His hunger strike began after his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was taken into custody in October and brought up on charges stemming from an unpublished short story that was found in her home during a raid. The story describes a woman burning a Quran after learning about another woman having been stoned for adultery. Amnesty International observed that Sadeghi’s wife and fellow activist was essentially facing potentially serious punishment for the crime of using her imagination. Sadeghi himself is serving a 15 year sentence on the basis of his peaceful human rights activism, including his defense of persons who have been denied access to higher education as a result of their social views or demographic identities.
Iranian authorities conceded to Sadeghi’s basic demands after Monday’s protests, granting temporary release to Ebrahimi. That release is only schedule to last for a period of days, but can legally be extended. However, the prospects for such an extension are uncertain, as it appears that authorities made their initial concession only to forestall additional protest actions, particularly those that could be expected if Sadeghi had died of starvation. For the time being, Sadeghi has been taken to hospital and is being fed intravenously, and some of his supporters estimated that he was merely hours away from death by the time his hunger strike ended.
The Associated Press quoted Iranian lawmaker Bahram Parsai as seemingly acknowledging that the regime was most concerned with the potential public relations fallout of allowing the activist to die. “It was supposed to solve the case resorting to prudence, in a way that would not be misused by enemies,” he said of the concessions, apparently referring to Western governments and international human rights groups that have previously targeted the Islamic Republic over its record of human rights abuses. Parsai added, “We do not want such cases to turn into a problem for the system.”
Tehran has a long history of responding to international criticisms by simply denying accounts of abuses like those catalogued by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Iranian political prisoners and their families can be punished under the law for communicating with such investigators, and the families of arrestees have frequently reported having been warned against speaking about their loved ones’ cases, especially to foreign media.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reaffirmed that this trend is ongoing in its report on the prosecution of people who were arrested while celebrating at the tomb of the pre-Islamic leader Cyrus the Great in October. Last month, more than 70 of those individuals were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in trials that were so secretive that the defendants were brought before the court before they’d even had time to hire lawyers. The father of one such defendant told the International Campaign that authorities threatened more severe punishment for those whose families provided “fodder to foreign media.”
The October gathering already made some international headlines, at least among human rights defenders, insofar as it illustrated the growing willingness of the Iranian people to defy threats of government reprisal by engaging in unauthorized mass assemblies. The protests on behalf of Arash Sadeghi have been presented as evidence of the same trend, which is underscored by a range of other protest actions including open letters to the Iranian leadership.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported upon one such action on Monday, noting that teachers’ trade union member and former political prisoner Hashem Khastar had joined in the advocacy on behalf of Arash Sadeghi, as well as calling for the release of other political prisoners, especially those who have been engaged in similar hunger strikes. At least four other inmates’ lives are currently in danger as a result of hunger strikes, and another ended his protest at approximately the same time as Sadeghi.
According to the International Campaign, Morteza Moradpour nearly matched the length of Sadeghi’s life-threatening hunger strike, having made it 65 days before authorities finally granted him conditional release. But as with Sadeghi, the regime has apparently committed to making the least possible concessions to Moradpour, who was hospitalized due to the effects of his hunger strike but is nonetheless expected to report back to prison each night. This is due to his case being subject to rules usually associated with labor release, as opposed to the probationary rules established for certain inmates who have served more than a third of their sentences.
This goes to show that regime authorities are still making efforts to crack down on political prisoners, even in the face of domestic activism and international scrutiny aimed at exposing such abuses. Where the regime has been compelled to grant conditional release, it has imposed strict and apparently arbitrary limits on that release. And in other cases the regime has taken new and largely unexplained punitive measures against political prisoners.
Another report by the International Campaign highlighted this trend by pointing to the case of Hamid Babaei, who is serving a six year prison sentence in addition to a four year suspended sentence as a result of his having refused to gathering information for the Intelligence Ministry while studying abroad. After issuing a recent complaint with the warden’s office, Babaei was accused of “insulting the supreme leader” and this was used as grounds for banning him from receiving visitations.
In addition to showcasing a tendency toward arbitrary reprisals, this incident arguably demonstrates the regime’s efforts to restrict access to information from inside Iranian prisons, like that information which has prompted the above-mentioned protests and the associated concessions. The latter tendency is even more evident when such restrictions target other people who are engaged in the sorts of protest actions that have brought international attention to Sadeghi and others.
In its report on the end of Sadeghi’s hunger strike, the AP notes that Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and American permanent resident who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Iran on unspecified charges, reportedly went on a hunger strike on December 8. As far as anyone outside the prison knows, that protest continues to this day, but this cannot be confirmed because prison authorities have now barred Zakka from contact with other people, including his lawyer, apparently out of anger over media coverage of his protest.
The reasons for that anger are clear in light of the relative success of Sadeghi’s protest. Insofar as the public support for his cause was one aspect of that success, it reflects broader social trends. Unauthorized public protests reportedly emerged over other causes the very day after Ebrahimi’s release. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reports, for instance, that 3,000 Labor Community Union activists had assembled in front of the Iranian parliament building to call for the preservation of a Social Safeguard Fund that is poised to be absorbed into the government’s general budget.