Student flogging controversy: Ahmadinejad denies involvement

Peyman Aref, the Iranian student activist lashed 74 times
Peyman Aref, the Iranian student activist lashed 74 times

Source: , Date: 11 October 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s official website has strongly criticized the flogging of university student Payman Aref, calling claims that Mr. Aref was flogged for allegedly insulting the president “…an absolute and ill-intentioned lie.” The statement went on to say that

“…no complaint has been issued from the president and the administration [against Mr. Aref]. Additionally, the president in past years has clearly and frequently emphasized that he has been strongly opposed to harsh responses as in the present case and considers these methods inappropriate”.

This controversy began when Mr. Aref was given 74 lashes just prior to his release from prison, after serving a term of one year for his student political activism. Soon after his release, photos of Mr. Aref’s heavily bruised body surfaced on the Internet, followed by an interview with Jaras two days ago. In the interview Mr. Aref opined:

“Whenever Ahmadineajd goes to New York he says that we have the freest country in the world, yet here in my own country they lash me in the most savage way for the crime of insulting Ahmadinejad. I wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad and only reminded him of the disastrous state of our universities. My letter proves that I did not insult Ahmadinejad, I only said that I will never greet him.”

The interview brought a rapid reaction from the Iranian president, who during a meeting with provincial governors this morning, seemed appalled at the notion that Mr. Aref had been flogged for insulting him, noting that:

“When big-wigs freely insult the government [i.e. Ahmadinejad], I find it unacceptable that a youth should be lashed for insulting me.”

When reports in the Iranian media questioned whether the president had actually made this remark in his meeting with provincial governors, the administration felt compelled to release the second statement today quoted at the beginning of this report.

The entire controversy surrounding Mr. Aref’s flogging has interesting implications for human rights in Iranian politics. The Islamic Republic has historically had a horrendous human rights record. This record includes mass-executions during the revolution through to the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the serial murder of intellectuals by the intelligence ministry in the 1990s, and one of the highest rates of execution in the world today. Iran has also been censured in the past for its abuse of political prisoners, women, ethno-linguistic and religious minorities, workers, students, and others.

Like the recent financial fraud and corruption scandal, human rights abuses have become a hot-potato that no political institution or faction in Iran wants to handle. Instead, the issue of human rights may become a political tool used by Iranian politicians to undermine their opponents.

The regime’s increasing sensitivity towards accusations of human rights violations may also have been reflected in the recent case of Yusef Naderkhani, a Christian pastor possibly facing execution for apostasy. The case has been transferred to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a sign that Mr. Naderkhani may receive some kind of clemency.

The increasing visibility of human rights issues in Iranian politics can be attributed to the work of Iranian human rights activists, who have paid a heavy price. International pressure may also be crucial, such as actions taken yesterday by the European Union to punish human rights violators in the Iranian government. Still, it remains to be seen whether human rights considerations can go from a cynical political maneuver to a norm in Iranian politics.