Iran: Overseer of Mass Executions Elected President

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Ebrahim Raeesi, a candidate in the 2017 presidential elections, addresses his supporters during a campaign rally at Imam Khomeini Mosque in the capital, Tehran, on May 16, 2017. 

© 2017 Getty Images

(Beirut) – The victory of Ebrahim Raeesi, Iran’s judiciary chief, on June 19, 2021, in a presidential election that was neither free nor fair raises serious concerns about human rights and accountability in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

Raeesi has had a long career in the country’s judiciary and served on a four-member committee that ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. The Interior Ministry announced that he won the presidency on June 19with 62% percent of the votes.

“Iranian authorities paved the way for Ebrahim Raeesi to become president through repression and an unfair election,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “As head of Iran’s repressive judiciary, Raeesi oversaw some of the most heinous crimes in Iran’s recent history, which deserve investigation and accountability rather than election to high office.” 

In the period before the election, the Guardian Council, a body of 12 male religious jurists and legal experts tasked with vetting elections, disqualified a large number of candidates without providing a reason, including several prominent government officials. Ali Larijani, the former speaker of parliament, and Eshaq Jahangiri, the current first vice president, were among them.

On May 20 Mehdi Mahmoudian, a human rights activist and journalist, reported that the authorities had summoned two journalists who criticized Raeesi on their Twitter accounts.

Raeesi has had a career for over three decades in the judiciary, which has acted as a cornerstone of repression in Iran. During the summer of 1988, the Iranian government summarily and extrajudicially executed thousands of political prisoners held in Iranian jails. The majority were serving prison sentences for their political activities after unfair trials in revolutionary courts.

The government has never acknowledged these executions or provided any information about how many were killed. But in August 2016, the family of the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, the former deputy supreme leader, published an audio file in which he harshly criticized the executions in a conversation with the committee that included Raeesi, calling it “the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us.”

The 1988 mass executions amounted to crimes against humanity and are among the most odious crimes in international law, Human Rights Watch said. Those responsible should be investigated and prosecuted for these crimes.

As the head of the judiciary since March 2019, Raeesi was in charge of an institution responsible for many of the long-established patterns of rights violations in Iran, including use of torture to obtain coerced confessions, prosecution of peaceful dissidents in grossly unfair trials, and lack of respect for due process rights.

Iran has one of the highest numbers of executions in the world, second only to China, including against child offenders and for crimes that do not meet the international standard of most serious crimes. In 2020, the judiciary executed Rouhollah Zam, a prominent dissident and journalist who had traveled to Iraq and was most likely detained there and transferred to Iran, after convicting him on vague national security charges. The government also executed Navid Afkari, a protester who was convicted of murder despite serious allegations that he was tortured to confess.

Over the past three years, the authorities have cracked down with increasing violence on protests that stemmed from a deterioration in economic conditions and transformed into a broader expression of popular discontent with the government’s repression and perceived corruption. In November 2019 the authorities brutally repressed widespread protests across the country, resulting in at least 300 deaths, according to Amnesty International, and thousands of arrests.

Judicial authorities have failed to hold anyone accountable for security forces’ use of excessive and unlawful lethal force, despite overwhelming evidence. Instead, they have proceeded to sentence protestors in unfair trials.

“The international community has a critically important responsibility toward the Iranian people, who have faced brutal repression and international sanctions over the past years,” Page said. “Leaders should come together to increase accountably, while ensuring that engagement breaks the isolation of Iranian civil society and local actors, who are pushing for greater respect for human rights on the ground.”


‘Hugs Not Walls’ an Inspiration for US Immigration Policy

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Immigrant families separated by immigration status, lack of visas, or deportations, are briefly reunited in the dry Rio Grande riverbed on the U.S.-Mexico border on May 12, 2018, an annual one day event organized by the Border Network for Human Rights, called Hugs Not Walls.
© 2018 Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

One line of families winds down from the US city of El Paso, Texas, and the other line meanders from Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, Tamaulipas. They meet on the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, a concrete culvert that marks the border between the United States and Mexico. These are family members separated by US immigration policies, and when they reach the bottom, they finally have a moment in which they can see, touch, and hug one another.

This is the scene of the eighth annual Hugs Not Walls event, which is happening today and organized by the Border Network for Human Rights. The tearjerker Netflix documentary “A Three Minute Hug” records families meeting during the event in 2018. It’s an excellent way to understand the emotional impact of the experience for participants.

I’m joining the Border Network for Human Rights at this year’s event. Human Rights Watch’s work over decades on the US immigration system has documented its devastating impact on the rights to home and family. Much of this harm flows from linking the immigration system to the criminal legal system, resulting in a disproportionate impact on people of color including Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian communities. For decades the United States immigration system has deported hundreds of thousands of individuals, permanently separating them from their loved ones and destabilizing communities. Families may also be separated because the US has so far failed to provide opportunities for millions of people who have built their lives in the United States, to secure permanent legal status, complicating any chance they might have to visit family abroad.

This year, the Hugs not Walls event also commemorates Juneteenth, now a US national holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. This convergence highlights an urgent need for the United States to write racism out of its cruel and abusive immigration laws, restoring fundamental principles of due process and compassion that keep families together and help communities thrive.

The transformation this system needs would allow these families, meeting at the border, the opportunity to turn their three-minute hugs in the middle of dry riverbed into real opportunities to reunite and stay with their loved ones.


Egypt: Commute Death Sentences for Rab’a Protestors

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 A volunteer tends to an injured demonstrator in front of a police armored personnel carrier (APC) in Rab’a Square in Cairo, Egypt on August 14, 2013. That day, Egyptian police and army forces opened fire on tens of thousands of demonstrators who had been staging an open-ended sit-in calling for the re-instatement of former president Mohamed Morsy, and violently dispersed the demonstration, killing at least 817 people. 

© 2013 Associated Press

(Beirut) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should immediately commute the death sentences for 12 protestors, including prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had been convicted in a grossly unfair mass trial for participation in the 2013 Rab’a sit-in that ended with security forces killing at least 817 protestors, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 14, 2021, the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appellate court, upheld the death sentences for the 12 as well as long prison sentences for hundreds of other Rab’a case defendants. Egypt’s Criminal Procedure Code gives the president 14 days following the court ruling to pardon the defendants or commute the death sentences.

The death sentences were among 75 handed down by a Cairo terrorism court in September 2018 following a mass trial of 739 defendants that began in December 2015. The Cassation Court commuted 31 death sentences to life imprisonment (the others had been sentenced in absentia). Most of the defendants had been arrested in the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in. Authorities should release anyone prosecuted solely for participating in largely peaceful protests and retry defendants charged with violent offenses before a court meeting international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. President al-Sisi should direct his government to halt Egypt’s escalating use of the death penalty.

To date there has been no investigation of those responsible for carrying out the mass killings by security forces at Rab’a.

“The Rab’a trial was a mockery of justice, so it is outrageous that the highest court has upheld these 12 death sentences,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President Sisi should seize this moment to void their execution and put an end to Egypt’s profligate use of the death penalty.”

Those whose death sentences the Cassation Court upheld include senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders Mohamed al-Beltagy, 58, Osama Yassine, 56, Ahmed Arif, 40, Abdelrahman al-Barr, 58, and a prominent Brotherhood supporter and Islamic preacher, Safwat Hegazi, 56. Al-Beltagy was a member of the 2012 parliament, and Yassine was a minister in the government of former President Mohamed Morsy, a senior Brotherhood leader who died in detention in 2019. The 12 men whose death sentences were confirmed could face execution imminently if President al-Sisi does not act.

The charges against the defendants in the mass trial ranged from involvement in violent protests to the murder and attempted murder of several police officers, soldiers, and members of the public during the six-week sit-in in July through August 2013.

The Cassation Court also upheld the prison sentences for hundreds of other Rab’a case defendants, including life sentences for the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, and lawyer Essam Soltan, deputy leader of the moderate al-Wasat Party, and a 10-year prison term for Osama Morsy, the late president’s son.  

The full court decision is yet to be released. The mass trial before the terrorism court was chaotic and marred with abuses at all stages. The trial was postponed several times for years because no courtroom could accommodate all the defendants. Like other mass trials, this one failed to establish individual criminal responsibility and was heavily based on unsubstantiated allegations by National Security Agency officers. Like in dozens of terrorism cases in recent years, the hearings took place inside an Interior Ministry facility. Defendants were often jammed inside a courtroom cell with sound-proof barriers that make it hard for observers to see or hear them and prevented them from properly interacting with judges. Many defendants were held in the notorious Scorpion Prison, where inmates are deprived for months or years at a time from seeing or communicating with their lawyers and family members, severely undermining the right to defense.

A relative of Mohamed al-Beltagy told Human Rights Watch that he has not received a single visit from his family or lawyers since March 2017. On August 13, 2020, Essam el-Erian, another senior Muslim Brotherhood leader in the case, died in Scorpion Prison in suspicious circumstances after purportedly suffering a heart attack. El-Erian, 66, had complained to judges in court sessions in 2017 and 2018 about prison conditions and said the Interior Ministry had prevented him from receiving treatment after he contracted hepatitis C in prison. Security forces forced his family to bury him almost secretly.

At least 22 of those handed down prison terms were children at time of arrest and were prosecuted alongside adults, in violation of international law.

The Egyptian army overthrew and arrested former President Morsy on June 30, 2013, on the heels of mass anti-Brotherhood protests. Morsy supporters then staged large protests throughout Egypt and gathered in two main squares in Cairo, Rab’a and al-Nahda. Human Rights Watch documented six incidents in which security forces unlawfully fired on masses of largely peaceful protestors between July 3 and August 16, 2013, killing at least 1,185 people. Human Rights Watch said these mass killings likely constituted crimes against humanity and required an international investigation.

Several official statements and reports acknowledged the police used excessive force in the dispersal. The prime minister who supervised the dispersal, Hazem al-Beblawy, said in response to the 2014 Human Rights Watch report that “anyone who committed a mistake … should be investigated.” No such investigations have taken place in the eight years since the massacre.

On March 6, 2014, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) released a report on the Rab’a dispersal saying that some protestors had been armed but that there was a “disproportionate response” and “excessive use of force by security forces” and security forces failed to maintain a safe exit for protestors to leave or to provide medical aid for the wounded.

Earlier, in December 2013, interim President Adly Mansour established a fact-finding committee to collect “information and evidence” on the events that accompanied the June 30 protests. The committee released an executive summary in November 2014 in which it largely blamed protest leaders for the casualties in Rab’a but admitted that security forces failed to target only people who were armed. Immediately following the dispersal, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that only 14 guns were seized among the protestors. The full report is yet to be made public.

Both the committee and the NCHR demanded that Rab’a victims who “did not participate in violence” be compensated. The NCHR also called for an independent judicial investigation.

In July 2018, al-Sisi approved Law No.161 of 2018 on the “treatment of the armed forces’ senior commanders,” which grants these officers “immunity” from prosecution or questioning for any event between July 3, 2013, and January 2016, unless the Supreme Council of Armed Forces gives permission.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has become among the top three countries in numbers of executions and death sentences globally, according to Amnesty International.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. In 2017, Human Rights Watch called on President al-Sisi to issue a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in view of the sharp rise in the number of death sentences. According to Amnesty International, Egyptian authorities have executed at least 51 men and women in the first half of 2021. In October 2020, Human Rights Watch documented the execution of 49 men and women by Egyptian authorities in just 10 days.

“Egypt should immediately halt any further executions, particularly of those convicted in grossly unfair trials,” Stork said. “To move forward, Egypt needs to address the crimes committed by security forces, including Rab’a and the mass killings of protestors.”