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Iran: Political Offenses Defined

(Feb. 9, 2016) On January 24, 2016, Iran’s Parliament, the Majles, passed a draft law that for the first time defines what constitutes a “political offense” in Iran. (Jacqueline Jones, Iran Parliament Defines ‘Political Offenses,’ PAPER CHASE (Jan. 24, 2016).) The legislation was adopted by a vote of 112-13, with seven abstentions.  (Iranian Deputies Approve Bill Defining ‘Political Crimes,’ Tehran Fars News Agency (Jan. 24, 2016), Open Source Center online subscription database, Doc. No. IML2016012432590636.)

The legislation defines as a “political crime” an act “committed against the administration, political bodies and domestic and foreign policies and with the aim of reforming the country’s affairs.” (Iranian Deputies Approve Bill Defining ‘Political Crimes,’ supra.)  These political crimes include:

  • “[i]nsulting the heads of three branches of government, the Expediency Council chairman, the president and his deputies, members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly [Majles], members of the Assembly of Experts and Guardian Council …”;
  • insulting “the heads of foreign countries or their representatives in Iran”;
  • violating election laws, but violations “committed by executive and supervision committee members” are excluded; and
  • spreading lies. (Iranian Deputies Approve Bill Defining ‘Political Crimes,’ supra; New Bill Criminalises Insulting Assembly of Experts Members, MPs, Ministers, Ambassadors …, DIGEST OF IRAN NEWS (Jan. 25, 2016), Open Source Center online subscription database, Doc. No. FPI20160131091704 [click on hyperlink to Open Source New Zealand document].)

The Expediency Council is an advisory body for the Supreme Leader (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), who appoints its members, and it has the ultimate power in adjudicating disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council over legislation. (Expediency Council, BBC NEWS (last visited Feb. 5, 2016).) The Assembly of Experts is responsible for appointing the Supreme Leader, for monitoring his performance, and for removing him from office if he is considered to be unable to fulfill his duties.  (Assembly of Experts, BBC NEWS (last visited Feb. 5, 2016).) The Guardian Council, described as “the most influential body in Iran,” comprises “six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament.” (Guardian Council, BBC NEWS (last visited Feb. 4, 2016).) The Council members serve for six years on a phased basis, so that there is a change in half the membership every three years. (Id.)

The offenses listed above are reportedly considered to be political crimes if they are committed “with the intent to damage” the establishment, but the legislation passed by the Majlis, Shargh newspaper noted, did not clarify the criterion for “intent.”  (Bill Criminalises Insulting Assembly of Experts Members, MPs, Ministers, Ambassadors …, supra.) Ettela’at newspaper was quoted as reporting that as a result of the new legislation, security offenses are now separated from political ones and cyber offenses, such as posting criticism to cyberspace or social media, are not considered to be political offenses.  (Id.)

Under the new legislation, the following crimes are listed explicitly as non-political ones:

  • assassination attempts on local and foreign officials;
  • kidnapping, taking hostages, and illegally depriving individuals of their freedom; bombing and threatening to do so;
  • aircraft hijacking, and piracy;
  • espionage and revealing secrets;
  • provoking people to secession, war, killing, and clashes;
  • causing disturbance in data or computer and telecommunication systems used for providing necessary public or government services;
  • murder, theft, and looting;
  • illegal possession of and selling or buying of weapons and narcotics; and
  • taking or giving bribes and [transferring] or receiving bribe[s]. (Iranian Deputies Approve Bill Defining ‘Political Crimes,’ supra.)

Assessments of the Legislation

According to one commentator, “this bill will be a proper start to prepare ground for the revival of Article 168 of the Constitution,” which provides for the grounds on which press and political offenses are to be handled, but does not give a definition of such crimes.  (“Majles Bill on Political Crimes,” in Highlights: Iranian Daily Developments 20 January 2016 (Jan. 20, 2016), Open Source Center online subscription database, Doc. No. IMR2016012012445832 OSC.) Article 168 states: “political and press offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice. The manner of the selection of the jury, its powers, and the definition of political offenses, will be determined by law in accordance with the Islamic criteria.” (Iran – Constitution (Oct. 24, 1979, in force on Dec. 3, 1979, as amended July 28, 1989), art. 168, University of Bern, Switzerland, website.)

The commentator further noted that aside from the legal advantages of the legislation, it also has a political one of removing a ground for the exertion of foreign pressure against Iran, because, in the absence of measures separating political crimes from security offenses, Iran has been accused “of keeping a large number of political prisoners behind bars,” yet according to Iranian law there were no political prisoners because political crime was yet to be defined. (Id.) Reportedly, “[m]ost people considered by human rights groups to be political prisoners in Iran are charged with security offences, which are often subject to secret tribunals.” (Iran Parliament Defines “Political Crimes” in Apparent Nod to Reform, REUTERS (Jan. 24, 2016).)

While the government of President Hassan Rouhani’s praised the legislation as a step towards reform, Vice President for Parliamentary Affairs, Majid Ansari, indicated that it “did not go far enough because it did not provide enough detail” and stated it “does not have sufficient breadth, because defining political crimes is a difficult task.” (Id.)

Next Steps

For the draft legislation to become law, it must also be ratified by the Guardian Council and signed into law by the President of Iran. (Iran – Constitution, arts. 91 (on the Guardian Council), 94 (on Guardian Council ratification), & 123 (on President’s power to sign laws); Islamic Republic of Iran: The Legislative, IRAN YEAR BOOK (1996).)