On Sunday, the Washington Times published an article focusing specifically on these two activists for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. It quoted the 30 year-old Madadzadeh, who spent five years in prison for his political activities, as saying that he witnessed more repression since the election of President Hassan Rouhani than any other time. He emphasized that this increase in reprisals against fellow activists coincided with the Rouhani administration’s explicit attempts to appear more moderate on the international stage.
The message of these and other such media coverage has been that the US appears to have fallen for a deliberate ploy, and is now using it as justification for failure to defend the Iranian opposition or advance its cause of democratic regime change.
An editorial published on Monday at Townhall provocatively urged the US government to “stop appeasing Iran’s ayatollahs as they crackdown on dissidents.” It called attention to the case of Mahmoud Azimi and Fatemeh Ziae as an example of a surge in arrests of political activists, especially the PMOI. Thus it described the very atmosphere from which Madadzadeh and Kohandel fled, and the very atmosphere that the Obama administration is accused of ignoring.
In a syndicated column, Dana Milbank took this criticism further on Sunday, accusing the Obama administration of ignoring not only the plight of Iranian dissidents, but also the plight of American citizens imprisoned in Iran on political grounds. Milbank noted that Obama’s national security advisor and his chief of staff have both tended to urge less engagement with the Iranian regime at virtually every turn, even when other administration officials such as UN ambassador Susan Power and Secretary of State John Kerry sought to put more pressure on the regime to check its behavior.
This situation arguably leaves the victims of Iran’s human rights abuses dependent on dissident organizations, NGOs, and their own networks of activists to seriously publicize their stories and urge international action. And such activism does not appear to be in short supply, even in the face of the further repression that domestic advocates may face.
On Monday, IranWire reported that the families of political prisoners have been gathering in front of Iran’s notorious Evin Prison each Saturday to protest against poor conditions in the facility and the systematic mistreatment of their loved ones.
While this report may point to a surge of activism, it also seems to reiterate that there is indeed a corresponding surge of repression. It indicates that one of the political prisoners named at these rallies, Omid Alishenas, has been detained without trial or bail for over a year on charges related to his possessing a satellite television receiver and copies of foreign films including a documentary on the plight of the Baha’i religious minority.
These slight indicators of interest in foreign media and sympathy for a marginalized group have been deemed sufficient to justify charges of obscenity and propaganda. Such incidents arguably reflect not only a surge of enforcement by the state’s security apparatus, but also an ideological crackdown that has also entailed empowerment of hardline civilian militias and more aggressive segregation of men and women in public spaces.
There are ready examples of political prisoners who are arguably being targeted in each ideological category. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported on Monday that prominent female human rights activist Narges Mohammadi was still suffering from a worsening neurological condition and still being denied essential medical treatment while awaiting a trial that has been delayed at least three times.
Last Thursday, the Campaign reported that Mohammad Ali Taheri, the leader of a frequently persecuted religious group known as Spiritual Circle or Interuniversalism had surpassed the two-month mark for his hunger strike protesting his treatment of that of his fellow worshippers. Similarly, the Human Rights Activists News Agency reported on Sunday that Mohammad Amin Abdullahi, a political prisoner in the tenth year of a sentence stemming from membership in Kurdish groups, had been on a hunger strike as well, forgoing food for two weeks and fluids for one.
While these stories call attention to specific instances of repression, they also indicate the activism and limited media coverage for that activism that serves to advocate for political prisoners in absence of serious responses from Western governments.