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Iran Must Stop Using Long-term Detention To Silence Human Rights Defenders, Says UN Expert

GENEVA (6 July 2021) — A UN expert today criticised the Islamic Republic of Iran’s practice of sentencing human rights defenders to long-term detention, and called on the Government to release all those detained for their human rights work.

“It is too easy for human rights defenders in Iran to find themselves condemned to 10 years or more in prison for carrying out work that is legitimate in the eyes of human rights law,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

“Defenders of women, of children, of prisoner rights, of labour rights, of freedom of expression, of freedom of association, of minorities, of the right to receive a fair trial and of the right not to be tortured — they all run the risk of being detained in dire conditions for long periods of time,” she said.

Lawlor referred specifically to the cases of four human rights defenders currently serving long sentences: Nasrin Sotoudeh, Esmail Abdi, Soheil Arabi, and Mohammad Najafi. Lawlor noted that most of them had multiple convictions and sentences, as long as 10 or 15 years. This means that even if they had their longest sentence struck down, they would still have to serve their next longest, which in some cases would be just shy of 10 years. On 13 June 2021, human rights defender and lawyer Amirsalar Davoudi was temporarily released on bail of 20 billion IRR from Rajaie Shahr prison in Alborz province pending a retrial, due to irregularities in his first trial.

“When human rights defenders are put in prison, some of the rights of the general population are left unprotected,” she said. Human rights defenders perform a vital service in any country, but in Iran they are accused of harming national security.

“All States should constantly challenge themselves to keep their human rights record spotless,” Lawlor said, “so why does Iran lock up anyone who holds it to account?”

She described the provision of medical care in Iranian prison as “wholly inadequate”. She said the security, health and livelihood of prisoners was under threat from a prison system that systemically denied them adequate medication and care. Visits and phone calls are also often restricted, and prisoners are sometimes transferred to areas far from their homes so that their families are never fully sure of their wellbeing, she said.

Women human rights defenders face particular risk. Unveiling in public places, for example, was often prosecuted by stretching the scope of an already overbroad provision which bans the promotion of prostitution, as happened to Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, Yasaman Aryani and Saba Kord Afshari. Mothers also face specific risk: Raheleh Ahmadi and Farangis Mazloum were punished for continuing the human rights work of their detained children.

Lawlor said she was deeply troubled by reports that woman human rights defender Narges Mohammadi was sentenced in May to a further two and a half years in prison, 80 lashes, and two fines just seven months after her release under the Sentence Reduction Law. The alleged new offences are related to human rights campaigns she carried out in prison.

“Until all human rights defenders are released, and laws are made that specifically protect them, this grim cycle of detentions will not be broken,” Lawlor said.

The expert is in contact with the authorities on this matter. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran denied the above-mentioned information.

The expert's call was endorsed by: Mr. Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Ms. Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Ms.Melissa Upreti (Chair), Ms.Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice Chair), Ms.Elizabeth Broderick; Ms.Ivana Radačić, and Ms.Meskerem Geset Techane; Working Group on discrimination against women and girls; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Mr. Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Mr. Clément Voulé, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.


Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987.

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