Insider news & Analysis in Iran
Crackdowns in Iran

By Mahmoud Hakamian

On Saturday, the Associated Press drew upon reports from Iranian state media to add to the catalogue of political prisoners serving sentences in the Islamic Republic. It named Hengameh Shahidi as one of the latest targets in the Iranian regime’s crackdown on dissent, which is ongoing and possibly accelerating despite push back from a domestic protest movement, as well as pressure from foreign governments and human rights activists.

According to the AP, Shahidi has been sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison, although little detail was disclosed about the charges against her or the evidence that was used in securing a conviction. But the likelihood of those charges being political in nature is demonstrated by the defendant’s status as a pro-reform journalist and her past run-ins with Iranian authorities.

Although the latest sentence is by far the longest that she has received, Shahidi has reportedly served a number of sentences in connection to her journalistic activities, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Green Movement protests.

Those mass demonstrations in the capital city of Tehran constituted arguably the greatest challenge to Iran’s theocratic regime up to that point. Now, the country is in the midst of unrest that some pro-democracy activists have portrayed as even more significant, by virtue of its duration, its geographic diffusion, and the participation of a wide range of communities and demographics, including the rural poor as well as the traditionally more politically active urban middle class.

This unrest began at the end of last year with an economic protest in the city of Mashhad, before spreading to encompass every major city and town, as well as giving rise to unprecedented anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator.”

Although the initial wave of protests was largely suppressed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Intelligence Ministry before the end of January, a number of protests sprang up afterward to repeat the same grievances and demands. In March, the leader of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, Maryam Rajavi, called for a “year full of uprisings” created in the image of the January uprising.

The PMOI and other opposition groups have subsequently worked to maintain some continuity among broad-minded anti-government protests and other, more targeted demonstrates such as labor strikes and acts of civil disobedience by opponents of hardline policies such as the forced veiling of Iranian women. One common feature of these various protests is their clear defiance of repressive measures – something that was highlighted last week by the PMOI’s parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

As part of a long series of updates about the “Iran Uprisings,” the NCRI reported that Ali Nejati, the former president of the Haft Tappeh sugarcane workers’ union, had been arrested and beaten by security forces as part of an effort to disrupt the weeks-long protest at that plant, where employees are demanding approximately four months of back pay.

According to the NCRI, workers responded to the arrest by gathering outside a government building and demanding the release of Nejati and other political prisoners. Protesters reportedly also clashed with the IRGC and shouted slogans to disrupt a speech by a member of parliament who visited in an effort to diffuse the situation.

Reports such as these are indicative of escalating tensions between the Iran’s government and its people, and these have not gone unnoticed by the international community. Reports of individual arrests such as that of Ms. Shahidi are one aspect of foreign attention to this issue, and they continue to prompt formal statements and calls to action in defense of protesters and other members of the activist community who have been targeted in Tehran’s ongoing crackdown.

One such statement was issued by United Nations human rights activists last week. Jurist Legal News reported upon this on Thursday, noting that the statement emphasized the particular crackdown on those who have publicly protested forced veiling in recent months, and on those who have sought to defend such activism. “We urge the [Iranian] Government to immediately release all those who have been imprisoned for promoting and protecting the rights of women,” it read.

By virtue of her identity as both a woman and an advocate of comprehensive political reform, Hengameh Shahidi no doubt stands out as a feminist figure in the Islamic Republic, and her sentencing may be regarded as a symbol of Tehran’s continued defiance of global criticism, coming in the wake of the UN experts’ statement. In that sense, it strongly suggests that more of the same arrests can be expected in the near future. But as other reports and statements underscore, women’s rights activists are by no means alone in facing this continued danger.

EA Worldview sought to keep international attention focused on another such group last week, as it highlighted public comments by Iranian officials which indicate that the regime is not backing down from its repression of environmental activists. At least nine such individuals were arrested nearly a year ago and one, Kavous Seyed-Emami died in custody under suspicious circumstances. It was recently revealed that five of them are now facing charges of “spreading corruption on Earth,” which could result in the death penalty.

Friday’s report quoted Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri as saying that the environmental researchers in question had been operating as agents of the United States and Israel. Montazeri insisted that “documents showing their infiltration [are] all available,” but although the defendants have been in pre-trial detention for nearly a year, no such documents or other evidence have been presented.

The allegations against them appear to consist of authorities’ assumption that the researchers’ camera traps were used to spy on missile sites and not to monitor the endangered Asiatic tiger, as reported.

It has been suggested that the allegations actually stem from frustration by the IRGC over criticism of the environmental impact of the paramilitary’s land use, including its construction of new missile sites.

Additionally, the crackdown on environmentalists may be closely related attacks on another targeted group – Iranian-Western dual nationals – of which some prominent environmental experts including Seyed-Emami are (or were) a part.

Indeed, this possibility was underscored by Montazeri’s remarks, which reiterated regime talking points that have been prominent since nuclear negotiations were still ongoing between Iran and six world powers, including the US.

These negotiations spurred concerns among hardliners regarding the dilution of Tehran’s identity as a bulwark against Western influence. As such, the IRGC and high-ranking officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have repeatedly warned of foreign “infiltration” into Iran’s social, political, and economic life.

This supposed threat seems to be a motivating factor behind the crackdown on environmental activism, but in an editorial for the Washington Post, former Iranian political prisoner Jason Rezaian described the regime’s vague claims of US/Israeli espionage both “implausible” and “unsophisticated,” adding that these are “both characteristics of the approach used by the hard-line group behind the arrests.”

Rezaian has unique authority to speak about this and about the Iranian government’s attacks on dual nationals inside the country, having been held there for nearly two years on the basis of his role as a journalist with high-placed contacts in the West. And although he was released in a prisoner swap in January 2016, just as the Iran nuclear deal was going into effect, Tehran has continued its pattern of hostage-taking.

According to another Washington Post article, at least 20 persons with citizenship or dual national status in the US or Europe are currently being held in Iranian prisons. In total, at least 50 have been taken captive since 2007.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation recently issued a report on this situation, which concluded that the charges leveled against prominent dual nationals in recent years were clearly unfounded, and clearly designed specifically to extract concessions from foreign governments. This conclusion was reaffirmed by the families of those hostages in the form of an open letter that was published on Monday.

NBC News identified this letter as part of a larger, concerted effort by victims’ families to secure their release and to urge more serious international action on the matter. Among the measures recommended by these advocates is the cancellation of visas for the children and families of high-ranking Iranian officials. And speaking more generally last week, former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Terzi wrote in a US News op-ed that relations between the Islamic Republic and the West should be contingent upon “substantial, tangible improvements” in the Iranian government’s human rights record, toleration of dissent, and so on.

Terzi noted that 150 Members of the European Parliament had recently joined in urging this shift in diplomatic strategy. But their statement to that effect condemned the “silence” of Western leaders. Similarly, the families of detained dual nationals expressed frustration with the approach that that leadership has taken so far. Even the Trump administration, with its comparatively hardline Iran strategy, declined to link recently-granted sanctions waivers to the release of the half dozen Americans currently in Iranian custody.

It remains to be seen whether pressure from families, lawmakers and other activists succeeds in generating more foreign pressure regarding Tehran’s crackdowns on dual nationals, environmentalists, labor organizers, women’s rights activists, and so on. But with unrest still escalating inside the country, proponents of greater pressure will likely argue that the stakes are increasing. Hinting at this conclusion, the BBC published an article on Sunday looking back at Iran’s “chain murders” – a far-reaching campaign of assassinations in the 1990s, which marked the clerical regime’s response to a rising tide of domestic dissent.

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