It is unclear why Soleimani was arrested while visiting a film exhibition. HRANA reports that plainclothes Intelligence Ministry officials arrested him without warrant on May 13 and have since held him in an undisclosed location, without public notice of his condition or of any charges against him. In cases of politically motivated arrest, Iranian authorities frequently interrogate arrestees for weeks at a time, in absence of charges, while they elicit forced confessions and build a case against the individual. This has been the case in the past with journalists and writers, and Soleimani’s background indicates that he could have been targeted based on his membership in either group.
In January, two other Iranian poets brought attention to the regime’s crackdown on artistic expression when they fled the country while facing long prison sentences and 99 lashes each on charges including spreading propaganda and “insulting the sacred.” These two individuals, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, were accused of these political crimes on the basis of poetry that had previously been cleared for publication by Iran’s highly active censorship authorities. In this way, their cases were indicative of the tightened standards of behavior and public expression that have been imposed on the country in the wake of nuclear negotiations.
This same trend has also been suggested by the regime’s attacks on the media and especially on journalists. In November, at least four such individuals were arrested in one day, and in April it was reported that they had received sentences ranging between five and 10 years in prison for their reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists regularly ranks Iran as one of the worst jailers of journalists, and such mass arrests imply that the situation has only grown worse under current conditions. The website Journalism is Not a Crime estimates that at least 55 reporters are serving sentences in Iran today.
Naturally, the Iranian judiciary has also ramped up its pressure on political and social activists in recent months. And more than that, it has directed some of that pressure against the families of such activists. The family of recent arrestee Zakiya Neysi has suggested that she is an example of the latter trend. She was arrested on May 17 and released four days later, although a message appeared on her Facebook account shortly after her arrest erroneously reporting that she had already been released, thus suggesting that authorities either gained access to her account or forced her to make the post while she was detained.
Neysi’s family has accused Iranian authorities of targeting her not because of any activities of her own but because she has brothers living abroad who have done work either as part of or in cooperation with an Arab separatist movement that opposes Iran’s clerical regime. It is, however, also possible that she was detained on the basis of environmental activism including a campaign to reverse the drying of the Karoon River.
As a condition of her release, Neysi’s father was forced to sign a letter pledging not to allow her to participate in “protests without a permit,” according to an Iranian human rights group However, her family insists that Zakiya, the only daughter in her family, has never been involved in political activities, unlike her brothers.
Neysi’s case is reminiscent of a number of other cases in which family members have been targeted as a means of putting pressure on their family members of activists or journalists abroad. However, there are also various instances of the regime harassing or repressing the families of persons who are already fully subject to authorities, including those who are in prison. This trend was highlighted on Friday by HRANA in a report about the “offensive behavior” of Rajai-Shahr Prison guards specifically toward the families of political prisoners.
A number of these families have lodged protests with the Prosecutor’s Office, alleging that this situation gets worse every time they visit, and that it makes it increasingly difficult for political prisoners to receive visitors. The complaint provides details about such actions as excessive security screenings, including multiple body searches and touching of visitors’ sexual areas.
Reports regarding specific political prisoners indicate that the mistreatment of their families may also include threatening or otherwise inappropriate verbal remarks. Previously, the International Campaign explained that in the case of imprisoned Kurdish activist Afshin Sohrabzadeh, prison officials have told his family that he will die in prison if they cannot raise the bail money to have him transferred to a hospital. The family had previously raised the bail amount requested by the prosecutor in the case, only to have it doubled after the fact.
HRANA reported on Sunday that similar taunting remarks about Sohrabzadeh’s likely death were issued to the prisoner himself, who is suffering from advanced colon cancer and has been vomiting blood. HRANA also indicates that the already severe financial strain on the family has been increased by the fact that Iranian authorities’ confiscation of the prisoners identifying documents have left him without access to health insurance.
It is certainly easy to regard such stories as evidence that Iranian authorities are deliberately reinforcing conditions that could lead to political prisoners’ deaths. If this is the case, it adds an invisible, additional statistic to the already staggering number of executions formally carried out by the Iranian judiciary. Per capita, this rate of executions consistently leads the world, and it has grown worse since President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013. His nearly three years in office have been described as a worse period of executions than any other in approximately 25 years.
Last week, the Iran Human Rights website reported that at least 13 Iranian prisoners had been executed in just two prisons on a single day, May 17. Subsequently, the site identified three others who had been hanged in another prison that same day, as well as five more who were put to death on May 18. The crimes for which they were condemned to death ranged from rape and armed robbery to non-violent drug offenses. One of the alleged armed robbers was hanged in a public square, in the presence of a crowd of onlookers which included children.