When Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran in June 2013, he promised to improve restrictions on free expression and the violation of human rights. But according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre (IHRDC), Rouhani has overseen the execution of 300 people since coming to power.
On 29 January, the family of Hashem Shaabani, a 31-year-old poet and prominent member of the Ahwazi Arab community in Iran, was told that he had been executed ‘three or four days before’. Shaabani and Hadi Rashedi, a teacher, were sentenced to death after being convicted on 7 July 2012 of ‘enmity against God’, ‘corruption on earth’, ‘gathering and colluding against state security’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the system’. The sentence was upheld by Iran’s Supreme Court in January 2013.
Both men were arrested in early September 2011, together with Mohammad Ali Amouri, Sayed Jaber Alboshoka and his brother Sayed Mokhtar Alboshoka. They were tried in connection with their cultural activities on behalf of Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority, believed to constitute between 3 and 8 per cent of the population. They had no access to a lawyer or their families for the first nine months of their detention and were reportedly tortured or otherwise ill-treated before and after the verdict.
Originally from Ahvaz City and a resident of Khalafabad, Shaabani held a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language, literature and education and a master’s degree in political sciences from Ahvaz University. He wrote poetry in Arabic and Persian and taught Arabic language and literature in high schools. He was a cultural, civic and student activist and a blogger. He was married, with one child, and was also responsible for the care of his elderly parents. His father, Khalaf Shaabani, has been disabled since he was wounded fighting Iraqi forces during the Iran–Iraq War.
Shaabani was a member of al-Hiwar (the term means ‘dialogue’ in Arabic), an organisation set up to promote Ahwazi Arab culture and campaign for the right to mother-tongue education in Iran. Its meetings were held in public and Shaabani read his poetry at some of them. However, the organisation was banned by the Iranian government in May 2005, shortly after widespread anti-government protests broke out among the Ahwazi Arab community.
Most Ahwazi Arabs live in the oil-rich Khuzestan province. Amnesty International believes that they are subject to discriminatory laws and suffer from restricted social, cultural, linguistic and religious rights. Amnesty has documented numerous cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, grossly unfair trials of political prisoners and the use of the death penalty, which disproportionally affects minorities, as well as restrictions on movement for members of the Ahwazi Arab minority.
In December 2011, Shaabani, Amouri and Rashedi appeared on Press TV, Iran’s state-controlled English-language television station. Shaabani was allegedly forced to confess to being involved in separatist terrorism and supporting Ba’athism in Iraq, as well as membership of the Popular Resistance, a group with ties to Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. Rashedi was described as ‘the leader of the military wing of the Popular Resistance’ and ‘confessed’ to participating in an attack on a house containing four government officials.
Forced confessions on state television are common in Iran. Four years ago Omid Montazeri, a law student and poet, confessed to various charges during a show trial broadcast on Iranian television (LR, March 2010). The Canadian-Iranian journalist and film-maker Maziar Bahari (LR, August 2009) also wrote about being coerced to make a false televised confession, during which he admitted that he was acting as an agent of the evil Western media. After his release he wrote:
I was forced to say the media are trying to overthrow the Islamic government. I was beaten and threatened with execution to make that confession. I was beaten again after the show because I did not perform as well as my interrogator would have liked. Yes, Ayatollah Khamenei, I had to apologise to you on television to stop my torturer from punching me in the head.
Those who knew Shaabani state that he had never supported armed insurgency against Iran, let alone had contact with foreign governments. Shaabani wrote an open letter from prison in which he denied having used or advocated violence and claimed that he had been tortured to make false statements and that his three attempts to retract his confession in front of a judge were ignored.
While PEN welcomed the release of lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (LR, December 2012) and journalist Jila Bani Yaghoub last year, it has condemned Shaabani’s execution as ‘the ultimate violation of the right to life of a fellow poet’. The organisation believes Shaabani was tortured after his arrest to pressure him to make his televised confession. PEN is currently monitoring the cases of over twenty writers detained, imprisoned or facing trial in Iran and has urged the Iranian authorities to halt all executions and to release those held in violation of their right to freedom of expression.
Readers might like to send appeals condemning the execution of Hashem Shaabani, urging the authorities to halt all executions and release all writers, poets, journalists and bloggers held solely in connection with the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, in order to demonstrate that they are truly committed to respecting fundamental human rights.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Leader of the Islamic Republic
Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Twitter: @HassanRouhani (English)
Readers can send copies of their appeal to the Iranian embassy in London: firstname.lastname@example.org