Human Rights Defenders in Iran widely imprisoned, many for long periods of time (Joint Communication)

On 6 May 2021, I wrote a letter jointly with 10 other UN special Procedures mandate holders, on the issue of the detention of 17 human rights defenders (HRDs) in Iran. We highlighted in particular cases where defenders had been condemned to 10 years or more, constituting a long-term detention. Many of the HRDs, whose cases are listed below, have reportedly suffered ill-treatment or have had access to medical care restricted.

In the communication we conveyed our “profound concern” over the widespread detention of HRDs and the heavy sentences handed down to them. The long-term detention of human rights defenders ensures that for many years, initiatives that seek to expose human rights violations are suppressed and silenced.

Iranian authorities use vaguely worded and overly broad national security-related charges to criminalise peaceful, legitimate activities in defence of human rights. As can be seen below, defenders of cultural heritage, of minorities, of women, of children, of prisoner rights, of labour rights, of freedom of expression, of freedom of peaceful assembly and association, of the right to receive a fair trial and of the right not to be tortured, all run the risk of long-term detention and possible ill-treatment in prison.

We also raised specific concerns relating to the provision of medical care in prisons and the specific risks faced by women human rights defenders; Two issues which we have raised repeatedly in recent years with Iranian authorities.

The below is a shorter version of the original communication, the information is accurate as of 6 May 2021.

Read the full communication

Human rights defenders detained or serving sentences of ten years or more

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a woman human rights defender and lawyer who has worked on legal cases defending individuals who have challenged compulsory veiling laws for women and those who have been denied the right to a fair trial. She has also advocated against the death penalty, particularly when the sentence was handed down to individuals for crimes they allegedly committed before the age of 18.

Ms. Sotoudeh has been imprisoned since July 2018, she is serving time for seven public order and national security related offences. Of these, she will be required to serve the longest applied sentence, 12 years. Since ending a 46-day hunger strike on 25 September 2020, Ms. Sotoudeh has suffered serious cardiac and pulmonary issues. Despite being hospitalised for five days in September 2020, she was returned to prison while still ill and has reportedly been repeatedly denied an adequate level medical care since her return.

Ms. Sotoudeh has been granted temporary furlough on three occasions in recent months, from 7 November to 2 December 2020 and 8 to 20 January 2021 on medical grounds, and 17 March to 27 March 2021 to spend Nowruz (Iranian New Year) with her family.

Esmail Abdi

Mr. Esmail Abdi is a labour rights defender and former Secretary General of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA), the largest teachers’ rights organisation in the country. With ITTA, he campaigned for union rights for students and teachers, including through organising and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

Mr. Esmail Abdi has been imprisoned on numerous occasions since 2006. In 2011, he was handed down a ten-year suspended sentence, subject to five years’ probation, for “propaganda against the State” and “espionage”. On 7 October 2016, just before the completion of his probation period, Mr. Abdi was convicted of “propaganda against the State” and “collusion against national security” and sentenced to six years in prison, of which he was required to serve five years. Mr. Abdi’s lawyer was reportedly not permitted to view the evidence brought against the human rights defender in advance of the 2016 trial. Mr. Abdi was furloughed in the context of COVID-19 from 17 March to 20 April 2020. In May 2020, he was informed his original 10-year sentence of 2011 would come into force at the end of his current five-year sentence.

The end of his previous sentence and commencement of his 10-year sentence began on 11 January 2021.

Mr. Abdi has repeatedly undergone hunger strikes against the conditions in prison. He most recently underwent a hunger strike from 7 to 10 March 2021, against the restriction of his access to telephone calls.

From late February until 17 March 2020, Mr. Abdi has reportedly been transferred multiple times between prisons and prison wards from the one where he had originally been held in Evin prison. He is reportedly in a quarantine ward with 30 other prisoners in Albroz Central Prison. The precise reasons for the transfers remain unclear at the time of writing.

Soheil Arabi

Mr. Soheil Arabi is a human rights defender, a journalist and social media activist. He has been outspoken against the imprisonment of human rights defenders, prisoners of conscience, the political situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and some of the teachings of Islam on social media. While in detention, Mr. Arabi has become a vocal advocate for prisoners’ rights.

Mr. Soheil Arabi has been imprisoned since his warrantless arrest in November 2013. Originally sentenced to death, which was later commuted, Mr. Arabi has since also been convicted and acquitted of a number of crimes during his continued detention. He and his lawyers have allegedly at times been refused permission to speak during hearings. His most recent conviction on 8 August 2018 relates to a total of seven years and eight months for “sacrilege to religious sanctities”, “disseminating falsities to disrupt public opinion”, two counts of “launching a propaganda campaign against the State”, “public order and insulting the public sanctities” and “destruction of public property”.

On 3 February 2021, he was acquitted of a new charge of “propaganda against the State” by Branch 8 of the Shahr-e-Rey Prosecutor’s Office. The charges related to audio recordings he was alleged to have sent to a Persian-language media organisation based outside Iran.

Mr. Arabi is due for release on 7 April 2025. By the time he is released, Mr. Arabi will have served 11 years and 5 months consecutively in prison.

Amirsalah Davoudi

Mr. Amirsalah Davoudi is a human rights lawyer who has represented a number of human rights defenders convicted of national security offences in court. Working for over ten years, he is vocal on social and in traditional media on alleged breaches of due process in court, or violations of fundamental rights and freedoms of both lawyers and their clients.

Mr. Amirsalah Davoudi was detained on 19 November 2018 in relation to an investigation into an interview he gave to a Persian language media outlet based outside Iran as well as his participation in a Telegram channel called “No Retouch”. He reportedly used the Telegram channel to discuss judicial processes, the judicial harassment of lawyers and human rights abuses.

On 1 June 2019, Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced him to 30 years in prison and 111 lashes. He will be required to serve the longest sentence, 15 years, for the charge of “forming a group to overthrow the political system”. He was also convicted of “propaganda against the State”, “publishing lies”, “insulting the Supreme Leader”, “insulting public officials” and “gathering and colluding against national security”.

Mr. Davoudi went on a 10-day hunger strike in February 2020 in protest against continued detention, interrogation without his lawyer and long periods spent in solitary confinement. In August 2020, he tested positive for COVID-19, spent 14 days in prison quarantine, however is reported to not have suffered any long-term consequences.

Mr. Davoudi started a hunger strike on 27 March 2021 in protest against the exile and transfer of human rights defenders and other inmates, in particular Mr. Esmail Abdi, to other prisons. Mr. Davoudi was transferred to Rajai Shahr prison in Alborz province on 13 April 2021 without any explanation.

Mohammad Najafi

Mr. Mohammad Najafi is a human rights defender and lawyer. He has been critical of the Government of Iran’s human rights record as well as alleged ill-treatment of detainees by prison authorities.

Mr. Mohammad Najafi is currently serving a combined 19-years and six-month prison sentence, of which he is required to serve 10 years. He was arrested in January 2018 after sharing the results of an investigation he undertook into the death of an individual in police custody. Contrary to the official narrative that claimed that the man was arrested for a drug offence and committed suicide, he alleged that the man was arrested at a December 2017 protest and may have died from injuries sustained from torture. Authorities originally held Mr. Najafi on suspicion of organising the unlawful protest and did not permit him access to his lawyer for the first three weeks of his detention. He was released two months later on bail of 1 billion Tomans.

In late July 2018, he was sentenced to three years in prison and 78 lashes for “slander with intent to disturb public opinion” in relation to the investigation he undertook in January 2018. His sentence was upheld on appeal and he was re-arrested on 28 October 2018 and taken to Arak Central prison.

On 11 December 2018, Branch 1 of the Arak Revolutionary Court sentenced Mr. Najafi to 13 further years in prison for “collaborating with an enemy state”, “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda for opposition groups and organisations”. On 15 December 2018, Branch 102 of the Arak Criminal Court sentenced him to one-year imprisonment for “publishing falsehoods in cyberspace with the intention to disturb public opinion”.

In January 2019, he was furthermore convicted of “disturbing the public mind” by Branch 102 of the Arak Criminal Court and sentenced to two further years in prison. The conviction relates to an open letter he sent from prison, criticising the Supreme Leader of Iran.

On 7 February 2020, Branch 23 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Mr. Najafi to six further months in prison in relation to a speech he made in 2012 at the funeral of a deceased blogger.

Mr. Najafi was furloughed on 31 March 2020 and again from 22 February to 15 March 2021. He will remain in prison, unless his sentence is reduced, serving his longest sentence of 10 years in prison for “collaborating with an enemy state”, dated from December 2018.

Human rights defenders who received sentences of ten years or more which were later reduced

Atena Daemi

Ms. Atena Daemi is a woman human rights defender who, prior to her detention, promoted children’s and women’s rights in Iran. While in prison, she has been a vocal advocate for prisoner rights and against the use of the death penalty.

In 2015, Ms. Atena Daemi had been sentenced to 14 years in prison, for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “insulting the Supreme Leader”, which was later reduced to seven years. Her advocacy for the rights of other prisoners while in detention however, has earned her a number of additional charges. Just prior to her original release date of 4 July 2020, she was convicted of “propaganda against the State” and “disturbing public order”, each carrying a sentence of one year each, the latter including 74 lashes.

Following the sentencing of Ms. Atena Daemi to two additional years in July 2020, she sought to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Iran. On 25 February 2021, the Supreme Court rejected her request for retrial.

On 16 March 2021, Ms. Daemi was transferred to Lakan prison in Rasht from where she was being held in Evin prison. The reasons for Ms. Daemi’s transfer to the prison, which is four hours from her family home, remain unclear at the time of writing.

Ms. Daemi is due for release on 19 July 2023. By the time of her release, she will have spent eight of the previous nine years in prison, allowing for a temporary release in 2016.

Saba Kord Afshari

Ms. Saba Kord Afshari is a woman human rights defender who campaigns against the legal requirement in Iran for women to wear a hijab in public. Ms. Kord Afshari participated in the White Wednesday’s campaign, a movement in which women post pictures or videos of themselves to social media where they appear in public without wearing a hijab on Wednesdays or dressed in white in solidarity with the movement.

Ms. Kord Afshari has been imprisoned on two occasions, for six months from August 2018, and again from 1 June 2019 until present. On 27 August 2019, Ms. Kord Afshari was sentenced to 24 years in prison by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, of which she would be required to serve 15 years. She was convicted of “encouraging people to commit immorality or prostitution”, “gathering and colluding against internal and external security” and “spreading propaganda against the State”.

The length of Ms. Saba Kord Afshari sentenced has been reduced and extended on more than one occasion. In November 2020, her request for retrial on the basis of procedural irregularities was struck down in by the Supreme Court.

On 9 March 2021, Branch 36 of the Tehran Court of Appeals informed Ms. Kord Afshari that it had reduced her sentence to seven years and six months.

Ms. Kord Afshari has been reportedly denied medical treatment and subjected to ill-treatment in prison, with prison authorities allegedly refusing to allow her to undergo treatment recommended by doctors in September 2020. On 26 January 2021, she was physically assaulted by prison officers, aggravating her medical condition, which reportedly has led to internal bleeding.

She is currently serving her seven-year, six-month sentence in Qarchak prison, where she was transferred on 9 December 2020. She was released on bail of 2.2 billion Tomans on 3 April 2021 after testing positive for COVID-19 but was returned to Qarchak prison on 10 April 2021.

Narges Mohammadi

Ms. Narges Mohammadi is a woman human rights defender and deputy director of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (DHRC). Among other issues, she has been a strong advocate against the death penalty in Iran.

Narges Mohammadi had been serving a 16-year sentence for “membership in an illegal group”, “gathering and colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the State”, of which she was due to serve the 10 years. On 8 October 2020, she was released from Zanjan prison.

Since December 2020, she has been summoned on at least three occasions to appear in court to face charges of “disturbing prison order,” relating to events that occurred during the time she was incarcerated. She has refused to attend any of the court dates.

Sepideh Gholian

Ms. Sepideh Gholian is a woman human rights defender and journalist who primarily reports on issues relating to labour rights. She attends and reports on peaceful workers protests and has cooperated closely with the Syndicate of Workers of Haft Tappeh Cane Sugar Company.

As previously communicated, Ms. Gholian has been imprisoned and released on a number of occasions since February 2017. Her arrest came shortly after she posted a video to social media detailing torture she had allegedly been subjected to during previous detention. In addition, the day before her arrest, State television broadcast a documentary, which sought to draw links between her and communist and foreign interests.

In September 2019, Ms. Gholian was sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security”, “membership of an illegal group”, “propaganda against the State” and “publishing false news”.

On 26 October 2019, a day after ending a hunger strike against the conditions of Qarchak prison, she was released on bail. In November 2019, she was arrested for one day for participating in nationwide protests that broke out across the Islamic Republic of Iran. She was charged with “acting and colluding against national security” and “disrupting public order”, the latter of which she was later acquitted.

On 14 December 2019, the Tehran Court of Appeals reduced her sentence to five years. On 26 December 2019, she filed a lawsuit against Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) for airing the allegedly misleading documentary in January 2019. She lost the case and IRIB filed a lawsuit against her, leading to new charges to be levied against her for “propaganda against the State”.

On 16 June 2020, Ms. Gholian was instructed by a judge at the Verdicts Enforcement Office of Evin prison that she should write to the Supreme Leader requesting a pardon. Prisoners in Iran can only be pardoned upon request. Refusing the offer, she was required to surrender herself to the Verdicts Office, which she did on 21 June 2020 to serve her five-year sentence.

During the night of 10 March 2021, Ms. Gholian was reportedly transferred from Evin prison to a remote detention facility in the city of Bushehr.

Yasaman Aryani & Monireh Arabshahi

Ms. Yasaman Aryani is a woman human rights defender, who along with her mother, Ms. Monireh Arabshahi are advocates against the compulsory veil in Iran. Ms. Aryani and Ms. Arabshahi appeared in a video that was posted online where they distributed white flowers to passengers on the women’s carriage of the Tehran metro to mark International Women’s Day. Ms. Aryani was arrested on 10 April 2019 and Ms. Arabshahi on 11 April 2019.

As previously communicated, on 26 June 2019, Ms. Yasaman Aryani and her mother, Ms. Monireh Arabshahi, were sentenced to 16 years each in prison for “propaganda against the State”, “gathering and colluding against internal or external security” and “inciting and facilitating corruption”.

On 5 February 2020, Branch 54 of the Tehran Appeals court reduced Ms. Aryani and Ms. Arabshahi’s sentence to nine years and seven months, of which they will be required to serve five years and six months.

On 21 October 2020, Ms. Aryani and Ms. Arabshahi were told to prepare for a visit from their lawyer but were instead transferred form Evin prison to Kachuei Prison in Alborz province.

Unless their sentence is reduced, Ms. Yasaman Aryani and Ms. Monireh Arabshahi will be imprisoned until 2026.

Human rights defenders sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment

Farhad Meysami

Mr. Farhad Meysami is a physician, human rights defender and advocate for non-violent resistance in Iran. He was an active supporter of the White Wednesdays campaign, protesting alongside women human rights defenders who call for the hijab for women to be non-compulsory.

Mr. Farhad Meysami has been in detention 31 July 2018 when he was arrested for allegedly possessing badges with the slogans “I am protesting against the forced veil” and “I do not agree with the compulsory veil”. For this, he was convicted of “propaganda against the State”, “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and “insulting Islamic sanctities”. Branch 15 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced him to five years imprisonment, one-year restriction on his civil and political liberties and a two-year travel ban.

Mr. Meysami, who suffers from pre-existing medical conditions, has not been granted furlough during the COVID-19 pandemic. On 5 October 2020, Mr. Meysami was orally informed that he had contacted COVID-19. The following day he was transferred to the “safe ward” of Raja’i Shahr prison where he spent eight days in confinement, allegedly with minimum medical attention, before being transferred back to the public ward of the prison.

Golrokh Iraee

Ms. Golrokh Iraee is a woman human rights defender, accountant and author. She has been a vocal advocate against the death penalty, continuing her work in prison alongside Ms. Atena Daemi.

As previously communicated, Ms. Golrokh Iraee is currently serving a three-year, seven-month sentence, of which she will be required to serve two years and one month. Ms. Iraee has been in and out of prison since September 2014, when she was briefly arrested alongside her husband and subsequently charged with “blasphemy” and “propaganda against the State” for an unpublished article that was found during a search of their home. She was later convicted and on 24 October 2015 was summoned to serve her sentence. After being sentenced to five years and one year respectively, she was released on 19 April 2019, having served three years of her sentence.

Ms. Iraee was re-arrested on 9 November 2019 after being convicted of two additional charges, “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda against the State” relating to activities inside the prison advocating against the death penalty. Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced her to three years and seven months in prison, of which she must serve two years and one month.

On 13 December 2020, Ms. Iraee was transferred from Qarchak prison to Ward 2A of Evin prison, where she was held for 43 days of questioning. She was reportedly dragged by the hair out of the ward at Qarchak prison. On 24 January 2021, she was transferred back to Qarchak prison for a few hours, before being taken to Amol prison in the north of Iran, where she is currently being held. According to information received, not all prisoners are held in two-week quarantine on arrival to the prison, putting Ms. Iraee and other inmates at increased risk of catching COVID-19.

On 12 April 2021, Ms. Iraee was allegedly informed that she had been sentenced in absentia to an additional year in prison, two-year travel ban and a two-year ban on participating in political parties or groups by Branch 26 of Tehran Revolutionary Court.

Ms. Iraee is reportedly being held with prisoners convicted of committing drug-related offences, despite Iranian law requiring inmates to be separated according to the offences they committed.

The distance of Amol prison from Ms. Iraee’s family reportedly makes it difficult for family visits.

Ms. Hoda Amid & Ms. Najmeh Vahedi

Ms. Hoda Amid is a woman human rights defender and lawyer and Ms. Najmeh Vahedi is a woman human rights defender and sociologist. Both women raise awareness and conduct educational programmes on women’s rights in Iran. Together they run a workshop on marital and familial legal rights in Iran for women.

On 1 September 2018, Ms. Hoda Amid and Ms. Najmeh Vahedi were detained for two months in ward 2A of Evin prison without being informed of the charges they face. Denied access to their lawyers, Ms. Amid was allegedly denied family visits while Ms. Vahedi was permitted to receive one. Ms. Vahedi reportedly spent the first 10 days of her detention in solitary confinement. They were released on bail on 5 and 6 of November 2018 respectively. They were later informed that they were under investigation relating to the educational workshops they had been organising since 2015.

On 31 October 2020, Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran convicted Ms. Hoda Amid and Ms. Najmeh Vahedi of “cooperating with the hostile US government against the Islamic Republic in matters relating to women and family”, in relation to their women’s rights workshops. Ms. Amid was sentenced to eight years in prison, a two-year travel ban and a two year prohibition from joining any political group or party or being active on social media or to practice law. Ms. Vahedi was sentenced to seven years in prison and two years prohibited from joining any political group or party or being active on social media.

The sentences were reportedly not communicated to the women human rights defenders until 12 December 2020. On 13 February 2021, Branch 36 of the Tehran Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

As they have yet to be summoned to serve their sentences, Ms. Amid and Ms. Vahedi remain free at the time of writing.

Farangis Mazloum

Ms. Farangis Mazloum is a woman human rights defender and the mother of Mr. Arabi. Since her son was imprisoned in 2013, Ms. Mazloum has protested the charges against him and campaigned against the mistreatment of prisoners in Iran by prison authorities. As a result of her work, she too has faced criminal prosecution. She has previously organised demonstrations against the violation of prisoner’s rights and is active on social media, denouncing the conditions to which her son and other prisoners are subjected.

Ms. Farangis Mazloum, who was originally sentenced in absentia to six years imprisonment for “propaganda against the State in the interest of groups and organisations against the system” and “assembly and collusion with the intention to act against national security” had her sentence reduced to 18 months in October 2020. She continues to remain on bail.

Raheleh Ahmadi

Ms. Raheleh Ahmadi is a woman human rights defender and mother of Ms. Saba Kord Afshari. She participated in the White Wednesdays campaign, removing her hijab alongside her daughter, Saba Kord Afshari. She has also been a vocal critic of the repeated criminalisation of Ms. Kord Afshari.

On 16 December 2019, Ms. Raheleh Ahmadi was sentenced to 31 months in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security”. Her lawyer was reportedly not allowed to view her case file until the day of the trial. Ms. Raheleh Ahmadi’s request to be transferred with her daughter in December 2020 was refused, forcing her to spend the remainder of her 31-month sentence in Evin Prison.

She was released on temporary furlough on 14 March 2021 before being returned to Evin prison on 10 April.

Read the full communication


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