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Strangulation of Iran's civil society

December 14th, 2012
10:05 AM ET

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.

READ MORE: Number of jailed journalists worldwide reaches record high

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.

SPECIAL PRESENTATION – A Nuclear Iran: The Expert Intel

CNN’s Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.

Filed under:  Iran • Latest Episode
soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Peter

    Lets cut the lies.
    The Western world does not want to "help" the iranian people.
    The iranian nuclear program is just an excuse for the West to impose sanctions on Iran.
    The west cannot – and will not- tolerate a strong country beside Isreal in the middle east.( Any person who has basic political awareness knows how strong the Isreal Lobby is in the US)
    How come we never hear in the US mainstream media why Isreal never allows inspections of its nuclear program ?
    Isn`t this a hypocrisy?
    The current iranian regime is a dictatorship, but prior to the iranian revolution in 1979 , Iran was ruled under the "Shah".
    A dictator that turned Iran into a client state, but because Shah was an "american puppet" it was ok for Iran to have a nuclear program under his reign.
    I really hope this will clarify that the west does not want to "help" the iranian people.
    Please feel free to comment......

    December 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • Al

      Youre way off the mark. The shah had many issues, but he loved Iran more than anything. Has the idiot carter left us alone you would not have the mess you see today

      December 14, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
      • shadi

        I blame both America and Iran, for not working out the differences. You can't stay enemies forever. It doesnt make sense to me. It seems like America has always been hostile to iran.

        December 15, 2012 at 6:16 am |
      • Peter

        The Shah was correct in wanting to generate power from nuclear reactors and despite his plans having been constantly trashed and ridiculed in early years of the "revulsion" after '79 these mullahs followed exactly same plans years afterward. However under the Shah Iran had a responsible government in place and its policies helped the regional security and as such complied to all necessary NPT treaty safeguards. This regime does not and ever since its inception has only been a source of internal suppression and destabilization in the region.

        December 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
      • Peter

        I would welcome if you would be more precise.
        One question. Do you think giving Capitulation to a foreign military is an act of" patriotism"?

        December 15, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
      • Rachael

        I agree with you. The Shah had a lot of difficulties but he did love Iran and all the Iranian people. The fascism against Iranians is well known and began before this crazy regime and this crazy regime is giving everyone an excuse to be fascist against Iranians all over the world. Iranians are the most remarkable people.

        December 23, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Angela Birch

      Now what do you think the West can or should do to help the IRanian people. Be specific.

      December 14, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
      • don

        Given the past, I would think that the best that thae West could do for Iran is to leave it alone.

        December 16, 2012 at 5:35 am |
    • littlelizard

      Peter, Isreal didn't sign the NPT so therefore is under no obligation to let anyone inspect thier nuke sites. Same with Pak, India, North Korea.

      December 14, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Reply
      • Smith

        North Korea had signed NPT. But then they realized it was a mistake to sign a treaty that does not give you anything but becomes a security risk and a pressure point for foreign influence. So they pulled out of it and joined the rank of India, Pakistan and Israel. Iran also under article 10 of NPT reserves the right to leave this shameful treaty whenever it likes. I think the time has come for Iran to exercise its this right under NPT and pulls out of it for good instead of being pressurized and sanctioned and ridiculed for being part of it.

        December 15, 2012 at 1:46 am |
      • Peter

        Littlelizard, you`re right that Isreal did not sign the NPT. But there is still no definite that Irans nuclear program is military in nature( please refer to IAEA report)
        I just want to draw your attention to the recent Conference ( middle east without nuclear weapons) that was supposed to be held in Helsinki, Finland. Do you know which country in the middle east opposed it?

        December 15, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • Martin

      Peter, the money would be better spent on your English education.

      December 15, 2012 at 1:21 am | Reply
      • Peter

        Martin, Thank you for being SO smart and using the Ad hominem arguments.
        you really proved your " extensive knowledge" by this.

        December 15, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • daz

      These points all are correct,further more the pther subservient countries to usa are also to belame as they just suck up to what usa does and no one dares to oppose it. usa imposes banking laws and fines the other countries banks and instead of pulling out of usa or bycotting usa they all meekly pay the fine and and accept usa's unilatural orders! Nukclear issue is an excuse as the it is said above , however this does not excuse the nasty government in Iran. Now even very petriotic Iraninans who feel usa is a nsaty imperialist adminstration in dealing unfairly with Iran's nuke issue, would not mind any one !! to just help to remove this islamic menice from Iran once and for all! (Ecxuse spelling!)

      December 15, 2012 at 3:08 am | Reply
    • Reza

      Petr you are spot on.

      December 15, 2012 at 4:08 am | Reply
    • shadi

      right on. No more bullying from America. we need to figure out our issues, but sanctions are bullying Iranians.

      December 15, 2012 at 6:04 am | Reply
    • Amas Amir

      I agree, when will we here about the strangulation of the American civil society

      December 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
    • Rachael


      I also agree with you. The west does not want to 'help' the Iranian people. And also any good that this current regime has been involved with for the Iranians in Iran IS of the Shah and the Shah's administrations initiation and they just carried through with it-which includes educational goals for Iranians. The most important part of the goals of the prior administration of the Shah were not carried out because the revolutionists took over. They were planning an economic transition-the oil proceeds would have been divided amongst all citizens of Iran-like Kuwait, Iranians would get an 'allowance' of oil proceeds. What a mess this regime has made of everything.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
  2. Mohammad

    "Human rights lawyers are fleeing or in prison, including many of the colleagues of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is also in prison."

    The credibility of this report is undermined when it claims Shirin Ebadi is in prison. (as far as I know, she's never been jailed)

    December 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
    • shadi

      It's CNN, what do you expect from CNN?

      December 15, 2012 at 6:21 am | Reply
      • don

        If CNN is so bad why do you waste your time reading these comments let alone participating in the preocess that CNN offers?

        December 16, 2012 at 5:37 am |
      • ibra

        what USA is trying to preach the world is hypocritical the article talks about detention without trial how many detainees in America alone are dying of torture everyday? how many forced confessions do happen in America every second ? how many forced deportations do happen in America every day? who is the only country above international law that can kill civilians anywhere on earth using deadly drones? hey come to your senses your forgetting your very disease and start complaining about another one outside your territory first realize yours then talk about others it is like your preaching water and yet your drinking alcohol

        December 16, 2012 at 6:28 am |
  3. ali

    Could not agree more. Furthermore, the whole policy of US in middle east is not only counter productive for their societies, but also is totally against US own interest in long term. I just can't figure what kind of idiocy is governing us here in US. It defy any logic or reason. Our government is corrupt from base to the top.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  4. Peter

    Mohammad, the article says "colleagues" of Shirin Ebadi .

    December 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • Smith

      No. This is a copy and past quote from the article: "Human rights lawyers are fleeing or in prison, including many of the colleagues of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is also in prison."

      It clearly says that Ebadi is in prison. While she might be but not Iran. She is most probably in prison in one of the dungeons of its fellow Nobel Laureate EU. Iran is not at fault here.

      December 15, 2012 at 1:50 am | Reply
    • shadi

      it says she is in prison! Another lie by CNN about Iran.

      December 15, 2012 at 6:03 am | Reply
  5. thomas

    what about 10 millions of people dead in DRC (CONGO) ! Please we need peace not wars again ...

    December 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  6. Joe Unger

    I read this and then I read about about the latest mass shootings in the US. And we want other countries to be more like us???

    December 14, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • Smith


      December 15, 2012 at 1:51 am | Reply
      • Mauricio

        LIke there is no mass shootings in Middle East...

        December 16, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  7. Mehran

    Assuming that Peter and Ali are both from US It is encouraging to know that the you are aware of the situation, we in India are given to think that whatever the US government says the public falls for it. What confuses me about this article is that how come so many journalists are jailed in Turkey, thought Turkey was the most liberal Islamic Country.

    December 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
    • Smith

      Actually Turkey has the highest number of journalists jailed and imprisoned in the world. You will never hear about this since Turkey is an ally of United States. The most number of journalists killed in the world belongs to Pakistan, the war on terror ally of United States. Again you will not hear anything about it in US major media. No body in major US media would advocate for these countries to be sanctioned or attacked. Because they are US puppets.

      December 15, 2012 at 1:42 am | Reply
    • shadi

      Turkey has the highest journalist in Jail, we never hear about it. because turkey has good relationship with the West....

      to be honest, it's really not about democracy or exposing human right abuses.CNN and the media just put out negative stories about iran almost daily and block out negative stories about Turkey, because they are preparing the American public for a war with Iran!

      December 15, 2012 at 6:19 am | Reply
  8. jimmy lim

    We know that the Shah was a dictator propped up by US. But the present regime led ahmadinajah is no different or worse. Egypt is metamorping to be like Iran. If democracy is to come to Iran, iranians must be brave enough just like arab springs to pay the price for change. All the arab spring countries are just going the early painful stages of democracy revolution and hopefully its not so painful like in syria

    December 14, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
    • shadi

      Turkey? just ask the Kurds and Journalist in that country they will tell you about democracy.

      December 15, 2012 at 6:09 am | Reply
    • shadi

      we Iranian don't look at the "Arab Spring" as an inspiration . Egypt just replaced one dictator for another. Syria is gonna turn into a facist Islamic State. Bahrain was crushed by Saudia Arabia and America. Libya is a mess with Militia attacking people all over. We dont want this for Iran AT ALL.

      December 15, 2012 at 6:13 am | Reply
  9. Peter

    Jimmy, what do you mean with paying thr price? People going to street and get killed?
    On what bases do you think that the arab nations upheaval ( which is positive I think) is going to end in a democracy?

    December 15, 2012 at 12:26 am | Reply
  10. Peter

    One more thing Jimmy, the green movement in Iran was prior to the arab spring.

    December 15, 2012 at 12:30 am | Reply
  11. Smith

    Quote from the article:

    "Human rights lawyers are fleeing or in prison, including many of the colleagues of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is also in prison." End of quoted.

    It is amazing to see how propaganda is manufactured. Ms Ebadi winner of a fake Noble Prize just like that of Obama and EU, is living in EU. If she has been put in prison in EU (its fellow Noble Laureate) as per this CNN report, how and why should Iran be responsible for it?

    At the end of the day, an Iran war is being prepared under these manufactured pretexts. The lies can not be hidden anymore. The war mongers are working 24/7 even in this holiday season. They just do not let it go until they get their wars. It is amazing how persistent they are.

    CNN lied to the world that Iraq had WMD's and had hands in 9/11. No one has forgotten that yet. This "civil society" thing is so shameless. So now we have to bomb another country to protect its "civil society". Is that what this article is preparing the public for? If Amanpour and Samuel Burke are so worried about this wonderful "civil society" then they should promptly arrange visas for them to come to EU and US. And stop talking about the sanctions. Iran is now under the most severe sanctions in history, and as per Federation of American Scientist, these sanctions are even tougher than those on North Korea and Saddam's Iraq. There is nothing left to sanction Iran anymore. And I am sure the manufacturer of this report know how the sanctions actually affect the civil society. It destroys it. So much so for intellectual honesty. Liars.

    December 15, 2012 at 1:37 am | Reply
  12. jimmy lim

    Muslim nation closest to democrary is perhaps Turkey. Why cant muslims emulate Turkey for a start? Muslims must learn to accept majority decision. However election must be open, fair n transparent. Irrespective of who the winner is, human rights must be preserved. otherwise, dont blame the world for sanctions and being obstracised from the international community. If that is the decision most iranians have taken via an open n fair, so be it. Iranians wll just have to live with the sanctions if it chooses to live outside the international community. Play by the rules of the game,if not just play the game on your own. The choice is theirs which is what their leaders have chosen

    December 15, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
    • shadi

      Turkey? just ask the Kurds and Journalist in that country they will tell you about democracy.

      December 15, 2012 at 6:10 am | Reply
  13. Don Canard

    your definition of civil society is rather odd and faintly patrician. since it has an implication that if society as a whole doesn't have "intellectuals and professionals" to "lead" it then it won't be 'civil' and also won't have power against illegitimate government. There have been enough popular revolutions, particularly the ones in the Arab world in the last two years, so that we should reaquaint ourselves with the disparaged notions of workers and peasants revolts and the reasons therefore.

    December 15, 2012 at 3:49 am | Reply
  14. jimmy lim

    Time will tell n we shall see whether Iran will become democratic with a civil society or a failed state under a hijadist dictator who is determined and vouched to destroy civilised world of infidels or anything remotely civiled like human rights

    December 15, 2012 at 4:03 am | Reply
  15. Valeno

    There must be more negative words left out of the description of the situation in Iran I guess, Search for those words to make the report more appealing to your readers.

    December 15, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply
  16. william

    Peter, you are absolutly right: the problem comes from the US Congress and US senate whose menbers are under control by sionists led AIPAC and are completly corrupted.The american foreign policy is hijacked by these traitors..
    When a real new investigation of 911, requested by 1750+ US architechs, will start, the AIPAC will be questionned by the FBI.. sources : ae911truth org .

    December 15, 2012 at 8:27 am | Reply
  17. Peter

    Jimmy, Play by the "rules". Really? What rules are you referring to?International law?
    Ok, let talk about it. Does international law allow one country to attack other countries without a UN security council resolution? Does international Law allow a country to tackle a democratic elected prime minister of another country?
    Does international Law allow a country to say they do not recognize the international criminal court?
    Please feel free to reply

    December 15, 2012 at 9:23 am | Reply
  18. empresstrudy

    Good let it all implode. What's Amanpour going to do? Blame the Jews? Been there done that. We may as well see some benefit to her antisemitism.

    December 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  19. jimmy lim

    Like i say before. now is the beginning of the strangulation of the civil society in Egypt. They voted for it and now they just have to live with it – poverty and civil strife

    December 16, 2012 at 4:18 am | Reply
  20. pras

    Simple question : If Allah is so great, Muslims are so powerful, why do they expect USA to support them ?So what if sanctions are applied ?
    They are so powerful oil rich, support of strong Jihadis from all over the world,
    Come on Iran !Get out of that Muslim mentality
    If Muslims are Majority they want Islamic rule
    If they are in Minority , they want democracy !!!!

    December 16, 2012 at 7:48 am | Reply
    • Tahir

      Have you ever talked with Iranians asking for US support. Most of these Iranians don't believe in Allah. Educate yourself and then write things here.

      December 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  21. Tahir

    These people are also leaving Pakistan due to its Government's support on war on terror. Should Pakistan Govt also not support US against war on terror?The whole system of Pakistan is just working to support US on war on terror and doing nothing else.

    December 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  22. PhooBar

    Sanctions are a refusal to do business. Banking, trading, buying and selling are business.
    Sanctions are also voluntary, any nation is free to do business with Iran, if they choose.
    Russia, China, Syria and North Korea choose to do so.

    Ahmadinejad calls for the death and destruction of America and Israel, but still expects that we will do business with him. After 9-11, we have learned that when a madman makes threats, do not ignore him. Should we support a head of state that calls for our destruction?

    The Iranian government uses it's oil wealth to support causes that are against American interests, and peace in the M.E. Iran bankrolls several terrorist organizations and hostile regimes, provides them with training and materiel, and we are supposed to believe their international intentions are peaceful?

    Now Ahmadinejad wants nuclear weapons, while still chanting 'Death to America, Death to Israel!'.
    And the Iranian people wonder why we won't support, or do business with them.
    What kind of delusional thinking is this?

    December 18, 2012 at 3:45 am | Reply
  23. saitir

    با درود;
    من معلم در ایرانم و انگلیسی کم بلدم، اما سی ان ان را مطالعه میکنم. ازاینکه این همه دانشمند و روزنامه نگار و افراد موفق ایران من جمله کریستین عزیز در جهان وجود دارد خوشحالم. اما قلبم درد میگیرد که مردم ایران از وجود آنها کم بهره و یا بی بهره ان.

    December 31, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Reply
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