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Documenting the perpetrators amongst the people

A databank documenting human-rights violations in Iran by naming and shaming the perpetrators offers the opportunity to break through state-wide impunity. From States of Impunity.

Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar created this image of tumbling bodies, contorted through torture. Digital drawing by Parastou Forouhar, Panorama, Serie II, 2009. All rights reserved.

When he was told to remove his blindfold, he found himself surrounded by cameras and flashing camera lights. Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, was arrested and charged with espionage during the 2009 mass protest of the contested presidential elections in Iran. Inside the notorious Evin prison in the capital, Teheran, Maziar had to respond to a crowd of officially designated ‘journalists’. His interrogator told him that if he failed to cooperate he would be executed. When the last 'journalist' came through, he introduced himself as a Press TV representative. The interview was broadcast the same evening from Press TV. In it Maziar confessed under duress that he had sent false reports about the protests to Channel 4 News in the UK and Newsweek in the US.

A few months later, Maziar managed to leave Iran, released on a heavy bail. Once in London he complained about the Press TV interview to Ofcom, a British media watchdog. In May 2011, Ofcom confirmed that Press TV had produced and broadcast an interview that was recorded under duress. A fine of £100,000 was placed on Press TV and when it refused to pay, Ofcom ordered Sky TV satellite to take Press TV off the air.

Other victims of forced confessions broadcasted on Press TV have not been as privileged. The pictures and forced confessions of Hashem Shabani, a poet and high school teacher, and Hadi Rashedi, a school headmaster, were broadcast in December 2011 prior to their trial, before they were executed and buried secretly in January 2014. They were part of a group of young, educated Ahwazi Arabs who had established a cultural institute called Al-Hiwar (dialogue), teaching in their mother tongue. In February 2010, the group members were detained in a mass arrest. Kept incommunicado for months by the Intelligence Ministry, the detainees, including Hashem and Hadi, were severely tortured to confess their involvement in terrorist attacks. They were put in front of a camera which proved to be Press TV, who later broadcast their confessions.

Justice for Iran (JFI) has documented the accounts of several political prisoners who experienced the same plight: arrested, detained in solitary confinement, tortured, forced to do a televised confession, tried unduly and unfairly based solely on their own confessions, and finally sentenced to death or a heavy prison term. These documents provide undeniable evidence that Press TV acts directly at the service of the Intelligence Ministry, which tortures and suppresses Iranian citizens. The evidence against Press TV was compelling, showing that it can no longer be regarded as a trust-worthy and independent media organisation.

JFI urged satellite companies and governments to take Press TV off the air, and sanction both the entity and the individuals who were responsible for those violations. Over the course of one year, Press TV was taken off the air by several satellite companies, such as Eutelsat, and in several countries, including Germany, Spain and the United States. In March 2013, the Council of the European Union adopted restrictive measures against two Press TV officials, CEO Mohammad Sarafaraz, and Hamid Reza Emadi, the head of the newsroom and the ‘journalist’ who conducted the ‘interview’ with Maziar Bahari. They both challenged the decision before the European Court of Justice; a hearing session is scheduled for 5 May 2015. .

The case of Press TV proves that even in the most challenging cases, such as Iran, perpetrators can still be held accountable. However, the tools available to civil society are limited and their few victories are too fragile and unsustainable.

Documenting perpetration  

Established with the summary executions of the Shah’s officials on the rooftop of Refah School where Ayatollah Khomeini lived and later became the leader of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the history of the Islamic Republic is tightly bound with absolute impunity. There is no justice inside the country and it is therefore up to civil society living in exile to bring perpetrators to justice. Yet the history of civil society’s stand against impunity in Iran is relatively short and delicate.

Reports by both international and Iranian human rights organisations have done much to bring the dire conditions of Iran’s human rights to the attention of the world. There has, however, been more focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators. This is why they continue to commit the same crimes.

Initiated by JFI, the Data Bank of Human Rights Violators identifies perpetrators and collects evidence about their roles in gross human rights abuses. The information about 266 perpetrators, including evidence, photos, and testimonies, is stored in this databank. So far, based on this evidence, more than 70 profiles have been published and are available on the web site. The perpetrators listed in the databank have committed crimes against diverse groups such as women, political prisoners, members of Baha’i faith, ethnic minorities and human rights defenders.

Shedding light on crimes by naming and shaming the perpetrators is the first and the most significant aim of the databank. None of them have ever faced justice in Iran or have been held accountable; most continue to hold much power and are often promoted to higher posts. The databank offers the opportunity to the people of Iran to know and identify them. Those who used to live as ‘respectful’ members of their community will no longer be immune from the staring gaze of their neighbours. More importantly, due to sever censorship and secrecy, sometimes even the perpetrators’ families do not know their true activities.

Apart from the naming and shaming, the databank has also contributed to the process of accountability. Following advocacy campaigns by Iranian human rights activists, the Council of the European Union passed a regulation which allowed the EU to adopt restrictive measures, including travel ban and freezing of the assets, against those who were complicit in or responsible for directing or carrying out grave human rights violations.  

Unfortunately, the data available only goes as far as March 2013, when the name of 87 individuals and two entities were added to the list of human rights sanctions. The databank had in fact identified and recommended for sanctions 17 of these names, including Press TV’s officials. Since that date, and contrary to EU regulations, which obliges the Council to revise the list of individuals to be added to the sanctions list on a bi-annual basis, the Council has not met to discuss these any further. This has brought to a sudden halt to the functioning of an effective tool for locating the perpetrators. It is assumed that the main reason for this sudden change is political, relating to the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1.

Appeasement vs. justice 

Despite the enormous achievement in such a short period of time, the databank has faced several challenges, including the challenges of documentation, legal barriers, effectiveness and policy shift.

Although the databank has identified several judges and prosecutors, and documented their responsibility in human rights violations, it has not been very successful with regards to naming those in the security apparatus. While security forces have the main role in arbitrary arrests, torture and extracting coerced and mostly unreal confessions, their identities often remain hidden as they use pseudonyms and keep the prisoners either blindfolded or sat in front of a wall while questioning. Furthermore, some crucial information such as date and place of birth of the perpetrators is difficult to obtain, even for those whose identities have already been disclosed. 

Even when there is sufficient information against a perpetrator, the options available outside the country to hold them accountable are usually far more limited. The principle of universal jurisdiction would offer a small window to prosecute perpetrators who either travel outside Iran or reside in countries where there is a law of universal jurisdiction. However, legal barriers remain, such as the UK Privacy Act, which protects information of a perpetrator’s whereabouts, and statutes of limitations, which restricts litigation for past crimes.

On top of all obstacles, the impact and effectiveness of the databank has been challenged by the policy shift of western countries towards Iran after Hassan Rouhani took the presidential office in August 2013, which gave hope for a negotiated resolution to long-standing nuclear dispute. The countries that used to criticise the Islamic Republic for violations of human rights have since remained silent. As the reports of the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, clearly illustrate, there has been no improvements in the human rights conditions of Iran since Rouhani came to power. Shaheed further stresses that a majority of the problems as defined by Iran’s Universal Periodic Review “remained unimplemented”, and the underlying causes of violations “remain unaddressed.” This in turn creates a safe haven for the perpetrators, who feel confident that while the nuclear talks with Iran are in progress, their violations will not be highlighted.

Some even feel they can enjoy absolute impunity and even look forward to promotions. Mohammad Sarafaraz, who has been banned from travelling to Europe because of his involvement in forced televised confessions, was recently appointed as the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) by the Supreme Leader.  

Every day, as more crimes are committed, more names are added to the Data Bank of Human Rights Violators. This is crucial information bank to raise public awareness about the criminals who live amongst the people. This vital tool must be strengthened and supported by international organisations, such as the EU and UN, to bring violators of human rights to justice. Political priorities and appeasement policies must not be allowed to create obstacles to justice. 

About the author

Shadi Sadr is a founder of Justice for Iran (JFI). A journalist and lawyer, she represented several women sentenced to death and as a result of her extensive activities, was imprisoned in Iran on various occasions prior to her departure in 2009.

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