Human Rights

Iran's justice system deeply flawed, says UN special investigator

In Brief: 
  • In his first full report to the UN Human Rights Council, the new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran sharply criticized the country’s justice system.
  • Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, denied access to Iran, relied on some 140 witnesses, who described numerous legal injustices, such as extended solitary confinement, limited access to legal defense, and a lack of formal charges.
  • His report and a new report from the UN Secretary-General helped convince the Council to extend Dr. Shaheed’s mandate, by an overwhelming majority
  • Both reports also mentioned extensive violations against Iranian Bahá’ís.

GENEVA — Last year, the UN Human Rights Council decided to appoint a new independent investigator to monitor human rights in Iran, after nine years without one.

This March that investigator made his first full report to the Council, offering not only a sharp critique of Iran’s failure to meet international human rights standards, but also a stern indictment of the country’s justice system.

“Violations of due process rights are chronic, reducing the likelihood of a fair trial,” wrote Ahmed Shaheed, the new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. “A number of vaguely defined security provisions within the Islamic Penal Code are applied in ways that contravene international human rights law and unduly limit freedom of expression, association and assembly,” he said.

About two weeks later, on 22 March, the Council voted overwhelmingly to extend Dr. Shaheed’s mandate, by a vote of 22 to 5, with 20 abstentions.

“This result is a clear indication of the Council’s concern over Iran’s abysmal record on human rights,” said Diane Ala’i, the Bahá’í International Community’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

As the new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Dr. Shaheed’s opinion carries considerable weight with the international community. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Maldives, Dr. Shaheed has been a strong advocate for human rights throughout the world.

In 2009, Dr. Shaheed received the Muslim Democrat of the Year Award for his outstanding contribution in the field at the 10th Annual Conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

More than 140 witnesses

In his presentation to the Council, Dr. Shaheed noted that Iran had denied his request to visit the country as part of his investigation. Accordingly, his report relied on the testimony of more than 140 witnesses.

“In many cases, witnesses reported that they were arrested for activities protected by international law, and that they were detained in solitary confinement for prolonged periods with no access to legal counsel or family members, and in the absence of formal charges,” Dr. Shaheed said on 12 March 2012, in a speech to the Council.

“Several stated that they were subjected to prison conditions that fall well below the minimum standards defined by the UN, such as severe overcrowding, inadequate access to water, insufficient prisoner segregation practices, extremely poor quality and unhygienic facilities, hazardous ventilation conditions, insufficient access to medical services, paltry nutritional provisions,” he said.

His report also noted a dramatic increase in the number of executions carried out in the Islamic Republic — more than 600 during the year 2011, many for crimes not considered serious under international law. Iranian authorities have also stepped up their detention of journalists and lawyers, he said, and continued their persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.

The Council’s vote on 22 March also followed the release of a new report from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the situation of human rights in Iran.

In that document, Mr. Ban set out a long list of new or recent violations, including allegations of the use of torture, summary executions, and the persecution of religious minorities.

“The Secretary-General is deeply troubled by reports of increased numbers of executions including in public, executions of juvenile offenders, amputations, flogging, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, torture and ill-treatment, and the crackdown on media professionals, film makers, human rights defenders, lawyers and opposition activists,” the report said.

Mr. Ban also expressed concern over Iran’s failure to cooperate with UN investigators. He reported that Iran had last year responded only once to 17 communications sent by Special Procedures mandate holders like Dr. Shaheed and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

The situation of Bahá’ís

Both reports highlighted the situation of Bahá’ís.

Dr. Shaheed said Bahá’ís continue to be arbitrarily arrested and detained for their beliefs, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Bahá’ís are also subjected to “severe socio-economic pressure,” facing deprivations of “property, employment and education.”

Mr. Ban’s report recounted efforts of UN officials like Dr. Shaheed to raise the issue of mistreatment and discrimination against Iranian Bahá’ís, noting in particular their “concern regarding the personal security of seven Bahá’í community leaders, who were sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011.”

The 12 March Council session also offered an interactive dialogue between the Special Rapporteur and Human Rights Council members. Dr. Shaheed’s concerns were promptly echoed by a majority of the nations addressing the session. And some 15 countries specifically highlighted the situation of Iran’s Bahá’ís.

Brazil’s delegate, João Genésio de Almeida Filho, said his government was concerned about “allegations of the systematic persecution of members of unrecognized religious communities, particularly the Bahá’í community.”

Veronika Stromsikova, delegate of the Czech Republic, said her country concurred with Dr. Shaheed’s observation that “the government’s tolerance of an intensive defamation campaign against members of the Bahá’í community incites discrimination” in breach of international treaties, a reference to Iran’s state-sponsored campaign of demonizing Bahá’ís in the media.

Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations, told the Council on 12 March that Bahá’ís in Iran today face “multiple violations, across the entire spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” running “literally from kindergarten to the grave.”

“We also agree with your presentation of the underlying obstacles,” she said, addressing Dr. Shaheed, “including elements of the legal framework and lack of adherence to the rule of law — none of which are being addressed by the government.”

“As you clearly state, impunity continues to prevail in Iran, and certain individuals are exempted from laws and regulations meant to restrain the abuse of power,” said Ms. Dugal.

On 22 March, just before the vote to extend Dr. Shaheed’s mandate, Iran’s ambassador had told the Council that his country has been wrongly accused of human rights violations, and that it only seeks to cooperate with the international community — statements that were clearly rejected when the Council voted.

“Very few countries would now dare to say there are not serious violations of human rights in Iran,” said Ms. Ala’i. “What the world wants is real answers from the Iranian authorities — not lip service about cooperation or baseless attacks against the Special Rapporteur.”