THE BLOG

Change...What Change?

04/11/2014 16:15 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 10:59 GMT

"The world did not love us. It did not want my fate. And now I am giving in to it and embrace the death."

These are some of the last words of Reyhaneh Jabarri - the 26-year-old Iranian woman who was recently executed for killing an Iranian Intelligence Agent - in a letter to her mother in April. The verdict was legally flawed, with Jabarri claiming that the victim had attempted to rape her, and that another man in the house had killed him. The authorities refused to investigate her claims, making her execution inevitable. An outspoken young woman, Jabarri was never going to be given a fair chance by a judiciary that routinely condemns to imprisonment or death those it views as enemies.

But although the Foreign Office did call on Iran to halt its use of the death penalty in the wake of Jabarri's execution, this year saw the UK and Iran re-establish diplomatic ties, with the first meeting between a UK Prime Minister and Iranian President since the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran, which was closed after it was stormed in 2011.

The message is one of change, one that was promoted by President Rouhani during his election campaign, in which he promised an era of moderation and reform which would differ from the hard-line and polemic style of his predecessor. He spoke of upholding the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities, and promised to release political prisoners. Once in power, he urged the Minister of Interior to appoint women and religious minorities to government posts.

But if anything has changed, it's news to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, who in his report to the UN General Assembly last week presented his findings of ongoing human rights violations in Iran - particularly targeted at women and ethnic and religious minorities, among other vulnerable groups - the very groups whose rights President Rouhani had pledged to respect before he assumed office.

Shaheed also said that there are at least 300 people currently detained in the country because of their religion or belief. However, the government attempts to justify their imprisonment by charging these people with crimes of a political nature. Among those detained are 120 members of the Baha'i community and 49 Christians. Prisoners include the Christian pastors Farshid Fathi, Behnam Irani and Saeed Abedini, whose combined sentences amount to over 25 years. Pastor Irani recently had his 6-year sentence increased to 12 years. In May, the Baha'i community marked the 6-year anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha'i leaders, each of whom is serving a 20-year sentence.

Executions have surged under President Rouhani, with Iran now having surpassed China in executions per capita. Since Rouhani's ascension to the presidency, 650 people have been executed, with 250 executions in early 2014 alone. Again, many of those executed are the usual suspects: women, activists and religious and ethnic minorities. In fact, the historic meeting between President Rouhani and Prime Minister David Cameron this September coincided with the execution of Mohsen Amir-Aslani, a 37-year-old Muslim accused of 'heresy' and 'spreading corruption on earth' after describing the story of Jonah in the Quran as an allegory.

A theocracy since the 1979 revolution, Iran has long persecuted groups it views with suspicion, whether women, journalists, political activists, or those who are deemed a threat to its interpretation of Shi'a Islam, such as converts to Christianity, Bahai's, Sunnis and Dervishes. And despite his promises, President Rouhani is very much part of the establishment; handpicked by the regime to run for office while others were barred from standing. Behind the facade of a reformist is a pragmatist who was selected for his diplomatic dexterity as the administration seeks to negotiate the nuclear issue and the lifting of sanctions that have crippled the economy.

The renewal of diplomatic relations with Iran should not be done at the expense of human rights. A regime that unjustly punishes those deemed to be different must be held to account.

At the time of writing many of the country's top human rights lawyers have faced harassment and imprisonment. They are tireless in speaking out for those whose plights can often be forgotten in the midst of international machinations. We must do the same so that people like Reyhaneh Jabarri never feel as abandoned as she did when she wrote:

"The world allowed me to live for 19 years...How optimistic was he who expected justice from the judges! And this country that you planted its love in me never wanted me and no one supported me when under the blows of the interrogator I was crying out".

This article was co-authored by CSW's Iran Advocacy Officer.