Iran: Flawed Convictions for Journalists

by Human Rights Watch

An Iranian court convicted three journalists and a family member of another journalist on April 25, 2016 on vague national security charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The four, along with a fifth journalist, have been detained since November, 2015. The authorities should quash their convictions and release them.

The revolutionary court sentenced the journalists, Afarin Chitsaz, Ehsan Mazandarani, and Saman Safarzaei, to terms of ten, seven, and five years respectively, and Davoud Assadi, the brother of Houshang Assadi, a journalist who lives in France, to five years. The trial of the fourth journalist, Isa Saharkhiz, who is hospitalized, was postponed. The five appear to have been prosecuted on overly broad charges that are inconsistent with human rights law, including charges of insulting the Supreme Leader, Human Rights Watch said.

“It seems these journalists have done nothing other than exercise their right to free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should vacate these apparently unfair convictions and stop targeting journalists and others with these overly broad and vague national security charges.”

The arrest and harsh sentencing occurred in the context of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ renewed crackdown on media freedom since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, in 2013. Iranian state television and media reports claimed that the journalists were part of an “infiltration network” colluding with foreign media, but have yet to offer any evidence supporting these allegations. On September 21, Fars news, an agency considered supportive of the Revolutionary Guards, reported that 12 parliamentarians have warned about the infiltration of individuals close to western intelligence agencies in Iranian domestic “chain newspapers,” a term used by hardliners to describe newspapers close to the reformists. They asked the authorities to take action.

Mazandarani is the managing editor of the daily Farhikhtegan, while Safarzaei writes for the monthly publication Andisheh Pouya. Both publications are considered sympathetic to reformist politicians. Chitsaz, a former actress, is a regular contributor to Iran, the Rouhani administration’s official newspaper on foreign policy issues. Saharkhiz is a veteran journalist and a founding member of the Society for the Defense of Freedom of the Press (SDFP). He received a Hellman-Hammett award in 2012 under a program administered by Human Rights Watch for journalists who have been victims of political persecution.

Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei, a lawyer who represents Saharkhiz, Mazandarani, and Assadi, told Human Rights Watch on April 25 that Branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Mazandarani on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” and “propaganda against the state.” Safarzaei and Assadi were sentenced for “assembly and collusion against national security,” and for alleged collaboration with Persian-language media outlets abroad.

In the past, Iranian authorities have targeted relatives and friends of foreign-based Persian-language journalists, such as journalists working for BBC Persian to obtain information or silence them.

Tasnim news agency, a website considered supportive of the Revolutionary Guards, reported that Branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Chitsaz on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” and “contact with foreign governments,” though the latter charge does not exist in Iran’s penal code.

Alizadeh Tabatabaei said that the case investigator had dismissed espionage charges against all five before the trial.

Alizadeh Tabatabaei had earlier had told Human Rights Watch that Saharkhiz and Mazandarani were held for three months before finally being formally charged with “acting against national security,” and “propaganda against the state.”

Assadi, Safarzaei, and Mazandarani appeared at Branch 28 of Tehran’s revolutionary court in early March. Chitsaz’s trial was on April 12, domestic media reported. Saharkhiz’s trial, which was scheduled for March 5, was postponed by the court to allow the lawyers to review the case.

Saharkhiz, who spent four years in prison in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election, has embarked on several hunger strikes to protest the conditions of his detention inside Ward 2A of Evin prison under Revolutionary Guard supervision.

Mehdi Saharkhiz, Isa Saharkhiz’s son, told Human Rights Watch that his father’s health has gravely deteriorated under detention, and that he had to be transferred to a hospital outside prison on March 9. Mehdi said that his father is facing charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “insulting the supreme leader,” among others.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has legal obligations to protect the rights to free expression and access to information. The rights to freedom of expression provided under international human rights law may be limited only within narrowly defined boundaries. The penalization of a media outlet, publishers, or journalist solely for being critical of the government or the existing political system can never be considered a necessary justification to restricting the freedom of expression.

However, the overly broad exceptions to free expression contained in the Iranian constitution, security laws, and the Iranian penal code more generally, allow the authorities to suppress these rights beyond the limits set by international law. International human rights law prohibits laws, such as Iran’s, that criminalize criticizing or “insulting” state institutions, including the supreme leader. Furthermore, domestic laws that define crimes in broad and vague terms, and therefore do not permit a person to know what acts constitute a criminal violation also violate international human rights law. Since the disputed 2009 presidential election, revolutionary court judges have increasingly interpreted vaguely drafted provisions of national security charges inconsistently with international law by citing legitimate peaceful dissent as evidence of acting against national security.

As of April, Iran had one of the highest numbers of journalists and social media activists in prison in the world, with at least 32 people behind bars, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Photo: Saman Safarzaei, Ehsan Mazandarani, and Afarin Chitsaz. 

Reprinted, with permission, from Human Rights Watch.

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