Iran: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2011

Introduction to the 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices

On January 14, Tunisian president Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali boarded a plane in Tunis with his family and departed for Saudi Arabia. Twenty-seven days later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. After eight months of brutal attacks on Libyans seeking peaceful change, Moammar Qadhafi was overthrown. For the first time in history, the Yemeni President transferred power through the ballot box. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad have committed heinous and widespread human rights abuses against their own people since March 2011, and yet the protesters have not been cowed.

These still unfolding citizen uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have sent aftershocks rumbling around the world. Millions of citizens in many other countries have also expressed their dissatisfaction with governments that fail to deliver results to their people. Whether in grand movements or small acts, people in countries around the world are standing up and demanding their universal rights, dignity, greater economic opportunity, and participation in their countries’ political future.


The Islamic Republic of Iran is a constitutional, theocratic republic in which Shia Muslim clergy and political leaders vetted by the clergy dominate the key power structures.  Government legitimacy is based on the twin pillars of popular sovereignty–albeit restricted–and the rule of the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution.  The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was chosen by a directly elected body of religious leaders, the Assembly of Experts, in 1989. Khamenei’s writ dominates the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.  He directly controls the armed forces and indirectly controls internal security forces, the judiciary, and other key institutions.  The legislative branch is the popularly elected 290-seat Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Majlis. The unelected 12-member Guardian Council reviews all legislation the Majlis passes to ensure adherence to Islamic and constitutional principles; it also screens presidential and Majlis candidates for eligibility.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected president in June 2009 in a multiparty election that was generally considered neither free nor fair.  There were numerous instances in which elements of the security forces acted independently of civilian control.

Demonstrations by opposition groups, university students, and others increased during the first few months of the year, inspired in part by events of the Arab Spring.  In February hundreds of protesters throughout the country staged rallies to show solidarity with protesters in Tunisia and Egypt.  The government responded harshly to protesters and critics, arresting, torturing, and prosecuting them for their dissent.  As part of its crackdown, the government increased its oppression of media and the arts, arresting and imprisoning dozens of journalists, bloggers, poets, actors, filmmakers, and artists throughout the year.  The government’s suppression and intimidation of voices of opposition continued at a rapid pace at year’s end. The most egregious human rights problems were the government’s severe limitations on citizens’ right to peacefully change their government through free and fair elections, restrictions on civil liberties, and disregard for the sanctity of life through the government’s use of arbitrary detention, torture, and deprivation of life without due process.  The government severely restricted freedoms of speech and the press (including via the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and religion.  The government committed extrajudicial killings and executed persons for criminal convictions as juveniles, on minor offenses, and after unfair trials, sometimes in public or group executions.  Security forces under the government’s control committed acts of politically motivated violence and repression, including torture, beatings, and rape.  The government administered severe officially
sanctioned punishments, including amputation and flogging.  Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, often holding them incommunicado.
Other human rights abuses included acts of violence by vigilante groups with ties to the government, such as the Basij militia.  Prison conditions remained poor, and several prisoners died during the year as a result.  There were few examples of judicial independence or fair public trials.  Authorities held numerous political prisoners and continued to crack down on women’s rights activists, ethnic minority
rights activists, student activists, religious minorities, and environmental activists. The government severely restricted the right to privacy. Authorities denied admission to or expelled hundreds of university students whose views were deemed unacceptable by the regime; professors faced expulsion on similar grounds.  Official corruption and a lack of government transparency persisted. Violence and legal and societal discrimination against women, children, ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons were extant.  Incitement to anti-Semitism and trafficking in persons remained problems.  The government severely restricted workers’ rights and arrested numerous union leaders as the number of protests increased during the year.  Child labor remained a serious problem.

Note: The United States does not have an embassy in Iran.  This report draws heavily on non-U.S. government sources.

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