This perception was supported by the fact that the arresting authorities presented the journalists as members of a vaguely-defined “infiltration network” that was connected to Western governments. These accusations contributed to the sentencing of four out of five journalists on charges of acting against national security, although no clear evidence was given of the existence of an infiltration network.
Two of the defendants, Ehsan Safarzayi and Afarine Chitsaz, were sentenced to five years in prison. Another, Ehsan Mazandarani, was sentenced to seven years, and the fourth, Davoud Assadi, was given 10. A fifth defendant, Issa Saharkhiz, was also arrested and tried alongside the other four, but no sentence for him has been made publicly known as yet. He may face a lengthy sentence, owing to the fact that he has previously served time as a political prisoner.
One report notes that Saharkhiz has served as the head of media at the Ministry of Culture under President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005, but was subsequently imprisoned for three years, beginning in 2010, on charges of “insulting the supreme leader” and “spreading propaganda.”
His new case and those of his co-defendants serve as the latest reminder of Iran’s longstanding reputation for criminalization of independent journalism. The Committee to Protect Journalists routinely ranks Iran as one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists. And the website Journalism is Not a Crime estimates that there are currently 58 reporters in prison, with another nine still awaiting trial.
Of course, journalists are far from being the only group that is subject to regular and systematic repression in the Islamic Republic. Others include human rights activists, labor unions, and persons with professional ties to the West, and recent instances of repression of each of these groups were highlighted on Tuesday by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
In the first place, the International Campaign reported upon the latest developments in the case of prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate Narges Mohammadi. In addition to being a leader of human rights activism inside the country, she has also long been the subject of international activism, owing to her being subjected to pre-trial detention despite the fact that she is reportedly in dire need of medical attention for a pulmonary embolism and nervous paralysis.
According to her husband, Taghi Rahmani, “the doctors say prison conditions are like poison for her.” As such, Mohammadi is legally qualified for medical furlough, and indeed she received this on a short-term basis in the past, but was prematurely returned to prison in what many activists view as a punitive measure by regime authorities, after she continued her activism outside of prison. It is not the only punitive measure meted out to Mohammadi, who has also been barred from virtually all contact with her family and her own children.
Now, the latest development in her case indicates that this isolation is being enforced in both directions. That is, neither the public nor her family has been a party to information about her trial proceedings, which began on April 20 after four postponements, and nearly a year after the originally scheduled date.
Mohammadi’s trial is taking place on charges of “collusion and assembly against national security” and “membership in [the now shuttered activist organization] Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty.” Such secrecy is reminiscent of other high-profile cases, including those of journalists like the American-Iranian dual citizen and Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was released in January as part of a prisoner exchanged between Iran and the US.
In other cases, however, the regime’s punishment of its political targets takes place entirely in the open, and not solely through the judicial system. The International Campaign points out, for instance, that “instances of workers being fired after their participation in [labor union] protests are numerous in Iran.”
Labor unions are effectively illegal in Iran, even though the right to form such unions is upheld by international law and more vaguely by the Iranian constitution, which states that the populous has the right to form “parties, societies, political or professional associations.” Still, labor union leaders are a frequent target of repression and political imprisonment.
One of the latest examples of this is the recent prosecution of labor activist Ebrahim Maddadi, who is a leading member of the Iranian bus drivers’ union. Maddadi was tried on April 16 and is currently awaiting sentencing for “collusion and assembly against national security.” His case is indicative of the International Campaign’s observation that “punishment for any kind of organized labor protest is swift and severe.”
As open-ended as is the criminalization of such affiliations, any affiliation with Western entities opens up the door for even more free-wheeling prosecution by Iranian authorities. The prosecution of the journalists who were arrested in November is indicative of this fact, especially since the specific nature of their connections to the West were never clearly established.
Another example of the same phenomenon emerged five years ago with the case of Omid Kokabee – a case that has regularly been revisited by human rights activists. Kokabee was reported arrested just before returning to the United States, where he was studying post-graduate physics, after he had refused to participate in an Iranian military project. As punishment for the snub, Iranian authorities changed him with “contact with enemy states” and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
His case has become a human rights cause not only because of the nature of the arrest but also because of his treatment in prison, which has been characterized by neglect of medical ailments, similar to Mohammadi and other political prisoners. Recently, Kokabee had a kidney removed following a long-delayed cancer diagnosis.
A source close to the prisoner said, “If he had been transferred out of the prison to receive a routine sonography in November 2011, when he first experienced bleeding and pain caused by kidney stones, [the issue] would have been noticed. Even a simple sonography would show a tumor. Omid had repeatedly gone to the prison infirmary, complaining of kidney and stomach pain.”
Now that the kidney has been removed, Kokabee’s medical ailments, including stomach inflammation and internal bleeding, are still ongoing, but so too is his denial of medical treatment.
Fortunately, in the midst of all these reports of persistent abuses, there are occasional reports of Iranian authorities drawing back from former punitive measures against their political targets. IranWire pointed to one such case on Monday when it reported that Atena Farghadani had had her sentence reduced from a staggering 12 years to only 18 months, meaning that she is scheduled to be released on May 11.
Her lengthy sentence had been based solely upon her drawing a political cartoon and posting it online, and then publicly discussing her mistreatment following her initial arrest. After her sentencing, authorities also attempted to charge her with “non-adultery illegitimate relations” because she had shaken hands with her male lawyer.
The reduced sentence was explained as follows by the appeals court: “Miss Farghadani has been acquitted of the charges of ‘gathering and colluding with counter-revolutionary elements’ and ‘acting against national security.’ The three-year prison sentence for ‘Insulting the Supreme Leader’ has been replaced by a four-year suspended sentence. Moreover, she has received a fine for ‘insulting members of parliament and the president’ and ‘insulting prison guards.’ She has been sentenced to 18 months in prison on the charge of ‘propaganda against the regime.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether her newly scheduled date of release will actually be upheld. Other political prisoners have been arbitrarily held in detention after the date that their sentences were supposed to be completed, and some have been subjected to new charges in order to keep them behind bars, presumably out of fear of continued activism.
With or without Farghadani’s release, her activist causes face an uphill battle in the Islamic Republic. The cartoon that resulted in her prosecution depicted Iranian officials and members of parliament as animals in order to protest their efforts to restrict the rights of women. Many activist groups find that the situation for women in Iran has only deteriorated in recent years, as evidenced by increasingly strict enforcement of gender segregation and Islamic dress codes.