Iran’s foreign minister is facing a backlash from his supporters, after claiming in a recent US interview that his country does not imprison citizens solely because of their opinions.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, who remains popular in Iran for his handling of the nuclear negotiations, appeared on the Charlie Rose talkshow this week while on a visit to New York for a review conference of the non-proliferation treaty at the UN.
“We do not jail people for their opinions,” he said when asked about the detention of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter held in Iran for the past nine months.
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“The government has a plan to improve, enhance human rights in the country as every government should. I believe we have an obligation as a government to our own people to do that,” he said. “But people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist, people have to observe the law.”
Speaking to the Guardian on Friday, Iran’s most prominent human rights activist and lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, said those comments were simply not true. “I certainly cannot accept that,” she said by telephone from Tehran.
“I didn’t expect these remarks from Mr Zarif. There are plenty of prisoners of conscience behind bars in Iran held solely because of their opinions, including journalists, lawyers, student and labour activists, political prisoners and many people who are in jail for their beliefs, such as Baha’is, Christians, many of whom I personally met while I was in prison.”
Mohammad Javad Zarif appears Charlie Rose’s talkshow.
Sotoudeh was detained in September 2010 after falling foul of the authorities for representing several political activists and highlighting the execution of juveniles in Iran. She has been awarded the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought by the European parliament. Previous recipients include Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. She was freed in 2013 after Hassan Rouhani became president.
Following Zarif’s remarks, many Iranians took online to express their discontent, posting comments beneath his latest posts on Facebook. “Nobody is jailed in Iran for his or her opinion? Liar,” wrote one user. “When you lie, there is no difference between you and [former hardline president] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” said another.
One user posted: “You broke many hearts in Iran. We are expecting you to apologise.” Another reminded Zarif of a popular religious saying in Iran: “One who lies is the enemy of God.”
Another post said: “You’re making Pinocchio look truthful.”
Maziar Bahari, a prominent journalist who was jailed in the aftermath of Iran’s post-election protests in 2009, tweeted: “Mr. @JZarif is, unfortunately, lying. Many innocent people are in prison in Iran just for being a journalist or an activist.”
Fellow journalist Bahman Ahmadi Amouie, who was sentenced to more than five years in prison over the protests, wrote a letter to Zarif, saying: “As a prisoner who was jailed, interrogated and mentally and physically tortured because of my opinions and my writings in the newspapers that had been legally licensed..
“I testify that Rouhani’s government and his foreign minister are lying on this issue.”
Sotoudeh said Iranian authorities are holding many civil and political activists on bogus security charges. She added that while in jail a guard told his senior in front of her and fellow inmates that one prisoner was jailed because she was Bahá’í. Bahá’ís are the most persecuted religious minority in Iran.
“When I was in jail, from 30 women in our ward at least six were Bahá’í women but now there are even more Bahá’ís in jail,” Sotoudeh said.
Others held because of their opinions and beliefs include Mahvash Shahriari, Fariba Kamalabadi who are among seven leaders of the Bahá’í community that are each serving 20-year jail sentences.
Before international workers’ day on Friday, Iran also arrested at least five labour activists and leaders – including Ebrahim Maddadi and Davood Razavitwo, who are members of the union of workers at the Tehran and suburbs bus company.
In March, the UN special rapporteur of human rights, Ahmed Shaheed, said the situation in Iran was worsening under Rouhani, warning that Iranian authorities “continue to harass, arrest, prosecute and imprison many members of society who express criticism of the government or publicly deviate from officially sanctioned narratives”.
Rouhani and his administration are not seen as directly involved in the arrests and harassment of activists. They are mainly carried out by the country’s security apparatus and its judiciary, which operate independently of the president and his government. But critics said Zarif was misrepresenting the rights situation in Iran.
This week, Zarif was interviewed by David Ignatius of the Washington Post in front of an audience at the New York University. The Iranian foreign minister was again defiant on human rights.
One audience member held up a sign. “End sanctions against Iran,” it read in English. “Release [opposition leader] Mir Hossein Mousavi,” it read in Persian.