Iran’s Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders: The Case of Narges Mohammadi

by | Jan 12, 2017

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About Delaram Farzaneh

Dr. Delaram Farzaneh is the Scholar in Residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the NYU School of Law. She has recently published Judgeships in Iran: Step Down, You are a Woman - A Legal Analysis of International Human Rights.


Delaram Farzaneh, ‘Iran’s Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders: The Case of Narges Mohammadi’ (OxHRH Blog, 12 January 2017) <> [Date of Access]

The “harassment” of human rights defenders’ and “criminalization” of their activities in Iran has become common practice by the judicial branch of the Islamic Republic in recent years. According to the Secretary-General’s report to the General Assembly, in September 2016, this trend includes arbitrary arrest; prolonged solitary confinement; psychological and physical torture; unfair trials; and vague and questionable national security charges. The compelling case of Narges Mohammadi is one example of Iran’s heavy crackdown on human rights defenders.

Human Rights  Defenders under International Law  

Before turning to the case of Narges Mohammadi, the guaranteed rights of human rights defenders (HRDs) and sources for Iran’s legal obligations under international law will be outlined. Resolution 53/144 of the General Assembly in 1998 adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (DHRDs), which explicitly defines HRDs and reaffirms previously established individual rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These rights include “freedom of opinion and expression,” “freedom of association” and “freedom of assembly.”

Iran’s legal obligations to protect the rights of HRDs are derived from its UN Charter-based and treaty-based obligations. Iran as a State party to the UN, first, is bound by provisions of the Charter to promote and encourage respect for equal human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without discrimination. As part of its Charter-based obligations, it should also cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran in the context of HRDs. Additionally, it should implement accepted recommendations made during its first and second Universal Periodic Review within its jurisdiction. Iran is also legally bound to implement rights and freedoms enshrined in the UDHR as customary international law pertaining to HRDs. Moreover, it should implement guaranteed rights enumerated in the DHRDs, since it was adopted by the consensus of the General Assembly.

Iran’s treaty-based obligations are derived from ratifying the ICCPR and ICESCR, which impose general and specific legal obligations that guarantee all individuals civil, political, socioeconomic and cultural rights, equally and without discrimination. Iran is also required to implement recommendations made by the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to improve the status of HRDs within its jurisdiction.

Narges Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian human rights defender whose legitimate and peaceful activities to reform the human rights situation inside Iran have resulted in 22-years imprisonment. Her activities include being Deputy Director and spokeswoman for the Defenders of Human Rights Center; campaigning to abolish the death penalty in Iran; advocacy for women, children and minority rights, and protection of the rights of political prisoners and their families (English, Farsi).

All charges against her consist of what the judiciary calls “serious crimes against national security and the government.” She was first charged and convicted in 2011 with “meeting and conspiring against the Islamic Republic,” “anti-government publicity,” and “collaborating with the Center for Human Rights Defenders.” In 2012, she commenced serving a six-year prison but was released on bail for medical reasons. However, in 2015 she was re-arrested to serve the remainder of the six-year prison sentence.

In May 2016, Branch 15 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced her to additional 16-year imprisonment on the basis of three new charges: “assembly and collusion to commit crimes against national security,” “spreading propaganda against the State,” and “establishing and running the illegal splinter group LEGAM.” In September 2016, the Tehran Appeals Court upheld the 16-year prison sentence.

The international community has raised continuous concerns regarding the criminalization of her work, in violation of her guaranteed human rights. The harsh sentence; multiple arbitrary arrests; solitary confinements; unfair trials, and psychological and physical torture endured by her are clear examples. (English, Farsi)

As a HRD, her  individual human rights like “freedom of opinion and expression,” “freedom of association and assembly,” and “fair trial,” are guaranteed by the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, and DHRDs. Iran legally is bound to implement the provisions of these documents under international law. Criminalization of her legitimate and peaceful work is in violation of her human rights. Iran is obligated to refrain from any acts that violate guaranteed rights; yet the judicial branch of Government is the perpetrator of violations against her human rights.

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