By Edward Carney
Last week marked the beginning of a new Iranian calendar year. The first day of spring coincides with the holiday Nowruz, meaning “new day” in Persian. Some organizations with an interest in Iranian political affairs and human rights issues recognized the occasion with retrospectives on the prior year or commentaries about what might be expected in the year ahead. Some individuals who are close to these issues did the same, as in the case of civil rights activist and political prisoner Sepideh Gholian, who wrote an open letter from Sepidar Prison discussing her situation in the context of the overall crackdown on protest and dissent in the Islamic Republic.
IranWire published the text of her brief letter along with a summary of her case. Gholian made international headlines along with fellow activist and prisoner Esmail Bakhshi in late 2018 and early 2019 after their participation in labor protests at the Haft Tapeh sugarcane factory. Both were arrested for their activities and experienced torture while in detention, before being released on bail. They were separately rearrested in February after both spoke out publicly about their experiences.
Their families have also reportedly come under threat as Iranian authorities strive to suppress public awareness of the torture and arbitrary detention. But Gholian and Bakhshi have been the subject of multiple calls to action by groups like Amnesty International, which was quick to warn that they were in imminent danger of further torture after their re-arrest.
Despite ongoing threats to both her and her loved ones, Gholian’s letter proclaims that she no longer thinks about being released on bail again, and that this is far less important to her than sharing her pain with fellow political prisoners. No doubt some of them shared their own pain with the outside world through similar letters on the occasion of Nowruz. After all, the Center for Human Rights in Iran marked the occasion by pointing out that this is a common practice, and by providing excerpts from some of the letters the Center has translated into English over the years.
Many of these letters have been addressed to the prisoners’ loved ones, as when Arash Sadeghi wrote to his wife, who would later be imprisoned herself, “My love, think about a tomorrow when everyone will have a share of happiness… How small this prison is compared to our attainable dream of happiness and freedom.” But Sadeghi is well-known for carrying on his activism from behind the bars of Evin Prison, and it is fair to assume that such Nowruz letters have steadily had an impact on public perceptions, both among Iran’s civilian population and around the world.
This was the implication of an article written by the former Iranian-Canadian political prisoner Maziar Bahari and published in IW. His article to mark the Nowruz holiday focused on how it has been marked specifically by persons who have been imprisoned for their membership in the Baha’i religious community. Bahari suggests that the majority of Iranians were inattentive to the plight of the Baha’i in the early days of the Islamic Republic but that their sympathy has grown over the years, as human rights advocates highlighted the situation and the various instances of individuals Baha’is being arrested for their defiance of the regime’s unofficial ban on the minority’s access to higher education.
Pointing to a traditional practice of tending to wheat sprouts around the time of Nowruz, Bahari says that Baha’i prisoners are known for growing the plant, known in Persian as sabzeh, in the windows of their cells. With patient care being needed to cultivate the plant, Bahari writes, “It reminds most Iranians of their glorious past, their hopes for a brighter future and, of course, of the current situation of their country.” But he also points out that “a number of these sabzeh plants are thrown to the floor and trampled by sadistic prison wardens.” This speaks to the markedly different ways in which Nowruz is recognized by those who are fighting repression in the Islamic Republic and by those who are perpetuating it.
Emphasizing that same contrast, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that in the roughly three weeks leading up to the Iranian New Year, at least 13 prisoners were executed and at least one of these executions was carried out in public. The article also suggested that this may reflect a turn toward even more hardline tendencies within the Iranian judiciary following this month’s appointment of Ebrahim Raisi as the new head of that institution.
“During his speech at the inauguration ceremony, Raisi emphasized on the course of massacre, execution, and suppression to safeguard the regime,” IHRM noted.
As well as having demonstrated a penchant for corporal and capital punishment during his time as a public prosecutor, Raisi earned the condemnation of human rights groups through his participation in the death commissions of 1988 that have been deemed responsible for approximately 30,000 executions over the course of a months-long massacre of political prisoners.
Raisi’s appointment as judiciary head was given a great deal of public discussion and the implicit rejection of international human rights standards might be seen as an extension of the intimidation tactics that are on display in the regime’s executions and particularly its public executions.
The website for the Iran Human Rights organization acknowledged that the rate of public executions actually decreased in 2018 relative to other years, primarily or entirely because of changes in the judiciary’s sentencing standards for certain non-violent drug crimes. But the same article notes that the change may not be permanent and that there were five known public executions in the first two weeks of 2019 alone.
Many executions go unreported by the judiciary and it can take time for human rights advocates to assemble accurate information, so the current trend in executions at Nowruz may remain unknown for some time. But in the run-up to the holiday, concerns about possible trends were already well established.
Iran Human Rights reported that some of the latest known executions were carried out as punishment for vague charges like “enmity against God” or “spreading corruption on Earth.” The latter charge has notably been levelled against four out of eight conservationists whose mass arrest in early 2018 has become a prominent case study in the regime’s repression of actual and perceived dissent, which may continue to escalate as Iran enters a new calendar year.