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A Grim Picture

Iran -- An Iranian opposition protester holds stones as he stands opposite security forces during clashes in Tehran on December 27, 2009.
Iran -- An Iranian opposition protester holds stones as he stands opposite security forces during clashes in Tehran on December 27, 2009.
Iranian authorities have carried out an unprecedented and violent crackdown against human rights activists, independent journalists, writers and opposition supporters since controversial presidential elections unleashed widespread citizen protests last June. Although violence abated somewhat between September and December, detentions and arrests accelerated recently in connection with the December 27 Ashura holiday and in advance of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on February 11.

In a statement released on January 24 to accompany its 2010 World Report, Human Rights Watch called Iran’s crackdown a "human rights disaster." Since June 12, the report counts thousands of protesters detained, more than 80 jailed for up to 15 years following scripted mass trials, five sentenced to death and 26 cases of torture or coerced confessions. In addition, the media has reported widely on the use of rape in Iran’s prisons, disappearances of human rights activists, journalists and protesters and the flight of dozens more to safer havens in Turkey, Dubai or elsewhere.

Iran has consistently dismissed criticisms of its human rights record. It has said that the opposition protests are illegal and have been orchestrated by foreign powers including the United States and Britain, and it has accused protesters of being “Zionists,” CIA operatives and foreign spies.

In the first executions connected with the protests, two men were hanged on January 28. They were charged with being “enemies of God," members of armed groups and trying to topple the Islamic establishment in court proceedings last summer that rights groups condemned as show trials, and on the basis of forced confessions that their families and lawyers insist were coerced.

In a mass trial that began on January 30, 16 journalists and protesters are accused of violating national security and being enemies of God and “corrupt on earth,” charges that carry the death penalty.

The number of journalists, human rights activists and prisoners detained or in prison cannot be ascertained with any precision since neither watchdog groups nor the media have access to complete information, and the whereabouts of some people who are missing are unknown. In a report issued in early February, the Committee to Protect Journalists documents at least 47 journalists in prison, and cautions that while many were arrested after the disputed June election, “authorities are continuing to wage an aggressive campaign to round up independent and opposition journalists. At least 26 journalists have been jailed in the last two months alone,” the report found. Only five of the 47 were detained prior to the 2009 crackdown.

Reporters Without Borders documents over 65 journalists and “netizens” currently behind bars in Iran. The organization’s Secretary General says in a report issued this week, “This is a figure without precedent since Reporters without Borders was created in 1985.”

Speaking on behalf of themselves and their jailed colleagues, several exiled Iranian journalists recently issued an open letter to members of the foreign media traveling to Iran to cover the February 11 events. Appealing to them “not only as media representatives of the free world, but also as representatives of your Iranian fellow journalists who are either in prison or in exile outside Iran,” the letter alleges government plans to use the media to show the world that it enjoys popular support, and warns them “not to be duped.”

The government’s campaign against a persistent protest movement also includes a multi-faceted blockade against electronic and broadcast media. Numerous websites, including the site belonging to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, have been blocked for months, relying on proxy services to connect them with internet users. Many other internet connections have been disrupted since the evening of February 6 and some mobile phone companies are no longer allowing subscribers to send SMS messages. E-mail is extremely slow, and some accounts have been unavailable for several hours each day. Jamming of satellite broadcasts, which has been intermittent for years, has also reportedly intensified over recent months.

The US and EU released a rare, joint, preemptive statement on February 8 in anticipation of violence in connection with this week's anniversary. Stating that, "The United States and the European Union condemn the continuing human rights violations in Iran since the June 12 election,” the statement calls on the Government of Iran “…to end its abuses against its own people, to hold accountable those who have committed the abuses and to release those who are exercising their rights."