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

Michael Rubin

By Michael Rubin:

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.

Copyright © 2012

6 Responses to Iran: IHRDC reports ‘On the Margins’ – book review
  1. Suleiman
    November 12, 2012 | 13:13

    Care to mention names of some of the donors to this organization besides the state dept? Knowing how biased you are, I would be very reluctant to believe that the donors are unbiased.

    • Michael Rubin
      November 12, 2012 | 22:56

      Suleiman, thank you for your reply. The IHRDC places its annual reports and tax returns online at:

      You will notice a number of foundations and donors listed in the annual report. Good organizations tend not to be embarrassed by transparency. Here too is a precedent which would benefit many Kurdish NGOs.

      With regards, Michael

  2. john
    November 12, 2012 | 13:55

    Interesting article. Be good to see more information like this on the plight and struggle of Kurds in Iran.

  3. S. Omar
    November 17, 2012 | 15:16

    ‘Qadhafi was perhaps the worst offender in the Middle East.’

    Thanks, Michael, for yet another load of unsubstantiated dross. When are you going to condemn the real terrorists and enemies of humanity in this world, let alone the Middle East? It’s so easy for Westerners to sit their with their Fox News and CNN brainwashing stations, criticising non-Western leaders, yet the Westerner cannot even look on his own front doorstep. In the interests of a fair debate, could Mr. Rubin tell us about the Gazans being slaughtered on a daily basis in their own land? What about the American and British atrocities in Iraq? In fact, can you name a country that has invaded, occupied, butchered and strolen from other nations more than the US? Probably not. Without wishing to labout the point, I take it you don’t know anything about Libya before Gaddafi, during Gaddafi and after Gaddafi. Just because your leaders wear suits and eat with knives and forks, it does not mean they are immune from being labelled ‘human rights abusers’. I’ll leave you to do some independent research about Gaddafi’s Libya. As a starting point, which country had the highest HDI figure in Africa? The highest standard of living in Africa? The highest GDP per capita in Africa? A free, generous welfare system that gave free education, study grants, housing and healthcare (with more hospital beds per thousand than the USA, for example). Which country in 1951 was the poorest on Earth, with an average life expectancy of 44, to 77 by 2005?

  4. S. Omar
    November 17, 2012 | 15:21

    ‘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.’

    And therefore any credibility in its research is reduced to ZERO. if you want proper human rights investigations, you get non-affiliated, non-government-backed individuals/organisations to do it. Not Amnesty, not Human Rights Watch or any of these neo-imperialistic, propagandist wasters (for example, since when was Amnesty a mouthpiece for the illegal war in Afghanistan? When it declared in a poster: ‘Well done, NATO, for promoting women’s rights’. Look it up yourself. And don’t tell me the UN is credible either. It’s a rubber stamp for US foreign policy.

  5. Kurd
    November 17, 2012 | 21:01

    I wonder what Michael Rubin has to say about the way the Indian Americans were treated?

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