Iran unlikely to release female activists during pandemic

In March, Iran became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East. From the earliest days of the crisis, the country has been criticized for both mismanagement and manipulation of data for political purposes. The government’s persistence in keeping political detainees locked up despite the looming threat of a prison outbreak is particularly troubling.

There are many men and women behind bars today for political activism and for defending human rights in Iran. With the epidemic, the situation has become a life or death situation. Iran had already released around 85,000 “low-level” detainees. But despite the dangers, most political prisoners remain in detention.

Last week, 13 United Nations human rights experts called on Iran to “extend its temporary release of thousands of detainees to prisoners of conscience”. Experts have specifically mentioned two iconic women’s rights defenders – Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi – who are now essentially being held in an infection incubator, which amplifies the cruelty of their already unjust imprisonment.

Sotoudeh is probably the most internationally known Iranian prisoner of conscience. As one of the country’s foremost human rights lawyers, she has been involved in many high-profile court cases. In addition to representing political activists, she defended women protesting against the compulsory wearing of the Islamic headscarf. There are always consequences for rights defenders in Iran and, unsurprisingly, she has faced some serious challenges during her career. In 2011, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison and banned from practicing law and leaving the country for 20 years. Although the Court of Appeal reduced her sentence to six years and her ban on practice to 10 years, justice wanted to make her an example. A mother of two, Sotoudeh was released after three years only to be arrested again in June 2018 and charged with espionage, propaganda and insulting Iran’s supreme leader. This time she received 148 lashes and a total sentence of 38 years, 12 of which she must serve.

In March, just before the Iranian New Year, Sotoudeh went on a hunger strike, demanding the release of political prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak. In a statement from Evin prison in Tehran, she said: “The same military and intelligence agencies that compromise the security of this nation with their adversarial policies insist on keeping political prisoners in prisons until the horrors of this health crisis are spreading to their lives. and also have an impact on their families.

Mohammadi, a prominent activist and vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, has been serving a 16-year sentence since 2015 for participating in peaceful human rights activism. She is not eligible for release until she has served 10 years.

Known for her resilience and determination, Mohammadi did not give up her human rights activism in prison. She and seven other inmates staged a sit-in inside Evin prison to show solidarity with families mourning protesters killed in Iran’s November uprising. She also issued an open statement condemning the authorities for the killings and abusive treatment of new inmates arriving at the prison following the November crackdown.

Her activism in prison was noticed and she was punished for it. In December, she was taken from the Evin facility and exiled to a prison in the city of Zanjan, more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Tehran. She is detained with general population inmates in a crowded room with no ventilation. Her move to Zanjan coincided with the coronavirus outbreak in the country, which is particularly dangerous for her as she suffers from both gastrointestinal and lung issues. Her mother, Ozra Bazargan, reacted to the alarming development by writing a letter to Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi warning him of the life-threatening situation her daughter is facing. Yet, along with Sotoudeh and many other rights defenders, Mohammadi remains behind bars during these difficult days.

In addition to the 85,000 detainees that Iranian authorities have already temporarily released since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in order to reduce pressure in overcrowded prisons, around 10,000 detainees have been pardoned before the Iranian New Year. Although some political prisoners have been released, the vast majority are still behind bars. When the pandemic began and questions were raised about the dangers facing prisoners, authorities made it clear that they would not release any political prisoner serving a sentence of more than five years. Given that a significant number of political prisoners, including Sotoudeh and Mohammadi, are sentenced to long terms, it is unlikely that they will be granted temporary release. As if the heavy prison sentences were not enough, these political prisoners now face an invisible killer, which only aggravates their physical and psychological difficulties.

Why is the government so reluctant to release political prisoners? The answer lies in its crisis of legitimacy which has resulted from the political stalemate, widespread corruption, a crippling economic situation and the excessive use of violence by the security establishment to curb recent anti-state protests. . The coronavirus pandemic and its devastating socio-economic implications have only added to the state’s concerns about policing. Given the history of political prisoners such as Sotoudeh and Mohammadi, they would be likely to publicly criticize the government upon release.

The authorities fear losing control during this period of pressure. The insecurities of a government trying to maintain its grip and the current socio-political situation have created obstacles for political prisoners to be granted temporary release. Despite government claims, there is no reliable evidence in place to suggest the coronavirus is under control, and prisoners are particularly vulnerable.