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|At least 80 people have been executed in Iran so far this year, marking a rise in its use of capital punishment, the UN’s human rights office has said.
The majority of executions in Iran are by hanging and are handed down for drug-related offences, which fail to meet the threshold in international law for “most serious crimes”, a category which covers acts such as murder, the AFP news agency reported.
“We are deeply concerned about the reported spike in executions in Iran since the beginning of this year,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN high commissioner for human rights.
“In just over seven weeks, at least 80 people have been executed. Some reliable sources indicate the figure could be as high as 95,” she told reporters.
The case of two activists from Iran’s Arab minority was of particular concern, Shamdasani said.
Hadi Rashedi and Hashem Shabani Amouri were reportedly executed in secret in January following proceedings that did not meet international fair trial and due process standards, she said.
After reportedly being denied access to lawyers and family members, and tortured into confessing, they were sentenced to death on what Shamdasani said were the “ill-defined” charges of “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”, as well as acts against national security.
“An escalation in executions, including of political prisoners and individuals belonging to ethnic minority groups, was notable in the second half of 2013,” Shamdasani noted.
She said that at least 500 people are known to have been executed in 2013, including 57 in public, but that the number may be as high as 625.
The toll in 2012 was 314, according to Amnesty International.
The increased deployment of capital punishment dashed hopes after the “encouraging signs” last year when President Hassan Rouhani’s release of a string of political prisoners.
Rouhani, a moderate, defeated a pool of conservatives in last June’s presidential election.
“We regret that the new government has not changed its approach to the death penalty and continues to impose capital punishment for a wide range of offences,” said Shamdasani.
“We urge the government to immediately halt executions and to institute a moratorium.”
AP Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi
AP Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi
The wreckage of a boat stuck in solidified salts and sands at Lake Oroumieh in Iran.
Experts fear the lake — famous in years past as a tourist spot and a favorite stopping point for migrating flamingos, pelicans and gulls — could disappear within two years if nothing is done.
“The lake is gone. My job is gone. My children are gone. Tourists, too,” said Mozafar Cheraghi, 58, as he stood on a dusty platform that was once his bustling teahouse.
Less than a decade ago, he recalled, he hosted dozens of tourists a day, with his two sons taking them on boat tours. His children have since left to pursue work elsewhere.
“I sold a dozen boats and kept half a dozen here, hoping the water will return,” he said. “But it didn’t happen.”
Rescuing the lake in northwestern Iran, near the Turkish border, was one of Rouhani’s campaign promises, and his new cabinet promptly decided to form a team to invite scholars to help find solutions.
The president is putting an emphasis on tackling long-neglected environmental problems critics say were made worse by his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An engineer with an appetite for giant populist projects, Ahmadinejad pursued policies that led to the expansion of irrigation projects and construction of dams.
“Rouhani stands by his campaign promise to revive the lake,” Isa Kalantari, a popular scholar appointed by Rouhani to lead the rescue team, said at an international conference in Oroumieh this week.
AP Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi
Two men walk toward salt-covered rocks that were once deep underwater at Lake Oroumieh in Iran.
The gathering brought experts from Iran and around the world to discuss the best options for reversing the trend and saving Iran from a major environmental and economic disaster.
“Don’t blame nature and drought. Human beings, not climate change, are responsible for this situation. We dried up the lake because of our excessive demands and wrong methods. Now, we have to revive it ourselves. Five million people have to leave this region if the lake dies,” Kalantari said.
Kalantari and his team are to come up with a final rescue plan by May.
Twenty proposals are on the table for saving the lake, including cloud-seeding to increase rainfall in the area and the building of pipelines to bring in more water. Experts have also proposed the creation of other industries to reduce reliance on agricultural water.
The government has already begun a project to raise public awareness and encourage farmers to abandon wasteful practices and adopt drip irrigation systems that save water. It is also urging farmers to switch to less-thirsty crops. Wheat and pistachios, for example, use less water than sugar beets.
In the village of Govarchinghaleh, near the lake, Nader Hazrati and his son, Ali, grow grapes and almonds.
“A decade ago, this was a green area. Now it is not because of decrease in rainfall. With the level of water in the lake going down, water in wells has gone down too. If we dig deeper, the water gets very salty and isn’t fit even for agricultural use. Our grape and almond harvest has fallen dramatically,” Ali said.
Ali, 27, said salty winds have killed some of his almond trees.
The effect on crops has prompted many villagers to leave the place of their birth. Govarchinghaleh had about 1,000 people a decade ago. Now, only 300 live in the village overlooking the shrinking lake. Once there were three schools; now there is one, serving a dozen students.
Not far away, trucks hauling salt, a new business, could be seen driving over the dry lake bottom.
Ali Asghar Siab Qudsi, a university teacher and one of the organizers of the conference, said dams and the digging of more than 24,000 unauthorized wells — in addition to some 30,000 legal ones — are among the reasons for the shrinking of the lake. He said increasing evaporation and cultivation of thirsty crops such as sugar beets have worsened the crisis.
Lakes in other parts of Iran are facing a similar crisis, though not as severe as at Oroumieh. Even residents of Tehran experience water shortages on weekends, and authorities are making plans for possible rationing in the capital.
Authorities have warned of a national disaster in the coming decade if water is not managed properly.
“My No. 1 demand is to see our dying lake back to life. Will that happen in my lifetime?” Cheraghi asked.
Christian Science Monitor
Rouhani’s campaign of hope and change collides with Iran’s reality
Six months into his presidency, Hassan Rouhani is struggling to placate supporters who are disappointed with the slow pace of reforms.
By Scott Peterson, Staff writer / February 16, 2014
President Hassan Rouhani swept to election victory last year on the slogan “prudence and hope” and a wave of high expectations for cultural and political change in Iran.
But after six months in office, the centrist cleric is caught between reformists frustrated at the slow pace of change and hard-line conservatives who warn that Mr. Rouhani’s agenda risks reigniting “sedition.” The scale of criticism from opposing camps has been so great that it prompted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to urge patience and support.
“No more than a few months have passed since the government took office,” Mr. Khamenei said in a Feb. 8 speech to Air Force commanders. “Authorities should be given the opportunity to push forward strongly. Critics should show tolerance toward the government.”
Much of Rouhani’s success may ultimately depend on managing the expectations of impatient supporters – expectations he helped to create with his campaign promises, which are now coming up against the reality of conservative pushback and the messy legacy of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“When Rouhani came to office, he did not understand at that time the problem in front of him,” says Sadegh Kharazi, a former ambassador who now directs the IRDiplomacy website and has family ties to Khamenei. “He wanted to reconstruct the Iranian economic system, industrial system, cultural system, educational system, service system, political system – everything. Eight years [under Ahmadinejad] was catastrophe.”
Amir Mohebian, a conservative analyst, adviser and editor with close ties to Iran’s leadership circles, explains, “You should say, ‘We can solve some problems,’ not that you can solve all problems.”Facing reality
Rouhani has already brought about some change: a more stable economy, bolder newspapers, and more freedom in musical entertainment, to name a few. A dozen prominent opposition activists were released before Rouhani traveled to the United Nations General Assembly last September, and the draft of an enlightened “Citizenship Rights Charter” – its creation a campaign promise – was posted last November. Despite some growing qualms, optimism prevails among his supporters.
But Facebook and Twitter remain officially blocked – although officials from Khamenei on down all have accounts – along with a host of web pages. The two former presidential candidates who led protests in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.
And this week Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran No. 173 out of 180 in press freedom, behind Sudan, saying that the 50 journalists and netizens detained at the end of 2013 made Iran “one of the world’s biggest prisons for media personnel” – a characterization that Iranian officials reject.
“Now Rouhani is beginning to feel the enormity of this task,” says a journalist who works for one of Tehran’s largest newspapers, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. In two years, the real value of his monthly salary dropped from $1,500 to $600, he says.
He notes how Rouhani last week called critics of his nuclear negotiations “illiterates,” raising anger in some quarters. And how a recent government handout of food parcels to families devolved into scenes of people waiting in long lines and rushing forward with hands out, prompting sneers that Iranians had been turned into a “nation of beggars.”
“He used to be a bystander, now he is exercising power and shouldering its responsibility,” the journalist says.
Fixing mismanagement and the economy are top priorities. The latter can’t happen unless sanctions are eased via a nuclear deal. But those who were dancing in the streets expecting a 180-degree turn misplaced their hope, says Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative politician who has known Rouhani for 42 years and first introduced him to Khamenei.
“[Rouhani] is not the person they think he is,” says Mr. Taraghi of those who celebrated Rouhani’s triumph. “He has a firm belief in the pillars of the revolution, which are the supreme leader and the Islamic system, although his word choices are quite different from [former President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and his friendship with reformists is much more.”
“But he’s not the kind of person to let them make decisions for him,” although reformists used him to “come back into the political system after eight years on its margins under Ahmadinejad,” he says.
The long game
With Rouhani’s emphasis on foreign policy and the economy – he has brought down interest rates a few points, and stabilized Iran’s once-plummeting rial against the dollar – other aspects of his domestic agenda, such as increased personal freedom, remain largely untested.
“There is pressure from below, expectations of something,” says a veteran analyst who asked not to be named. “I don’t think he hasn’t done anything. This is a huge country with huge problems and on top of that you add people’s expectations.”
“The direction is good, though pessimism I can see is also growing,” he warns.
The pressures are evident at the Fajr visual arts competition in downtown Tehran, where exhibit halls are packed with an eclectic array of paintings, ceramics, photography and calligraphy – and where the sense of limited progress is tinged with uncertainty.
More artists and judges took part this year in the annual government-sponsored event, reversing their partial boycott in response to the disputed 2009 election and violent protests that followed.
“Artists are slowly returning” to a more public role in the post-Ahmadinejed era, says Mostafa Fotoohi, an art teacher from Shiraz who brought a class of students to the exhibit. “They lost their confidence and they are beginning to find it again,” he says.
Despite the vocal critics, Rouhani has many supporters who realize that his presidency has barely begun, and who are more understanding of the slow pace of change.
“You must let Rouhani do something more – it’s too soon to judge…because the filters in Iran have been in place too long,” says graphic designer Alireza Omrani, standing in front of a wall of paintings. “But he has changed the method…there is a hope.”
Just an hour earlier, on a cold winter day here in western Iran, the official, Hamid Ranaghadr, had recalled how as recently as a decade ago, cruise ships filled with tourists plied the lake’s waters in search of flocks of migrating flamingos.
Now, the ships are rusting in the mud and the flamingos fly over the remains of the lake on their way to more hospitable locales. According to figures compiled by the local environmental office, only 5 percent of the water remains.
Iran is facing a water shortage potentially so serious that officials are making contingency plans for rationing in the greater Tehran area, home to 22 million, and other major cities around the country. President Hassan Rouhani has identified water as a national security issue, and in public speeches in areas struck hardest by the shortage he is promising to “bring the water back.”
Experts cite climate change, wasteful irrigation practices and the depletion of groundwater supplies as leading factors in the growing water shortage. In the case of Lake Urmia, they add the completion of a series of dams that choked off a major supply of fresh water flowing from the mountains that tower on either side of the lake.
“Only some years ago the water here was 30 feet deep,” Mr. Ranaghadr said, kicking up dust with each step on the dry lake bed. In the distance, spots of land — once islands where tourists would spend vacations in bungalows overlooking the blue waters — were surrounded by plains of brown mud and sand. “We just emptied it out,” he said with a sigh, stepping back into the car.
Iran’s water troubles extend far beyond Lake Urmia, which as a salt lake was never fit for drinking or agricultural use. Other lakes and major rivers have also been drying up, leading to disputes over water rights, demonstrations and even riots.
Major rivers near Isfahan, in central Iran, and Ahvaz, near the Persian Gulf, have gone dry, as has Hamoun Lake, in the Afghanistan border region. Dust from the dry riverbeds has added to already dangerously high air pollution levels in Iran, home to four of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, the United Nations says.
But nowhere is the crisis more pronounced than at Lake Urmia, once one of the largest salt lakes in the world — at 90 miles long and roughly 35 miles wide, it was slightly larger than Great Salt Lake in Utah. Environmentalists are warning that the dried salt could poison valuable agricultural lands surrounding the lake, and make life miserable for the three million people who live in its vicinity.
Along what used to be a lakeshore boulevard, worn-down snack bars and dressing rooms are testament to the days when people from across Iran would come to water-ski on the lake or cover themselves in its black mud, which is said to have healing powers.
About two decades ago, a local villager, Mokhtar Cheraghi, began to notice the water line receding. “First a hundred meters, then two hundred meters. After a while, we couldn’t see the shoreline anymore,” he said, standing in what was once his thriving cafe, Cheraghi’s Beach. “We kept waiting for the water to return, but it never did.”
Most people in the area blame the half-dozen major dams the government has built in the region for the lake’s disappearance. The dams have greatly reduced the flow of water in the 11 rivers that feed into the lake. As an arid country with numerous lofty mountain chains, Iran has a predilection for dams that extends to the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
Half an hour’s drive into the mountains above the city of Urmia stands the mighty Chahchai Dam, collecting water that would otherwise have reached the lake. The dam, finished during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s first term, now holds a huge lake itself, which local farmers use for irrigating their lands.
“Some of Urmia’s water is here,” said Mr. Ranaghadr, raising his voice over the howling winds that blow down from the surrounding snowcapped peaks. “The people here need water, too, is what they say.”
Besides producing badly needed electricity, the dams are intended to address the water shortage. But too often, the water is wasted through inefficient irrigation techniques, particularly spraying, Mr. Ranaghadr and other experts say.
In recent decades, the amount of land dedicated to agriculture in the region, the country’s heartland, has tripled, with many farmers growing particularly thirsty crops like grapes and sugar beets, Mr. Ranaghadr pointed out. His department has calculated that about 90 percent of all the water that should end up in the lake is sprayed on fields.
In a 2005 book that he wrote on national security challenges for Iran, Mr. Rouhani estimated that 92 percent of Iran’s water is used for agriculture, compared with 80 percent in the United States (90 percent in some Western states).
“They turn open the tap, flood the land, without understanding that in our climate most of the water evaporates that way,” said Ali Reza Seyed Ghoreishi, a member of the local water management council. “We need to educate the farmers.”
The lake has also been attacked from underground. As part of the government’s drive to promote local agriculture, large landholdings were divided into smaller plots, and most of the new owners promptly dug new wells, soaking up much of the groundwater.
“There are around 30,000 legally dug wells and an equal amount of illegal wells,” Mr. Seyed Ghoreishi said. “As the water is becoming less, they have to dig deeper and deeper.”
Climate change, particularly rising temperatures, has played a role. Average temperatures around Lake Urmia have risen by a little over 3 degrees in the past decade, official statistics show.
A long drought in the region seems to have ended two years ago, with rainfall levels returning to normal. But the increased rainfall has not made up for the other factors that are draining the lake.
“We are all to blame,” Mr. Ranaghadr said. “There are just too many people nowadays, and everybody needs to use the water and the electricity the dams generate.”
Back in his office, the Department of Environment, officials sounded like soldiers on a doomed mission. They had drawn up no fewer than 19 plans to save the lake, ranging from the sensible (educating farmers in new irrigation technologies) to the fanciful (seeding clouds to increase rainfall).
“We can start now,” said Abbas Hassanpour, the head of the office. Flanked by his assistants, including Mr. Ranaghadr, he said his department had created “task forces and models ready to implement.”
While Iran is shooting monkeys into space to advance its missile program, the Rouhani government, low on funds because of the impact of the international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, has not made any money available for efforts to restore the lake.
Even if it were, officials say, it is probably too late to save Lake Urmia. All the money in the world can be poured into the lake, one of the officials said, but in the most optimistic projections, it would take decades, if ever, for the water to reach its old levels. There are simply too many problems, too many competing interests, for the rescue to be feasible.
Not doing anything, or not enough, will still create many problems. In 2010 and 2011, violent protests over the lake erupted in Urmia, and security forces had to be flown in to restore order.
“We are not allowed to speak of the lake,” said Morteza Mirzaei, who lives in Urmia. “But they built their dams, and now everything is gone.” Others said ordinary people were also to blame, but “the government is the steward of the country,” said Mushin Rad, who sells printer equipment. “They are responsible.”
Mr. Ranaghadr, who grew up around the lake, said he spends free time battling poachers in the hills around it. “You know what the real problem is?” he said. “Everybody across the world is only thinking of money. We did, too, and now our lake is gone.”