Human rights in the Imperial State of Iran

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This article is about human rights before the 1979 Islamic revolution. For the current regime, see Human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Imperial state of Iran, the government of Iran during the Pahlavi dynasty, lasted from 1925 to 1979. During that time two monarchs — Reza Shah Pahlavi and his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi — employed secret police, torture, and executions to stifle political dissent. The Pahlavi dynasty has sometimes been described as a "royal dictatorship",[1] or "one man rule".[2] According to one history of the use of torture by the state in Iran, abuse of prisoners varied at times during the Pahlavi reign.[3]

While the shah's violation of the constitution, "trampling on the fundamental laws" and rights of Iranians, was one of the complaints of revolutionaries,[4][5] some have suggested the Shah's human rights record fares were better than that of the revolutionaries who overthrew him. According to political historian Ervand Abrahamian,

"Whereas less than 100 political prisoners had been executed between 1971 and 1979, more than 7900 were executed between 1981 and 1985. ... the prison system was centralized and drastically expanded ... Prison life was drastically worse under the Islamic Republic than under the Pahlavis. One who survived both writes that four months under warden Asadollah Lajevardi took the toll of four years under SAVAK.[6] In the prison literature of the Pahlavi era, the recurring words had been "boredom" and "monotony." In that of the Islamic Republic, they were "fear," "death," "terror," "horror," and most frequent of all "nightmare" (kabos)." [7]

Reza Shah[edit]

Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty

The reign of Reza Shah was authoritarian and dictatorial at a time when authoritarian governments and dictatorships were common in the region and the world[8] and Universal Declaration of Human Rights was some years in the future.

Freedom of the press, workers' rights, and political freedoms were restricted under Reza Shah. Independent newspapers were closed down, political parties—even the loyal Revival party were banned. The government banned all trade unions in 1927, and arrested 150 labor organizers between 1927 and 1932.[9]

Physical force was used against some kinds of prisoners — common criminals, suspected spies, and those accused of plotting regicide. Burglars in particular were subjected to the bastinado (beating the soles of the feet), and the strappado (suspended in the air by means of a rope tied around the victims arms) to "reveal their hidden loot". Suspected spies and assassins were "beaten, deprived of sleep, and subjected to the qapani" (the binding of arms tightly behind the back) which sometimes caused a joint to crack. But for political prisoners — who were primarily Communists — there was a "conspicuous absence of torture" under Reza Shah's rule.[10] The main form of pressure was solitary confinement and the withholding of "books, newspapers, visitors, food packages, and proper medical care". While often threatened with the qapani, political prisoners "were rarely subjected to it." [11]

Reza Shah has been accused of violating freedom of religion and suppression of pious Muslims with a number of decrees. After violating the sanctuary of Qom's Fatima al-Masumeh Shrine to beat a cleric who had attacked his wife for alleged immodesty,[12] he passed a law requiring everyone (except Shia jurisconsults who had passed a special qualifying examination) to wear Western clothes,[13][14] and forbid women teachers to come to school with head coverings.[14] Public mourning observances were restricted to one day, and mosques required to use chairs for mourners to sit on during observances, instead of the mourners traditional sitting on the floors of mosques.[15]

By the mid-1930s, these decrees, confiscation of clerical land holdings, and other problems had caused intense dissatisfaction among the Shi'a clergy throughout Iran,[16] and after a crowd gathered in support of a cleric at the Mashed shrine denouncing the Shah's innovations, corruption and heavy consumer taxes, troops were called in. Dozens of protesting pious Muslim were killed and hundreds injured.[17][18]

Following this incident, the Shah went further, banning the chador and ordering all citizens - rich and poor - to bring their wives to public functions without head coverings.[19]

Mohammad Reza Shah[edit]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, second shah of the Pahlavi dynasty
Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iranian democracy advocate and deposed PM in Pahlavi dynasty.

Mohammad Reza became monarch after his father was deposed by Soviets and Americans in 1941. Political prisoners (mostly Communists) were released by the occupying powers, and the shah (crown prince at the time) no longer had control of the parliament.[20] But after an attempted assassination of the Shah in 1949, the shah was able to declare martial law, imprison communists and other opponents, and restrict criticism of the royal family in the press.[21]

Following the pro-Shah coup d'état that overthrew the Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, the Shah again cracked down on his opponents, and political freedom waned. He outlawed Mosaddegh's political group the National Front, and arrested most of its leaders.[22] Over 4000 political activists of the Tudeh party were arrested,[23] (including 477 in the armed forces), forty were executed, another 14 died under torture and over 200 were sentenced to life imprisonment.[22][24] [25]

Following this crackdown, conditions for political prisoners and opponents of the authoritarian government were relatively good for many years. "The bulk of Tudeh prisoners were released," and the remaining prisoners who refused to sign letters of regret were allowed to play ping pong, use a gymnasium, and watch television.[26] In the 1960s, the Shah also introduced electoral reforms expanding suffrage to women and ability to hold office to non-Muslims, as part of a broader series of reforms dubbed the White Revolution.[27] One exception to this relative calm was three days of rioting starting 5 June 1963 after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—a leading opponent of the White Revolution—was arrested. Troops fired on demonstrators in Jaleh Square "slaughtering not less than 15,000 people" according to Khomeini translator Hamid Algar.[28]

1971-1976[edit]

However, in 1971 a guerrilla attack a gendarmerie post (where three police were killed and two guerrillas freed, known as the "Siahkal incident") sparked "an intense guerrilla struggle" against the government, and harsh government countermeasures.[29] Guerrillas embracing "armed struggle" to overthrow the Shah, and inspired by international Third World anti-imperialist revolutionaries (Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara), were quite active in the first half of the 1970s [30][31] when hundreds of them died in clashes with government forces and dozens of Iranians were executed.[7] According to Amnesty International, the Shah carried out at least 300 political executions.[32]

According to a senior SAVAK officer, after the Siahkal attack interrogators were sent abroad for `scientific training to prevent unwanted deaths from "brute force".`[33] Methods of torture included sleep deprivation; extensive solitary confinement; glaring searchlights; standing in one place for hours on end; nail extractions; snakes (favored for use with women); electrical shocks with cattle prods, often into the rectum; cigarette burns; sitting on hot grills; acid dripped into nostrils; near-drownings; mock executions; and an electric chair with a large metal mask to muffle screams. Prisoners were also humiliated by being raped, urinated on, and forced to stand naked.[34] However, the torture method of choice remained the traditional bastinado used to beat soles of the feet.[34]

Torture was used to locate arms caches, safe houses and accomplices of the guerrillas, but another incident in 1971 led to the use of torture of political prisoners for another purpose. In 1971, a prisoner (Parviz Nikkah) serving a ten-year prison sense for communist subversion "experienced a genuine change of heart." He "astounded" the public by coming out in full support of the regime, starting a career working for the government Radio-Television Network" explaining how the Shah was a "true revolutionary".[35] So impressed was the regime with this conversion and its impact, it "did not take it long to go one step further and `induce` other `conversions.`"[36]

By the end of 1975, twenty-two prominent poets, novelist, professors, theater directors, and film makers were in jail for criticizing the regime. And many others had been physically attacked for refusing to cooperate with the authorities.[37]

The nature of this torture was "infinitely worse" than torture for information, which being time sensitive, lost its function and was discontinued after a short period of time.[36]

In 1975 the human rights group Amnesty International — whose membership and international influence grew greatly during the 1970s[38] — issued a report on treatment of political prisoners in Iran that was "extensively covered in the European and American Press".[39]

1976-1977[edit]

By 1976, this repression was softened considerably thanks to publicity and scrutiny by "numerous international organizations and foreign newspapers." In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States and he "raised the issue of human rights in Iran as well as in the Soviet Union. Overnight prison conditions changed",[40] and the Shah ordered an end to torture.[41]

Islamic Revolution[edit]

During the 1978-79 overthrow of the Pahlavi government, protestors were fired upon by troops and prisoners were executed. The real and imaginary human rights violations contributed directly to the Shah's demise,[42] (although some have argued so did his scruples in not violating human rights more as urged by his generals[43]).

The 1977 deaths of the popular and influential modernist Islamist leader Ali Shariati and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's son Mostafa were believed to be assassinations perpetrated by SAVAK by many Iranians.[44][45] On September 8, 1978, (Black Friday) troops fired on religious demonstrators in Zhaleh (or Jaleh) Square. The clerical leadership announced that "thousands have been massacred by Zionist troops" (i.e. rumored Israel troops aiding the Shah),[46] Michel Foucault reported 4000 had been killed,[47] and another European journalist reported that the military left behind a `carnage`.[48]

The revolutionary government's official figure for the total killed by the Shah's forces during his overthrow is 60,000.[49]

Postmortem[edit]

Historians evaluations of Shah's human rights record have been kinder than contemporary accounts. An estimated 380,[50] not 15,000 demonstrators were killed during the June 1963 demonstrations in Iran, some of them armed.[51] A report commissioned (but not published) by the Martyrs Foundation found the total killed in clashes between demonstrators and the Shah's army/security forces during the fourteen months from October 1977 to February 1979 to be not 60,000 but 2781[52] [53][54] Instead of thousands killed by Israeli mercenaries in Jaleh Square on Black Friday, it now appears 84 were killed[47] by troops who were Iranian but from a Kurdish region (speaking Kurdish not Hebrew).[46]


After the revolution, domestic surveillance and espionage, the use of torture for public recantations was not abolished but expanded. SAVAK was replaced by a "much larger"[55] SAVAMA,[56] (later renamed the Ministry of Intelligence). Abrahamian puts the Islamic Republic of Iran in the same "league" as "Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and [the Inquisition of] early modern Europe", in "their systematic use" of torture to produce public recantations by political prisoners.[57]

Others (such as journalist Hooman Majd) believe fear of the government and security services was much more pervasive under the late Shah's regime, and that the Islamic Republic's intelligence services, "although sometimes as brutal as the Shahs', spend far less effort in policing free political expression", inside private spaces.[58] Whether this leniency is the result of lacking the ability to do what the Shah did is questioned. According to Akbar Ganji, "notions of democracy and human rights have taken root among the Iranian people" making it "much more difficult for the government to commit crimes."[59] Writing about the reform period during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami Iranian-American academic Arzoo Osanloo notes that, "liberal notions of rights are almost hegemonic in Iran today."[60] And Majd himself explains the Islamic Republic's relative tolerance by claiming that if Iranian intelligence services "were to arrest anyone who speaks ill of the government in private, they simply couldn't build cells fast enough to hold their prisoners." [61]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Google search, Pahlavi royal dictatorship
  2. ^ Pahlavi Dynasty: An Entry from Encyclopaedia of the World of Islam By (ed.) Gholamali Haddad Adel, Mohammad Jafar Elmi, Hassan Taromi-Rad, p.15
  3. ^ Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, (University of California), 1999
  4. ^ "For Khomeini's proclamations during 1964-1973 see, Khomeini va Jonbesh (Khomeini and the Movement) (n.p., 1973), pp.1-103"] (from: Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, 1982, p.478-9)
  5. ^ "Now that our people in recent years have awakened, risen up to gain their rights, and cried out against oppression ...", Khomeini, "Message to the Pilgrims", September 27, 1978, from Islam and Revolution, 1981
  6. ^ source: Anonymous "Prison and Imprisonment", Mojahed, 174-256 (20 October 1983-8 August 1985)
  7. ^ a b Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions (1999), p.135-6, 167, 169
  8. ^ The Age of the Dictators: A Study of the European Dictatorships, 1918-53, D. G. Williamson
  9. ^ Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, (Princeton University Press), 1982, p.138
  10. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.39
  11. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999, p.41
  12. ^ Mackey, Sandra The Iranians : Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation, New York : Dutton, c1996. p.181
  13. ^ Mackey, The Iranians, (1996) p.184
  14. ^ a b Abrahamian, History of Modern Iran, (2008), p.93-4
  15. ^ Abrahamian, History of Modern Iran, (2008), p.94
  16. ^ Rajaee, Farhang, Islamic Values and World View: Farhang Khomeyni on Man, the State and International Politics, Volume XIII (PDF), University Press of America. ISBN 0-8191-3578-X
  17. ^ Abrahamian, History of Modern Iran, (2008), p.94
  18. ^ Bakhash, Shaul, Reign of the Ayatollahs : Iran and the Islamic Revolution by Shaul, Bakhash, Basic Books, c1984, p.22
  19. ^ Abrahamian, History of Modern Iran, (2008), p.95
  20. ^ Iran between two revolutions By Ervand Abrahamian, p.186
  21. ^ The History of Iran By Elton L. Daniel, 2012
  22. ^ a b Iran in Revolution: The Opposition Forces by E Abrahamian – MERIP Reports
  23. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, (University of California), 1999, p.89-90
  24. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand (1999). Tortured Confessions. University of California Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-520-21866-6. Retrieved 18 March 2011. 
  25. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand (1999). Tortured Confessions. University of California Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-520-21866-6. Retrieved 18 March 2011. 
  26. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, p.99-101
  27. ^ I Knew the Shah-Part 2 Al Jazeera English. January 17, 2009.
  28. ^ Islam and Revolution I, Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, translated and annotated by Hamid Algar, 1981, p.17
  29. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, p.101
  30. ^ Kurzman, Charles, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, Harvard University Press, 2004, p.145-6
  31. ^ In the two and half years from mid 1973 through 1975, three United States colonels, a Iranian general, sergeant, and a Persian translator of the United States Embassy were all assassinated by guerilla groups (source: Fischer, Michael M.J., Iran, From Religious Dispute to Revolution, Harvard University Press, 1980 p.128
  32. ^ Washington Post, March 23, 1980.
  33. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999 p.106
  34. ^ a b Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999), p. 106.
  35. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999 p.114
  36. ^ a b Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999 p.114-5
  37. ^ Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, 1982, pp. 442-3.
  38. ^ Amnesty International's membership increased from 15,000 in 1969 to 200,000 by 1979.
    • Amnesty International Report 1968-69. Amnesty International. 1969. 
    • Amnesty International Report 1979. Amnesty International. 1980. 
  39. ^ The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 7, edited by W. William Bayne Fisher, P. Avery, G. R. G. Hambly, C. Melville], p.286
  40. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, p. 119.
  41. ^ Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movements of Iran ... By Houchang E Chehabi, p.225
  42. ^ A Persian-speaking British diplomat noted that the gulf between shah and public was now unbridgeable - both because of Black Friday and because of the Abadan fire. (source: D. Harney, The Priest and the King: An Eyewitness Account of the Iranian Revolution, (London: Turis, 1999), p.25)
  43. ^ see Casualties of the Iranian Revolution#Explanation
  44. ^ Moin, Khomeini, (2000), pp. 184–5.
  45. ^ Taheri, The Spirit of Allah, (1985), pp. 182–3.
  46. ^ a b Taheri, The Spirit of Allah, (1985), p. 223.
  47. ^ a b E. Baqi, `Figures for the Dead in the Revolution`, Emruz, 30 July 2003 (quoted in A History of Modern Iran, p.160-1)
  48. ^ J. Gueyras, `Liberalization is the Main Casualty,` The Guardian, 17 September 1978
  49. ^ Ashraf and A. Banuazizi, `The state, Classes and Modes of Mobilization in the Iranian Revolution,` State, Culture and Society, Vol. I, No. 3, (Spring 1985), p.23
  50. ^ E. Baqi, `Figures for the Dead in the Revolution`, Emruz, 30 July 2003
  51. ^ Taheri, The Spirit of Allah, p.223
  52. ^ 18 [Emad al-Din Baghi, `Figures for the Dead in the Revolution`, Emruz, 30 July 2003, quoted in Abrahamian, Ervand, History of Modern Iran, 2008, p.161
  53. ^ A Question of Numbers, IranianVoice.org, August 08, 2003.
  54. ^ see also R.J. Rummel estimate of 3-5,000 Iranians killed by the Shah's regime during the Iranian Revolution. STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE, Chapter 14: THE HORDE OF CENTI-KILO MURDERERS,Table 15.1D, 1997.
  55. ^ Abrahamian, History of Modern Iran, (2008), p.176
  56. ^ Sazman-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Melli-e Iran
  57. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, 1999 p.4
  58. ^ Majd, Hooman, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ : The Paradox of Modern Iran, Doubleday, 2008, p.177
  59. ^ "The Latter-Day Sultan, Power and Politics in Iran" by Akbar Ganji, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008
  60. ^ Sally E. Merry, New York University, writing about The Politics of Women's Rights in Iran by Arzoo Osanloo accessed 30-June-2009
  61. ^ Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, 2008, p.183