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Many observers hoped that the combination of the Rouhani government in Iran and the successful conclusion of the deal on Iran’s nuclear programme would lead to a warming of Iranian relations with Western countries and an improvement in the human rights situation inside Iran. While there has been some limited progress on matters such as investment by Western companies, no political transformation has taken place in the country. Hard-line factions in the judiciary and the intelligence and security forces, resentful at having failed to prevent the nuclear deal, are using all the levers at their disposal to maximise their influence. That means fighting against any loosening of political and religious repression.

Judicial process and the death penalty

Far from slowing down on executions after the election of a moderate government, Iran is reported to have accelerated. According to Amnesty International, the authorities executed nearly 700 people between 1 January and 15 July 2015. Departing from usual practice, the executions did not even stop in the month of Ramadan. Amnesty drew attention to the judicial process in Iran, which it said is not impartial:

… death sentences in Iran are particularly disturbing because they are invariably imposed by courts that are completely lacking in independence and impartiality. They are imposed either for vaguely worded or overly broad offences, or acts that should not be criminalized at all, let alone attract the death penalty. Trials in Iran are deeply flawed, detainees are often denied access to lawyers in the investigative stage, and there are inadequate procedures for appeal, pardon and commutation.

Detainees are often subjected to torture, according to Human Rights Watch.

Freedom of speech

Broad national security offences are often used against journalists to silence them in Iran, and the country remains one of the most repressive to journalists in the world: 169th out of 180, according to the NGO Reporters without Borders. Four bloggers and three journalists were imprisoned in 2016. Kurdish reporters and others from minority groups that the Iranian authorities find challenging are the most likely to face arbitrary arrest and detention.

Human rights lawyers are also vulnerable to arrest and increasingly harsh prison sentences. Free trade unions are also banned.


Women are subjected to various forms of discrimination and the authorities do not do enough to prevent violence – there is no law against domestic violence, for example. The legal age for marriage is 13 for a girl, although girls even younger can be married even younger than this if their father or grandfather decides and is given court clearance. In one year there were more than 40,000 marriage registrations where the girl was aged between 10 and 14 years, Human Rights Watch reported.

Iranian government

The Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denied in 2015 that people were jailed for their opinions in Iran:

We do not jail people for their opinions. The government has a plan to improve [and] enhance human rights in the country, as every government should. And I believe we have an obligation as a government to our own people to do that. But people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of the country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist. People have to observe the law.

UK government

The UK government says that it is working hard to improve the human rights situation in Iran. It summarised its actions in the 2015 Human Rights and Democracy report:

The UK continues to lead international efforts to encourage Iran to improve its human rights record. We continue to raise individual cases with the Iranian government, in addition to concerning trends such as the increase in use of the death penalty, juvenile executions, and continued persecution of religious minorities. The UK has also helped to maintain the listing of over 70 individuals under the Iran human rights sanctions regime.

The UK helped secure adoption of the UN General Assembly Third Committee Resolution on the human rights situation in Iran. The UK co-sponsored the Canadian-led resolution, assisting in drafting and agreeing the text. The resolution was passed by 76 votes.

FCO Human Rights and Democracy Programme projects supporting HRDs [human rights defenders] and creating platforms to support freedom of expression helped strengthen the foundations for change in country. We welcome the renewal of the mandate for the UN Special Rapporteur in Iran [Ahmed Shaheed]. We will continue to support this mandate and hope that Iran uses the opportunity to engage with the UN.

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