The prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been on a hunger strike in Evin prison for almost a month in order to demand the release of the country’s scores of political prisoners. Several other imprisoned activists have also joined her hunger strike. By putting their health at risk, Sotoudeh and others are trying to draw attention to the perilous situation of prisoners in Iran at a time when intensified US sanctions and tensions with Iran—in addition to the coronavirus pandemic—have largely overshadowed the plight of people who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place.
The authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who long spoke for victims of human rights violations by Iranian authorities, most recently in June 2018, after she started representing women who had taken off their headscarves in public to protest compulsory hijab laws. In March 2019, the court sentenced her on multiple vaguely defined national security charges that would add up to thirty-eight years in prison if served consecutively. According to Etemad newspaper, the minimum time Sotoudeh must serve is twelve years.
Sotoudeh’s verdict alone is a testament to the length Iranian judicial authorities have gone to criminalize peaceful activism in Iran. According to the notes from the court ruling that her husband shared on social media, the evidence for Sotoudeh’s “crimes” against Iran’s national security included: “publishing a statement along with several prominent anti-revolutionary figures… [and] calling for a referendum under the supervision of the United Nations,” “conducting interviews with foreign media and against the Islamic Republic,” and participation in three “illegal” demonstrations—one of them by the local civil society group, the Campaign for Step by Step Abolition of the Death Penalty (LEGAM), in front of the United Nations Office in Tehran on October 12, 2017.
Sotoudeh’s sentence is one of the longest the judiciary has handed down for a human rights defender in recent years and is part of a broader pattern of escalating charges against human rights defenders and an increase—documented by human rights groups—in the length of their sentences.
Under Article 134 of Iran’s penal code, which went into force in 2014, each defendant will only serve the harshest sentence when convicted of multiple charges. However, since the law went into force it appears that intelligence and judicial authorities have sought to maximize the number of charges against activists they arrest to ensure the lengthiest prison sentence possible. Dozens of activists are serving prison sentences between five to ten years or more.
Authorities’ abuses against peaceful activists and attempts to silence them do not end with their arbitrary and unfair sentencing. The authorities are also harassing their family members by opening new cases against them or transferring them to more remote prisons as a form of punishment. On August 17, a few days after Sotoudeh began her hunger strike, authorities affiliated with the prosecutor’s office for national security crimes arrested Mahraveh, Sotoudeh’s 21-year old daughter, on the alleged charge of “insulting and beating” a prison official during a visit and interrogated her for several hours. Sotoudeh’s husband said that he believes that this was intended to pressure Sotoudeh and her family and divert attention from the political prisoners’ hunger strike.
Iranian authorities also deprive prisoners of rights granted under Iranian law, such as adequate access to medical care and family visits. This is causing irreversible harm to many who need critical health care and to those who missed weddings and funerals with their families.
And at a time when the COVID-19 outbreak is still ravaging Iran, these moves are seriously threatening political prisoners’ health. In April, after the first wave of coronavirus infections, the Iranian judiciary announced that it had temporarily released or pardoned up to 100,000 prisoners—due to restrictions on civil society, independent observers have not confirmed the number—and implemented social distancing measures. However, very few human rights defenders were released.
The government’s criteria called for releasing prisoners sentenced to less than five years, leaving out a significant population of political prisoners. This is even the case for prisoners who suffer from serious health issues, such as the prominent human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, whom authorities have refused to grant a temporary medical release for a serious neurological disease that causes muscular paralysis.
A news report published on September 2 by the Abdolrahman Boroumand Foundation and the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) details how the situation remains worrisome for those behind bars despite some safety measures. The report documented persistent overcrowding in some prisons and an unjustifiable lack of fundamental necessities, such as free cleaning products and hot water to ensure personal hygiene, and a glaring absence of systematic disinfection procedures in prison wards and common areas.
On August 9, Bahareh Hedayat, a former student activist, who spent seven years in prison for her activism in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, wrote on her Twitter account that “it has been nineteen days since all Sotoudeh’s inmates have been sharing her suffering and resistance… [In this context], hunger strike becomes an act of group resistance in prisons.”
Imprisoned Iranian activists are trying to raise their voices with all the power that they have left. The least we can do is echo their demands and push Iranian authorities to release those who should have never been behind bars in the first place.