UN human rights experts* today expressed serious concerns about a violent crackdown against civil society in Iran, including members of workers’ unions and teachers arrested for protesting against their low salaries and poor working conditions, and urged those responsible for using excessive force to be held to account through comprehensive and independent investigations.
“We are alarmed at the recent escalation of allegedly arbitrary arrests of teachers, labour rights defenders and union leaders, lawyers, human rights defenders and other civil society actors,” the experts said.
In the past year, the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association has organised several nation-wide protests over working conditions and low wages, as well as to protest the arrest of teachers and restrictions on public education for all. On 1 May 2022, on the occasion of the International Workers’ Day and the Teachers’ Day in Iran, teachers held protests in a number of cities across the country, joined by workers’ unions, including the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company.
Prior to the 1 May protests and until 24 May 2022, over 80 teachers were arrested or summoned by security forces or the judiciary, and the houses of several trade unionists and teachers were raided. None of the teachers were given access to a lawyer. The authorities issued statements claiming that the arrests were due to “infiltration of foreign-affiliated elements into the ranks of teachers and workers” which threatened the order and security of the country. State television broadcast footage of several of the arrested teachers and labour rights defenders, accusing them of engaging with “hostile enemies” and calling their unions illegal.
“The space for civil society and independent associations to carry out their legitimate work and activities is becoming impossibly narrow, exemplified by the large scale arrests of civil society actors and the recent Court of Appeals decision to dissolve the Imam Ali Popular Students Relief Society,” the experts said.
On 26 May 2022, a Court of Appeals upheld the decision to dissolve the country’s largest non-governmental organisation – the Imam Ali Popular Students Relief Society – which did extensive work on poverty alleviation. The motion to dissolve the NGO was brought by the Ministry of Interior.
The crackdown has also involved the summoning of several prominent lawyers, with some facing national security charges.
Protests have spread across various cities and regions in Iran since the start of May following the government’s decision to cut subsidies on food items. At least five protesters have been killed as a result of excessive use of force by security forces. Separately, protests erupted in Khuzestan after a 10-story building collapsed in Abadan on 23 May, leaving over 40 dead and many missing. Protesters criticized the authorities for negligence and corruption in connection with permitting the construction of the building despite expert assessments advising against it.
“In the absence of meaningful channels of participation in Iran, peaceful protests are now the sole remaining means for individuals and groups to express themselves and share their grievances with the authorities,” the experts said. “We are deeply concerned that first response by the authorities is that of security, involving the excessive use of force against protestors, with what appears to be an active policy to shield perpetrators and prevent accountability.
“The crackdown comes in the context of an extremely dire economic situation, which the authorities themselves have acknowledged. We recall that the Government is the primary duty-bearer in the protection and promotion of human rights, including by mitigating the impacts of sanctions. We call on the authorities to address the underlying causes of the protests, and to ensure that everyone can exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”