The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Iran on 9 August 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government did not reply within this time frame but a response was received on 18 October 2023.
Since the communication was sent, Sepideh Gholian was sentenced to an additional fifteen months in prison on 2 September 2023, on top of her existing two-year prison term. Jina Modares Gorji, still currently on bail, was tried on 13 September 2023 on charges of “collaborating with a hostile government”. At the time of publication, her verdict is still pending.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: re-arrest and detention of women human rights defenders Jina Modares Gorji and Sepideh Gholian.
Ms. Jina Modares Gorji is a woman human rights defender, bookseller, feminist podcaster and blogger in Sanandaj, in the Kurdistan province of Iran. Her human rights work includes advocating for the rights of women in the Kurdish community, girls’ rights, and socio-cultural rights through holding book clubs and writing blogs. She has been arrested twice since September 2022 in the context of the nationwide protests against systematic discrimination exercised by the Iranian government, which took place under the motto of “Woman, Life, Freedom” following the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in the custody of the Iranian morality police.
Ms. Sepideh Gholian is a woman human rights defender and freelance journalist, with her human rights work focusing primarily on labour rights. She has worked closely with the Syndicate of Workers of Haft Tappeh Cane Sugar Company, a trade union established in 1974 for the workers of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Agro-industrial Complex. She has been reporting on the situation of women prisoners, including by publishing illustrations and prison diaries.
The case of Jina Modares Gorji
On 18 September 2022, Ms. Modares Gorji was threatened by the state security forces who appeared at her workplace. They explicitly demanded that she ceases her activism and refrain from participating in protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the Iranian morality police. These threats were related to Ms. Modares Gorji’s Instagram post about the death of Mahsa Amini, where she vowed to protest against the killing while tirelessly advocating for women’s rights.
On 21 September 2022, Ms. Modares Gorji was forcefully arrested in Sanandaj by plainclothes security forces. They pulled her over into an unmarked car during the late hours of the evening, without displaying any identification signs and without providing a warrant or a clear explanation for her arrest. Following her arrest, she was transferred to a youth detention center in Sanandaj. Subsequently, she began a hunger strike to protest against the alleged assault by security forces, the violation of her rights, and the conditions within the detention center.
On 30 October 2022, Ms. Modares Gorji was granted release on bail while awaiting trial. The charges against her were “assembly and collusion against national security” under Article 610 of the Iranian Penal Code (IPC), which carries a sentence of two to five years in prison, and “propaganda against the state,” under Article 500 IPC punishable by three months to one year in prison.
On 12 February 2023, Ms. Modares Gorji appeared before Branch one of the Sanandaj Revolutionary Court together with her lawyer. She refused to sign a pardon agreement offered to her, as she stated this would constitute an acknowledgement that the charges against her human rights work were legitimate. A scheme for such pardons was announced by the Iranian judiciary in February 2023, on the occasion of the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
In mid-February 2023, Ms. Modares Gorji received notification that additional charges had been added to her case. These charges included “spreading false information” under Article 698 of the IPC, which is punishable by two months to two years of imprisonment or up to 74 lashes. Additionally, she was charged with the “formation of groups with the intention of subversion” related to the Islamic State in Iran, as stated in articles 498 and 499 of the IPC. This offence carries a potential prison sentence ranging from two to ten years.
On 10 April 2023, Ms. Modares Gorji was subjected to a forceful re-arrest in Sanandaj by plainclothes security forces, without a warrant or a clear explanation for her detention. After her arrest, she was once again transferred to a youth detention center in Sanandaj, where she was placed in solitary confinement for 21 days. Furthermore, she was denied the right to visit her family for one month; however, she was allowed to contact them by phone three times in the presence of security forces during this period.
On 29 April 2023, the first investigation branch of the Sanandaj rejected Ms. Modares Gorji’s complaint against the security forces of the Kurdistan Intelligence Agency. The complaint included allegations of deprivation of freedom, violation of constitutional rights, kidnapping, intentional assault, and an insult to ordinary people. The prosecutor’s office stated that there was insufficient evidence and reasons to support the women human rights defender’s claims and therefore dismissed the case. Ms. Modares Gorji’s lawyers objected to this decision, citing the lack of a thorough judicial investigation and neglect of evidence. They requested that the criminal court in Sanandaj overturn the verdict and address the deficiencies in the investigation.
On 21 May 2023, Ms. Modares Gorji was charged with “collaborating with a hostile government” under Article 508 of Iran’s criminal law, which carries a punishment of 1-10 years in prison. If convicted of the aforementioned charges, she could potentially face up to 10 years of imprisonment.
On 3 July 2023, Ms. Modares Gorji was temporarily released from Kurdistan prison after posting a bail of 50 billion Iranian rials. While in detention, Ms. Modares Gorji was denied permission by the prison authorities to participate in the final exams for her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Islamic Azad University, Sanandaj Branch.
The case of Sepideh Gholian
In December 2019, Ms. Sepideh Gholian was sentenced to five years imprisonment by Branch 36 of the Appeals Court on the charge of “assembly and collusion against national security”. On 21 June 2020, after refusing to request a pardon from the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the labour rights defender began serving her sentence in Evin prison, alongside nine other labour rights defenders.
On 15 March 2023, Ms. Gholian was released from Evin prison after serving three years of her five-year sentence. Her release came after the ratification of a law on 11 May 2020 which reduced prison sentences for prisoners who had served one-third of their term. Prior to her release, she had been transferred several times to other prisons, including Bushehr Prison in the south of Iran on 10 March 2021, more than 600 km from Dezful where Sepideh Gholian’s parents live.
On 15 March 2023, a few hours after her release, Ms. Gholian was forcefully re-arrested in Arak, Markazi province while on her way to Dezful, Khozestan province with her family. The authorities did not present an arrest warrant and confiscated her family members’ mobile devices. Upon her being taken to ward 209 of Evin Prison, she was physically assaulted by security forces and faced rape threats. She remained in ward 209 for three days without being given a bed, having to sleep on the cold corridor floor without a blanket or mattress. Eventually, she was transferred to Evin Prison’s women’s ward.
On 6 May 2023, Ms. Gholian was convicted by Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court and sentenced to two years in prison, along with a ban on joining political or social groups, restrictions on cell phone usage, and a two-year prohibition from entering Tehran and adjacent provinces. The charges against her were related to “insulting the supreme leader”. The Court of Appeals upheld the two-year sentence and additional penalties in July.
In early July 2023, Ms. Gholian received a summons to appear in the second-class criminal court in Tehran on July 19, 2023, based on a complaint filed against her by Ameneh Sadat Zabih Pour Ahmadi, an Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting reporter. The accusation against Ms. Gholian was “disturbing public opinion through the dissemination of false information on the internet” and “propaganda against the state”. Previously, Ms Gholian was sentenced to eight months in prison by the 24th branch of the Tehran Revolutionary Court for these allegations.
On 18 July 2023, Ms. Gholian expressed her readiness to appear before the court on July 19, despite her earlier decision not to attend given her belief in the lack of fair trials in the Iranian judiciary. This change of decision was influenced by the court’s decision to allow public sessions. However, the following day, during the trial, Ms. Gholian was removed from the courtroom because she refused to comply with the judge’s order to wear a “chador,” a full-body cloak, even though she had initially worn a scarf. Consequently, the hearing was postponed, and Ms. Gholian expressed extreme stress and anxiety about the event. Furthermore, the court only permitted representatives of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting to attend, a decision strongly contested by Ms. Gholian’s lawyers.
Concerning the case of Ms. Jina Modares Gorji, we express serious concern at the accusations against the women human rights defender, which appear to be directly related to her advocacy for the protection and promotion of human rights, and the exercise of her rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of opinion and expression. We express concern at the use of repressive legislation to criminalize the exercise of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and of peaceful assembly in ways that are incompatible with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s obligations under international human rights law. We stress our additional concern as to the detention conditions of human rights defenders in the country, as in the case of Ms. Modares Gorji, given the alleged denial of her access to a lawyer and to sit university entrance examinations. We express deep alarm at the alleged lack of due process in investigating the alleged crimes committed by the intelligence agents against Ms. Modares Gorji, given the blatant breach of her rights that such a failure to investigate would constitute.
Equally, we express grave concern at the re-arrest and detention of Ms. Sepideh Gholian shortly after her release from prison. It is deeply troubling that the woman human rights defender has been incarcerated once again, seemingly due to her human rights work, particularly her advocacy for prisoners’ rights in Iran and her peaceful expression of opinions and dissent. This sentence appears to be part of a wider crackdown on human rights defenders during the protests in Iran. Since September 2022, numerous human rights defenders have faced arbitrary arrests, charges, and disproportionately heavy prison sentences without due process or the guarantee of fair trial rights. Additionally, we are deeply concerned about the allegations that Ms. Gholian was violently and illegally arrested, as well as the reported ill-treatment.