Iran’s empty promise to free political prisoners

In September, as newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was on his way to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Iran said it would pardon and release 80 political prisoners.

The announcement appeared aimed at softening Iran’s image as Rouhani sought to repair his country’s relationship with the West — and, more importantly for Iran, strike a deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program that would end Western sanctions against it.

Two months on the promise is unfulfilled. Gissou Nia, executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, told Maclean’s only 44 prisoners have so far been released. Among them is Canadian Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, who spent five years on death row on charges of espionage and cooperating with a banned opposition group and is now back home in Toronto.

Nia says many of the released prisoners had already served their sentences. Others, she says, might not qualify as political prisoners.

Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who won the 2003 Nobel peace prize and now lives outside Iran, also accused Tehran of lying about the release of prisoners. She told Associated Press that despite Rouhani’s reputation as a moderate, “we get bad signals” from his government on human rights, noting the increased rate of executions during his presidency.

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