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Lecturer faces death penalty as UN reveals torture, jailing of students

Campaigners have issued an urgent appeal to stay the execution of a university lecturer at the same time that a UN investigation has reported widespread human rights abuses in Iran including arbitrary arrest, torture and imprisonment of students and academics.

The international federation of teacher unions, Education International, issued the appeal on 7 March.

Professor Abdolreza Ghanbari, a lecturer at Payame Nour University, was charged with Moharebeh (enmity towards God) for receiving unsolicited emails from an armed opposition group, to which he does not belong.

He has been waiting on death row, pending a request for a pardon, since his sentence was confirmed by Tehran’s Appeal Court, Branch 36, in April 2010. But the request for pardon was rejected on 28 February by the Commission of Justice in Tehran, which means that the authorities are allowed to proceed with the execution.

The appeal came the day after the UN published a report by Ahmed Shaheed, its special rapporteur on human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which called for a “moratorium on the death penalty for all crimes until such time as effective enforcement of due process rights may be meaningfully demonstrated”.

The report says that the number of executions in Iran has risen nearly sevenfold from fewer than 100 cases in 2003 to 670 or more in 2011.

Shaheed documents widespread human rights abuses including against students – one of whom is also facing the death penalty – student representatives and professors that have taken place since the 2009 presidential elections.

Ghanbari (44) was arrested at his home in Pakdasht on 4 January 2010. While in detention at the notorious Evin prison, Ghanbari was interrogated for 25 days in a row and forced to confess under duress to unproven charges, Education International said.

His lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was later condemned to six years in prison for “propaganda against the regime” and “acting against national security”.

In his report the UN special rapporteur urged the Iranian government to “prohibit the death penalty for cases that do not meet the standard of ‘serious crime’ as defined by international law”, and recommended that the authorities commute capital sentences for individuals whose crimes do not meet that standard.

Ghanbari was previously detained in 2007 for 120 days, sentenced to a six-month suspension from teaching and exiled from Sari to Pakdasht. Education International said he has no known political connections but was previously involved in teacher union activities until his union, ITTA, was dissolved in 2007.

In an open letter Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, called on teacher unions to sign up to EI’s appeal and invited them to urge foreign ministries in their countries to press the Iranian authorities to stay the execution, revoke the death sentence, and register the Coordinating Council of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations and allow it to hold union activities.

EI and the International Trade Union Confederation have requested a direct intervention of the director general of the International Labour Organisation, to request that Iran annul death penalties for trade unionists.

In the UN report, the special rapporteur shares the concern raised by the UN Human Rights Committee that, to date, a full, impartial and independent investigation into allegations made during and following the presidential elections of 12 June 2009 had still not been conducted. He stressed that responsible high-level officials have not been held accountable.

Shaheed said reports containing allegations of “egregious human rights violations” following the 2009 presidential elections continue to emerge, demonstrating that breaches of the rule of law have not been addressed and that impunity continues to prevail.

Arrests, torture of students and academics

One such report described the events surrounding the widely publicised 13 June 2009 raid on Tehran University dormitories aimed at dispersing protestors. A student activist (wishing to remain anonymous) claimed that plain-clothed and regular security forces – who are legally prohibited from entering university campuses – raided dormitory buildings using sticks, daggers, chains, metal rods, Molotov cocktails, teargas, white phosphorous pellets and electrified batons.

Dormitory rooms were vandalised and students were beaten. The witness reported being thrown on the ground and beaten with electrified and regular batons by the police, and later arrested and transferred with a group of 50 other students to Shapur police station in central Tehran. The students were allegedly deprived of food and water for 24 hours and subjected to beatings.

The report provides details of individual cases of alleged torture and arbitrary arrest and sentencing of students and academics. There are alleged cases of students being beaten or threatened with rape or death in an attempt to force confessions.

Elham Ahsani, a university student and active member of Mourning Mothers, was arrested together with her brother Nadar Ahsani by security forces on 8 February 2010 at her home in Tehran, then taken to section 209 at Evin prison. She was blindfolded, subjected to threats against her family and throughout her detention period was threatened with rape and execution.

The charges brought against her included “propaganda against the system”, “acts against national security”, “membership of an illegal group”, participation in clashes during the 2009 protests and dissemination of information outside the country.

She was denied family visits, had no access to a lawyer and spent 40 days in detention before being released on bail. Her case file remains open, and a judgment has yet to be issued. She has since fled the country. He brother was given two years’ imprisonment.

Dr Mohammad Maleki, a retired university professor and the first president of the University of Tehran after the Islamic Revolution, reported that his home was raided at 8am on 22 August 2009 by the Intelligence Ministry.

A piece of paper was shown to him from a distance, upon his request to see a warrant, and his home was searched and belongings confiscated, including legal books, his computer hard drive, cellphone and medical equipment.

Though suffering from cancer he was arrested, transferred to Evin prison and placed in solitary confinement for about three months. He too was accused of Moharebeh and “acting against national security”, and was sentenced to one year in prison. After 191 days he was released on medical grounds.

In another case Rozhin Mohammadi, a medical student at Manila Medical School of the Philippines, was arrested on 14 November 2011 at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran on her way to visit her family. She was released the following day after posting bail. But security forces then raided her father’s home and confiscated her personal belongings.

She was rearrested on 23 November 2011 and taken to Evin prison and there has been no news about her condition or whereabouts since then. Her family and defence counsel have been denied visiting rights and there are fears that she is facing solitary confinement and other forms of abuse and torture.

Universities punish students for political activity

The special rapporteur was also disturbed by reports of violations of students’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. He was concerned by reports of students being deprived of their right to education on the basis of their political and student activities critical of government or university policies.

Ali Nezeri, a student activist, described the use of university disciplinary committees to punish students for their political activities on and off campus.

He was summoned twice by the committee at his university; once for his activities with the Islamic Student Association, and once for protesting against the university’s lack of safety standards after two students died in university dorms from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In a letter to the special rapporteur the human rights commission of Daftar Tahkim Vahdat, the student pro-democracy organisation, stressed the important contribution that student organisations and their members make to improving academic life and to defending student and human rights.

The peaceful efforts of students – including the hosting of lectures and the publication of articles – are often met with punitive university or government measures.

Citing statistics on the treatment of student activists based on information gathered from news sources, the commission maintains that since March 2009, there have been 436 arrests, 254 convictions and 364 cases of deprivation of education. In addition, 144 students have been summoned by the judiciary, and 13 student publications have been forcibly closed.

The UN report cites the names of 32 student activists currently in prison for their activities. Their sentences range from six months to 11 years. One student is facing the death penalty.

One was sentenced to six years and 74 lashes after being arrested in connection with his efforts to communicate developments surrounding the presidential elections to international news stations. Another was subjected to severe beating to the point of unconsciousness during interrogations and was allegedly tortured with the use of a small box known as the 'dog house', and denied medical treatment for pain.

Another student activist, Mehdi Arabshahi, reportedly suffered a heart attack after undergoing almost a dozen interrogations during his 240-day detention in solitary confinement. He was allegedly blindfolded, verbally abused, threatened and beaten while being questioned about interviews he gave to the foreign press, about his role in the 2009 protests and about the membership and activities of Daftare Tahkim Vahdat.

The special rapporteur also highlighted unequal treatment of women in Iran’s universities. Although the number of women enrolling in Iranian academic institutions is high, women continue to be subject to discriminatory practices that hinder equal access to all the academic and professional opportunities that exist in the country.

Two former students complained that quotas had been put in place to limit the number of women who can enrol in medicine, masters and PhD programmes, thus discriminating against women who scored higher than males on entrance exams when female enrolment has exceeded the quota.

Furthermore, eight universities have reportedly implemented gender segregation policies on their campuses, some of which have barred women from attending free day classes, forcing them to attend evening classes, which charge tuition fees, the report said.

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