Mutual Push-back from Tehran and Activists over Political Imprisonment, Hunger Strikes

Far from releasing prominent political prisoners, the regime apparently remains committed to a crackdown that is swelling their ranks, sometimes by means that are as illegal or nearly as illegal as those utilized in the cases of Mousavi and Karroubi, who were confined to their homes without trial or charge.

As one recent example of the judiciary and security agencies flaunting the law, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that Ahmad Montazeri, the son of the late ayatollah who opposed the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, had effectively been kidnapped to serve his sentence, instead of being summoned by legal means.

Montazeri’s wife indicates that he received no formal notice from the judiciary and was in fact still awaiting a verdict on his appeal. Officials asked him to visit the court for unspecified reasons, as they had done before, but when he arrived they simply detained him and ordered him to begin serving six years in prison. She also suggested that repetitive, unsubstantiated accusations against Montazeri demonstrate that “the court has been getting orders from a higher authority and the verdict was dictated to the judge.”

The younger Montazeri, a religious cleric like his father, was initially sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges of acting against national security, disclosing state secrets, and spreading propaganda. The “propaganda” and “states secrets” in his case was an audio recording of his father criticizing then-colleagues in the clerical regime for committing “the greatest crime of the Islamic Republic” through their participation in the 1988 massacre, which primarily targeted the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

As well as lifting a veil of silence that had been kept over the massacre, the recording helped to clarify that leading regime officials including founding cleric Ruhollah Khomeini had conspired for years in an attempt to destroy the PMOI. Notably, in spite of 30,000 people being put to death in the summer of 1988, the organization was not destroyed but continues to thrive to this day, now as the chief constituent of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

An article published on Tuesday suggests that this outcome would come as no surprise to many of those people who were tortured for their political or revolutionary activities under the Shah’s regime, prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The article acknowledged that torture and political violence were somewhat effective during that era in the sense that they helped to ferret out political networks working toward the Shah’s overthrow. But it also explained that the brutality of that torture only served to galvanize the opposition and make the survivors of Iranian prisons “more resolute.”

The same article points out that while the Shah’s harsh interrogation methods are comparable to those utilized today by the Islamic Republic, the torture generally ended after the sentencing of a prisoner. This is decidedly not the case under today’s system, where Iranian prisons are notorious for their inhumane conditions, exacerbated by routine beatings and degrading treatment, particularly directed against political prisoners.

Numerous recent reports attest to this fact, among them the International Campaign’s report on the case of Robin Shahini, a dual national and prospective American graduate student who was arrested last summer while visiting family in Iran and subsequently sentenced to a staggering 18 years in prison on charges including “acting against national security.” The reasons for his arrest were never made clear, and the judiciary built their case against him largely on the basis of his casual political commentary on social media, and the simple fact that he had lived in the United States for over 15 years.

The International Campaign points out that Shahini’s dual-national identity has also led to him being singled out by prison guards and by hardened criminals, both of which have regularly harassed him since his arrest. This situation, together with the overall injustice of his case, prompted Shahini to initiate a hunger strike on February 15, thereby joining a variety of other political prisoners who have used this means to bring attention to their cases and in some cases to win small concessions from the judiciary.

But in so doing, he has also further singled himself out in the eyes of regime authorities who are keen to crack down on these displays of dissent and to reiterate Supreme Leader Khamenei’s rejection of national (and international) reconciliation. Amidst the recent surge of hunger strikes and the popular protests that emerged in support of those efforts, authorities moved some hunger strikers and would-be protestors into solitary confinement, both as protest against those actions and in order to halt outside access to information about their conditions and protests. The International Campaign pointed out in another report that this is now the case with Ahmadreza Jalili, an Iranian-born physician who had been living in Sweden but was arrested while attending a conference in his homeland.

Jalali ended a previous hunger strike after receiving assurances that his case would be reviewed and that he would be granted a speedy trial. But not only did this not come to pass, authorities began to threaten him with a predetermined death sentence. Subsequently, the judge in his case dismissed Jalali’s lawyer without explanation and refused to accept any chosen replacements, after which Jalali initiated a hunger strike on the same day as Robin Shahini. Judiciary officials quickly responded with further punitive measures, placing the Iranian-Swedish dual national in solitary confinement.

The International Campaign notes, “The Judiciary’s ongoing imprisonment of dual nationals contradicts Rouhani’s repeated calls for expatriates to return to Iran. The growing number of arrests also reflects hardliners’ efforts to prevent the engagement with the West that the Rouhani administration has sought to encourage.”

There is reason to believe that these trends are still accelerating. The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that for reasons that are unclear, the Iranian regime had undertaken new efforts to discredit and demonize one of the several dual nationals currently serving prison terms in Iran. The commander of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently claimed that Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national with American permanent resident status, had confessed to “encouraging decadence” in Iranian society.

Like many dual nationals and other political prisoners, the exact nature of the charges against Zakka was not clear. His advocates have taken strong issue with the fact that he was arrested after traveling to the country for a cyber security conference upon the invitation of the Iranian government. But his speech to that conference dealt with the role of women in the technology field, a fact that might be a clue to the motives of the regime or the IRGC, especially in light of the fact that the IRGC specifically accused him of trying to corrupt women and families.

Zakka’s Washington-based lawyer, Jason Poblete vigorously denied any notion of his client having confessed to wrongdoing, according to Naharnet. Furthermore, with language reminiscent of Ahmad Montazeri’s wife and other defenders of political prisoners, Poblete declared that Zakka was more a hostage than a prisoner.

Zakka’s possible entrapment and Montazeri’s illegal detention might both be seen as being indicative of the Iranian regime’s fear of missing opportunities to demonstrate effortless control over Iranian society. The efforts to suppress and conceal hunger strikes can be seen in the same light. And all of these things are in turn indicative of the regime’s awareness of growing resistance to official commands.

In its report on Montazeri’s arrest, the International Campaign suggests that officials might have been worried that he would attempt to escape the country or evade a summons if he was not detained surreptitiously. Meanwhile, in yet another report, the same organization indicates that labor rights activist Reza Shahabi, for one, has resolved to simply refusing to comply with a summons ordering him to return to prison.

The summons arrived after a long period outside of prison, after having been granted medical furlough. Shahabi maintains that his sentence expired during that release and that he has no legal responsibility to respond to an arbitrary summons apparently intended to subject him to an additional three-month sentence, after he already served four years. This single act of defiance might not be very effective in its own right, but the International Campaign notes that Iran’s largest trade union has written to Supreme Leader Khamenei, in support of Shahabi’s position.

Meanwhile, the leaders of other groups likely to be targeted in the regime’s crackdowns have also seen fit to reach out directly to the supreme leader. For instance, the International Campaign notes that Iran’s leading Sunni cleric has written to Khamenei over reports that the judiciary is accelerating the implementation of death penalties for dozens of Sunni prisoners who have been sentenced for non-violent drug offences.

In light of Khamenei’s rejection of national reconciliation, there is little reason to suppose that such efforts will earn a meaningful response, but they do function as a further indicator of coordinated resistance against the hardline positions that are being advanced by Khamenei and are not being contradicted by Rouhani. In fact, it may be the case that some groups that were waiting for progressive action by the Rouhani administration are now taking matters into their own hands once again.

Of course, those groups stand to suffer as a result, at least over the short term. As an example, the International Campaign pointed out on Thursday that four Azerbaijani rights activists had been sentenced to 10 and 15 year prison terms on the basis of a peaceful protest in defense of their Turkish language. The Rouhani campaign promised to lift national restrictions on this and other non-Persian languages, but this proved to be another area in which Rouhani effected no meaningful change.