Iran’s rights record no better under Rouhani, US says

Syria, Egypt, Hamas, PA, Israel and Ukraine also among those criticized for human rights abuses in State Department report

John Kerry speaking to the press Thursday, February 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana)
John Kerry speaking to the press Thursday, February 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jose Luis Magana)

The US has “seen little meaningful improvement” in Iran on human rights issues since the June election of President Hassan Rouhani, a senior State Department official said Thursday, marking the release of a US report on rights violations around the world.

On top of Iran, the report also criticized Egypt, Hamas, Russia and Ukraine for abuses, among others, and pointed to a chemical weapons attack in Syria last summer that the US says killed more than 1,400 people as the world’s worst human rights violation of 2013.

Rouhani is widely seen as a more moderate leader in the Islamic republic’s cleric-run government, and has led a period of detente between Iran and the West since coming into office last summer.

However, Assistant Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, who oversaw the survey, said the report includes allegations of torture, political imprisonment and undue executions, among other violations by Tehran.

“There have been some steps since the release of some political prisoners last fall, but overall I would say the situation remains poor,” he said.

Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Iran, along with Russia, Nigeria, Uganda and as many as 80 nations worldwide where gay people face discriminatory laws and violence because of their sexual orientation.

Zeya said the report also included serious abuses by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian territories as well as “documentation of excessive force and restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of movement” by Israelis.

“The most significant human rights problems during the year were terrorist attacks against civilians; institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens, including the Bedouin, in particular in access to equal education and employment opportunities; societal discrimination against women; and the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants,” the report’s section on Israel reads.

On Syria, the department said the August 21 chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs in Syria was “one of many horrors in a civil war filled with countless crimes against humanity,” including the torture and murder of prisoners, and the targeting of civilians with barrel bombs and Scud missiles.

“The tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people stands apart in its scope and human cost,” according to the report.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war. The chemical weapons attack, which Washington blames on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, according to the U.S.

The US cites intelligence reports for those totals, but has not provided specifics on how they were obtained.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, has reported a far lower death toll of below 1,000.

In New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide Thursday by pointing to Syria as “a shameful indictment” of the international community’s failure to act.

The UN chief also noted “grave and blatant” human rights violations in the Central African Republic, civilians threatened in many regions, and worrying trends such as rising bias against migrants, Muslims, Roma and other minorities in Europe and elsewhere.

In Egypt, where the government was overthrown for the second time in three years, the State Department criticized security forces for failing to respect assembly and religious rights, and for using excessive force.

The report concluded that neither former President Mohammed Morsi nor the interim government of Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi had done a good job in upholding human rights.

Zeya cited “persistent concerns and deficits” about both.

“These concerns certainly continue,” he said.

The US report highlighted government crackdowns on peaceful protests in Ukraine and Russia’s refusal to punish human rights abusers during 2013.

The unrest in Ukraine over the past year erupted this month, forcing President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the capital, Kiev. On Thursday, Russian news agencies reported Yanukovych was staying at a Kremlin sanatorium, outside Moscow, for protection.

In Ukraine, according to the US report, parliamentary elections did not meet international standards for fairness or transparency, and security forces beat protesters with batons and other forms of force at a peaceful November 30 demonstration against the government at Kiev’s main square.

But the report said the most egregious abuse in Ukraine last year was the government’s crackdown on media, including violence against journalists. It criticized Yanukovych’s government for increasing pressure on civil society activists and nongovernment organizations.

The report said Ukrainian security forces beat detainees, maintained unhealthy prisons, fostered corruption in the courts and across the government, and harassed or otherwise discriminated against ethnic minorities and gay people.

Kerry described Ukraine as just one example of a nation where overbearing governments and corruption have met a sharp public backlash and demands for democracy. He said Venezuela, where anti-government protests this month have left 16 dead, is another.

“The struggle for rights and dignity couldn’t be more relevant to what we are seeing transpire across the globe,” Kerry told reporters. “The places where we face some of the greatest national security challenges today are also places where governments deny basic human rights to their nations’ people, and that is no coincidence.”

He added: “We have seen how national dialogue and democratic progress can make countries more stable and make them stronger partners for peace and prosperity.”

The survey also singled out North Korea, for rampant reports of extrajudicial killings, detentions, and torture; and Belarus, for beatings of protesters and lack of checks and balances by the authoritarian government.

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