Advocacy for Minorities Grows as Iran Cracks Down

The latter issue was also highlighted on Tuesday when an Iranian human rights group reported that last week’s finale match of Iran’s Premier League soccer season had demonstrated the persistence of the country’s ban on female attendance of public sporting events. The report noted that as with a variety of other such events, women attempted to enter the Azadi National Stadium to watch the game but were stopped by police.

The group went on to detail some of the history of this issue, noting that the ban has been technically in place since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, but has been much more vigorously enforced in recent years, especially under the supposedly moderate presidency of Hassan Rouhani. During his roughly three years in office, women have been universally barred from soccer matches, as well as from volleyball and basketball games at which the ban had previously been relaxed.

During that same time, some women have attempted to gain access to stadiums as a form of social protest and have been arrested and charged with such crimes as “propaganda against the regime.” This charge was famously levied against British-Iranian law graduate Ghoncheh Ghavami in 2014, for instance, leading to her being held largely in solitary confinement for several months, before being sentenced to one year in prison and being banned from travel for two years.

This and other such cases have not stopped women from trying to gain access to stadiums either as a form of protest or simply out of a desire to enjoy live sports as a pastime. This fact was reiterated by IranWire on Monday when it reported that at least one young woman had sneaked into the finale match at Azadi Stadium by posing as a boy, and had posted pictures of herself at the match online.

But the prior experiences of women like Ghavami have led to the young woman receiving warnings about her potential arrest, alongside various statements of support and admiration. IranWire indicates that this danger is strengthened by the fact that a variety of leading clerics are extremely insistent about the persistence of the ban and about its religious rationale. However, the danger for an individual young woman who is apparently not an activist may be comparatively less serious than for someone like Ghavami, whose status as a dual national opened her up to familiar scapegoating of activists as foreign-backed “infiltrators.”

Thus, the stadium ban tangentially highlights the ongoing threats not only to women but also to dual nationals. This issue was also highlighted by the group on Monday when it reported upon the case of Nazak Afshar, an Iranian-French dual national and former staffer of the French embassy in Tehran, who is currently awaiting a ruling on the appeal of her six-year sentence on unspecified charges.

Afshar is among those Iranian-European individuals who had left the Islamic Republic under repressive conditions and had returned after President Rouhani promised that Iranian expatriates would be welcomed back into the country and would be not be subject to additional legal pressures. But Afshar’s case and a number of others have indicated that these promises were untrue, and that the return of expatriates has been viewed as an opportunity to punish people who are regarded as having supported the 2009 Green Movement or other activist causes.

The group adds that in addition to being singled out for arrest due to her dual citizenship, Afshar was subjected to familiar harsh treatment while under interrogation. This caused her to lose consciousness several times, after which she was denied medical treatment for the effects of the interrogation and for preexisting health problems.

Also on Monday, the group called attention to another political prisoner who had been similarly blocked from receiving essential medical care, in this case for severe pancreatitis. Amir Amirgholi’s father told the group that his son was never allowed to visit a hospital or to even check his blood sugar levels during 18 months of imprisonment.

Amirgholi is awaiting appeal of a 21-year sentence on a range of vague charges, all related to his political activities. His mistreatment can easily be interpreted as part of a general project of applying extra-judicial pressure on political prisoners, sometimes putting them at risk of death even in absence of the frequently overused death penalty.

However, yet another report published on Monday by the International group pointed out that in the cases of some political prisoners, authorities may continue to push for the death penalty after the person has been convicted, or even after he has completed his sentence. This is apparently the situation in the case of Mohammad Ali Taheri, the founder of a spiritual movement known as Erfan-e Halgheh, or Spiritual Circle, who completed a five year sentence more than two months ago but has since been held in temporary detention pending consideration of new accusations levied against him.

Taheri’s sister was quoted as saying that the authorities apparently “insist on hanging him,” and that toward that end they have invented a change of affiliation with a banned Marxist organization that has not been seriously active since the time of the Islamic Revolution.

While the previously mentioned cases highlight the ongoing plight of women, dual nationals, and political activists in Iran, the continued pressure on Taheri highlights the eagerness with which Iranian authorities have been cracking down on religious minorities alongside all of these other groups.

At the same time, an article that was published by IranWire on Tuesday suggested that this religious persecution has at times backfired on the regime, by bringing marginalized religious minorities into contact with other prominent political prisoners, thereby increasing their exposure and the overall social understanding of groups that might otherwise have only been presented to the public through official state media.

IranWire emphasizes that in the case of the heavily persecuted Baha’i faith, this exposure has gained them arguably powerful advocates, including the Faezeh Hashemi, a daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and a former political prisoner herself. Hashemi was among a number of non-Baha’i figures who visited the Baha’i leader Fariba Kamalabadi when she was released on a five-day furlough from prison this month, after serving eight years as a prisoner of conscience.

IranWire adds that despite the fact that the Baha’i are so aggressively persecuted that the regime has special organizations dedicated to eradicating their influence, a growing number of Iranian clerics are remaining silent instead of condemning the community, a fact that ostensibly reflects awareness of the advocacy that has grown up in response to this persecution.

In short, the article suggests that Iran is “losing [its] battle against the Baha’is,” thereby suggesting that similar outcomes are possible with respect to other traditionally persecuted minorities.