By Samuel Burke, CNN
Unlike many of its neighbors, Iran has enjoyed a strong civil society – the intellectuals and professionals who influence the national trajectory outside the spheres of government and business. This was especially true during the 1990s and early 2000s, during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami.
According to Human Rights Watch, that distinction is slipping.
A conservative backlash to Khatami, the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the crackdown following the 2009 disputed elections have slowly strangulated the careers and lives of Iranian activists, human rights lawyers, bloggers and journalists.
Simply put, professionals are fleeing, fearing arbitrary arrests, detention and even death.
Since 2009, the number of civil society activists who have applied for asylum has steadily increased. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Iranians filed more than 11,000 new asylum applications in 2009, 15,000 in 2010 and 18,000 in 2011.
Many activists have sought temporary refuge and an uncertain future in neighboring Turkey and Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch.
Faraz Sanei monitors the situation in Iran for the group, and told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Iranian government used the 2009 elections as a pretext to go after any sort of dissent or and opposition in the country.
“That meant going after independent NGOs, independent journalists who were critical of the government and human rights activists,” he said. “Many of them were imprisoned - arbitrary arrests and detentions. Many of them were detained in secret detention facilities, tortured often and put in solitary confinement. They did not have access to lawyers.”
Many of these civil society professionals were given unfair trials in revolutionary courts, Sanei said, and sentenced to anywhere from five to 20 years in prison. Often, he said, their imprisonment was punishment essentially for doing their job: speaking out against the government and its actions.
There are currently 45 journalists in Iranian prisons according to the Committee to Protest Journalist – the second most of any country in the world, behind only Turkey.
Years of crackdowns are causing a brain drain, though it is not enough to be called a mass exodus, and nowhere near the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s civil war,
Human rights lawyers are fleeing or in prison, including many of the colleagues of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is also in prison.
Sanctions are seen by many in the West as a tool to help force change from the government, but many ordinary Iranians complain that the global sanctions against the country are hurting the very people that presumably the world wants to help.
Groups like Human Rights Watch are pushing for targeted human rights sanctions, against high-ranking individuals as well as security and intelligence forces, who they say are implicated in serious human rights violations.
They hope these measures might reverse the shrinking space in Iran’s civil society.
CNN’s Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.