Freedom in the World
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President Mohammad Khatami was reelected on June 8 with 78 percent of the vote and a 66 percent voter turnout. The result of the vote underscored the overwhelming popular support for Khatami's agenda of "Islamic democracy," including respect for the rule of law and greater social freedoms. However, while Khatami and his fellow reformists now effectively control all popularly elected institutions in Iran, from the majlis (parliament) to local government, they are hampered by these institutions' lack of actual political power. Armed only with the legitimacy of popular support, they continue to struggle against the hardline conservatives who control the judiciary, broadcast media, military, and police. Unwilling to loosen their grip on power, conservatives have undermined Khatami by blocking legislation, closing reformist newspapers, and arresting reformist activists, students, journalists, and members of parliament.
In January 1979, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the hereditary monarch whose decades-long authoritarian regime was marked by widespread corruption, fled Iran amid mounting religious and political unrest. A month later, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to lead the formation of the world's first Islamic republic. The 1979 constitution provides for a directly elected president and a 12-member Council of Guardians. The council approves all presidential and parliamentary candidates and certifies that all bills passed by the majlis are in accord with Sharia (Islamic law). Khomeini was named supreme religious leader for life and invested with control over the security and intelligence services, armed forces, and judiciary. Following Khomeini's death in June 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei assumed the role of supreme religious leader and chief of state. Khamenei lacked the religious credentials and the initial popularity of his predecessor, and the constitution was changed to consolidate his power and give him final authority on all matters of foreign and domestic policy.
By 1997, soaring inflation and unemployment, declining oil revenues, a demographic trend toward a younger population, and restrictions on personal freedom had created widespread dissatisfaction. Khatami, a former culture minister who was forced to resign in 1992 for being too liberal, ran for president on a platform of economic reform, rule of law, civil society, and improved foreign relations. He won the support of women, intellectuals, youth, and business groups seeking greater social freedom and an end to state interference in the economy. With 70 percent of the vote and a 90 percent turnout, Khatami swept the 1997 presidential election, humiliating the favored candidate of the conservative establishment.
Reformers were initially successful in securing improved press freedom, freedom of association, and social freedom. Dozens of reformist newspapers cropped up and became immensely popular because of their diversity of views. Authorities slightly relaxed the enforcement of strict Islamic dress codes for women, prohibitions on satellite dishes, and restrictions on social interaction between men and women. Reformists won 80 percent of the seats in Iran's first nationwide municipal elections in 1999, and an overwhelming majority of majlis seats in 2000.
However, reformists were unable to institutionalize such improvements, and conservatives have blocked efforts at liberalization wherever possible. A conservative backlash followed the 2000 majlis elections, and since then most reformist newspapers have been shut down. In 2001, members of parliament who criticized the arrests of journalists found themselves summoned before courts to answer charges of insulting the judiciary. Dozens of reformist and nationalist politicians and activists were arrested for inciting public opinion or endangering state security. A reformist member of parliament and key Khatami ally was sentenced to a year in prison in March for alleged electoral fraud in the 2000 majlis vote, and two reformist ministers have been forced out by conservatives. A cabinet member was sentenced to six months in jail in December for "spreading lies" about the Guardians Council. Prominent journalist Akbar Ganji and nine others were convicted in January for attending a 2000 conference in Germany on Iranian reform. Ganji was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment and five years' internal exile.
Ganji, a dogged investigative journalist, had written extensively about high-level complicity in killings and intimidation of political opponents, including the 1998 murders of several reformist intellectuals and writers. Those killings were attributed to "rogue elements" in the intelligence services, and 18 low-level intelligence agents were tried, including one, the alleged ringleader, who died mysteriously in police custody in 1999. Three were sentenced in January to death, two to life in prison, and seven others to various jail terms. The victims' families denounced the trial as a sham. Human Rights Watch denounced the trial, which was closed to observers, saying "it is impossible to say that the judgments were based on the facts." Ganji has alleged that high-ranking clerics were involved in some 100 murders of dissidents from 1989 to 1997. Other attempts to silence reformers include an assassination attempt on Saeed Hajjarian, a close aide to Khatami, who was shot in 2000 by suspected members of the security forces. Regime-backed vigilantes attacked students during anti-regime demonstrations in Tehran in 1999, and during celebrations following the 2001 presidential elections.
Reformists were outspoken in denouncing the arrests of activists and politicians. In January, 150 majlis members signed a letter calling for judges to respect basic rights, and denouncing the "negligence or politicization" of the judiciary. More than 70 members of parliament called for an investigation into the judiciary following the closures of newspapers and arrests of activists. Khatami himself issued a strong statement in February, accusing hardliners of harming Iran's image abroad and warning that if Iranians "feel the authorities are not meeting their real demands and that dirty hands have succeeded in disappointing them," then "no military, security, or judicial power will be able to save the country." The president has displayed deep frustration at his lack of authority to enforce the rule of law and deliver on other campaign promises; while announcing his candidacy for reelection in May, he repeatedly broke down in tears and said he would have preferred to serve the people in some other capacity.
The struggle between reformists and hardliners has spilled over into Iran's economic and foreign policy. Iran's economy suffers from unemployment reaching up to 25 percent, heavy reliance on volatile oil prices, state interference, rampant corruption and inflation, and a U.S. trade embargo. More than half the population lives below the poverty line. Poor living conditions have led to social unrest and an outflow of immigrants. Reforms introduced by parliament in hopes of attracting foreign investment have been blocked by the Council of Guardians. However, reformists have had some success in improving relations with the West and neighboring Arab countries. In 2000, the United States eased sanctions on Iranian consumer goods, and in 2001, Iran reached agreements on economic, political, or military cooperation with Russia, Italy, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom, among others.
Iran's internal split was evident in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Initial messages of support and condemnation of the attacks from Iran were followed by a statement from Khamenei accusing the United States of exploiting the crisis to spread its influence to Central Asia. Iran denounced the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan in October, saying that it would kill innocents and create more refugees. Iran already hosts some two million Afghan refugees, whom many Iranians blame for their country's social and economic woes. However, Iranian and U.S. officials subsequently reported that Iran had pledged limited cooperation with the United States, agreeing to rescue any U.S. military personnel in distress in Iranian territory. In November, President Khatami, in an interview with the New York Times, called the September 11 attacks the work of "fanatics" who do not represent the majority of Muslims. Iranians provided the U.S.-led antiterror coalition with intelligence on the Afghani Northern Alliance. Despite conservatives' threats against public officials who advocate a U.S.-Iran dialogue, the war in Afghanistan reportedly prompted unprecedented public debate on the issue. Many in Iran see improved relations with the United States as economically-if not politically-beneficial.
Iranians cannot change their government democratically. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all matters of policy, and the Council of Guardians vets all electoral candidates and pieces of legislation for strict allegiance to the ruling theocracy and adherence to Islamic principles. In late November 2001, the majlis passed an electoral law prohibiting the Council from excluding reformist election candidates, but the Council rejected it. Reformists then announced that they were considering calling a referendum on the issue before the next legislative elections in 2003. The issue arose when the Council of Guardians disqualified reformist candidates for by-elections in Golestan province. Political parties are technically illegal, but some political groupings have won legal recognition since 1997. There are reportedly some 120 political parties, associations of political activists, and other social groups, but few are active owing to financial or procedural constraints. The Council of Guardians approved only ten presidential candidates for the 2001 presidential vote, of 814 who originally declared their intention to run. Several women who sought to ran were disqualified. All Iranians age 16 and older may vote, including women.
The state continues to maintain control through terror: arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, summary trial, and execution are commonplace. Security forces enter homes and offices, open mail, and monitor telephone conversations without court authorization. Prisons are substandard, seriously overcrowded, and rife with disease. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported in January about the existence of "unofficial" prisons run by various law enforcement, military, and judicial agencies. Hardline vigilante groups commit extrajudicial killings with the tacit consent of the government, and there have been reports of "parallel" security organizations run by both hardliners and reformists. Although the government has investigated murder and other misconduct by hardline officials and others, information about the cases is not made available and officials are rarely punished. In the trial of intelligence officials accused of the 1998 dissident killings, a former intelligence minister was implicated by one of the defendants but never investigated. Parliament approved a bill in February banning police from universities and seminaries, in response to an incident in 1999, when police and hardline vigilantes stormed a Tehran University dormitory, killing one student and injuring 20 others.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges must meet strict political and religious qualifications. The supreme leader directly appoints the head of the judiciary, who appoints the supreme court. Bribery is common. Civil courts provide some procedural safeguards, though judges may serve simultaneously as prosecutors during trials. Revolutionary courts try political and religious cases, and are often assigned cases that normally fall under civil court jurisdiction. Charges are often vague, detainees are denied access to legal counsel, and due process is ignored. These courts are used frequently to prosecute critics of the Islamic system. A prominent student leader and a veteran nationalist, both Khatami supporters, publicly admitted in May to having plotted to overthrow the government. Both had been held in solitary confinement with no access to counsel for six months. The penal code is based on Sharia and provides for flogging, stoning, amputation, and death for a range of social and political misconduct. Amnesty International expressed concern over a dramatic increase in executions during the summer of 2001, and others noted a similar increase in floggings and stonings. Rioting reportedly broke out as bystanders tried to stop a public hanging in August and a flogging in July.
The reformist press played an active role in society during President Khatami's first administration with political commentary, advocacy of a free and independent civil society, and investigative journalism. But beginning in March 2000, Khamenei began publicly criticizing reformists, particularly in the press, accusing them of slander and of creating anxiety, pessimism, and mistrust. Since then, nearly 50 publications have been closed. In February, Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) reported that Iran had become the country with the greatest number of imprisoned journalists in the world (by October the number was 20). RFE/RL attributed the press's woes to "serial plaintiffs," including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the state broadcasting company, who file the criminal complaints leading to press closures and arrests. RSF also reported that detained journalists are often held incommunicado and their families not told of their whereabouts. Notable cases in 2001 included Akbar Ganji, whose sentence was reduced to six months on appeal, then increased by a higher court to six years in September. Also in September, an appeals court upheld a 19-month prison sentence and fine for prominent journalist Massoud Behnoud, who was convicted of "spreading lies" and "insulting the Islamic system." In January, parliament called the detention and trials of several journalists illegal and called upon the judiciary to review the cases. Any review is considered unlikely.
Broadcasting is totally state-run. Authorities began enforcing a ban on satellite dishes, widely ignored in recent years, in October 2001 after incidents of serious unrest broke out in Tehran and other cities following World Cup soccer qualification matches. Each incident was preceded by statements broadcast via television, radio, and Internet from exiled Iranian opposition groups calling for mass anti-regime demonstrations. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The government also began jamming Persian service RFE/RL broadcasts. In August 2001, Tahmineh Milani, a prominent filmmaker, was arrested for insulting Islamic values and portraying a positive image of "anti-revolutionaries" in one of her movies. RSF reported also that some 400 cyber cafes were closed in Tehran between May 8 and 13. Still, the cafes are hugely popular with young Iranians, who use them for education, entertainment, and even to fill out online personal ads.
The constitution permits public assembly that does not "violate the principles of Islam." The rare anti-regime demonstrations that occurred ended with officials or vigilantes clubbing or using tear gas on protesters. A demonstration by some 10,000 unpaid textile factory workers in Isfahan turned violent in October when police used tear gas and batons to prevent the workers from storming a municipal building. The protests were in response to a new bill that would reduce the number of textile factory employers. In March and April, security agents arrested around 60 people, including some belonging to the Freedom Movement, which is technically illegal but usually tolerated. Charged with plotting to overthrow the regime, the defendants went on trial in November behind closed doors. Iranian parliamentary deputies and international rights groups condemned what they called unjust conditions of the suspects' detention and trial. The detainees were held in undisclosed locations, and some were allegedly tortured. Seven intellectuals who attended a conference in Berlin in 2000 on reform in the Islamic republic received prison sentences of four to ten years. They included Akbar Ganji, translators Saeed Sadr and Khalil Rostamkhani, student Ali Afshari, activist Izzatollah Sahabi, lawyer Mehrangis Kar, and publisher Shahla Lahiji. Six defendants were acquitted, and others received suspended sentences or fines.
Women face discrimination in legal, social, and professional matters. They may be fined, imprisoned, or lashed for violating officials' standards of modesty, and they do not have legal guardianship of their own children. A woman must have permission from a male relative to obtain a passport. Unlike women in Saudi Arabia and the emirates, women may vote, stand for public office, and drive. In January, the majlis lifted a ban prohibiting unmarried women from obtaining scholarships for study abroad, but the Council of Guardians reversed the decision. One of Iran's vice presidents, several of its majlis deputies, and a senior cultural advisor to President Khatami are women, and women are vocal in their demands for key government positions and other jobs.
Religious freedom is limited. The constitution recognizes Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities, and generally allows them to worship without interference. Iran is 99 percent Muslim, with 89 percent Shiite and 10 percent Sunni. Religious minorities are barred from election to representative bodies (except for the seats in the majlis reserved for them) and from holding senior government or military positions. They also face restrictions in employment, education, and property ownership. Some 300,000 Bahais, Iran's largest non-Muslim minority, are not recognized. They face official discrimination, a complete denial of property rights, arbitrary arrest, a ban on university admission, employment restrictions, and prohibitions on practicing and teaching their faith communally. Their marriages are not recognized by the government, leaving women open to charges of prostitution and their children regarded as illegitimate and thus without inheritance rights. Hundreds of Bahais have been executed since 1979.
Minorities may conduct religious education and establish community centers and certain cultural, social, sports, or charitable associations. All six majlis deputies from Iran's Kurdish minority resigned in September in protest over not being consulted about the interior ministry's appointment of the Kurdish regional governor. Iranian Kurds have been strong supporters of President Khatami, who has devolved power over the region's budget and police to its governor. The government rejected the resignations.
There are no independent trade unions. The government-controlled Workers' House is the only legal federation. Collective bargaining is nonexistent, and workers may not strike. Workers in Tehran protested in front of the majlis in July over unpaid wages. Eight were injured as police dispersed the demonstration with batons.