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