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Labor Activists’ Wife and 50 Protesters Detained for Hours

Imprisoned Labor Activist Reza Shahabi and his wife, Robabeh Rezaei, undated

Labor activist, Reza Shahabi’s wife was detained along fifty others while demanding her husband’s release from Rajaei Shahr prison, near the capital, Tehran.

They were assembled in front of the Ministry Of Labor and Social Welfare in Tehran when security forces rounded them up and took them to the notorious Evin prison.

Before being released, they were told to stop participating in protest assemblies, an informed source told Radio Farda on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier, Shahabi’s wife, Robabeh Rezaei, had publicly declared that since the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare was responsible for supporting workers, she would go there on Tuesday morning, December 26, to demand her husband’s immediate release.

The Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (UWTSBC) and several social media rights activists declared that they would also gather in front of the ministry to support Mrs. Shahabi’s demand.

Shahabi, treasurer and a board member of (UWTSBC), was arrested in June 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” for peacefully advocating labor rights in Iran. He was also banned from engaging in civic activism for five years, Center for Human Rights in Iran, CHRI reported.

After two strokes, Reza Shahbi’s health condition has been reported “grave”.

“During a prison visit on Wednesday [December 13, 2017], his relatives noticed that the left side of Shahabi’s face was drooping and that his left eye had sunken in,” UWTSBC said in a statement.

“Shahabi said when he went to the prison clinic, the doctor told him he had suffered a mild stroke.”

Even after the stroke, Shahabi was not transferred to the hospital for a checkup to prevent him from getting worse, noted the UWTSBC.

“His stroke proves that the doctors were right when they determined he is not healthy enough to endure prison conditions---Therefore, he must be freed immediately and unconditionally.”

“We hold the security agencies, the Tehran prosecutor, and prison officials responsible for Shahabi’s life,” added the statement.

Meanwhile, riot police and plainclothes stormed into the gathering on Tuesday morning, beating up protesters, Free Labor Union of Iran, FLUI reported.

According to FLUI, a member of the union, Hassan Saeidi was so brutally battered that he was taken to a hospital.

However, Saeidi, after being treated was also detained and taken to Evin prison.

The “elements” affiliated with the ministry were also involved in battering the demonstrators, FLUI maintained.

The report has not yet been confirmed or denied by the Islamic Republic’s officials.

According to CHRI, in September 2014, Shahabi was granted medical leave but nearly three years later was informed that the time he had spent outside the prison on medical furlough was not counted as time served and that he would have to return to the prison.

When Shahabi returned to Rajaee Shahr Prison on August 8, 2017, he was told he would have to serve the five months that remained on his sentence before he was released on furlough as well as a year for his alleged role in a clash between guards and prisoners in Evin Prison on April 17, 2014, that left many prisoners injured.

Nuclear Deal No Longer Focus Of US Policy Towards Iran

U.S. -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the U.S.-Korea relationship during a forum at the Atlantic Council in Washington, U.S. December 12, 2017.

US Secretary Of State Rex W. Tillerson has said that the Iran nuclear deal, JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), is no longer the focal point of America’s policy toward Tehran.

In an op-ed for The New York Times on December 27, Mr. Tillerson echoes Trump's view that the Iranian nuclear deal is “flawed”.

The chief of American diplomacy writes in the op-ed that Washington has shifted its policy to confronting what he describes as the "totality of Iranian threats."

Elaborating on the details of the new US approach towards Iran Mr. Tillerson writes “Part of this strategy entails rebuilding alliances with our partners in the Middle East, and in November we helped re-establish diplomatic ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia”.

The flawed Iran nuclear deal is no longer the focal point of our policy toward Iran. We are now confronting the totality of Iranian threats.
US Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson

In far as the JCPOA is concerned, Rex Tillerson says the State Department will work with US allies and Congress to find options fix the agreement. He also warns that the U.S. government is trying to gather support for punishing Iran for its violation of limitations put on its ballistic missiles program and its “destabilizing activities in the region”.

The Islamic Republic’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its alleged involvement in Iraq, Yemen and Syria plus its outright support of the Syria's Bashar Assad and its controversial ballistic missile program are some of the reasons US accuses Iran of violating the spirit of JCPOA.

The Islamic Republic says it is Washington that has not been adhering to the JCPOA by imposing new sanctions against Iranian entities. According to Tehran its missile program is solely for defensive purposes and cannot be the subject of another round of talks similar to what led to the conclusion of JCPOA in 2015.

US President Donald Trump has criticized the Obama Administration for the nuclear deal with Iran calling it the worst deal. He has threatened that US could pull out of the deal should Iran continue its current policy.

Khamenei Lambasts Ahmadinejad's Camp In Rare Speech

Archive photo of Ayatollah Khamenei (L) in his visit with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) and his cabinet on Sunday, July 14, 2013.

The Islamic Republic Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has accused some individuals inside Iran of “doing the enemy’s job”.

Addressing members of the Islamic Publicity Organization on Wednesday, Ayatollah Khamenei lambasted “those who hold, or used to hold, all means in the country" saying that "they do not have the right to play the role of the opposition”. This was an apparent reference to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his team who have engaged in an intense war of words with the Judiciary.

The Islamic Publicity Organization, is one of the propaganda entities within the Iranian theocracy tasked with promoting the Islamic revolution’s ideology.

Khamenei also warned about the consequences of recent tensions feeding Western media.

“Today they [Ahmadinejad and his close aides] say something and it gets a massive coverage on the British Radio and the American Radio, such approach makes the enemy happy”, the Iranian leader stated.

American Radio and British Radio are apparent references to Radio Farda and BBC Persian that have been denounced on several occasions by Khamenei. He accuses Western powers, led by the US and Israel of having waged a "soft war" against the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Khamenei also compared the cyber space to a war front, saying that "Western artillery" is targeting the Islamic government therein.

Elsewhere in his speech, Ayatollah Khamenei taunted Western media: "the first day after the victory of the Islamic revolution they said it would last only six months, then they said it would fall after two years. They kept repeating similar statements but the Islamic Republic has survived and lived its blessed life for forty years".

Today they [Ahmadinejad and his close aides] say something and it gets a huge coverage on the British Radio and the American Radio, such approach makes the enemy happy.
Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei

In another indirect criticism of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s camp, Ayatollah Khamenei reiterated “I, having all means at my disposal, cannot be a claimant, I have to be held accountable as to what I did with all those means”.

He voiced his displeasure, accusing the critics of lacking reverence: “Their religion is political, instead of having religious politics, their religion is politicized”.

“Every child can throw stones and break windows, this is not a virtue. The virtue is if one speaks logically and justly and does not speak in order to seek power, one has to deem God witness to their deeds”, the Islamic Republic leader stated.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei, admitted he was aware that the Islamic judiciary was not faultless: “I am not unaware of the problems with the judiciary and the executive branches of power ...however...we do not have the right to treat everyone alike”.

In 2009, following the street protests to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a highly disputed election, Ayatollah Khamenei came full force to the aid of Mr. Ahmadinejad. In a famous statement, the Islamic Republic leader announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s views were close to his.

The war of words between Ahmadinejad and judiciary flared up when Hamid Baghaei, a senior former aide of Mr. Ahmadinejad, was detained last June charged with financial corruption. Baghei was later released on a heavy bail.

Meanwhile, according to a former member of Iran’s parliament, there are seven definitive legal verdicts issued against Ahmadinejad, who is charged with financial violations amounting to around $3 billion, asserts a former member of the Iranian Parliament.

The Iranian Parliament’s Audit Court has also announced that Ahmadinejad, in the last 18 months of his presidency, spent 4.6 trillion Tomans or approximately $1.3 billion of Iran’s oil income illegally.

The court ordered the former president to repay the money, according to parliament’s website. The ruling said that during his tenure, Ahmadinejad spent oil revenues without proper transfer from the Oil Ministry to the treasury.

Although the court found Ahmadinejad directly responsible, it has issued no other measures against him.

The Audit Court has limited powers of punishment. It can reduce an official’s pay or at most fire officials from government jobs but is not empowered to issue harsher verdicts.

Why Iranians Trust Celebrities More Than Government

Iranian soccer (football) legend Ali Daei, with quake-stricken children in Kermanshah Province

The recent earthquake in Kermanshah province in western Iran that left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured was followed by a huge wave of empathy from fellow Iranians.

Donations were pouring in from all over the country. Hundreds of volunteers rushed to the area to help the victims. But it seemed that the people’s reaction to the event was accompanied with a deep mistrust of the government.

I cannot believe it. I would not even dream about it!
Iranian academician Sadegh Zibakalam, amazed by the outpour of donations after he asked people to help him prepare a shipment of supplies to the quake-stricken in Kermanshah Province

In fact, many in social media compared the extent of the efforts by the Iranian government in other countries with those in the earthquake region and criticized the authorities for not taking up sufficient measures to address the needs of the victims of the earthquake.

To support this claim, social media users shared a video of an official saying that the Iranian government once restored electricity to 73 villages in Lebanon within less than two weeks and built 45 schools within 45 days.

“I wish Kermanshah was part of Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq. Then the government of Iran would have rebuilt it better than it was before," reads a tweet by an Iranian user.

For the first time, celebrities in large numbers took the issue into their own hands and volunteered to collect aids for the victims. And their success was astonishing: Ali Daei, former soccer star, was able to collect more than $1.7 million in cash donations. Daei published a video showing him in a warehouse in front of piles of goods donated by citizens, stating that he had also sent 16 large truckloads of goods to the earthquake region.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a pro-reform professor of political science at Tehran University, who is famous for his lively critical speeches, received $500,000 in cash donations.

“I cannot believe it. I would not even dream about it,” said Zibakalam in an interview published by Iran Newspaper. If he knew that people would trust him that much, he would not have volunteered for it, because he was facing a huge responsibility now, he added.

It was a big surprise for many Iranians when the state TV announced that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had provided just $250,000 of cash donations he had received from his followers.

A video watched by more than 20,000 viewers on Youtube, concluded that Iranians have more trust in a former soccerstar and a university professor than in the “leader of the world Muslims”, as Khamenei’s supporters call him.

The public trust in the government has been damaged by the recent wave of corruption cases, Professor Zibakalam said. The authorities should acknowledge the fact and ask themselves, why people have more trust in him and some celebrities than state institutions, he suggested.

In recent years, several businessmen, bank managers, government officials and their close relatives have been convicted of embezzlement.

The most famous case is that of Babak Zanjani, a tycoon, for stealing $2.7 billion from oil sales on behalf of the Ahmadinejad government. Zanjani has been sentenced to death.

Currently, the brother of President Hassan Rouhani, the brother of his deputy, Eshagh Jahangiri, and the deputy of former President Ahmadinejad have also been charged with corruption. Ahmadinejad and his supporters, for their part, have accused Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judiciary and his brothers of serious financial misconduct. Larijani allegedly has 63 personal bank accounts where he has deposited millions of dollars of the judiciary’s income.

Row Between Judiciary And Ahmadinejad Over 'Mental Health'

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , Former Iranian President, undated.

“Who’s mentally ill?” has become the main topic in the new round of muscle flexing between former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s camp and the Islamic Republic’s judiciary.

At his weekly press conference Sunday, December 24, judiciary’s spokesman, mid-ranking cleric Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei accused Ahmadinejad of being mentally ill.

Retaliating, Ahmadinejad’s top aide described Mohseni Ejei as a mentally ill person.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s former deputy in executive affairs, Hamid Baghaei compared the judiciary’s spokesman to chief commander of SS in Germany under Nazis, Heinrich Himmler .

In implicit comments, Mohseni Ejei said, he [Ahmadinejad] is suffering from mental disorder and, if necessary, his lawsuit will be handed over to the legal examiner.

Hours later, former president’s top aide, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, fired back on his Telegram Channel, “Is it not wise to directly hospitalize and refer to the medical examiner a 60+-year old person [Mohseni Ejei] who dresses as a clergy, counts as an elder with white beard and occupies high state positions frivolously whistling in public and singling out himself as a clown?”

Javanfekr was referring to a memory Mohseni Ejei had shared with his audience Monday, December 11.

“During reformist presidency (Mohammad Khatami, 1997-2005), a group of students started whistling [to deride me] and I told them if it comes to whistling I outdo you all, since I am able to twitter without using my fingers”, Mohsaeni Ejei told Sharif University students and then started “warbling” for them.

I am able to twitter without using my fingers!
Iran Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei in a meeting with students, his remarks and warbling in the meeting once again raised questions about the fitness of judiciary officials for their jobs

During Mahmaoud Ahmadinejad’s first term presidency, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei was in charge of running Intelligence M`inistry (August 2005 – July 2009). He was later dismissed but, immediately appointed as Tehran’s Prosecutor-General.

While responding to Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic attacks on judiciary and circulated as video clips in social media, Mohseni Ejei heckled, “The former president and his companions should firstly be examined by medical jurisprudence to decide whether they are mentally sound or not, since their behavior does not make sense”.

The Islamic republic’s penal code has exempted mentally ill people to be punished for a crime.

However, Mohseni Ejei has accused Ahmadinejad of mental illness while the former president has recently been appointed by the Supreme Leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei as one of the members of influential Expediency Discernment Council, EDC (a body in charge of resolving disputes between the Guardians Council and majlis or parliament and supervising the country’s top policies).

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad’s close ally, Hamid Baghaei also bombarded the judiciary’s spokesman with acerbic comments.

Comparing Mohseni Ejei to commander of SS in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Himmler, Baghei noted, “His motto was also ‘send the others to forced labor camps or sanatoriums”.

Furthermore, Baghaei lamented, “It is true that the SS has been buried and Himmler is waiting to be severely punished for his actions in the world beyond ours, but, his thoughts and mottos are still live and kicking among some people who follow his footsteps”.

The war of words between judiciary and Ahmadinejad’s camp has been going on for weeks, while the Supreme Leader, ayatollah Khamenei has apparently decided to stay away from it.

Nevertheless, Tehran's Friday Prayer leader recently called on the Iran's authorities to avoid airing their dirty laundry in public.

Speaking at Friday Prayer ceremony on December 22, ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani cautioned, “The problems [between the country’s leading figures] should not be publicly tabled. Some elders should be selected to weigh your words against the other’s side and address the problem.”

Kashani, 86, is known for his mild manners, yet Mohseni Ejei angrily dismissed his proposal.

“What [nonsense] is arbitration? These cases tabled [by Ahmadinejad et al] definitely deserve to be legally tackled. Spreading lies and creating marginal themes will never stop judiciary fulfilling its duty”, Mohseni Ejei retorted.

Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad still insists that judiciary’s head, ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani is a “greedy, land-grabbing tyrant” and a totally “unjust” figure who should immediately resign as chief-justice, otherwise the whole ruling system would collapse.

The head of judiciary in the Islamic Republic is directly appointed by the Supreme Leader for five years, renewable for another five.

Sadegh Amoli Larijani’s term as the head of judiciary ends in August 2019.

The war of words between Ahmadinejad and judiciary flared up when Baghaei was detained last June charged with financial corruption. Baghei was later released on a heavy bail.

Meanwhile, according to a former member of Iran’s parliament, there are seven definitive legal verdicts issued against former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is charged with financial violation worth around $3 billion, asserts a former member of the Iranian Parliament.

In a note for Khabaronline, a news website close to the speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani (Amoli Larijani’s older brother), Fazel Mousavi said he received the report from well-informed sources.

The Iranian Parliament’s Audit Court has also announced that Ahmadinejad, in the last 18 months of his presidency, spent 4.6 trillion Tomans or approximately $1.3 billion of Iran’s oil income illegally.

The court ordered the former president to repay the money, according to the parliament’s website. The ruling said that during his tenure, Ahmadinejad spent oil revenues without proper transfer from the Oil Ministry to the treasury.

Although the court found Ahmadinejad directly responsible, it has issued no other measures against him.

The Audit Court has limited powers of punishment. It can reduce an official’s pay or at most fire officials from government jobs but is not empowered to issue harsher verdicts.

130K Hectares Of Iran Residential Areas In Deteriorated Urban Fabric

Deteriorated urban area in Tehran, undated.

The governmental budget allocated for maintaining residential areas at districts suffering from deteriorated fabric is insignificant, spokesman for Iranian parliament’s Construction Commission has warned.

130,000 hectares of public and residential areas in Iran are suffering from deficiency and urban decay, Fars news agency cited Sodeif Badri as saying.

The domain of areas with deficient and worn-out fabric in Iran is so vast that there is not enough budget to maintain and renovate them.

The minister of Roads and Urban Development, Abbas Akhoundi also said on Saturday, December 23, nineteen million people out of Iran’s +80 million population live in “shoddy homes” which is another term for residences in areas with deteriorated fabric.

Recent quakes in Iran, including a 5.2 magnitude that hit the capital, Tehran last Thursday, have once again forced media and the Islamic republic’s officials to focus on the urban infrastructure and level of resistance to earthquakes buildings have.

During the recent earthquake in Tehran, which several people said was a prelude to a much stronger one, traffic was disrupted in the capital streets and highways to the extent that emergency vehicles could hardly move.

Schools, universities, government offices and most of sports arenas were closed in Tehran, Alborz and Qom provinces on Thursday, December 21, reported the state television.

Meanwhile, long queues formed at the gas stations and many people spent the night outside their homes.

The epicenter of the quake was not far from Meshkin Dasht, which sits about 31 mile west of Tehran, the government’s official news agency IRNA said.

A strong earthquake in Tehran might destroy nearly 300,000 buildings and impact nearly one million people, the director of Ministry of Roads and Urban Development’s Department of Seismology has warned.

“Out of Tehran’s nearly 1,100,000 building blocks, 200,000 are located in areas with worn-out urban fabric” Ali Beytollahi noted.

Researcher’s Wife Asks Rouhani To Prevent Death Sentence

A flyer during a protest outside the Iranian embassy in Brussels for Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian academic detained in Tehran for nearly a year and reportedly sentenced to death for espionage, February 13, 2017

The wife of an Iranian researcher sentenced to death in Tehran has written to President Hassan Rouhani asking him to step in and assign an impartial board to look into what she says is a violation of her husband’s citizen’s rights.

Radio Farda received a copy of the letter from a person close to the family, in which Djalali’s wife, Vida Mehran Nia, says she holds out hope that Rouhani’s promises on respecting citizens’ rights will be fulfilled.

Maintaining that Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry is directly responsible for producing a film that shows Djalali confessing to spying against Iran, Mehran Nia has noted, “My defenseless husband’s case is another example of his citizen’s rights being violated, as well as mine and those of his children and heartbroken mother.”

Iranian state television broadcast on December 17 what it said were the confessions of Djalali, whom it said had provided information to Israel to help the country assassinate several Iranian nuclear scientists.

Djalali was tried by a hardliner judge, Abolqassem Salavati, in a Revolutionary Court and sentenced to death for “Crruption on Earth” on October 21. Salavati is well-known for issuing harsh sentences, especially in political cases.

Iran's Supreme Court upheld two weeks ago the death sentence against Djalali, a doctor and lecturer at the Karolinska Institute, a Stockholm medical university.

Djalali was arrested in Iran in April 2016 and later convicted of espionage. He has denied the charges.

In the television report, titled Ax to the Root, Djalali is linked to the assassination of four Iranian scientists between 2010 and 2012 that Tehran said was an Israeli attempt to sabotage its nuclear energy program. Djalali said in the report he had given the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad information about key nuclear scientists.

"They were showing me pictures of some people or satellite photos of nuclear facilities and were asking me to give them information about that,” Djalali said in the television report.

However, several days later, a taped voice attributed to Djalali and circulated on social media denied the confession, saying the video had been doctored.

Mehran Nia also said her husband had been forced to read a pre-agreed confession on camera. "After three months in solitary confinement, his interrogators told him that he would be released only if he reads from a text in front of the camera," she told Reuters by telephone from Stockholm.

"My husband told me that they shouted at him each time he was saying something different from the text and stopped the filming," Mehran Nia added.

"Djalali did not have any sensitive information about Iran’s nuclear program. If he had, he would have been barred from leaving the country," she said.

Sweden has condemned Djalali’s death sentence and said it had raised the matter with Iranian envoys in Stockholm and Tehran.

Seventy-five Nobel prize laureates petitioned Iranian authorities last month for Djalali’s release so he could "continue his scholarly work for the benefit of mankind." They said Djalali has suggested it was his refusal to work for Iranian intelligence services that led to this “unfair, flawed trial.”

The United Nations and international human rights organizations regularly list Iran as a country with one of the world’s highest execution rates. Iran's Revolutionary Guards have arrested at least 30 dual nationals during the past two years, mostly on spying charges.

Iranian Police Arrests 230 Young Party Goers On Festive Night

An Islamic Guidance patrol arresting young Iranians for "immoral behavior". File photo.

At two separate night parties held to celebrate an ancient Iranian tradition, 230 young boys and girls were rounded-up and detained in the capital city, Tehran.

Young people had gathered to celebrate Winter Solstice, Yalda (the birth of God of Light, Mithra), on December 21, the longest night of the year when the security forces stormed the mixed-gender parties.

Usually, in such cases the detainees are charged with what the Islamic officials call moral corruption.

The head of Tehran’s Morality Police of greater Tehran, Zolfaqar Barfar said Friday, December 22, “140 boys and girls were detained at a party held in a garden in Lavassan”.

In another party in Farmanieh neighborhood, according to Barfar “Several of the guests streamed the party live on Instagram, inviting others to join the revel”.

Furthermore, Zolfaghar Barfar said alcoholic beverages and psychotropic drugs were confiscated, while musicians and singers present at the parties were detained and taken to a prison along with their instruments.

Attacking and breaking up parties were quite rife after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, but it gradually died down.

However, in past two years, even family parties, including wedding and birthday parties have not been immune from police and security forces assaults.

As a rule, the judiciary describes the detainees as elements of corruption, prostitution, illegal sexual relations, Devil worshipping, perversion and alcohol drinking.

Earlier, the head of Baseej (the Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed), a branch of Islamic Revolution Guardians Corps, General Gholam Hossein Gheybparvar had announced the formation of special “neighborhood patrols” set to redeploy in large cities all over Iran.

“We have plans to reduce the number of checkpoints and gradually replace them with neighborhood patrols”, Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA cited an IRGC commander as saying on November 15, in a press conference.

Meanwhile, in its Thursday edition, the reformist daily Etemad compared the new plan to the notorious Revolutionary Committees, renowned as “Komiteh”s in 1979 when the Islamic Republic was established in Iran.

Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, the Komitehs, pushing the regular police forces aside, were deployed in all major cities, erecting checkpoints wherever they wanted, inspecting and searching people, vehicles and arresting whoever they suspected of being anti-revolutionary.

“Of all the Government agencies created as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, not one is more feared or detested than the Komiteh, or Committee, the national disciplinary patrol responsible for enforcing Islamic regulations on social behavior” reported the New York Times in 1990.

Now, apparently the most feared Komitehs are set to return.

The commander of Baseej has not explained the necessity and reason behind devising the new plan but, has maintained.

Reportedly, the newly formed units have already started patrolling neighborhoods in larger cities, including cities in provinces of Esfahan and Fars.

Meanwhile, chief of 110 “sohada” police station, Esma’il Afshari said on Thursday night that two 22-year old boys were arrested while busy drawing shapes and signs of Devil worshipping cults on a wall in his precinct.

“Under interrogation, the two admitted being attracted to Devil worshipping cults through social media”, Afshari maintained.

According the government’s official news agency, IRNA the two had tattooed images related to worshipping devil on their bodies. Furthermore, one of the detainees was wearing a shirt with a slogan on it, saying, “I do not believe in Man”.

The Supreme Leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s remarks on “social harms” has apparently encouraged the judiciary and police to crack down on parties that they might interpret as deviant and immoral.

Reformist MP Backs Down From Criticism Of The Guardian Council

Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist member of parliament representing Tehran.

In an apparent U-turn, pro-reform Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi announced on December 20 that he believes in the Guardian Council’s right to confirm or reject people nominated for a seat in the parliament.

Earlier on December 17, in a speech delivered in a parliamentary session, Sadeghi had sparked a heated debate among his fellow pro-reform and conservative legislators by criticizing the Guardian Council (GC) for disqualifying competent candidates.

He had insisted on the necessity of fighting corruption in the ruling echelons and while criticizing the ambiguity in the government’s budget, he had also expressed doubt whether a parliament, which went through the GC filter really presented the people.

Addressing his fellow legislators, he asked, “Are we the essence of the nation’s virtues? [No,] we are the essence of the Guardian Council’s virtues.”

Sadeghi was referring to a comment made by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1980 when he met with the members of Iran’s first post-revolution parliament and described them as the “essence of the nation’s virtues.”

The comments triggered tensions in the parliament. Sadeghi’s conservative opponents argued that if he would not accept the role of the GC, he should not be allowed to keep his post.

Sadeghi tried his best to take back his previous derisive comments about the GC.

“Based on Article 99 of the Iranian Constitution, the Guardian Council is responsible for supervising the elections of the Leadership Council of Experts, the president of the republic, the Islamic Consultative Assembly (parliament), and referrals to the public vote and referenda,” he said. “There is a solid logic behind this article and as I have repeatedly said, I believe in the GC’s right to qualify or reject candidates.”

Sadeghi, however, criticized recent limitations imposed on the authority of the parliament, including restrictions on its right to investigate matters related to the GC and the Assembly of Experts.

“The point is reducing parliament’s realm of authority. We are not allowed to investigate any case related to the GC or Assembly of Experts. These limitations have reduced the level of the parliament’s authority and its output,” Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) quoted Sadeghi as saying.

Sadeghi’s new comments were widely interpreted as an attempt to downplay his fiery speech from a few days before.

Lambasting the GC, he had noted, “By disqualifying merited candidates, the Guardian Council has not allowed figures brave enough to fight corruption to have a seat in the parliament.”

Furthermore, he had maintained that Iran has hopelessly fallen into a “corruption trap” while there is no will for combatting corruption.

“Why is the parliament devoid of the serious will necessary for fighting corruption? Why are we cooperating with corrupt figures, and why are we afraid to publicly name those who have astronomical overdue debts [to the banks]?” he said.

Iran Extends Film Censorship Reach Beyond Its Borders

A still from Abdolreza Kahani's film Delighted, which an official from the Iranian Culture Ministry deemed to be "immoral."

Iran has taken its cultural censorship efforts to new levels by pressuring a filmmaker to cancel the screening of one of his films in Canada.

The film, Delighted, by Abdolreza Kahani, was due to be screened last month at an independent theater in Toronto.

But Kahani decided to cancel the screening after receiving a warning from Iran's Culture Ministry.

A source close to Kahani's production team who did not want to be named told RFE/RL that the ministry "advised" the filmmaker that if he would go ahead with the screening his other film, We Love You Mrs. Yaya, which was filmed in Thailand, would not be allowed to be shown inside Iran.

"When we announced that the film would be screened [in Canada] and tickets were sold, we received a message requesting the screening be cancelled; the message said that, if not, Kahani's [other] film – [which was] was made in Thailand and was costly -- will not receive a screening permit," the source said.

Iranian director Abdolreza Kahani (file photo)

The source added that authorities had also contacted producers, including those involved in the production of We Love You Mrs. Yaya, to convince him to cancel the November 24 screening in Toronto.

Kahani has said in an interview with Radio Canada that Delighted is the story of three women who want to have a good time in Iran and are trying to meet wealthy men in order to achieve that goal.

A Culture Ministry official was quoted in 2016 as saying that Delighted was "immoral."

Last year, a member of a committee that issues screening permits said that Delighted was problematic "from the beginning till the end." He didn't provide details but said the film was "not amendable."

Film critic Khosro Dehghan says the Culture Ministry's move to block the showing of Delighted in Canada was unprecedented.

"The Culture Ministry is not likely to confirm this issue as it would prove that the ministry won't limit itself to the country's borders -- any film that is banned here will not be allowed to be screened anywhere else in the world," Dehghan said in an interview with the daily Jamee Farda.

"The ministry has now extended its reach beyond Iran's borders," Dehghan added.

Banned At Home, Lauded Abroad

Authorities routinely ban award-winning Iranian movies from cinemas inside the country.

But until now there hadn't been any known efforts to prevent the screening of controversial movies outside the country.

Dissident film director Jafar Panahi -- who received a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on directing movies in 2010 -- screened his latest film Taxi, made clandestinely, at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival where it received the Golden Bear Prize.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi in a still from his acclaimed movie Taxi.

Panahi told Jamee Farda that Iran should not interfere in the screening of films in other countries.

"Domestic rules should not be enforced when it comes to screening movies in other countries," he said.

"If that was the case, Iran's cinema would have never been able to grow and be introduced to the world," Panahi added.

"[Authorities] should either shut down the cinema [industry] or find a solution," he said.

Strict Restrictions

Iranian filmmakers have to follow tight censorship rules that forbid showing unveiled women, physical contact between men and women, and criticism of Islamic principles.

The strict restrictions limit the topics that can be discussed in movies.

Yet, Iranian filmmakers have managed to produce several movies that are universally acclaimed and have won many awards.

Those banned inside the country are accessible on the black market and online.

Kahani wrote in a July op-ed piece published by the reformist Sharq daily that "filmmakers don't have the right to show the reality [of life in Iran]."

"What are we afraid of? From the current realities?! People are well-aware [of what's going on] and they're far ahead of films and managers," he wrote.

Ahmadinejad Fails To Produce Evidence, Calls For Top Judge's Resignation

Iran's chief of judiciary Sadeq Larijani (R), and Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s 48-hour ultimatum for the head of the judiciary ended without any sensational disclosures.

Ahmadinejad had threatened on December 17 that if within 48 hours the judiciary did not produce the evidence behind the charges brought against him and his inner circle he would expose the “illegalities” of the judicial branch.

But by the deadline, all Ahmadinejad had done was repeat general accusations against Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, calling him a usurper who has repeatedly violated the law.

He also added that Larijani has lost his legitimacy and is not qualified for the job, insisting he must step down.

In the ongoing war of words between the two men, Larijani had asserted earlier that Ahmadinejad had been convicted in a court of law.

Setting a 48-hour ultimatum for the judiciary to publish the evidence behind his conviction, Ahmadinejad had warned, “Otherwise, I will publicly present my findings on the judiciary’s head and his performance during the past eight years.”

Larijani, apparently ignoring the ultimatum, ordered his staff to publish details about the legal cases filed against Ahmadinejad.

As expected, that was not good enough for the former president.

Ahmadinejad Calls For Resignation Of Chief Justice
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In a new video clip published on December 19, Ahmadinejad reiterated, “Today, we have the right to name the devious [ones] and the seditionists who have illegally used state assets for their own benefit.”

However, the comments were limited to generalities without presenting solid evidence against Larijani.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad maintained, “Though I have access to enough information against the head of the judiciary, as a person committed to ethics and laws I am not going to disclose the information for the moment.”

“I avoid commenting on the qualifications required,” he said, “but our chief justice openly and repeatedly commits the greatest sins, i.e. libelous remarks and false accusations against virtuous people.”

“Our chief of justice is devoid of justice,” he continued. “It’s obvious what goes on in the department run by him. People are fed up with unjust and unfair decisions made by certain judicial staff.”

“He has shown obvious signs of incompetence and being illegitimate. Therefore, the continuation of his management is violating the rights of the supreme leader, the Islamic Republic, and the people who are the principle owners of the country and the revolution,” Ahmadinejad concluded.

Larijani’s senior aides and allies responded by branding the former president as a liar and a thug.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the sole authority to appoint or dismiss the head of the judiciary.

So far, Khamenei has done his best to distance himself from the ongoing war of words between Larijani and Ahmadinejad, who is one of his personal representatives on the influential Expediency Discernment Council.

Afghan Governor's Dismissal Highlights Rift In Party, Risks To Unity Government

Former militia commander Atta Mohammad Noor had been governor of Balkh Province since 2004. (file photo)

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Jawid, an ethnic Tajik shopkeeper in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, has been building up his small business during the past decade within a pocket of relative stability.

Now, with President Ashraf Ghani's removal of the governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, Jawid says he fears the kind of lawlessness and conflict that has hindered reconstruction in many other parts of Afghanistan.

"The security situation in Mazar-e Sharif has been good and we are happy about it," Jawid told RFE/RL. "We do not want Atta Mohammad to be replaced."

Despite his reputation as a strongman who refuses to tolerate opposition and a history of alleged human rights abuses, Noor has been credited and praised by Western officials for bringing criminal groups and rival militia factions under control since he was appointed as Balkh's governor in 2004 by then-President Hamid Karzai.

The relative stability of Balkh Province means that cities like Mazar e-Sharif are thriving economically compared to the rest of the country. (file photo)
The relative stability of Balkh Province means that cities like Mazar e-Sharif are thriving economically compared to the rest of the country. (file photo)

While Taliban fighters and other Islamic militants have destabilized much of Afghanistan, relative security in Balkh allowed reconstruction programs to move forward and additional international aid to be disbursed in the province.

Major infrastructure development in the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, brought an economic boom that often benefited Noor's political patrons.

That allowed Noor, a former anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia commander from the largely ethnic Tajik Jamiat-e Islami party, to become the main source of political power in Balkh Province.

Over time, Noor expanded his political base into other parts of northern Afghanistan.

Preelection Positioning?

Thomas Ruttig, a co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, is convinced that Noor has aspirations to run for the Afghan presidency in an election scheduled for 2019.

That appears to have prompted an internal power struggle with other Jamiat-e Islami leaders who have presidential aspirations and currently hold positions in Afghanistan's national-unity government, including Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Thus, Ruttig says, Noor's removal from the Balkh governor's post represents "positioning before the presidential elections" and positioning within Jamiat-e Islami.

Afghanistan analyst Thomas Ruttig
Afghanistan analyst Thomas Ruttig

"It is very clear that Atta Mohammad became one of the alternative power centers in Afghanistan using a regional base, which makes the Afghan state unstable," Ruttig says. "From the point of view of the president, Ghani has done something trying to stabilize" the country.

Read the full story

The Obama Administration Impeded Hezbollah Investigation: Politico Report

Lebanese boys hold a portrait of leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the funeral procession of member of Hezbollah.

In a highly cited investigative report published by Politico, Barack Obama’s administration is accused of undermining a long and painstaking law-enforcement investigation into Hezbollah’s drug and weapons trafficking operations.

The U.S. led operation to track and uncover the Iranian allied Lebanese group’s illicit activities was code-named Cassandra and started well before Obama took office.

But as Obama took over, Politico says, it was apparent that the new administration’s policy was to bolster “moderate” elements within Hezbollah and improve relations with Iran.

As Hezbollah was becoming more a crime syndicate the investigation was uncovering a billion dollar a year profit making drug and weapons trafficking operation.

Eventually, with more information collected, investigators tried to arrest Hezbollah operatives but the administration began throwing roadblocks in their way; Politico cites dozens of participants.

David Asher, who was deeply involved in Project Cassandra told Politico, “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”

Asher also said that as the Iran nuclear negotiations progressed, the administration showed less willingness to pursue the case against Hezbollah and its operatives.

The Politico report mentions a case of a suspected Hezbollah operative and arms dealer, Ali Fayad, who was arrested in 2014 in the Czech Republic but the Obama administration failed to put serious pressure for his extradition for two years, even though he was indicted in U.S. courts on charges of planning the murders of U.S. government employees.

One former Obama administration official, Kevin Lewis told Politico, “There has been a consistent pattern of actions taken against Hezbollah”.

Other former officials also denied derailing actions against Hezbollah, although they conceded that some efforts were undoubtedly constrained by considerations related to the nuclear deal and relations with Iran.

Israeli politicians reacted harshly to the Politico report, saying that Israel had warned the U.S. not to link anti-terror efforts to the Iran nuclear deal. One politician said, “Obama must return his Nobel Peace Prize”, if the Politico story is correct, Jerusalem Post reports.

RSF: Syria, Iraq, Mexico Are Most Dangerous For Journalists, But Deaths Decreasing

A body is removed from the scene of a suicide attack that targeted the Afghan state television building in Jalalabad in May.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says 65 professional journalists, citizen-journalists, and media workers were killed across the world in 2017, representing an 18 percent fall from last year’s figure.

Among them were 50 professional reporters, the lowest toll in 14 years, according to annual figures published by the Paris-based media watchdog on December 19.

RSF says that the downward trend may be because journalists are being better trained and protected for war zones.

The drop is also due to reporters “abandoning countries that have become too dangerous" or “choosing to switch to a less dangerous profession,” it adds.

Of the 65 slain journalists, the report says 39 were murdered and deliberately targeted, while the others were “collateral victims of a deadly situation such as an air strike, an artillery bombardment, or a suicide bombing.”

War-torn Syria remains the most dangerous country for journalists, with 12 reporters killed in 2017. In neighboring Iraq, eight journalists were killed.

With 11 journalists assassinated this year, Mexico is the deadliest country not at war. RSF says that those who cover political corruption or organized crime there are “often systemically targeted, threatened, and gunned down."

In Afghanistan, two professional journalists and seven media workers were killed in three separate attacks. One attack targeted the local headquarters of the national radio and TV broadcaster in the eastern city of Jalalabad in May. The two other attacks occurred in the capital, Kabul, in May and November.

RSF says a total of 326 professional journalists, citizen-journalists, and media workers were detained worldwide in connection with the provision of news and information as of December 1. That is fewer than in 2016, when 348 journalists were detained.

Outside the Middle East, the only country with hostages is Ukraine, where RSF says Russia-backed separatists “tend to regard the few remaining critical journalists as spies.”

The group says China remains the world’s biggest prison for journalists, all categories combined, as the government “continues to improve its arsenal of measures for persecuting journalists and bloggers.”

However, Turkey is the world's biggest prison for professional journalists, with 42 reporters and one media worker behind bars, according to RSF.

"Criticizing the government, working for a 'suspect' media outlet, contacting a sensitive source or even just using an encrypted messaging service all constitute grounds for jailing journalists on terrorism charges," the report says.

Syria and Iran were the other top jailers of journalists, with 24 and 23 of them languishing in prison, respectively.

In a survey published last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the number of journalists in government custody on December 1 hit another new record.

The census, which did not account journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year, found 262 journalists behind bars worldwide in relation to their work.

According to RSF, a total of 54 professional journalists, citizen-journalists, and media workers are held hostage worldwide.

In Syria and Iraq, 40 of them continue to be held by the Islamic State and other extremist Islamist groups. In Yemen, Huthi rebels are holding 11 journalists and media workers.

Outside the Middle East, the only country with hostages is Ukraine, where RSF says Russia-backed separatists “tend to regard the few remaining critical journalists as spies.”

Two journalists are currently behind bars in the separatist-held parts of eastern Ukraine, the report says.

“This is far fewer than at the peak near the start of the conflict in 2014, a year when more than 30 journalists were kidnapped,” RSF says. “The decline in the intensity of the fighting, the fact that the front line is now stationary, and the almost complete absence of critical or foreign reporters in the separatist areas have all helped to reduce the practice of hostage-taking.”

RSF says that two journalists who disappeared in Pakistan and Bangladesh during 2017 are still missing.

Pakistani blogger Samar Abbas was abducted in January 2017 and never reappeared, while his family has received no news of him.

Based in Karachi, Abbas founded the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan, a group that defends human rights and posts independently reported information on its website.

Ahmadinejad Issues 48-Hour Ultimatum To Head Of Judiciary

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , Former Iranian President.

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani.

In a video clip circulated by Dolate Bahar, a website promoting him and his allies, Ahmadinejad has warned ayatollah Larijani to publish documents related to his conviction within 48 hours.

“Sadly, the head of judiciary, who is expected to respect the Islamic Republic’s Constitution and general laws more than anybody else, has repeatedly violated articles 36 and 37 of the Constitution”, Ahmadinejad insists in his video-taped comments.

Article 36 of the Constitution is about due process of law, while Article 37 says, “The law does not consider anyone guilty unless the person’s guilt is proven at a qualified court”.

It is not clear though, when the 48-hour deadline ends.

Referring to comments made by ayatollah Amoli Larijani at a meeting with university students last week, the vociferous former President responded, “The head of judiciary has charged me and my colleagues with a list of accusations. He has described us as ‘seditionist’, ‘devious’…”

In Conservatives vocabulary in Iran, the term “seditionist” refers to those who incited a long lasting bloody rebellion immediately after the controversial presidential election in 2009.

Based on the same vocabulary, the term “devious” is exclusively set aside for describing Ahmadinejad, his close allies and whoever supports him.

According to Mizan, a news website affiliated with the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, “During a meeting with university students on Wednesday, December 13, ayatollah Amoli Larijani accused Ahmadinejad and his close allies of weakening the ruling system through debilitating the judiciary”.

In his new round of fierce attacks against the judiciary and its head, Ahmadinejad referred to Babak Zanjani, who has been behind bars for the past four years for embezzlement of Iran’s oil money, sarcastically saying, “If my government or others have had any connection with his case, we expect the judiciary to disclose the documents affirming the existence of such relations”.

Setting a 48-hour ultimatum for the judiciary to publish the evidentiary documents, Ahmadinejad warned, “Otherwise, I would publicly present my findings on the judiciary’s head and his performance during past eight years”.

Moreover, the former president cautioned that he will do whatever is in his capacity to defend people’s rights against the Islamic Republic’s judicial organ.

“More than ever, this is the right time to defend the oppressed against the judiciary. If the judiciary is reformed, everything would be set aright in Iran”, Ahmadinejad reiterated, adding “These people [in charge of the judiciary] must go and, soon they will be gone”.

Responding to the people who criticize him for keeping mum against the justice system’s “unfair” and “unjust” actions through his eight years of presidency, Ahmadinejad admitted, “We were truly unaware of the unjustifiable actions by the judiciary at the time. We really did not know but later we were informed [of many facts]”.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad argued, “As you are not aware of many facts for the moment, we were also unaware of many cases and kept in the dark at the time. Nevertheless, God willing, you will soon be informed of the facts, as well”.

Houses of Six Christian Converts Raided, Four Detained Before Christmas

An Iranian woman walks past Christmas trees for sale in central Tehran, December 23, 2015

Four Iranian converts to Christianity have been arrested in the city of Karaj, Alborz province, less than two weeks before Christmas, reports say.

In an interview with Radio Farda, Article 18 spokesman, Kiarash A’lipour confirmed the news, adding, “Milad Goudarzi, Amin Khaki, Alireza Nour-Mohammadi and Shehabuddin Shahi were all arrested by security forces on Tuesday, December 12, in Karaj”.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

Meanwhile, a website that exclusively reflects the news concerning Iranians converted to Christianity, Mohabat News reported, “The security forces raided six houses in Karaj where the converts used as a home church”.

While a Christian ceremony was held, the security forced stormed into the houses, detained four and dragged them away, Mohabat News reported.

Furthermore, the security forces raided two shops belonging to two of the detainees, confiscated shoes and purses and sealed off one of the shops.

The shops were sealed off for “overcharging”, “profiteering” and “breaking guild regulations”. Moreover, a Bible and a laptop (notebook) computer were also confiscated during the security operations.

One of the shops, located in Fardiss neighborhood in Karaj is owned by one of the detainees, Milad Goudarzi.

On Tuesday, the government’s official news agency, IRNA reported that “Elements of a devious Christian cult who were promoting it and attempting to disrupt the market and economic order have been arrested”.

IRNA did not elaborate what it meant by “disrupting market and economic order.

One of the detainees, Amin Khaki was earlier detained along six of his fellow Christians in 2013 and recently freed after serving his term in a prison in Ahvaz, capital of Khouzestan province, southwestern Iran.

Many Muslims who converted to Christianity have been arrested in recent years, days before Christmas.

Last year, in a joint statement, 19 human rights organizations called on the international community to press Iran to end the persecution of newly converted Iranian Christians.

According to Christian and human rights organizations, “In less than two months, since June 2017, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran has issued long prison sentences to at least 11 Christian converts and the former leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Iran.”

On July 6, Ahmadzadeh sentenced four Protestant Christian converts to 10 years in prison each in a trial completely lacking due process, according to Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of Article 18, a London-based organization that defends Christians in Iran.

“Charges against these Christians is legally unfounded, and their conviction to 10 years’ imprisonment is violating the obvious right of freedom of opinion,” Borji told Radio Farda. “So many Christians in Iran are accused of merely attending Mass and prayer gatherings even in the privacy of their homes. They are all waiting for the Revolutionary Courts’ verdict against them.”

There are no recent official statistics available on the number of Christians in Iran, but 117,704 were counted in a 2011 state census, CHRI maintained. Those who said were Christians in an official census mostly belong to recognized and tolerated traditional ethnic churches, such as Armenian churches.

But evangelical or other new Christian movements, which are spreading covertly among Muslims, are treated harshly by the Islamic Republic.

In 2010, the World Christian Database (WCD) recorded 270,057 Christians in Iran. Some Christian organizations argue the number is much higher.

At least five church leaders have been murdered and hundreds more have been either interrogated or incarcerated in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Publishing the Persian version of the Bible in Iran is forbidden, while several churches have been forced to shut down.

Iran Refuses To Recognize Israel At OIC Summit

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, undated

While supporting the final statement of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul, Turkey, the Islamic Republic refused to ratify its articles which recognized Israel, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman announced Friday, December 15.

“Iran has delivered the OIC’s secretariat its written refusal to recognize Israel”, Bahram Qassemi asserted.

Citing Qassemi, Iranian government’s official news agency, IRNA reported Friday, “Supporting the final statement of the OIC’s extraordinary summit last Wednesday in Istanbul does not necessarily mean that Tehran recognizes Israel”.

Archive photo of a billboard installed in Tehran showing "countdown to annihilation of Israel", Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei famously retorted in 2015: “if Muslims & Palestinians unite and all fight, the Zionist regime will not be in existence in 25 years."
Archive photo of a billboard installed in Tehran showing "countdown to annihilation of Israel", Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei famously retorted in 2015: “if Muslims & Palestinians unite and all fight, the Zionist regime will not be in existence in 25 years."

The Islamic Republic’s reservation on recognizing Israel, Qassemi insisted, was reflected in a written document officially delivered to the OIC’s secretariat.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, while supporting the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, announced that supporting the resolution endorsed at the meeting of Islamic countries’ foreign ministers and the final declaration of OIC extraordinary summit in Istanbul on the issue of al-Quds (Jerusalem) does not in any way constitute recognition of the usurper Zionist regime by Tehran,” Mehr news agency, MNA quoted Qassemi as saying.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in1979, the leaders of Iran have repeatedly described Israel as a “cancerous tumor” and promised to wipe it off the world map.

Such remarks have always led to widespread negative reactions from the west. “Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map,” US President Barack Obama said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2011.

Reacting to President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, the representatives of 57 Muslim countries attending the extraordinary OIC session on Wednesday in Istanbul, called on the international community to recognize Palestine as a legitimate country and East Jerusalem as its capital.

Supporting the final statement of the OIC’s extraordinary summit last Wednesday in Istanbul does not necessarily mean that Tehran recognizes Israel.
Iran Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Qassemi

President Trump on Wednesday, December 6, formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing nearly seven decades of American foreign policy and setting in motion a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Trump said from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”

The OIC rejected and condemned “in the strongest terms the unilateral decision by the president of the United States of America in recognizing Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the so-called capital of Israel, the occupying Power,” the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)-run news agency reported on Friday.

At OIC’s extraordinary summit in Istanbul, the Islamic Republic’s president, Hassan Rouhani rejected President’s Trump decision and called for following the case of Jerusalem at the UN Security Council.

Saudi Arabia also criticized President Trump’s decision, while it had assigned a low ranking official to attend OIC summit in Istanbul.

Though President Trump's decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is without precedent, the plan is not new.

During President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a piece of West Jerusalem was leased to the American government, one day to become the new location of the US embassy to Israel.

Later, on October 24, 1995, the U.S. Congress passed a bill called the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which formally recognized the city as the Israel’s capital and called for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved there from Tel Aviv by 1999.

Support for the bill was overwhelming. It passed the Senate by a 93 to 5 vote, with four Republicans and one Democrat voting no. It also passed the House 374 to 37, with 153 Democrats joining most of the new Republican majority that had swept into power in 1994.

However, Donald Trump’s predecessors preferred not to ratify the bill, arguing that it might be detrimental to the Middle East peace talks.

Student Groups Issue New Complaints Against Restrictions

Iranian Islamic Azad University Signboard

Thirty-six students’ associations affiliated with Azad University have protested restrictions imposed on events related to Student’s National Day in Iran, on December 7, a website close to Iran Green Movement, Kalemeh reported.

In their written protest, addressed to the head of Azad University’s Board of Founders, Ali Akbar Velayati, the students have highlighted the restrictions imposed on holding the annual ceremonies.

Referring to Velayati’s remark on the necessity of respecting “different political tendencies”, the protesters have asserted that Azad University officials “are seeking to eliminate their political opponents" from the university, through “weird and unjustifiable behavior”.

Reportedly, Azad University officials had imposed restrictions on inviting political figures to deliver speeches at Student’s National Day ceremonies.

Some Azad University departments had gone even further, forbidding students to hang reformist former president Mohammad Khatami’s portraits at locations assigned to holding the ceremonies.

Moreover, while referring to the latest appointments at Azad University, the protesters have raised their concern over what they have described as “turning universities into garrisons”.

Earlier on Sunday, November 26, director of Students’ Islamic Associations, Mohammad Baqir Golshan Abadi had insisted that “Those who were involved in 2009 sedition will definitely not be allowed to speak at Student’s National Day ceremonies”.

“Sedition” is a term used by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader and his conservative allies to describe the Green Movement or five-month long protests against highly controversial official result of 2009 presidential elections, declaring the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner.

Preventing the prominent reformist figures from delivering speeches at Student’s National Day was not limited to Azad University, reports from inside Iran indicate.

Following an order issued by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ security organization, many reformists were barred from delivering speeches all over the country.

On the eve of this year’s Student Day, students were summoned over the phone and warned not to take part in protests.
Student activist

​Nevertheless, a political deputy to President Hassan Rouhani’s Ministry of Interior, Issma’il Jabbarzadeh claimed that none of the ceremonies scheduled to celebrate Student’s National Day were banned by outside interference.

“We had banned outside entities [non-academic organizations] to meddle in the ceremonies and none of the gatherings were cancelled,” Jabbarzadeh affirmed.

In a speech on December 2 in the city of Zabol in Sistan and Balouchestan Province, southeastern Iran, Rouhani had also maintained, "We are very happy that our students are now speaking loudly and clearly."

Expressing satisfaction over Student’s Day being celebrated across the country, Rouhani had affirmed, "Universities must be independent and free, and this was one of the aims of the [Islamic] Revolution."

Furthermore, Rouhani had asserted that universities must be free to criticize like seminaries’ clergy, adding, “Students speak without stammering."

Nevertheless, 92 student associations, 813 staff at student publications, and 8,000 student rights activists wrote letters in recent years protesting the “police state” and “threatening atmosphere” ruling over Iranian universities, as well as cancellation of student gatherings and extrajudicial interference to stop holding them.

According to Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), protests were held at several Iranian universities on December 7, 2017, on the occasion of Student Day. A students’ rights activist told CHRI that President Hassan Rouhani has failed to uphold his election campaign promise to end the securitization of university campuses.

“On the eve of this year’s Student Day, students were summoned over the phone and warned not to take part in protests,” student activist Mohammad Sharifi Moghaddam told CHRI. “The authorities have made it more difficult to organize unions to seek better living conditions for students. The climate for political activities now is even worse than before.”

In a Radio Farda round-table discussion, a political analyst, Mehdi Mahdavi Azad said, "One of the main goals of the regime is to control of universities, by using various means of pressures...universities present a danger of a political explosion".

Beating up a Street Vendor Shocks Tehran

Image capture from Iran purportedly showing a street vendor being beaten by municipality agents

Following the circulation of a video clip showing a street vendor being battered by the municipality staff in the capital city of Iran, a member of Tehran City Council has reported that the two employees who were involved in the incident have been suspended and soon will be summoned to court.

In an interview with state-run Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA, the deputy of Tehran City Council’s Supervision Department, Afshin Habibzadeh cited municipality officials as saying “The culprits have been suspended and their case delivered to the Disciplinary Department. Furthermore, they will be tried as soon as the legal charges against them are filed”.

The culprits have been suspended and their case delivered to the Disciplinary Department.
Tehran City Council Official

Habibzadeh also reported that Tehran City Council’s members are going to have a joint session with the Mayor to discuss the roots of such cases.

Meanwhile, Habibzadeh maintained that agents assigned to confront street and sidewalk vendors, who block public passages, are not counted as Tehran municipality’s staff, since they are directly employed by the contractors.

A video clip widely circulated in social media shows a municipality’s officer beating up a street vendor in Vali Asr crossroads, while another officer takes the vendor’s hand, violently throwing him away.

Furthermore, the video shows the two officers accompanied by a policeman detain the vendor and later continue to batter him.

The circulation of videos depicting the aggressive and heavy-handed confrontation of municipality staff with sidewalk and street vendors in social media have repeatedly shocked the public in recent years.

On Saturday, August 12, a street vendor died in a suspicious situation in city of Qom after the municipality staff violently tried to stop his business. Immediately after the incident was widely reported in social media, the Prosecutor-general summoned five employees of the municipality who were said to be involved in the case.

Ali Cheraghi, a street vendor in Tehran also died in hospital in summer of 2014 after being battered by a garbage recycling contractor’s staff who were armed with brass knuckles.

Later that year, a street vendor from city of Khorramshahr, Youniss Assakereh died in a hospital in Tehran after setting himself afire, protesting against the municipality’s staff who had accused him of blocking a public passageway and destroyed his fruit stand.

Meanwhile, there are many street vendors who maintain that city law enforcement officers are more interested in receiving “protection money” than clearing up the sidewalks and streets.

After more than a decade, a reformist is currently at the helm of Tehran municipality, while the city council is also run by the reformists supporting President Hassan Rouhani.

Homemade Synthetic Narcotics On The Rise In Iran

Synthetic narcotics confiscated in Iran, undated

Iranian police have admitted for the first time that many of the so-called industrial narcotics distributed in Iran are homemade.

Citing the commander of Iran’s Anti-Drugs Police Force (IADPF), Mehr News Agency reported on December 13, “Today, most of the new addictive drugs distributed in Iran are of an industrial type.”

IADPF head Mohammad Massoud Zahedian said that the drugs on today’s market are not necessarily imports. “Even if Afghanistan were incapable of producing addictive drugs and all our borders totally closed, we would have been unable to stop producing and distributing narcotics.”

Our schoolchildren today are incapable of saying no!
Iran Anti-Drugs Police Chief

Referring to the lucrative business of drug dealing, he said, “Many people benefit from the drug business. Therefore, the drugs market is flourishing, and many [drug dealers] are looking for new customers.”

Dealers take advantage of the Internet to promote narcotics. “Drug distributers safely lurk in the corners of the labyrinths of cyberspace to trap their young victims and promote their lethal products,” Zahedian said.

The average age for narcotic use in Iran has become significantly lower in recent years. “Our schoolchildren today are incapable of saying no. Even our youth, for different reasons, think smoking is a sign of being counted as an adult,” he said.

Zahedian also insisted that fighting drugs needs education, otherwise even 1,000 police cannot stop an adolescent from falling into a drug dealer’s traps.

The commander’s remarks come at a time when, according Iran’s Legal Medical Organization (LMO), during the first six months of the current Iranian year (strting 21st of March) 1,337 persons died of drug overdoses and 190 of using stimulant drugs.

Totally, 1,451 men and 153 women have died as a result of using narcotics and stimulant drugs in the same period in Iran, LMO has announced.

Based on an LMO report, the number of narcotics-related deaths in Iran dropped between 2007 and 2013 but has significantly increased again from 2014 onward.

The total number of narcotics victims in Iran currently shows an annual 1 percent rise while the rate for women is up 28.3 percent.

Meanwhile, the fact that crystal meth, called sheesheh in Persian, has recently become Iran’s second-most-popular drug, instantly after opium, has alarmed society.

Both methamphetamine production and abuse are skyrocketing in Iran because of the country's proximity to the region’s top drug exporter, Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. Iranian dealers are raking in profits, primarily from students and the exhausted working class. In Iran, those caught producing, selling, or using sheesheh face potentially lethal criminal penalties.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime says Iran is suffering from one of the gravest addiction crises in the world. Health Ministry officials have estimated there are 2.2 million addicts in the country of more than 80 million, or roughly 2.75 percent of the population, but many NGOs believe the actual figures are much higher.

In July, Iran seemed poised to totally review its drug-related policies. A new plan was designed to greenlight state institutions to distribute drugs, mainly opium, among the addicted.

Saeed Sefatian, head of the working group on drug demand reduction in the Council for the Discernment of the Expediency of the State, said the plan would significantly reduce the volume of dirty money as well as money laundering.

The spokesman for the parliamentary Judicial and Legal Commission, Hassan Norouzi, said allowing the government to distribute opium among adults is reminiscent of what was successfully done before the Islamic Revolution, during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The plan was immediately shelved after conservative close allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including Zahedian, categorically dismissed it as irrelevant.

Clergy Secures Millions Of Dollars In Iran’s Budget Bill 

Iran: Hassan Rouhani , Iran`s President, gave next year budget to Ali Larijani , Speaker of parliament.

Next year’s budget bill, submitted by President Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian Parliament on Sunday, shows hundreds of millions of dollars will be allocated to the clergy and the institutions under their control.

While the government will significantly cut spending for infrastructure projects and cash subsidies, allocations for religious seminaries and similar entities will increase by double digits.

The theocratic regime of Iran considers such institutions vital for its survival. Through propaganda at the national and international level, they recruit and train new supporters for the regime.

The following are some of the examples of funds allocated to ideological entities:

  • $110 million for the High Council of Religious Seminaries, which oversees all religious seminaries in the country and issues permits for the establishment of new schools, among other things. Its budget shows an increase of more than 16 percent compared to the previous year.
  • $105 million for “supporting religious seminaries.” From that amount, $88 million will be allocated to training male clergymen and $16 million for “cultural and promotional activities” by male students of religious seminaries.
  • $5 million for supporting religious “research activities” by seminary students.
  • $150 million for the Service Center for Religious Seminaries, a welfare institution that provides support to retired and disabled clergymen and the families of deceased clergy. The institution also pays scholarships for religious seminaries and funds cultural and sports activities for students.
  • $29 million for the Council for Planning and Management of Religious Seminaries in Khorasan Province.
  • $64 million for the Policy Making Council for Women’s Religious Seminaries.
  • $75 million for Al-Mustafa International University, an umbrella organization for religious seminaries providing education to foreign students within and outside of Iran. This institution is also used for expanding influence abroad. It is worth mentioning that the budget allocated to Al-Mustafa University is much higher than the fund provided to some of the major regular universities, like Amir Kabir University in Tehran with $63 million, and Tabriz University with $64 million.
  • $23 million for the supreme leader’s representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The fund will be spent on deploying preachers, overseeing the compatibility of IRGC rules and regulations with Islam, spiritual ceremonies, and guiding and promoting political vision.
  • $17 million for maintaining the mausoleum and residence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and for protecting his ideological heritage by publishing books and holding commemorations and conferences.

It should also be noted that funds from the government budget are only a part of the income for influential clergymen and the religious institutions they control.

Citizens and businesses also donate tens of millions of dollars to ayatollahs, shrines, and related small and large religious networks. In addition, senior ayatollahs control foundations that are huge economic empires, with real estate holdings and industries.

For example, Astan-e Qods Razavi, the foundation controlling a huge Shi’ite shrine in Mashhad, is the biggest landowner, owning more than 43 percent of the city. Its income was estimated at $150 million annually a decade ago.

All Accused Of ‘Looting’ A Credit Institution Freed On Bail

Iranian bankrupt credit institution, Samen al-Hojaj, undated

All people accused of “looting” a credit and financial institution in Iran have been freed on bail, a justice department official announced in Tehran.

Samen al-Hojaj is a bankrupt credit and financial institution that was taken over by the private Parsian Bank.

According to an outspoken conservative figure and former MP, Ahmad Tavakkoli, most of Samen al-Hojaj customers - who borrowed huge sums of money from it and never paid back - are veteran judges and the children of prominent political and clergy figures.

Tavakkoli had threatened on November 28 to publicly disclose the names of the borrowers if the debts were not repaid.

“The managing director of Samen al-Hojaj has a lot of influence. He’s so powerful that he even managed to get an arrest warrant for the Central Bank of Iran's former governor, Mahmoud Bahmani (2008-2013),” Tavakkoli told reporters.

“Corrupt individuals attract and multiply people of their caliber,” the former MP remarked.

In the last decade, many credit unions or associations have sprung up in Iran, some without a banking license and proper supervision, promising high interests to people and attracting a lot of deposits.

The managing director of Samen al-Hojaj [bankrupt credit institution] has a lot of influence. He’s so powerful that he even managed to get an arrest warrant for the Central Bank of Iran's former governor.
Former MP Ahmad Tavakkoli

Many of these financial institutions reach insolvency, either through reckless investments or handing out huge loans, often under suspicious circumstances.

More than two weeks after Tavakkoli’s threatening comments, Tehran’s Penal Court’s deputy announced on Wednesday, December 14, that all the accused have been freed, on bail.

Tasnim News Agency, run by the Islamic Revolution Guardian Corps (IRGC), cited Mohsen Eftekhari as saying, “The time for their trial has not been set, yet. The investigative procedure on the case against Samen al-Hojaj borrowers is currently underway”.

If what Tavakkoli says is true about the strong connections the accused have, it is not certain that the legal case will proceed in a timely fashion and will have a clear conclusion.

Nearly fifty complainants have already registered their names for a part of the case, while other related parts are still under initial investigation, Eftekhari said without further elaboration.

However, since some of Samen al-Hojaj depositors have received their capital and interest, it is highly unlikely to see the number of the complainants grow, Eftekhari maintained.

The bankrupt credit institution’s caretaker, Parsian Bank had earlier announced in a statement that it is set to repay the depositors of the insolvent lender by prioritizing small depositors on a timetable designed for the purpose.

Samen al-Hojaj was launched in 2001 under the name of Samen al-Hojaj Cooperative for the Educated and soon expanded into a financial empire.

It began operations as a credit institution in 2007. The private institution had 550 branches across the country, twice the number of an average Iranian private commercial bank. There was no information on the company’s stakeholders on its website.

However, according to the Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Samen al-Hojaj went bankrupt after heavily investing in the housing market that soon suffered from stagnation.

The managing director of the institution, Abolfazl Mir-Ali, held membership on the boards of directors at the Iran National Oil Company and a gas and petrochemical company where former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Mohammad Hassan Khamenei, one of the brothers of the Islamic republic’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have seats.

Earlier, several conservatives close to Khamenei had accused Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaign of borrowing money from Samen al-Hojaj.

Samen al-Hojaj is reportedly the second big-name quasi-lender to collapse in Iran, triggering new difficulties for the regulator and the banking industry already struggling under the heavy burden of soured and restructured loans, Financial Tribune reported.

A significant number of financial and credit institutions have recently gone bankrupt in Iran, forcing depositors to hold protest rallies demanding their money back.

Most of these gatherings are staged by people who claim they are victims of systematic deception and fraud by these credit institutions. They say their assets have been either plundered or they have received no interest for their deposits as promised by these institutions.

Death Penalty Rejected For Iranian Mystic Leader - Retrial

Mohammad Ali Taheri, whose death sentence was rejected by Iran's supreme court.

A court in Iran will review the case of the founder of Erfan Halqe, Mohammad Ali Taheri, his lawyer announced on December 12.

Taheri is a spiritual healer and his Erfan Halqe means Circle of Mysticism. He characterizes his school of thought as Inter-universalism.

The review follows the Supreme Court’s rejection of the death sentence issued by a Revolutionary Court, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tababaei disclosed.

Supreme Court judges again rejected a sentence condemning Taheri to death, arguing the verdict issued had been based on faulty investigation, reported state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA).

This marks the second time the Supreme Court has rejected a Revolutionary Court’s death sentence for the mystic leader, citing faulty investigation.

Now, a court of equal rank, Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, has been assigned by the Supreme Court to retry Taheri.

Praising the Supreme Court’s judges as “sagacious,” Taheri’s lawyer said on October 29, “If a court issues an unjust verdict, the Supreme Court weighs the case more thoroughly.”

Taheri, the founder of Irfan-i Halqa, has been behind bars since 2001 and accused of “corruption on Earth.” He was sentenced to death in 2015.

However, three months later, the sentence was overturned by Supreme Court judges who argued that investigations into some of the charges, including insulting the prophet of Islam, apostasy, and collusion against national security, had been faulty.

Taheri was once again condemned to death last August, charged with “corruption on Earth,” a vague term that according to human rights activists is often used by conservative judges in Iranian courts to punish anyone who dares oppose the ruling system.

The United States reacted to reports of the death sentence by saying it was deeply concerned and called on the authorities to reverse the decision.

The U.S. State Department said on September 1 announced that the charges of founding a religious cult and “corruption on Earth” violate Tehran’s obligations to respect and ensure the freedoms of expression and religion or belief.

The statement added that the death penalty should be used only for the most serious of crimes.

“We call on the Iranian government to take whatever steps necessary to reverse Taheri’s conviction and death sentence,” it added.

Amnesty International has also insisted that Taheri is a prisoner of conscience and condemned Iran’s use of capital punishment “for vaguely worded or overly broad offenses, or acts that should not be criminalized at all.”

Tehran dismissed such criticism as part of an effort from the West to heap political pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Taheri calls his school of thought Interuniversalism in English, and was initially allowed to preach and teach in public. His classes and healing sessions were attended by people from all walks of life, including government officials and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ top commanders. Several of his books were published with permission from the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then stepped in, warning against what he called “false mysticism that might lure people away from Islam.”

Khamenei’s allies have labeled the Circle of Mysticism a “deviant sect” while saying Taheri had amassed an illicit fortune through his teachings.

Taheri and his followers have repeatedly dismissed these allegations as baseless.

Iran’s Water Crisis Passes Tipping Point

Iran -- Drought in Khuzestan province, Iran. Undated.

A top Iranian environment official has lambasted the country’s Sixth Development Plan as detrimental to soil and water resources.

“Such plans are forced on the government without taking soil and water capacities into account,” Issa Kalantari, head of the Iranian Environment Department, said on December 11.

At a ceremony celebrating World Soil Day, he said Iran’s limited water and soil resources were endangering its ability to feed the country’s population of more than 80 million.

“Since our level of consumption has been higher than our limited resources, we are going to face soil bankruptcy as we have already experienced in water-related fields,” he said.

Excessive erosion and degrading have seriously endangered Iran’s soil resources, experts maintain.

Describing the country’s laws, including the overarching Sixth Development Plan, as unrealistic in regard to the environment, Kalantari said, “We are using our resources in excess without thinking about how to sustain them.”

The top laws of the land have forced governments to excessively build dams and consume surface and underground water resources. Meanwhile, many parts of Iran have faced unprecedented periods of drought.

According to official statistics, 750,000 wells are operational in Iran, 330,000 of which are illegal.

“Stop repeating the shibboleth and saying our country is great,” Kalantari has said against those who promote population growth, noting, “Our resources are limited. If we are going to have a larger population, we should do it in tandem with our imports.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the main proponent of population growth. In 2014, he issued an edict obliging the heads of Iran’s ruling system to reduce the legal age for marriage and encourage families to have more children.

Kalantari had previously echoed other experts’ warnings, asserting, “Iran’s 8,000-year-old civilization will be destroyed if the level of our water consumption is not reduced.”

The former agriculture minister also cautioned that Iran’s soil resources have reached a tipping point requiring urgent measures.

“When the Iran-Iraq War started, no one considered the consequences of the armed conflict and its bombardments on the unemployment rate, because there was no time to do so. We were facing a much greater problem: the war itself,” Kalantari said in an interview with the government’s official news agency, IRNA. “Today, we’re in a similar situation. We must not consider the unemployment rate among farmers at this point in time, because we’re facing a much more critical problem.”

He further warned that if Iran does not change its approach to water use, the result would be mass migration.

“If water consumption for agriculture remains at this level, in less than 25 years Iran’s eastern and southern areas will be completely deserted, and 50 million people will have to emigrate,” he added.

Blaming the agricultural sector for excessively using Iran’s water resources, Kalantari said, “90 percent to 95 percent of water consumed in the agricultural sector must be reduced; otherwise, the problem will never be solved.”

'We Believed Our Cleric': Pakistani Polio Victim's Regretful Father Urges Others To Use Vaccine

A girl receives polio vaccine drops from a vaccination worker outside her family home in Quetta, Pakistan, in January.

ISLAMABAD -- Five-year-old Mohammad Ashar Aziz will never be able to walk without orthopedic leg braces.

The youngest of three brothers from a village near Islamabad, he is one of just 17 children in the world -- all of them in Pakistan or Afghanistan -- who developed paralysis during 2017 from a wild polio-virus infection.

His father, 41-year-old day laborer Hamid Aziz, is disconsolate because he repeatedly had the chance to immunize Mohammad Ashar for free during the past five years.

Instead, Hamid Aziz says he listened to the advice of a cleric in his village, who announced over loudspeakers of the madrasah, a local Islamic religious school, that the vaccine was “not good” for children’s health, and prevented it from being administered to any of his sons.

Whenever teams of government and international aid workers came to his village as part of a massive polio-eradication campaign, Aziz and his illiterate wife, Huma, hid Mohammad Ashar and his siblings and told the vaccination teams there were no children in their home.

“Why didn’t I give the vaccine to my son?” says Aziz, who quit school at the age of 14 and knew nothing about the polio vaccine.

“We believed what our cleric told us, but now I realize that we’ve not done the right thing for our son,” Aziz tells RFE/RL. “We realize how important it was and that we should have let him get the vaccine.”

Perceptions And Misinformation

Public health studies in Pakistan have shown that maternal illiteracy and low parental knowledge about vaccines -- together with poverty and rural residency -- are factors that most commonly influence whether children are vaccinated against the polio virus.

Pakistan Renews Campaign To Eradicate Polio
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Nooran Afridi, a pediatrician at a private clinic in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, says one of the biggest obstacles to eradicating polio in Pakistan has been “refusals” stemming from “antipolio propaganda” spread by conservative Islamic clerics in “backward areas.”

One common fallacy in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan with low literacy rates is that the vaccine sterilizes young boys.

Antipolio propaganda also has been fueled by distrust in Western governments who fund vaccine programs -- particularly after the CIA staged a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in 2011 to confirm the location of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Since then, some clerics have even issued fatwas saying that children who become paralyzed or die from polio are “martyrs” because they refused to be tricked by a Western conspiracy.

Taliban militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan also have propagandized that Western-made vaccines contain pig fat or alcohol, which are both forbidden in Islam.

Pakistan’s Tehrik-i Taliban has used that false claim to justify its killing of more than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan since a massive polio-eradication effort was launched in 2012.

Massive Eradication Effort

Pakistani health workers, together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international aid organizations, have immunized millions of children across the country since 2012 with more than 100 rounds of the vaccination drive.

More than 38 million children under the age of 5, the most susceptible age group for contracting the contagious disease, were vaccinated in Pakistan during 2017 alone.

A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012.
A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012.

The effort has brought Pakistan’s paralytic polio rate to its lowest level since the early 1990s.

Six of the world’s 17 paralytic cases in 2017 were reported in Pakistan, compared to 20 in 2016 and a peak of 198 cases in 2011.

In Afghanistan, there were 11 paralytic polio cases in 2017, down slightly from 13 the year before.

The WHO, which treats Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single epidemiological block, has warned that the risk of the spread of polio remains high along the countries' 1,500-kilometer shared border -- particularly among nomadic tribes that travel within both countries and across the frontier.

But the WHO also has been encouraged by Pakistan’s eradication efforts in its tribal regions along the border, where no new paralytic cases were reported during 2017.

Completely eradicating polio from Pakistan “will depend on reaching all children who have not been vaccinated,” it said in a late November report.

Both countries demonstrated “strong progress, with independent technical advisory groups underscoring the feasibility of rapidly interrupting transmission of the remaining polio virus strains,” according to the WHO, which also praised closely coordinated Afghan-Pakistani initiatives to identify children missed by vaccination programs and to understand why they were missed.

Almost Gone

Pakistan had hoped to be removed from the list of polio-endemic countries by the end of 2017 by achieving its goal of no new paralytic cases for a year -- a result achieved by Nigeria in October.

Rana Safdar, coordinator for Pakistan’s national Emergency Operations Center for Polio Eradication, announced in April that Pakistan was “about to defeat polio” because of a continued political commitment from Islamabad and support from international and Pakistani partners in the eradication programs.

The next round of mass vaccinations in Pakistan is scheduled for the end of December.

WATCH: Pakistan Launches New Polio Vaccination Drive (from July 2017)

Pakistan Launches New Polio-Vaccination Drive
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Mezhar Nisar, a member of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s polio eradication task force, says he is confident the disease “is on the way to being rooted out from Pakistan.”

“We have addressed all the refusal issues in our overall social-mobilization strategy,” Nisar told RFE/RL. “We have involved religious scholars from the Ulema councils and community-based women health workers. This has brought the number of vaccination refusals to the minimal level. The program is fully on track.”

The Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) on December 8 praised the prime minister’s “hands-on approach” with Pakistani provincial leaders.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication has issued a new training manual for madrasah students that supports polio eradication efforts with practical guidance about engaging with local communities in support of vaccination.

Endpolio Pakistan, which brings nongovernmental and government experts in Pakistan together with international health organizations, says declarations by Muslim scholars in Ulema councils were critical to eliminating new paralytic polio cases during 2017 from Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.

In the town of Akora Khattak in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party chief Maulana Samiul Haq declared a fatwa in late 2013 at the Darul Uloom Haqqania religious seminary, stating that “there is nothing forbidden” in the polio vaccine.

Haq, who had close ties with the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, said it is “the responsibility” of the religious scholars in the Ulema councils "to remove misconceptions about the use of vaccines to protect children from the crippling disease.”

He also publicly declared that Islamic Shari'a law “has made it clear that there is no harm in it. Rather, the treatment is an obligation.”

Other clerics have issued appeals for ordinary citizens, religious scholars, and tribal elders to fully support the polio vaccination initiative across Pakistan so that every child is vaccinated -- insisting that the vaccine's ingredients are, beyond any doubt, permissible under traditional Islamic law.

Hamid Aziz says he wishes he would have had that kind of Islamic instruction when his son was born in 2012.

Instead, Aziz is now struggling on his intermittent wages of about $7 per day to come up with the funds needed to buy the leg braces that his youngest son will need to use for the rest of his life in order to walk.

“Now I am asking other parents to allow the medical workers to administer the polio vaccine to their children,” Aziz told RFE/RL. “It is good for your children.”

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Ahmad Ullah in Islamabad

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