". Muhammad Fa'iq Mustafa was deported from Bulgaria in November 2002 and sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment by the Field Military Court, before being released in November 2005. Ahmet Muhammad Ibrahim was deported from Turkey in March 2005, reportedly tortured, then released in January 2006. Nabil al-Marabh, who was deported to Syria from the USA in January 2004, was sentenced in March by the SSSC to five years' imprisonment for "subjecting Syria to the risk of hostile acts". Both 'Abd al-Rahman al-Musa, who was deported from the USA in January 2005, and Muhammad Osama Sayes, who was deported from the UK in May 2005, were sentenced to death by the SSSC in June for affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood. The sentences were immediately commuted to 12 years' imprisonment.

Death penalty

The death penalty remained in force for a wide range of offences, but the authorities disclosed little information about its use. At least seven individuals were sentenced to death under Law 49 of 1980 for affiliation with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization, then had the sentences commuted to 12 years' imprisonment.

Impunity/enforced disappearances

There was increased discussion within civil society over the issue of combating past impunity, particularly with regard to mass human rights abuses committed since the late 1970s. The fate of more than 17,000 people, mostly Islamists, who "disappeared" after they were detained in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians who were detained in Syria or abducted from Lebanon by Syrian forces or Lebanese and Palestinian militias, remained unknown.

AI country reports/visits

Visit
In January AI visited Syria for the first time since 1997, and met government officials, lawyers and others, including detainees' families.

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IRAN

The human rights situation deteriorated, with civil society facing increasing restrictions on fundamental freedoms of expression and association. Scores of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continued to serve prison sentences imposed following unfair trials in previous years. Thousands more arrests were made in 2006, mostly during or following demonstrations. Human rights defenders, including journalists, students and lawyers, were among those detained arbitrarily without access to family or legal representation. Torture, especially during periods of pre-trial detention, remained commonplace. At least 177 people were executed, at least four of whom were under 18 at the time of the alleged offence, including one who was under 18 at the time of execution. Two people were reportedly stoned to death. Sentences of flogging, amputation and eye-gouging continued to be passed. The true numbers of those executed or subjected to corporal punishment were probably considerably higher than those reported.

Background

The rift between Iran and the international community over the government's insistence on maintaining its nuclear enrichment programme continued to widen. In March, the International Atomic Energy Agency referred Iran to the UN Security Council. In December the Security Council agreed on a programme of sanctions against Iran following Iran's failure to meet an August deadline to suspend the programme. Iran continued to accuse foreign governments of fomenting unrest in border areas, and in turn was accused of involvement in the worsening security situation in Iraq. In February the US government sought an extra

US$75 million to "support democracy" in Iran. President Ahmadinejad continued to make statements threatening to the State of Israel and questioning the Holocaust. The European Union-Iran human rights dialogue remained suspended.

Local elections and elections to the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the appointment of the Supreme Leader, were held in December. The Council of Guardians, which reviews laws and policies to ensure that they uphold Islamic tenets and the Constitution, excluded all but 164 Assembly of Experts candidates, including at least 12 women who registered, on the basis of discriminatory selection procedures. The results of both elections were generally seen as a setback to the government of President Ahmadinejad.

The authorities faced armed opposition from Kurdish and Baluchi groups.

In December, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the human rights situation in Iran. Iran failed to set a date for visits by any UN Human Rights mechanisms despite having issued a standing invitation in 2002.

Repression of minorities

Ethnic and religious minorities remained subject to discriminatory laws and practices which continued to be a source of social and political unrest.

Arabs

Arabs continued to complain of discrimination, including in access to resources, as well as forced evictions. In October, the Council of Guardians approved a bill allocating 2 per cent of Iran's oil revenues to Khuzestan province, home to many of Iran's Arabs.

Scores of Arabs were detained during the year. At least 36 were sentenced to death or received lengthy prison terms after conviction in unfair trials of involvement in causing bomb explosions in Ahvaz and Tehran in 2005. Five were executed including Mehdi Nawaseri and Mohammad Ali Sawari who were executed in public in February following the broadcast of their televised "confessions".

• At least five women were detained, some along with their children, between February and April, in circumstances which suggested that they may have been held in order to force their husbands to give themselves up or make confessions. Four women and two children were believed to be still held at the end of the year.

• Seven lawyers defending some of those accused in connection with the bombings were summoned to appear before the Ahvaz Revolutionary Prosecutor in October on charges of "acting against state security". The summons was issued in connection with a letter they had sent to the Head of the Revolutionary Court in Ahvaz complaining about deficiencies in the trial of their clients.

Azerbaijanis

In May, widespread demonstrations took place in mainly Azerbaijani north-western towns and cities in protest at the publication of a cartoon offensive to Azerbaijanis in the state-run Iran newspaper. Hundreds, if not thousands, were arrested and scores reportedly killed by the security forces, although official sources downplayed the scale of arrests and killings. Further arrests occurred, many around events and dates significant to the Azerbaijani community such as the Babek Castle gathering in Kalayber in June, and a boycott of the start of the new academic year over linguistic rights for the Azerbaijani community.

• Prisoner of conscience Abbas Lisani was detained in June for over three months for his participation in the demonstrations in Ardabil against the cartoon. In September, he was sentenced to 16 months' imprisonment and 50 lashes on charges including "disturbing state security". At the end of October, five days after submitting an appeal, he was redetained, and his family was later informed that his sentence had been increased to 18 months' imprisonment with an additional three years of enforced internal exile. He stated his unconditional opposition to the use of violence. By the end of the year he faced two further prison sentences imposed for his attendance at the 2003 and 2005 Babek Castle gatherings.

Kurds

In February, clashes between Kurdish demonstrators and the security forces in Maku and other towns reportedly led to at least nine deaths and scores, if not hundreds, of arrests. In March, Kurdish Majles deputies wrote to the President demanding an investigation into the killings and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice. An investigation was reportedly set up, but its findings were not known by the end of the year. Some of those detained later reportedly received prison terms of between three and eight months.

• Mohammad Sadeq Kabudvand, the Head of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan and editor of the banned weekly newspaper Payam-e Mardom, had his 18-month suspended prison sentence for "publishing lies and articles aimed at creating racial and tribal tension and discord" increased on appeal to one year's actual imprisonment. Although summoned to prison in September, he remained at liberty at the end of the year, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court. Other Payam-e Mardom journalists were also brought to trial.

Baluchis

In March a Baluchi armed group, Jondallah, killed 22 Iranian officials and took at least seven hostage, in Sistan-Baluchistan province. Following the incident, scores, possibly hundreds, of people were arrested; many were reportedly taken to unknown locations. In the months following the attacks, the number of executions announced in Baluchi areas increased dramatically. Dozens were reported to have been executed by the end of the year.

Religious minorities

Members of Iran's religious minorities were detained or harassed on account of their faith.

In February over 1,000 Nematollahi Sufis peacefully protesting against an order to evacuate their place of worship in Qom were arrested. Hundreds were injured by members of the security forces and members of organized pro-government groups. In May, 52 Sufis, including two lawyers representing the group, were sentenced to one year's imprisonment, flogging and a fine, and the lawyers were banned from practising law. In August, Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a religious edict designating Sufism as "null and void".

Several evangelical Christians, mostly converts from Islam, were detained, apparently in connection with their religious activities.

• In September, Fereshteh Dibaj and her husband, Reza Montazemi, were detained for nine days before being released on bail. Fereshteh Dibaj is the youngest daughter of convert Mehdi Dibaj who was murdered in 1994 shortly after being released from prison where he had been held for nine years for "apostasy".

Sixty-five Baha'is were detained during 2006 and five remained held at the end of the year. In March Mehran Kawsari was released early from his three-year prison sentence imposed in connection with an open letter sent to the then President in November 2004.

In March, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief expressed concern about an October 2005 letter instructing various government agencies to identify, and collect information about, Baha'is in Iran.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders faced deepening restrictions on their work and remained at risk of reprisals. In January, the Ministry of the Interior was reported to be preparing measures to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations that allegedly received finance from "problematic internal and external sources aimed at overthrowing the system". Students, who remained a politically active section of society, were frequently targeted for reprisals, including arbitrary arrest and denial of the right to study in the new academic year.

• In August, the Ministry of the Interior banned activities by the Centre for Defenders of Human Rights (CDHR), run by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi and other leading lawyers, stating that it did not have a permit. In September, the Ministry of the Interior said a permit would be issued "if changes were made to the [centre's] mission statement".

• Abdolfattah Soltani, a lawyer and co-founder of the CDHR, was released on bail in March. He was later sentenced to five years' imprisonment for "disclosing confidential documents" and "propaganda against the system". The sentence was under appeal at the end of the year.

• Prisoner of conscience Akbar Ganji, a journalist who implicated government officials in the murder of intellectuals and journalists in the 1990s, was released in March after completing his six-year prison sentence.

Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments

Torture remained common in many prisons and detention centres, particularly in the investigative stage of pre-trial detention when detainees are denied access to a lawyer for indefinite periods. At least seven people reportedly died in custody, some in circumstances where torture, ill-treatment or denial of medical care may have been contributory factors.

• Political prisoners Akbar Mohammadi and Valiollah Feyz Mahdavi died in July and September respectively after going on hunger strike to protest at their continued detention.

• Fourteen-year-old Mohammad Reza Evezpoor, an Iranian Azerbaijani, was arrested in April after writing "I am a Turk" on a wall. He was reportedly tortured during his three days in detention, including by being suspended by his feet for 24 hours and denied food and water. He was beaten again when rearrested in September.

At least two amputations were carried out and one person was sentenced to eye-gouging. Flogging remained a common punishment.

• Leyla Mafi received a flogging of 99 lashes in February before being released from prison into a women's rehabilitation centre. Forced into prostitution as an eight-year-old and raped repeatedly, she was arrested in early 2004 and charged with "acts contrary to chastity" for which she was sentenced to flogging followed by death. Following international pressure, her death sentence was overturned.

Impunity

Victims of human rights violations and their families continued to lack redress.

• A re-examination, ordered in 2001, of the cases of Ministry of Intelligence officials accused of the 1998 "serial murders", remained incomplete. Nasser Zarafshan, lawyer for the families of some of the victims, continued to serve a five-year prison sentence following his conviction on politically motivated charges.

Death penalty

At least 177 people were executed in 2006, including one minor and at least three others who were under 18 at the time of the alleged offence. Death sentences were imposed for a variety of crimes including drug smuggling, armed robbery, murder, political violence and sexual offences. Following domestic and international protests, the death sentences of some women and of some prisoners aged under 18 at the time of the alleged offence were suspended or lifted; some were sentenced to death again after a retrial. Two people were reportedly stoned to death despite a moratorium on stoning announced by the judiciary in 2002. Others remained under sentence of stoning to death. In September, Iranian human rights defenders launched a campaign to save nine women and two men sentenced to death by stoning and to abolish stoning in law. By the end of the year the stoning sentences of at least three of the 11 had been quashed.

Freedom of expression and association

Freedom of expression and association was increasingly curtailed. Internet access was increasingly restricted and monitored. Journalists and webloggers were detained and sentenced to prison or flogging and at least 11 newspapers were closed down. Relatives of detainees or of those sought by the authorities remained at risk of harassment or intimidation. Independent trade unionists faced reprisals and some academics, such as Ramin Jahanbegloo, were detained or dismissed from their posts.

• Up to 1,000 members of the independent, but banned, Sherkat-e Vahed Bus Company Union were arrested in January after striking to demand recognition of their union and to protest at the detention of the union's head Mansour Ossanlu. All were later released, but dozens were still forbidden from returning to their jobs at the end of the year. Mansour Ossanlu was released on bail in August after being held for over seven months in connection with his trade union activities, but was redetained for one month in November, reportedly after attending meetings organized by the International Labour Organization.

Women's rights

Demonstrations in Tehran in March and June demanding an end to discrimination in law against women were broken up harshly by the security forces. Some protesters were injured.

• Former Majles deputy Sayed Ali Akbar Mousavi-Kho'ini was arrested at the June demonstration and held for over four months before his release on bail in October. He reported that he had been tortured in detention.

In August, women's rights activists launched a campaign to gather a million signatures to a petition demanding equal rights for women.

AI country reports/visits

Reports
• Iran: Human rights defender at risk ? appeal case: Abdolfattah Soltani (AI Index: MDE 13/009/2006)

• Iran: New government fails to address dire human rights situation (AI Index: MDE 13/010/2006)

• Iran: Defending minority rights ? the Ahwazi Arabs (AI Index: MDE 13/056/2006)


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7.18.2007

Iranian Regime’s Assault on Civil Society

Iran’s Assault on Civil Society

cfr.org
May 31, 2007

The good news is that Iranian civil society is booming. Women’s groups and labor unions, environmental organizations and students groups—even anti-land mine nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—all ply their trade in abundance, in striking contrast to many of Iran’s Arab neighbors. As this new Backgrounder explains, the bulk of these groups took root during the reformist years of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

But the hard-line regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has brought with it bad news for such groups: a new era of repressiveness, shuttering NGOs and arresting activists. The basij, the Iranian regime’s enforcers of Islamic religious codes, routinely stop women for failing to wear proper headdress, and they and other agents of the regime harass ethnic minorities, bloggers, political activists, and homosexuals, too. Iranian author Nasrin Alavi, writing in PostGlobal, likens it to a “ second cultural revolution,” forcing academics with Western ties into early retirement and replacing “longstanding veterans throughout state institutions with inexperienced ideological allies.” This Backgrounder looks at Iran’s worsening human rights situation.

The latest setback for civil society was the arrests of three Iranian-Americans with close ties to Iran-based NGOs on dubious charges of espionage. Specifically, the detention of a sixty-seven-year-old academic and grandmother, Haleh Esfandiari, has set off a firestorm of criticism in the United States. Human rights groups like Reporters Without Borders have called for an end to these types of detentions. Others, including CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, decry the fact (CSMonitor) that Washington and Tehran can hold bilateral talks on Iraq while Esfandiari sits in prison.

The reasons for the arrests and clampdowns are multifold. They may reflect the weakness of the Iranian regime, which is worried that Western academics are plotting to stage a “velvet revolution.” Or it may indicate a political internal battle between Islamic hard-liners and those who favor more engagement with Washington and an end to Iran’s isolation. “There’s a small but very powerful clique within Iran, among the political elite, who actually have entrenched political and financial interests in retaining Iran’s isolation,” Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman.

Others suspect an effort to stave off a U.S. foreign policy with the implicit intention, they charge, of regime change in Iran. More specifically, they cite the U.S. government’s recent push to fund Iranian civil society groups. Yet even Iranian activists are suspicious of U.S. intentions. “Iranian reformists believe that democracy can't be imported,” (IHT) write the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi and the University of Southern California’s Muhammad Sahimi.“It must be indigenous. They believe that the best Washington can do for democracy in Iran is to leave them alone. The fact is, no truly nationalist and democratic group will accept such funds.” In a recent Online Debate, Robert Lutwak of the Wilson Center and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute debate whether regime change should be part of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran.

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Shrinking Rights in Iran

cfr.org

May 9, 2007

A spring clampdown on dress code violations, such as women with immodest headdress or men with Western-style haircuts, is something of a pre-summer ritual in Iran. News reports suggest this year’s crackdown (RFE/RL) has been particularly thorough, with over ten thousand women receiving warnings during a ten-day stretch in April. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran’s judiciary, which instigated the crackdown, is using national security laws to rein in Iran’s “ burgeoning” women’s rights movement.

The problem, of course, is not limited to hemlines or haircuts. Human rights have steadily eroded across the board under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Disappearances and deaths by stoning are now common, according to the State Department, as are extrajudicial killings, restrictions on civil liberties, and “violence by vigilante groups with ties to the government.” Last December the UN General Assembly also censured Tehran for various human rights violations, including its use of torture and press restrictions (BBC). Even al-Jazeera was recently banned from Iran’s Majlis for insulting a Shiite cleric. Arrests of political opponents are also increasingly routine; a former top nuclear negotiator, Hossein Mousavian, was arrested April 30 for reportedly spying and exchanging nuclear secrets with “foreign elements” (BBC). And an Iranian-American academic was recently nabbed in Tehran and briefly detained (IHT). These rights concerns, taken alongside heightened tensions over the nuclear issue and sanctions, have “created an unprecedented pressure which can make the society more vulnerable than before,” writes the Iranian blogger Mohammad Ali Abtahi.

Yet some experts complain that Iran’s human rights issues have not received more outside attention. “The nuclearization of U.S.-Iran relations has come at expense of other issues such as human rights, and that needs to be brought back to the table,” argues Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council. With talk of more normalized bilateral relations in the air, some reformists democracy activists remain skeptical Tehran would ever want to end its diplomatic isolation. “This would reduce state domination of an economy that is crippled by corruption and negligence, and loosen control of societal and political life by state institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and their allies,” writes Iranian author Nasrin Alavi.

It is also unclear what role outside powers like the United States should play to promote human rights in Iran. The Bush administration allocated $75 million to the cause but prominent Iranian activists like Akbar Ganji say “it will make the work of the pro-democracy movement more difficult” by tainting those who receive U.S. funds (ChiTrib). Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center agrees. “Some democracy activists have faced detention and interrogation over alleged complicity in a U.S. plot to foment a ‘soft revolution,’” he writes in this recent CFR.org Online Debate. Litwak says U.S. funds should only go toward pro-democracy groups based in the United States, whether American or Iranian-American, which then filter money less directly back to Iran. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute agrees Washington’s money can taint the activists it is intended to help. But debating Litwak, Rubin argues that “Tehran’s crackdown on dissent predated the congressional appropriation of $75 million,” pointing to the muzzling of Iranian dissidents like Ahmad Batebi and Mansour Ossanlou. This CFR Backgrounder examines the country’s deteriorating human rights record.

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Some related posts:

- Middle East Human Rights 2007

- Iranians Struggle for Human Rights

- Iran's Waning Human Rights

- About Iranian Regime

- War on Iran Under Way

- Iranian Regime's Tyranny: Ethnic Question

- Totalitarianism, Violence and Terror


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Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

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7.10.2007

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the latest issue of Arab Reform Bulletin (June 2007) Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Headlines:

  • Egypt: Shura Council Elections and Other Political Developments
  • Jordan: IAF Members Arrested Ahead of Municipal Elections
  • Algeria: Election Results
  • Morocco: Crackdown on Activists
  • Kuwait: Ministers Questioned about Corruption
  • Saudi Arabia: Morality Police under Pressure
  • Qatar: Second Doha Conference on Democracy and Reform
  • Bahrain: Activists Arrested
  • Yemen: Press Censorship
  • Press Freedom: Journalists Criticize Limited Access
  • Upcoming Political Events

Contents:


Egypt: Shura Council Elections and Other Political Developments

In June 11 elections for Egypt's upper house of parliament, 587 candidates competed for eighty-eight seats in twenty-four provinces. According to preliminary results, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won the majority of the seats, the leftistTagammu party won one seat in Alexandria, and the Muslim Brotherhood did not win any seats. The NDP won forty-five seats in seventeen provinces; twelve seats were uncontested and went to candidates from the NDP. NDP candidates wil participate in runoff elections on June 18 in nine provinces. Only one seat went to a female candidate. Clashes between ruling party supporters and independents outside polling stations resulted in the death of an opposition supporter in the northern Nile Delta region. Domestic election observers stated that polling station officials only permitted NDP supporters inside the polling station in many provinces, prevented opposition supporters from casting ballots, and prohibited observers from entering some polling stations. Click here for a preliminary report in Arabic by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

The National Democratic Party (NDP) fielded 109 candidates, twenty-one more than the eighty-eight seats up for grabs. Competing in Shura elections for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood presented nineteen candidates. Most other opposition groups did not participate. Eleven of the eighty-eight seats were uncontested and went to candidates from the NDP. Only 176 members of the Shura Council are directly elected for six-year terms, while the president appoints the remaining eighty-eight. Elections and appointments are executed on a rotating basis, with one half of the council renewed every three years.

Egyptian police detained more than 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including as many as 100 on election day, in the last month as part of a crackdown against the opposition group in the lead up to Shura Council elections. The detainees, who include six candidates for the elections, are accused of membership in a banned group, campaigning before the official start of the campaign period, and using religious slogans. The Brotherhood campaigned under its traditional “Islam is the Solution” slogan despite a recent constitutional amendment banning any political activity on a religious basis. Shura Council Speaker Safwat al-Sharif asked the recently-formed Electoral Commission on June 5 to remove the names of seventeen candidates from the ballot because of their affiliation with the Brotherhood, but the commission declined.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained between March 2006 and March 2007, and over 800 are currently imprisoned. Blogger Abdel Monem Mahmoud was released on June 2 after a forty-five day detention on charges of belonging to the Brotherhood and defaming the government. The Egyptian government on June 3 refused to allow human rights groups to observe the military trial of thirty-three members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The court adjourned until July 15. Click here for details.

The Shura Council's Political Parties Committee granted on May 24 a license to the Democratic Front, a liberal party formed by appointed Shura Council member Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a former member of the ruling National Democratic Party, and former cabinet minister Yehia al-Gamal.

A Cairo court rejected on May 31 a bid by Ayman Nour, the former head of the opposition al-Ghad party, to be released from prison on medical grounds. Nour was convicted in December 2005 of forgery and sentenced to a five-year term.

Egypt was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN's highest human rights body, on May 17. A briefing paper (English text, Arabic text) by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Human Rights Watch argues that Egypt's “terrible human rights record made that country a poor choice for membership” but “welcomed the Egyptian government's public pledge to improve its practices domestically and to strengthen the capacity of the council.”


Jordan: IAF Members Arrested Ahead of Municipal Elections

Jordanian security forces arrested nine members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) between May 21 and June 5 for engaging in acts “threatening national security.” Seven remain in custody. According to the head of the IAF, Zaki Bani Irsheid, the activists were arrested for promoting the party's candidates ahead of the July 31 municipal elections. The IAF announced in April it would participate in municipal elections despite its opposition to some elements in the new municipalities law. The party announced on June 4 it will participate in legislative elections expected to take place in November.

For the first time in Jordan's history, a woman judge, Ihsan Barakat, was appointed as head of an appeals court on May 28. Jordan has had women judges since 1996.


Algeria: Election Results

Algeria's ruling alliance—the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Democratic Rally (RND), and the Movement of Society for Peace (HMS)—maintained control of the new parliament after winning 249 out of 389 seats in the May 17 legislative elections. Independent candidates obtained thirty-three seats, the Workers' Party won twenty-six seats, and the Rally for Culture and Democracy nineteen seats. In total, twenty-two political parties constitute the national assembly. Click here for detailed results. Sa'id Bouchair, the head of the Independent National Political Commission of Election Surveillance, initially reported that ballot boxes in the Algiers District and the southern city of al-Oued were being stuffed with FLN ballots, and that observers were being prevented from attending. He later retracted his statement and apologized. Approximately 15 percent of the 6.6 million ballots were void. The Constitutional Council rejected appeals regarding the election on May 30.

Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni announced on May 30 that the electoral law will be amended and that municipal elections will be held in three months.


Morocco: Crackdown on Activists

Moroccan authorities cracked down on Western Sahara independence activists after a group of students held a sit-in on May 7 at a university in Agadir to demand better healthcare and housing and voice their support for the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario ahead of U.N.-backed talks on the territory's future. Twenty-five students remain in prison. Moroccan police arrested three leading human rights campaigners in Western Sahara on May 20: Brahim Elansari and Hassana Douihi, members of the Saharawi Association for Human Rights Victims (ASVDH), and Naama Asfari, president of the Paris-based Committee for the Respect of Human Freedoms and Rights in Western Sahara. A court also extended prison terms on May 22 for Brahim Sabbar and Ahmed Sbai, leading members of the ASVDH.


Kuwait: Ministers Questioned about Corruption

Kuwait's oil minister, Sheik Ali al-Jarrah al-Sabah, a member of the ruling family, will be questioned in parliament on June 25 for telling a newspaper he had sought advice from a previous oil minister implicated in a corruption case. Al-Jarrah apologized for his statements on May 30, but parliament's Popular bloc (populist) and National bloc (liberals) insisted on questioning him. Previous motions to question ministers in parliament have led either to cabinet resignations or to dissolution of the legislature. A number of Salafi MPs are also pushing for interpellation of Minister of Religious Endowments Abdullah al-Matouq regarding financial transgressions.

In another development, Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) Secretary General Badr al-Nashi announced the establishment of a new ICM office for women, which will support legislation to protect the civil and social rights of women and children.


Saudi Arabia: Morality Police under Pressure

Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced on June 10 the creation of a “department of rules and regulations” to ensure the activities of commission members comply with the law, after coming under heavy pressure for the death of two people in its custody in less than two weeks. Eighteen commission members (mutawa‘in) were detained and questioned June 3. The governmental National Society for Human Rights criticized the behavior of the religious police in May in its first report (Arabic text) since its establishment in March 2004. In May 2006, the interior ministry issued a decree stating that “the role of the commission will end after it arrests the culprit or culprits and hands them over to police, who will then decide whether to refer them to the public prosecutor.” Mutawa‘in had until recently enjoyed unchallenged powers to arrest, detain, and interrogate those suspected of moral infractions.


Qatar: Second Doha Conference on Democracy and Reform

Qatar hosted the latest gathering of democracy advocates in the Middle East. More than 300 civil society activists, professors, journalists, and political party members from across the region met May 27-29 in Doha for the second conference of its kind sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Human Rights Committee (the first took place in June 2004). The forum called on Arab nations to eliminate restrictions on freedom of speech and press, and urged Arab governments to deepen foundations of democracy and expand public participation in the political field. It also established the Doha-based Arab Foundation for Democracy to monitor Arab governments' progress on reform and to track the fate of other reform initiatives. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, announced he will contribute $10 million to the foundation. Click here for details.


Bahrain: Activists Arrested

Fifteen Bahraini Shi'i activists were arrested between May 16 and 20 following demonstrations against the police. Thirteen remain in custody, according to the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. Ali Said al-Khabaz and Hassan Yusif Hamid were released on June 7 after Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked Bahrain's government to investigate allegations of police torture in connection with their detention. Click here for details.


Yemen: Press Censorship

News websites in Yemen are being censored in the wake of clashes in the northern province of Saada between government forces and Shi'i rebels, according to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate. The Ministry of Telecommunications blocked two news websites for “covering the war in Saada in a way that runs counter to official media reporting.” The annual report of the Yemeni Centre for Training and Protecting Journalists' Freedoms reported on 500 violations against journalists in the country over the past four years. Click here for details.


Press Freedom: Journalists Criticize Limited Access

The New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticized the Iraqi Interior Ministry's May 13 decision to limit journalists' access to scenes of bomb attacks. According to a CPJ letter to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, “journalists in Iraq believe the ban is intended to limit their coverage to information that is filtered through the Interior Ministry, obstructing their ability to report independently.”

The CPJ also expressed concern that journalists have been prevented since May 21 from entering a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon during clashes between Islamist militants and the Lebanese Army. Attacks against journalists were also reported. Click here for details.


Upcoming Political Events
  • Egypt: Shura Council Election runoffs, June 18, 2007.
  • Jordan: Municipal Elections, July 31, 2007; Legislative Elections, November 2007.
  • Syria: Municipal Elections, August 2007.
  • Morocco: Legislative Elections, September 7, 2007.
  • Lebanon: Presidential Election, September 25, 2007.
  • Algeria: Municipal Elections, October 2007.
  • Oman: Shura Council Elections, October 2007.
  • Qatar: Legislative Elections, 2007 (date to be determined).


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7.02.2007

Syria’s Alliance with Iran

Syria’s Alliance with Iran

usip.org
May 2007
By Mona Yacoubian

Against a backdrop of growing instability in the Middle East, and despite continued pressure from the West, Syria’s alliance with Iran appears to be holding strong and perhaps even deepening. The United States has strongly criticized both Syria and Iran for contributing to the region’s volatility and, in particular, for playing a destabilizing role in each of three regional conflicts: Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Recent U.S. overtures to both Syria and Iran raise the question of whether either country can be persuaded to forsake their longstanding alliance and adopt a more constructive role in the region.

Main Points:

  • Spanning more than a quarter century, Syria’s alliance with Iran has proven to be quite durable. The alliance’s breadth has insured that the bilateral relationship is not merely a tactical "marriage of convenience." Rather, deepening ties in a variety of realms—strategic, political, economic, and cultural—attest to the growing strength of the alliance.
  • Bilateral interests diverge in certain key respects. Syria’s Sunni-majority population has not warmed significantly to the alliance with Shiite Iran and vice-versa. As well, each country is aware that it could be used as a "bargaining chip" should the other seek to cut a deal with the West.
  • While both countries’ interests could diverge in the long term, the current constellation of leadership in both Damascus and Tehran insures that the alliance will continue to endure over the next few years, particularly given their shared animosity toward the United States.
  • Efforts to drive a "wedge" between Syria and Iran are unlikely to be successful under the current circumstances. While the two allies may participate in negotiations with the West on Iraq and other regional issues, they will not forsake their longstanding alliance—at least in the short term.

An Enduring Alliance

Increasingly bound by a series of overlapping interests in the Middle East and their joint antipathy to the West, Syria and Iran have forged an enduring alliance that has superseded the fundamental differences dividing the two countries (e.g., Arab versus Persian, secular versus theocratic, Sunni-majority versus Shiite). While the countries have been allies since the late 1970s, their alliance has strengthened noticeably over the past three years as both Syria and Iran have faced with mounting isolation from the West. Both countries strongly oppose the U.S. role in Iraq; they both support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Indeed, they are bound by shared enmity toward the United States, seeking instead to define a new Middle East order that rejects American influence in the region.

Cooperation between the two countries has increased in several spheres. Militarily, the countries signed a mutual defense pact in June 2006 (a text has never been released) and an additional military cooperation agreement in March 2007. (Earlier, in 2004, the countries signed a "strategic cooperation" agreement.) Security and military cooperation reportedly also includes Iranian missile sales to Syria, as well as ongoing intelligence cooperation with Tehran reportedly providing equipment and training to Syrian operatives.

Direct Iranian investment in Syria has increased to record levels over the past few years. The two countries have signed trade and economic cooperation agreements across numerous sectors from telecommunications to agriculture to petroleum, representing potentially $1–$3 billion in new Iranian investment. Joint Syrian-Iranian ventures currently include a newly opened $60 million car factory, Syria’s first domestically produced automobile, and the purchase of a new fleet of buses from Iran. There are also plans to build oil refineries, wheat silos, a cement plant, and to renovate the Kirkuk-Baniyas oil pipeline, which would carry oil from neighboring Iraq to the Syrian coast.

Cultural exchanges and cooperation are also on the rise. Iran currently operates at least two cultural centers (in Damascus and Latakia) and pours millions of dollars into the restoration of Shiite shrines located throughout Syria. An estimated 500,000–one million Iranian tourists make pilgrimages to these shrines annually. Private Iranian money is also funding a number of hawzas, Shiite seminaries, across Syria. Rumors circulating Syria that wealthy Iranian pilgrims are paying Syrians to convert to Shia Islam constitute a potentially ominous element of cultural cooperation.


Potential Sources of Tension

Over the longer term, there are several potential sources of tension that could weaken the Syrian-Iranian alliance. For example, the implicit popular divide between Sunni-majority Syrians and largely Shiite Iran underscores a key area of divergence. Iranian efforts to project Shiite religious influence could easily backfire in Syria where Salafist Islamist sentiment—which, at its most extreme, considers Shiites to be apostates—is on the rise. Mindful of simmering sectarian tensions, the Syrian regime will remain wary of Iranian attempts to promote Shiite religious and cultural influence in Syria. Hailing from a minority sect (the Alawites—a Shiite offshoot), Syrian President Bashar Assad likely understands that stoking these sectarian sentiments comes at his own peril. More broadly, at the popular level, neither the Syrian population nor their Iranian counterparts appears deeply vested in the alliance. Indeed, key elements in both the Syrian and Iranian populations likely consider engagement with the West as critical to ending their country’s isolation and therefore view the Syrian-Iranian alliance with mixed feelings at best.

Strategically, over the long term, the alliance could run aground if either partner seeks to "sell out" the other in the name of improving ties with the West. For example, some analysts speculate that Iran could negotiate a deal on its nuclear program that might entail forgoing its alliance with Damascus. By the same token, Syria might cut a deal with the West to relieve its isolation or to insure regime survival. Such a deal might result in Damascus abandoning Iranian equities (namely Hezbollah) in Lebanon, or in Syria making peace with Israel. In the first case, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah, facilitated by Syria’s "middle man" role, is one of the most important elements of Tehran’s alliance with Damascus—certainly not to be sacrificed from Tehran’s standpoint. On the latter issue, Damascus has professed its desire to resume negotiations with Israel, while Iranian President Ahmedinejad has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." While admittedly distant possibilities, either scenario—Syria abandoning Hezbollah or making peace with Israel—would deal a serious, possibly fatal, blow to the alliance. However, both sides likely remain wary of abandonment by the other in the name of improving ties with the West.


No "Wedge" for Now

While potential sources for tension exist, Syria’s alliance with Iran will likely hold strong for the near to medium term. Although Iran may be the "senior partner" in the alliance, both Damascus and Tehran remain steadfast in their mutual enmity and deep distrust of the United States. Attempts to "peel" one partner away from the alliance are unlikely to be successful for a number of reasons. First, Iran has exerted significant effort to ground the alliance, investing millions of dollars and solidifying relations across a number of spheres. The resulting web of military, political, and economic ties will be increasingly difficult to unravel. Over time, these linkages—particularly the economic ones—are likely to become mutually reinforcing, further entrenching the relationship. Indeed, Syrian workers may rely increasingly on Iranian investment for training and jobs. As well, joint infrastructure projects such as pipelines and railways that literally link the countries could further solidify ties.

Secondly, the current leadership in both Damascus and Tehran is decidedly more hardline and less prone to engagement with the West. As long as both Ahmedinejad and Assad are in power, the alliance will likely remain a key priority for both governments. Together, these hardliners and their entrenched constituencies will help to propel the alliance forward. While the centers of power are more divided and diffuse in Iran, hardliners such as President Ahmedinejad appear to hold sway regarding Iran’s deepening ties to Syria. For them, the alliance is the manifestation of a deeper ideology that totally rejects the West and views the United States as a key enemy in the region. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad has made a clear decision to ally more closely to Iran than his father, Hafez, who helped initiate the alliance nearly thirty years ago. Syria’s deeper ties to Iran stem from Damascus’s growing alliance with (and reliance on) Hezbollah, its own serious economic woes, and its continued isolation from the West. Indeed, Bashar has encouraged the relationship to blossom at the expense of Syria’s Arab alliances—perhaps tying Damascus to Tehran even more closely.

Finally, both Syria and Iran appear to be growing increasingly defiant in the face of U.S. difficulties in Iraq, a badly-weakened pro-Western government in Lebanon, and escalating tensions among the Palestinians in the territories. In each instance, both Syria and Iran perceive potential opportunities to deepen their influence and roll back the projection of U.S. power in the region. They are therefore unlikely to step back from the alliance, but instead can be expected to accelerate and deepen linkages as they pursue their shared agenda in the region.

Taken together, these factors suggest that a significant investment of diplomatic (and likely financial) capital would be necessary to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. Although Syria may be the weaker partner in the relationship, "flipping" Damascus—enticing it away from its alliance with Tehran—would be a difficult undertaking. While there are clear divergences of interests dividing the two countries, it appears at this point that far more binds the two allies than pulls them apart.


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Read also Yaziji's article:

The Struggle for the New Middle East and the Middle East Totalitarian Axis

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Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

Nassim Yaziji's Articles

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