By Mahmoud Hakamian
Hunger strikes are a common occurrence in the Iranian prisons, where conditions are notoriously harsh and political prisoners in particular are prone to chronic mistreatment and extrajudicial punishment by prison guards and judicial authorities.
As a form of protest, hunger strikes often succeed in garnering significant attention, especially when they are protracted over a period of weeks or involve highly prominent personalities.
However, it is comparatively rare for them to elicit actual concessions from Iranian authorities, who sometimes resort to deception or false assurances in order to bring a halt to protests and impede the growth of public sympathy.
There are two prominent hunger strikes underway at this moment, each of which has surpassed three weeks. And although these are certainly not the only protests of their kind, they were separately featured in reports this week by IW and CHRI.
Both cases reflect similar issues in the Islamic Republic, not limited to the issues of prisoner abuse and the general state of the Iranian criminal justice system.
In the first place, IW reported on Tuesday that Farhad Meysami was nearing the 50th day of his hunger strike, which began on August 1 as a protest “against illegal handling of his own case and against all cases based on trumped up charges in recent years,” according to a statement from a personal friend.
Meysami also sought to draw specific attention to the lack of due process in criminal proceedings, particularly those in which political detainees are barred from selecting any attorney other than those included on a pre-approved list provided by the judiciary.
His initial arrest was apparently based upon his previous social activism and particularly his advocacy for the rights of women. A case was then built against him based in part on the confiscation of badges from his home that read, “I am against forced hijab.”
In this way, his case is closely related to that of Nasrin Sotoudeh, the human rights lawyer whose hunger strike was highlighted on Tuesday by CHRI. In recent months, she too has been targeted by security forces on the basis of her advocacy for women who have protested against forced veiling, as well as other prisoners who have been refused access to their chosen attorneys.
Both Meysami and Sotoudeh began their actions as “wet” hunger strikes, but after 37 days of inattention from regime authorities, Meysami began to refuse fluids as well. Sotoudeh’s hunger strike has surpassed three weeks, but Meysami’s has now reached the 50-day mark and he recently communicated with loved ones in order to implore them not to urge him against continuing.
Friends and relatives of both these political prisoners have reportedly been subject to pressure from regime authorities, and on September 4, they arrested Reza Khandan at his home and charged him with collusion against national security, propaganda against the regime, and encouraging women to remove their hijabs. His arrest is significant to both of the aforementioned cases, as he is Sotoudeh’s husband and a close personal friend of Meysami.
But although this and other instances of harassment are evidently intended to compel the hunger striking prisoners to end their protests, it is quite possible that they will have the opposite effect.
According to IranWire, which spoke to Khandan before his arrest, when his wife was asked what would cause her to end her hunger strike, one of her first demands was Meysami’s release. Conversely, when Meysami set September 23 as the date of his dry hunger strike, he cited Khandan’s arrest and the harassment of his sister and two fellow civil rights activists as leading motivators.
Such stories are seemingly indicative of a broader pattern of defiance that has prevailed within the Iranian activist community, in the face of rising levels of domestic repression.
This pattern extends to much of the population, given that anti-government protests have continued throughout numerous cities and towns over the past several months, despite the fact that a nationwide uprising that began in December was largely suppressed by mid-January following 8,000 arrests and more than 50 deaths.