By Edward Carney
On Friday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported upon the deteriorating health condition of a female political prisoner following nine consecutive months of solitary confinement. Hengameh Shahidi is currently serving a 13 year prison sentence on the basis of activism and political expressions including her criticism of then-head of the Iranian judiciary Sadegh Larijani. She is currently awaiting the results of an appeal of the verdict, which was handed down on December 10, 2018, following her arrest just over five months earlier.
A source familiar with Shahidi’s case told CHRI that “it’s rare that a prisoner is held in solitary confinement after being interrogated and prosecuted.” This raises some question as to why the prisoner in this case is being subjected to such undue pressure. Yet that pressure may still be escalating, as evidenced by the fact that appeal hearings were scheduled for Shahidi in January and March, only for these dates to pass without her being transferred from her cell, leading to their cancellation.
The prisoner’s lawyer, Mostafa Tork Hamedani, appealed via Twitter to the new head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, who took over for Larijani last month. But little hope can be invested in such appeals on account of Raisi’s longstanding record of human rights violations. The judge’s role in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, among other crimes, led many human rights advocates to speculate that the change of leadership could foretell even more abusive practices by the judiciary in times to come.
If this is the case, it will could have significant consequences for all Iranian prisoners, but especially for political prisoners and for members of traditionally marginalized groups in the Islamic Republic. Potentially making matters worse, it has been observed in recent years that the treatment of such groups has been worsening in the midst of an effort by hardline authorities to reassert control over the system and over Iranian society more generally.
Women have been prominent among the victims of this trend, and the threat to female prisoners is amplified by the substantial role they have played in recent Iranian activism. Women were credited with much of the organizing undertaken by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran during the nationwide anti-government uprising that began at the end of 2017. And that movement closely coincided with the beginning of a long series of protests against mandatory hijab laws for women, participants in which came to be known as the “Girls of Revolution Street.”
The government’s response to such protests has tended to grow increasingly reactionary, with at least one of the Girls of Revolution Street being sentenced to 20 years in prison. Such sentencing, together with other punitive measures like long-term solitary confinement, may be intended to compel such women to avoid public expressions of political will, in keeping with the clerical regime’s transparent effort to convince women to return to traditional roles as wives and mothers.
Other possible examples of this pressure have emerged in the days since CHRI reported upon Hengameh Shahidi’s unexplained solitary confinement. On Tuesday, the same outlet noted that Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee had been released ahead of schedule the previous day on bail of more than 14,000 US dollars. But the presumption of compassion on the part of judiciary officials was immediately undermined by the announcement of new charges against her, which could result in her being returned to prison for an even longer term.
Iraee, the wife of fellow political prisoner Arash Sadeghi, was initially sentenced to six years in prison on the basis of her having written a fictional story in a private journal, describing one woman who witnesses another being stoned to death, then responds by burning a Quran. Despite the pre-emptive punishment for this unpublished story, Iraee did not cease activism while behind bars, as evidenced by the nature of the new case against her. The director of Evin Prison has reportedly accused both her and fellow political prisoner Atena Daemi of a range of vaguely defined crimes, including propaganda against the state and insulting the supreme leader.
Daemi, who is serving a seven-year sentence for meeting the families of political prisoners, criticizing the regime online, and condemning the 1988 massacre, was the subject of her own report on Tuesday, concerning still more instances of extra-judicial pressure that are arguably meant to silence her activism.
According to Iran Human Rights Monitor, Daemi is presently being denied visitation from her family, in spite of the fact that this is a right granted to all prisoners under the procedures of Iran’s state prisons. Authorities routinely disregard the law for the sake of exerting pressure on political prisoners, and this same tactic of denying family visits was applied to both Daemi and Iraee, along with a third female prisoner, Maryam Akbari-Monfared, in October 2018. IHRM reports that the unlawful restriction in this case was motivated by the women having engaged in verbal arguments and chanted slogans at prison guards.
While the above reports may hint at a newfound push by authorities to discourage women from engaging in political activism, these and other reports also underscore the urgent need of women to fight for equal rights and equal treatment under the law. Iranian women routinely face discrimination in the courtroom and in society at large. Systemic problems of gender inequality are enforced by legal principles that give lesser weight to women’s testimony than to men’s, and such principles can be devastating or even fatal.
On Tuesday, another report by IHRM noted that an unnamed woman had been sentenced to death for the murder of her husband and child despite a lack of physical evidence and the credible possibility that the deaths were the result of accidental asphyxiation from a gas leak. Authorities in this case elected to apply a principle known as Qsameh, whereby a plaintiff may bring 50 relatives to court for the purpose of swearing to their belief in the defendant’s guilt, leading to a summary verdict of guilty.