Leading Iranian Trade Union Activist Spends May Day in Prison

May 1, 2012

May Day honors the contributions that hard-working men and women make to society everywhere around the world. In Iran, those who advocate peacefully on behalf of their fellow workers are likely to wind up spending May Day in prison.

Reza Shahabi is a trade unionist and the treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed).  He has been held in detention since his arrest on 12 June 2010. In April 2012, he was sentenced to six years in prison and a five-year ban on public activity. His sentence was handed down by Judge Abolghassem Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court who is notorious for the harsh sentences he hands to peaceful civil society and political activists. Mr. Shahabi was convicted under charges of “propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding against  national security.”

Amnesty International is gravely concerned about Reza Shahabi’s health. After spending several months in solitary confinement, he was transferred to a 12-person cell inside Evin Prison’s Ward 209, which is controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence. Mr. Shahabi has embarked on several hunger strikes to protest the conditions in which he is being held and the denial of proper medical care. Doctors told him after an MRI that some of the vertebra in his neck have deteriorated and are in need of surgery followed by six months of complete rest, otherwise his left side could become paralyzed. Reportedly, his back and spinal cord were damaged as a result of heavy beatings he received following his arrest. However prison officials have not allowed him to receive appropriate medical treatment and have denied requests for him to receive a much-needed medical furlough. Sadly, his mother died in March during Nowruz (the Iranian New Year) this year and Reza Shahabi was not permitted to see her before her death, even though it is traditional for prisoners to receive brief furloughs to celebrate Nowruz with their families.

Independent trade unions are not permitted in Iran, which fails to uphold its obligations under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 22 (1) of which states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests,” and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 8 of which guarantees the “right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice.”

The Syndicate of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed) was banned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Workers resumed the union’s activities in 2004, although it is not legally recognized. Activists with the union have faced persistent persecution by authorities, including its leader Mansour Ossanlu who was released on medical furlough in 2011 after enduring a long imprisonment.

Other unions have also faced government harassment, merely for peacefully organizing workers to seek improved working conditions. These include the Haft Tepe Sugar Cane Company Trade Union and Iran Teachers Trade Associations. Rasoul Badaghi, directing board member of The Teachers’ Union of Iran, was also recently sentenced to six years imprisonment and a ban on his union activities.

Amnesty International is very concerned about a draft reform of the Labor Code that would further undermine the right to freely form trade unions by continuing to give governmental security and intelligence bodies control over the approval of candidates permitted to stand for election to the leadership committees of workers’ bodies.

Iranian workers are being squeezed from all sides. Many haven’t been paid in months, while they contend with government subsidy reductions, fear of unemployment, inflation, and the effect of international sanctions against Iran. Tragically, a number of workers have committed suicide recently because of distress that they are unable to support their families. The government’s hostility towards peaceful civil society activism of any kind prevents workers from exercising their right to organize to improve their increasingly dire situation.