Watching The Watcher

By Ramin Ahmadi, MD, MPH
and Joanne Cossitt, MA
Griffin Center for Health and Human Rights

On the eve of the 2001 presidential elections in Iran, when Khatami’s reelection appeared imminent, Human Rights Watch published a twenty-page report titled “Stifling Dissent“.

On the surface, the report’s publication one week prior to the election did not appear connected to the “reelection campaign battle,” and its title implied the reporter was concerned only with violations of human rights in the Islamic Republic. But in many ways the Human Rights Watch reporter’s comments and recommendations were a major departure from the standard policies of international human rights organizations. It is therefore important to assess the content and validity of the recommendations of the report, now that the election results are clear and any post-election euphoria has dissipated.

Part I: Summary

The twenty-page report consists of seven distinct parts. Its summary attempts to give an overview of the political situation in Iran and opens with the following:

“Four years ago, President Mohammad Khatami crested to power on a wave of popular support as Iranians went to the polls in the millions to support his platform for reform. The scale of his victory dealt a serious blow to the conservative religious forces that dominated Iranian public and political life since the revolution of 1979 that overthrew the Shah. To most commentators at the time, it appeared that a sea change had taken place. A younger generation, it seemed, grown to adulthood since the revolution and tired of enduring the strictures of the state, had spoken out for change. Iran, it appeared, was entering a new era, and at last about to end its self-imposed isolation and open up again its communication and cooperation with the wider world.”

From the first lines the reader can grasp the implications of the risk the report takes by turning its back on human rights reporting traditions and entering the difficult scene of controversial political analysis. In the usual practice of human rights work, to portray the political context of human rights violations the reporter generally enumerates historical facts and events that led to the transgressions. For instance, a Human Rights Watch report about Chechnya would begin with a historical account of events leading to the autonomy of the republic, citing the beginning and end of the war, and explaining the positions taken by the two conflicting parties; such information is conveyed without taking sides.

For a human rights reporter it should be unimportant who is politically correct or which faction enjoys popular support. He or she is not concerned with analysis of voter motivation or the political analysis of international observers; rather, any report should document the scope and extent of human rights violations. The details of the HRW report read less like a human rights report and more like the account of an Iranian political analyst. To illustrate this point we can explore some of the report’s similarities with those of the Iranian political opposition. The day following Khatami’s first presidential victory, Ezatolah Sahabi analyzed the Khatami victory as a rejection of the status quo in an article entitled “The big NO”. Many other political activists believed and continue to believe that the reelection of Khatami was primarily a rejection of his rivals.

It is likely that the truth lies somewhere between the political analysis of the Human Rights Watch reporter and that of Ezatolah Sahabi, meaning that people voted against the candidate of the establishment and at the same time found what Khatami was expressing in terms of civil society and citizenship rights somewhat attractive. At any rate, it is not the job of the human rights monitor to analyze why people voted in a certain way. Instead, what is important to discern is whether, as a result of people’s vote in favor of Khatami’s presidency, there has been an improvement in human rights conditions. Indeed, several statements in the report remove any pretense of neutrality from our reporter. It is apparent that she believes conservative anti-Khatami forces have managed to manipulate Iran’s social and political life since the 1979 revolution. Such a narrow and biased political view has traditionally belonged to a small faction within the reformist movement in Iran, one that has been given the name “Dovom Khordad.”

The reality is that from the very first days of the revolution’s victory, and particularly in the aftermath of the hostage crisis, political and military power was concentrated in the hands of many of those who today wear the mantel of reform. I have described some of their radical and anti-conservative activities in my book “The Case of Abbas Amir Entezam.” These young bearded revolutionaries dressed in khakis, with anti-conservative and anti-imperialist impulses, seized the state apparatus and took the American Embassy hostage. Today after major global political changes, and if we want to be optimistic changes within the revolutionary movement itself, the very same revolutionaries have become the leaders of the Dovom Khordad movement. These include Mehdi Karubi, Mohammad Khoieniha, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, Abbass Abdi, Hossein Mossavi, Ebrahim Asghar Zadeh, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, Mohamad Reza Khatami and several others who were known as the “Students of Imam’s line” and who were in power for the first decade of the revolution. But today they would like people to forget that past and to instead hold only the conservative faction responsible for the massacres and human rights violations of the last decade.

The HRW report articulates the views of former US policy makers who referred to the Khatami presidency as the “New Era.” Let us not forget that these same policy elites also hailed the presidency of Rafsanjani as the “beginning of a new era”. Their only priority had been the normalization of the relationship between Iran and the United States, which by itself does not carry any positive or negative value. However, normalization of the relationship between these two countries would not necessarily lead to an improvement of the human rights situation in Iran. Clearly the report’s reference to “communication and cooperation with the wider world” is an overt reference to the opening of relations with the United States. Otherwise, international and commercial relationships of the Islamic Republic with Europe, Japan, China, and many other Asian countries have been extremely good. Why does an international human rights organization not consider all this in a wider-world perspective? Under the Shah’s regime these doors were quite open and the Shah was a close political ally of the US. Yet, even then there were widespread human rights violations in Iran, most of which the US government ignored.

The report’s summary then goes on to describe various parts of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s governmental organization, and even this descriptive report falls prey to a political agenda. As an example, the report describes the Council of Experts as a popularly elected body when in fact the candidates for this body are pre-selected by the Guardian Council. It must be mentioned that within the Iranian government there is a faction that holds to this belief and hopes to use the Council of Experts as a weapon against other factions. The human rights reporter should not have such a narrow and biased view of the Islamic Republic. If the Council of Experts is to be considered a popularly elected body, then all the Soviets in the history of the world’s Communist regimes were also popularly elected bodies, since in the view of our human rights monitor the pre-selection of candidates and violation of article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees every citizen’s “right to vote and be elected” is non-contradictory to the concept of popularly elected bodies.

The position of the human rights monitor regarding the powerful Ministry of Intelligence is more ambiguous than that taken in the case of unfair and restrained elections. The reporter is well aware of the role played by this organization in Iran, but attempts to attribute the suppressive measures of this organization to the conservative rivals of Khatami:

“Compounding their control over these important institutions, it is clear that the conservative religious forces opposed to President Khatami’s reform agenda also maintain strong links with and influence over Iran’s extensive internal security apparatus, notably the powerful Ministry of Intelligence.”

The analysis distances itself from critiquing the public statements of the Islamic Republic leadership and as such increasingly resembles the writings of the reporters and politicians of Dovom Khordad. A technique commonly used in human rights reporting is to illustrate the contradictory public statements of the ruling class or the various human rights violations to which it confesses. Unfortunately, the Human Rights Watch reporter does not focus on critiquing Khatami’s public statements at all. In fact, most statements not in favor of Dovom Khordad are ignored. For instance, after the murder of Daryush Foruhar, a political activist, President Khatami announced that the Ministry of Information had been involved in the murders and demanded the “resection” of the “rancorous tumor.” In subsequent speeches, Khatami repeatedly stated that he would “take out the eyes” of the conspiracy. He dismissed the Ministry of Information and appointed one of his supporters to the post. Khatami’s conservative opposition repeatedly protested, complaining that the Ministry of Information had been invaded and was being controlled by the reformist camp. After the case of what became known as “the Chain Murders” was brought to trial President Khatami expressed satisfaction with the cleansing process within the Ministry of Information on multiple occasions. In the HRW report these contradictory public statements, President Khatami’s responsibility for his cabinet, his obligation to implement the Constitution, and the international obligations of the Islamic Republic are all replaced with a simple political analysis which reports that the Ministry of Information is in the hands of the anti-Khatami faction. Even if this were true, how does expressing this advance the human rights cause? More importantly, what other cause could it advance other than that of Khatami and the Dovom Khordad faction itself? The political bias of the report runs so rampant that a serious inherent contradiction is created within the analysis, where after making a short reference to the Chain Murders the report suggests:

“Other policies of the Khatami presidency, such as easing restrictions on social interaction between the sexes and a more relaxed social climate, have also been rolled back in recent months by strict enforcement of a dress code and regulations concerning private social gatherings. The sense of greater personal freedom among young people and women as well as the professional middle class has been eroded by the activities of vigilante groups linked to hard-line conservative clerics.”

Both increases and reductions of social freedoms have occurred under Khatami’s watch, but from the biased perspective of this political report the credit for greater freedoms goes to Khatami, while the conservative opposition is blamed for the crackdown. It is not clear in the end whether or not President Khatami is just a figurehead. If he is a weak president and the power is concentrated in the hands of others then why should he be credited with policies that result in greater social freedoms?

The report then goes on to suggest that a majority of the victims of illegal actions under the current regime are pro-Khatami activists. The reporter insists that future of human rights in Iran depends on Khatami’s victory:

“The outcome of the election will be crucial in determining both the future political direction of Iran and the extent to which existing human rights problems are addressed, and it will also have important implications for human rights in the wider Islamic world. Within Iran, the reformists have increasingly based their arguments on human rights principles, demanding greater freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, and the primacy of democratic accountability over clerical authority in essentially secular political matters.”

In other words if we dissect the anatomy of this argument, political support for Khatami in the name of human rights and mixing pro-Khatami politics with human rights work is legitimate human rights activity for the following three reasons: 1) a majority of the victims of human rights violations are members of pro-Khatami factions, 2) the outcome of the election, in fact Khatami’s reelection, is crucial to determining the future of human rights in Iran, and 3) the pro-Khatami reformists have based their arguments on human rights principles and as such are expressing secular political matters. But each of these basic assumptions is a distortion of the existing realities of Iranian society. Not only do most of the human rights violations come from within the pro-Khatami faction, but a brief look at the trial procedures and prisons of the Islamic Republic reveals that violations of the rights of those outside the Dovom Khordad coalition pale in comparison to those who are pro-Khatami. In fact, the Dovom Khordad prisoners have never experienced the widespread massacres ordered by Khomeini, violations that have been documented since Ayatollah Montezeri decided to publish Khatami’s order on the Internet last year. The 1989 massacre of some 4,000 political prisoners in Evin prison is one of the darkest chapters of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Human Rights Watch, purposely or out of ignorance, decided not to investigate the matter further.

The students and activists who were not part of the Dovom Khordad elite or who expressed goals that differed from those of Khatami proponents suffered the same fate. These “outsiders” faced heavy prison sentences in Tohid, an infamous prison, and were tortured in the “safe houses” of the Ministry of Information. Even in Tohid prison, the Dovom Khordad prisoners had more rights than other political prisoners were afforded. They benefited from occasional vacations, could meet with their families and lawyers, and were brought to meet their families with a private car. Other prisoners lived in far worse conditions, could not meet their lawyers, and were rarely brought to meet their families. When they were it was in the back of meat trucks.

In fact, when one of these non-Dovom Khordad prisoners receives global attention the very first reaction of the Iran section of Human Rights Watch is silence. The case of Farj Sarkoohi is instructive on this point. Through a complicated and bizarre web of deception, the Islamic republic kidnapped him from the airport, kept him in a safe house of the Ministry of Information, and insisted he had traveled to Germany. The multiple contradictory statements issued by the Islamic Republic went completely unchallenged by Human Rights Watch until the German government and many German writers and human rights activists publicly protested this action and exposed the lies. Ms. Hicks expressed blind faith in the fabricated story of the regime and repeatedly stated to many, and recently to me, that Farj Sarkoohi was phony. After Amnesty International entered the scene protesting the actions of the Iranian government and demanding an explanation, Mansour Farhang, a Human Rights Watch advisory board member and former ambassador to the United Nations, phoned Eric Goldstein, head of the Middle East Division at that time, to inquire about the case.

Goldstein’s response was as expected. Human Rights Watch had not intervened because Ms. Hicks believed that the detained writer was a phony. Sarkoohi’s case was not just a simple oversight; it was one of the most important Human Rights cases of the decade in Iran. Ms. Hicks has performed similarly in the case of Abbas Amir Entezam, the longest held prisoner of conscience in Iran. While Entezam’s rights have been repeatedly violated and he has been deprived of a fair trial and exposed to various tortures, Ms. Hicks’ interviews with Tehran papers express confidence in the assurances she has received from the judiciary on his case, and to this day she continues to remain silent. Such political reactions at the Middle East section have not been limited to Ms Hicks. When Daryush Fruhar and his wife were butchered in their house in Tehran, Gary Sick, a member of the advisory board, announced that Khatami’s government was not involved in this murder asserting that paramilitary and extremists had committed the crime. However, even after President Khatami confessed publicly that the agents of the Ministry of Information had actually committed these murders and ten people, including the Deputy Minister of Information, were arrested, Human Rights Watch still failed to recognize the direct involvement of Khatami’s government and did not demand an independent investigation or recommend that an investigative team be sent to Iran. Today, even after the government closed the book on the mysterious murder of the detained Deputy Minister of Information (who allegedly ordered the chain murders), declaring it a suicide, Human Rights Watch has yet to ask for an external independent investigation. The trial of the accused chain murderers was held behind closed doors while the families of victims boycotted the hearings. Yet despite the overwhelming lack of transparency during the trial and evidence that implicated the state apparatus, Human Rights Watch did not demand an independent external investigation.

The cases I have cited above are illustrative of a particular pattern or strategy that defends Khatami’s political interest to the extent that it violates the principles of human rights advocacy and neutrality. If the Human Rights Watch reporter states that the majority of victims of human rights violations are pro-Khatami supporters it is because she has decided to ignore the violations that target others a priori.

The report’s statement that the results of the presidential election will determine the outcome of the human rights process in Iran carries an even bigger illusion. It is increasingly clear that human rights violations in Iran are independent of election outcomes. Even after Khatami’s second victory, all independent newspapers have been shut down and the journalists who were investigating the Chain Murders are in prison. Widespread and pre-planned violations of human rights in Iran continue to occur parallel to Khatami’s government. It is evident that the Khatami victory has had no impact on the overall extent and severity of human rights violations.

A second illusion is that a majority of Reformists base their agenda on human rights principles, while in fact the pro-Khatami reformists are merely demanding freedom of expression for themselves and not all citizens of Iran. They demand rule of law, but a law that discriminates in their favor. They demand a judiciary not manipulated by the Rafsanjani mafia group, but instead one that is loyal to them. And they do not seek blanket abolition of laws that are in direct contradiction with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of these pro-Khatami reformists are, in fact, far more brutal and totalitarian than their Conservative opposition. It should not be forgotten that during the first two years of Khatami’s presidency, considered shining days of freedom by many Reformists, newspapers consciously and systematically censored news of Abbas Amir Entezam and similar human rights violations that targeted the non-Khatami oppositi on. Reformist leaders silently orchestrated these violations and summarily ignored them. Today, while brave Reformist journalists like Akbar Ganj are targeted and punished for “crossing the line” by former president Rafsanjani, the reformist papers remain silent on the matter and treat his case as if he were one of the opposition. But all this does not make our Human Rights Watch reporter reconsider her views about the pro-Khatami reformists dedication to human rights, nor does she take the initiative to advocate for the victims who do not belong to the pro-Khatami faction.

Part II. Recommendations

This part of the human rights report is comprised of five recommendations to the government of Iran:

* Release immediately all writers, editors, publishers, members of the Iran Freedom Movement and others detained or imprisoned for their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, and ensure that others against whom charges are being brought have immediate and regular access to legal counsel and family and medical visits.

* Lift the banning orders on newspapers, and amend the press law and related legislation to guarantee freedom of expression, in accordance with Iran’s obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In particular, provisions in the press law that permit the prosecution of writers and journalists on charges such as “questioning the tenets of Islam and the revolution” should be revoked.

* Amend articles 24 and 26 of the constitution as well as relevant laws and administrative procedures to ensure that they are not used arbitrarily to penalize the exercise of basic civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association.

* Revise the legal and administrative procedures of the Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy to bring them into full conformity with international fair trial standards. This includes ensuring that defendants are allowed prompt and regular access to defense counsel and that they have the right to call defense witnesses and question prosecution witnesses, and have the right to appeal to a higher independent tribunal.

* Revoke the banning of the Iran Freedom Movement by the Tehran Revolutionary Court.

The report creates an inherent contradiction when it selects the Khatami government as its target audience for recommendations. Initially, it convinces the reader that President Khatami has no real power and that responsibility for repeated daily human rights violations lie with “others”. Soon thereafter the reader learns that the recommendations are directed towards this apparently powerless government. Thus it would seem that making any recommendations to the Khatami government would be an exercise in futility. If the violations of human rights are done by “others”, then it is these “others” that should be the target of the recommendations. Certainly, the target must have the power to act upon some or all of these recommendations.

Apart from this inconsistency, the recommendations ignore some of the fundamental problems of the human rights struggle in Iran, and in certain cases seriously jeopardize the goals of the human rights movement. The first recommendation appears to be advocating for all citizens who oppose the Islamic Republic regime. However, upon closer examination, the pro-Khatami bias of the recommendation is easily revealed. Today many political prisoners are detained not merely for peaceful expressions of their point of view but because of demonstrations, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience.

Even those who have chosen to confront the regime by using violent means are human beings and should be afforded human rights like the rest of Iran’s citizens. Resorting to violence does not justify stoning, torture, or execution without trial. Political prisoners have certain rights, including access to family, a defense attorney, a physician, and most importantly a fair trial. They should benefit from the presumption of innocence, even after committing murder under pressures of injustice or out of desperation.

It should be noted that a large number of political activists who do not belong to pro-Khatami factions were arrested and tortured by the Ministry of Information after the paramilitary attack on the University of Tehran dormitory. The Ministry created a fabricated case against the student activists based on tortured confessions and extorted large sums of money from the victims’ families. These Khatami opponents were released conditionally and were warned that their cases “remained open” and that any new political activity would reactivate their case immediately. These unfortunate victims have no place in the recommendations of the Human Rights Watch report. There are no accusations against them and yet threat of a reactivated case and possible repetition of horrifying tortures is held over their heads. This enables the regime to create the desired effect of silence without being accountable to the international community. These victims are seemingly free in the eyes of the human rights watcher, who refuses to acknowledge the violations of their rights.

The second recommendation is meant to recognize the violation of the rights of journalists and advocates for freedom of the press. However, the reporter manages to ignore one of the important foundations of the Islamic Republic ­ censorship, forced self-censorship. The press law in the Islamic Republic holds the entire paper responsible for every article or opinion expressed, thus indirectly establishing a censorship network within each editorial board. The editors, knowing they will be punished for opinions expressed by others, censor the article before it reaches the government desk. The writer, knowing in advance that he will be punished for the content of the article, attempts to save his or her career and the fate of the journal. What must change here is the law that holds the entire paper responsible for opinions expressed by individual writers, and shuts down the independent press for laughable accusations such as “questioning Islam and Islamic authority”, etc.

The third recommendation suggests changes in the constitution, but only calls for changes in article 24 and 26. It is not entirely clear why, if the constitution has to change, articles 5, 109, and 110 regarding the position of Supreme leader should not also be targeted. Why should a fallible human be above the law of the land? The root of the crisis and massive human rights violations in Iran today lie in these articles. Should one presume that the Human Rights Watch reporter finds these articles acceptable and in no conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The fourth recommendation addresses the need to revise the legal and administrative procedures of the Revolutionary courts and suggests that they should be brought into full conformity with international fair trial standards. Here however the problem is that the revolutionary courts, as well as the special courts for the clergy, are illegitimate institutions to begin with. Even according to the laws of the Islamic Republic the continuing presence of revolutionary courts and tribunals and their intervention in “political crimes and press issues” is entirely illegal. The recommendation to “revise the legal and administrative procedures” of such revolutionary tribunals has its root not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but in the thinking of the pro-Khatami reformists. Let it be clear that the goal of all revolutionary courts and tribunals and “special trials” everywhere in the world is to suppress the government’s opposition. The main purpose of such courts is to circumvent normal and routine judicial procedures, such as a fair trial or the presence of a jury and defense attorney — processes that revolutionaries would consider slow and cumbersome. No human rights advocate who believes in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR could accept the legitimacy of these revolutionary tribunals in any country, after any revolution. From a human rights perspective the recommendation should be to dissolve all such special courts and tribunals. The report also recommends conformity of the “special court for the clergy” (Dadgahe Vije Rohanyat) with international standards. The recommendation implies that the reporter is willing to accept that the clergy are a special class of citizens and as such need a special separate court and procedure. How can a human rights advocate justify such double standards in the legal codes?

And finally the fifth recommendation demands that the “banning of the Iran freedom movement should be revoked.” This is clearly another policy of the pro-Khatami reformist movement permitting the “nationalist- religious opposition” to express their views. They believe that revoking the ban on the Iran Freedom Movement is like an insurance policy for the future of the regime. Regardless of the effectiveness or correctness of such a political strategy it is not legitimately an acceptable human rights standard. Human rights proponents would recommend revoking the ban on all political parties and not just one particular party. There is no legitimate reason to ban, for example, the “Office of Consolidated Unity” and related student movements. The silence of the pro-Khatami reformists regarding suppression of the reformist opposition is rooted in daily political maneuvers and various factional struggles and compromises. Freedom of political expression is a basic human right, and the right to organize or be a member of a political party is the right of every citizen of Iran. From a human rights perspective political parties, unions, or syndications are free to express their views and the government has a duty to be protect their rights. Even a terrorist organization like “Mujahadineh Khalgh” should not be banned from entering the political scene if they were to put aside guerilla warfare and embrace routine political activities.


This critique of the Human Rights Watch report is written at a time when Iran is going through a difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy. The ruling class is divided into two factions and despite Khatami’s reelection, widespread violations of human rights are reaching disastrous proportions, to the point where Iranian youth are arrested, beaten, and tortured for celebrating Khatami’s reelection or a soccer victory in the streets. The Human Rights Watch reporter makes an attempt to keep her distance from the regime’s opposition and within this context concentrates her efforts on the pro-Khatami reformist faction. In effect, this strategy threatens the human rights movement in Iran by betraying several fundamental human rights principles. The reporter became too close to Khatami’s camp and was accused by the conservative faction of working for them, particularly in the case of the “Tape Makers.” The Human Rights Watch reporter had to retreat under this attack and deny her role in the entire affair. Such incompetence negatively impacted the human rights organizations and the victims of human rights violations since she could not effectively defend the victims of that affair. Pro-human rights Iranians must remind Human Rights Watch of these mistakes and distractions. Ken Roth and other members of the Human Rights Watch administration must be made aware of the shortcomings and special political problems of the Iran division.

Appointing a non-Iranian national to the Iran desk of Human Rights Watch would make an immediate improvement. It is common practice for the Iranian regime to manipulate the opposition through blackmail and coercion by threatening family members in Iran. This is why most human rights organizations select personnel who are non-native experts for country positions. Selecting a non-Iranian for this position would ensure that Iranians are not forced to put their own families at risk or compromise human rights standards.

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