Home News Human Rights Status of Domestic Political Prisoners after Rezaian Conviction

Status of Domestic Political Prisoners after Rezaian Conviction

Rezaian’s trial was widely criticized by his employers and his other advocates in the West for being held behind closed doors after many unexplained delays, and without the judiciary or the regime ever clarifying the nature of the charges or the supposed evidence against the journalist and American-Iranian dual citizen.

Such secrecy is likely to indicate a general lack of evidence and an attempt to build a case for a predetermined sentence and set of charges. And Rezaian’s is far from being the only case about which this can be said.

According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, it is expected that within about two or three weeks of the Rezaian conviction, a ruling will also be handed down on the second case against domestic artist and activist Atena Farghadani. In this instance she is being charged alongside the defense attorney for her previous case, from which she received a sentence of 12 years and 9 months for drawing and posting to Facebook a single political cartoon protesting women’s rights issues by depicting Iranian officials as animals.

She and her lawyer Mohammad Moghimi are now being charged with “non-adultery illegitimate relations” because they shook hands with each other when the attorney and client met in Evin Prison to discuss her case.

It is very easy to conclude that these charges are ideologically punitive, being aimed either at punishing activism and the legal defense of activism, or at making an example of Farghandani for other women who seek to enter public life at a time when the regime has been cracking down on women’s rights and pushing for women to adopt traditionalist roles as wives and mothers only.

Farghadani’s long sentence may itself be a punishment not only for the political cartoon but also for the fact that she dared to make a YouTube video detailing her experiences of sexual harassment in jail after she was released following her initial arrest. What’s more, in situations where the regime wishes to operate on the fringes of the law in order to further punish political prisoners, it is well known to add arbitrary convictions onto existing prison terms.

In one recent example the leading Green Movement activist Bahareh Hedayat was kept in prison beyond her June release date by havng a formerly suspended sentence brought up for enforcement, three years after its statute of limitations had expired. She is now scheduled to serve an additional two years.

Farghadani is not expected to be eligible for release under her current sentence for seven and a half years. A conviction on the new charge of illegitimate relations may lengthen even that figure. It would also certainly open the door for even more aggressive harassment than she has already reported receiving in the wake of the unsubstantiated accusations. Last month, she staged a three day hunger strike in protest of persistent verbal abuse.

What’s more, Farghadani recently confirmed that she was forced to undergo a “virginity test” as part of the current proceedings. IranWire reported on Monday that this practice is international recognized as a form of violence and discrimination toward women, and is perceived as a violation of international prohibitions on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

IranWire also details how inspections of female genitalia have been used as tools for the regime’s institutionalized misogyny throughout much of its 36-year history, including during the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s, when women who were found to be virgins were forced to marry prison guards and then raped, in the belief that as non-virgins, these women would go to hell when executed. 

Virginity tests have even reportedly been used to prosecute women for illicit relations after they came forward as victims of rape, but were unable to prove their claims to the satisfaction of the court. In such cases, the admission of sexual activity, even forced sexual activity, can be regarded as a confession. Naturally, this makes the prospect of coming forward as a victim uncommonly difficult in Iran.

Farghadani’s case is only one piece of evidence that the situation for women has not noticeably improved since the 1980s. The regime remains demonstrably obsessed with such topics as female virginity and the enforcement of mandatory wearing of the hijab. On Saturday, the Daily Mail quoted Iranian refugee Paria Kohandel as saying, “In Iran, the forced hijab is the biggest problem for women.”

The 18 year-old Kohandel was featured in the Daily Mail alongside 30 year-old Farzad Madadzadeh, as both of them recently came forward with their stories as activists of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran who fled from their homeland for Europe over the summer. In her conversations with the press, Kohandel described seeing a friend beaten in public because she was deemed to be wearing her headscarf improperly.

This supposed offense was also behind a series of acid attacks that took place one year ago, centered in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Official reports admit that seven to ten women were burned in these incidents, although political opponents of the regime, including the PMOI have asserted that the real number is considerably higher. Some have even suggested that the attacks were carried out by agents of the regime and that this explains the apparent lack of progress in the investigation. In any case, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran pointed out on Friday that after one year there have been no arrests, in spite of repeated assurances from investigating authorities.

The International Campaign and other activist groups have linked the acid attacks to the Iranian parliament’s “Plan to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice,” which was then being considered and which ultimately passed in April. The initiative empowers the regime’s untrained civilian militia, the basij, to openly confront people believed to be in violation of Islamic precepts, especially “improperly” veiled women. Some leading clerics and officials have specifically emphasized that the work of this militia should involve more than just verbal confrontation.

On the basis of such initiatives as this it is reasonable to assume that the atmosphere that the refugees, Kohandel and Madadzadeh, escaped two months ago was an increasingly oppressive one. Madadzadeh had already spent some five years in prison for his activism, during which time he both experienced and witnessed a wide range of abuses. In his talks with the press, he explained that he was convicted in absence of anything resembling a trial, and subsequently he was beaten for hours at a time.

Madadzadeh lost personal friends to execution during his sentence, and other fellow inmates experienced permanent health effects from beatings and poor conditions, as well as the denial of medical treatment. This, as has been pointed out on Iran News Update and elsewhere, is a common practice for putting pressure on the regime’s political prisoners. Indeed, the International Campaign issued another report on Friday indicating that these measures are still being utilized against the prominent human rights activist Narges Mohammadi.

She is reportedly suffering from a worsening neurological condition for which doctors have said she must be hospitalized. But prison authorities have only allowed Mohammadi to be treated as an outpatient. Meanwhile, they have put her under greater stress by delaying her upcoming trial three times. She is facing charges of “collusion,” “assembly against national security,” and membership in a banned activist group, and was originally supposed to face trial in May. The reason for the most recent delay has not been made clear, and neither has the new trial date.

But these delays reflect similar delays in the case of the recently convicted Jason Rezaian. In that case, his advocates in the US suggested that the judiciary was stalling the case to exert greater pressure on him as it built a non-existent case, and perhaps also to give the US time to offer a deal or exchange in order to secure his release or a lighter sentence.

Conversely, it is possible that in some cases the Iranian authorities fear protest or other negative consequences from proceeding with conviction of prominent activists or citizens of powerful foreign nations. Domestically, protestors face serious consequences for speaking out against such convictions, but that has not stopped activism even in the current climate of repression.

Case in point, as reported recently by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, are the protests by Iranian teachers which have been going on at least since the announcement of the current year’s national budget, and which have been aimed at improving the standard of living for teachers as well as securing the release of teachers who are currently being held as political prisoners for their prior organizing.

There is no indication that the regime is working toward the release of these individuals, but it is interesting to note that on Monday, AFP reported that the Iranian government was pushing for the release of nine Iranian teachers who were working abroad in the United Arab Emirates until they were accused of violating the geographic limits of their work permits.

The contrary responses to these two cases may be seen as indicating that the regime is more interested in the extension of its influence abroad than it is in the status of domestic issues, even where these two things are closely related.


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