Iran: IHRDC reports ‘On the Margins’ – book review

Article Highlights

  • The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center has established itself as among the most serious human rights organizations.

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  • The IHRDC board boasts an impressive array of academic disciplines, many with legal & Persian language backgrounds.

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  • IHRDC reports are respected for documentation more precise than that of many better known human rights organizations.

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The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) has existed for less than a decade, but it has already established itself as among the most serious and least politicized human rights organizations. Amnesty International may make headlines, but it too often conflates leftist politics with human rights advocacy. Human Rights Watch (HRW), too, is guilty of politicization. While its reports on Kurdistan are generally accurate, they may not always be so: Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division compromised the group’s independence both when she solicited funding from Saudi Arabia, a country about whose abuses HRW often fails to report, and when she glossed over abuses in Libya which, under Muammar Qadhafi was perhaps the worst offender in the Middle East. When HRW seeks Arab (or Turkish) funding, its future reporting on Kurdistan may suffer.

Funded largely by private grants with support from at first the U.S. State Department and then, after the Obama administration cut off funding so as not to embarrass Tehran, the Canadian government, the IHRDC reports on Iran and only Iran. Based in New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale University, the IHRDC board boasts an impressive array of academic spanning disciplines, but many with legal and Persian language backgrounds.

IHRDC reports are respected for documentation more precise than that of many better known human rights organizations. Their latest report, “On the Margins: Arrest, Imprisonment and Execution of Kurdish Activists in Iran Today,” is no different. Reference to Iranian sources—official newspapers and websites—inoculates the IHRDC from Iranian regime disparagement of its sources. A brief and accessible overview of Kurdish history in Iran provides context for the problems today facing Iran’s Kurdish community. Separate sections discuss Iranian Kurdistan after the Islamic Revolution; during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency; through the Mohammad Khatami era; and during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term. The murder of Shawaneh Ghaderi in 2005 merits its own section.

The second chapter, “Arrest, Imprisonment, and Execution of Activists,” details accelerating abuses in the wake of the 2009 election and against the backdrop of increasing Iranian Kurdish separatism. The IHRDC also seeks to document Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK) partisans executed for their membership. Hence, the cases of Farzad Kamangar, Farhad Vakili, and Ali Haidarian are covered at length. Interviews with Vakili’s cellmate in Evin Prison supplement their account. The letters Shirin Alamhooli sent from prison lead the IHRDC to conclude “she was subjected to extreme and brutal physical and psychological torture prior to her execution.”

PJAK members are not alone in their suffering; the report also details the torture, and execution of Komala member Ehsan Fattahian after his July 2009 arrest in Sanandaj. Others whose cases “On the Margins” documents include Fasih Yasamani, Hossein Khezri, Sabah Nasri, Yaser Goli, Amir Ahmadi, and Kaveh Tahmasebi, among others.

While there is much attention among human rights and press freedom advocacy groups with regard to the harassment, targeting, and murder of journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan, the IHRDC does a service to remind that Iranian Kurdish journalists face the same repression—albeit from non-Kurds. Hence, the report charts the case of Amir Babakri, an editor for Rewan. Following his arrest, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took him to its Intelligence Office in Piranshahr for his initial interrogation, after which it transferred him to Urumiyeh, where the IRGC held him in solitary confinement. After having served 15 months, the security services continued to harass him, leading him to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan and eventually to Sweden.

A third chapter explores specific articles of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, both as written and as applied to Kurdish prisoners, and argues that by the Islamic Republic’s own laws, “Iran’s treatment of Kurdish political and civil activism violates the Iranian constitution and laws.” This may not surprise Iranians or Kurds, but documenting that the regime acts illegally even on its own terms utterly delegitimizes the Iranian government and its apologists.

Two appendices add primary source value to “On the Margins.” The first reproduces a small selection of judicial documents including charges and verdicts, while a second reproduces a letter from political prisoner Habibollah Golparipour to Sadeq Larijani, the hardline head of the Iranian judiciary.

For decades, the plight of Kurds in Syria was among the least reported. The Syrian uprising, however, has changed this equation as journalists and human rights activists can now access liberated regions of Syria. Despite attempts by Masrour Barzani’s security forces to repress rights reporting in Iraqi Kurdistan, the sheer boldness of independent Iraqi Kurdish journalists coupled with Barzani’s often bizarre and brutal overreaction has ensured the Iraqi Kurdish plight remains in the public eye. Turkey’s ability to repress its Kurdish population appears on the wane, as the PKK makes gains and begins to hold territory. Iran for too long as been the black hole, if not for Kurds themselves, then for journalists and Western human rights activists. Even those who manage somehow to win an Iranian visa find their travel to Iranian Kurdish blocked by minders and security forces. It is against this context that “On the Margins” is especially valuable. Let us hope that the IHRDC’s documentation of abuses in Iranian Kurdistan will not end with this latest report, and that the IHRDC’s report might also provide a model and template for indigenous Kurdish rights groups who want to document the abuses which Kurds presently suffer in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, and Turkey.


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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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