By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Over the past few years, several brutal cases of mistreatment of dogs and other animals in Iran have gone viral on social media, sparking rare public protests and calls for legislation to protect animals and punish those who harm them. Those calls are now on their way to being answered, as the country's first draft legislation against animal cruelty has been prepared for consideration by parliament.
April 2015 file photo: Protests grow over film of stray dogs dying in agony
Jafar Kazempur, who oversees the drafting of bills and regulations with the judiciary, told Mizanonline.ir on November 11 that the bill would ban torture and the harming of animals no matter the motivation.
It would ban the torture and harassment of animals, sexual abuse, unnecessary surgical procedures, unapproved scientific testing, and mutilation. The exact penalties for violating the proposed law are not known.
"To decrease animal cruelty, criminal enforcement was needed, and in that regard the bill was drafted," Kazempur told the judiciary-affiliated website.
The moves came following the emergence of graphic evidence of animal cruelty in recent years in a country where, according to Islamic law, dogs are considered dirty and are often treated as lesser creatures.
One amateur video posted online shows men in masks injecting stray dogs with a syringe containing a substance believed to be acid. The animals whine and cry before dying in agony.
The gruesome killing was reportedly documented by activists in Shiraz in 2015.
In another video, a man said to be a hunter is seen brutally beating his dog. The dog jumps into the back of a large truck. The man follows the dog and beats it with a shovel as the animal cries out in pain.
The graphic scenes were recorded in 2016 in the northern province of Golestan.
The videos were widely shared on social media and led to protests in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran. Amid the outcry, officials promised action, including a campaign to gather 1 million signatures in support of legislation to curb animal abuse.
In 2016, an unprecedented meeting was reportedly held that focused on the "legal vacuum" the country faces in dealing with mistreatment and torture of animals. By this autumn, authorities were announcing the drafting of the bill, which would be an amendment to the Islamic Penal Law.
It's a far cry from 2014, when some lawmakers proposed a bill that would punish those who walk their dogs in public with 74 lashes and a fine of more than $3,500.
Farhad Dabiri, a senior adviser to Iran's Environment Department, told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that a protest against animal abuse that was held last year in front of the department's offices convinced Massoumeh Ebtekar, who then headed the organization, to prepare a bill.
Tehran-based animal rights activist Maryam Sanei says the measure is the culmination of years of effort by many.
"Many animal rights activists, environmental activists, many have been involved, those who took part in protests, artists who helped us," she told RFE/RL.
Sanei says she is hopeful that the bill will finally result in a much-needed law.
"Ten years ago, no one thought that we would have animal shelters in Iran, that people would express support for dogs, or that we would have the culture to feed stray dogs and cats," she said. "No one thought it was possible. But it happened.
"I believe that the bill will be passed in the coming years and that we will have a law against the harming of animals," she added.
Others, however, are less optimistic.
"This is being presented as an amendment to the Islamic Penal Law. It is not strong enough and can't effectively stop cruelty against animals as, based on what we hear, in the first instance offenders will face a warning and written commitment," a rights activist who declined to be identified out of fear of retribution told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Animal rights activists in Shiraz protest against the culling of dogs in 2015.
He also said that it was unclear when the bill is slated for discussion in parliament.
"Many issues with far less importance are quickly discussed and passed in the parliament," he said.
Another activist said that although he would like to see ironclad measures, the fact that a bill has been drafted at all is a positive step.
He said it demonstrates that efforts by activists to raise awareness about animal rights are bearing fruit and that societal attitudes are slowly changing.
"Not long ago, whenever we would visit the [poorer neighborhood] of Tehran, we would see kids gathering stones and sticks to abuse cats and stray dogs. Nowadays, there are far fewer such scenes," he told RFE/RL under the condition that he not be identified.
Speaking to the government daily Iran, lawmaker Yahia Kamalipur said the draft bill will "receive attention" once it reaches the judiciary commission of the parliament.
"We hope to find a major solution despite the fact that we currently have some 40 bills and plans in the commission," Kamalipur was quoted as saying on December 11.
Public sympathy when it comes to the plight of animals appears to be rising in parallel with the rise of dog ownership, denounced by religious hard-liners as an imitation of decadent Western culture. The dog ownership trend is reportedly more evident among middle- and upper-class citizens in major cities.
A number of activists document the mistreatment of dogs and cats on the popular apps Telegram and Instagram and ask for help in treating and feeding injured animals.
One activist boasting several thousand followers on Instagram told RFE/RL that he's been taking care of neglected stray dogs and neglected pets in the Iranian capital with the help of private donations from concerned citizens.
Lawmakers have also jumped on the bandwagon of late, criticizing "bloody animal fights," an apparent reference to illegal fighting contests.
The number of animal shelters run with public help is also increasing, including one in the holy city of Mashhad.
Radio Farda broadcaster Mohammad Zarghami contributed to this report.
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