May 21, 2016
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that Narges Mohammadi, the prominent Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison after a new trial that was conducted while she was already in prison for prior political charges. The new charges include conspiring to harm national security, spreading propaganda, and the leadership of illegal human rights organizations.
Since the announcement of the new sentence, the United Nations and various human rights organizations have condemned the ruling and called for Mohammadi’s immediate release, with Amnesty International calling it the latest proof that “Iran’s abusive criminal justice system is used as a tool of repression.”
In Mohammadi’s case, that repression has been expressed not only through the addition of new charges while she was in prison – a common tactic with political prisoners – but also through her overall treatment. She has been suffering a range of serious medical problems during that time, but has been denied legally permissible medical furlough, as well as essential access to medical treatment in prison. This too is a common tactic of repression employed by judiciary authorities, particularly against political prisoners.
Illustrating this fact, an Iranian Human Rights group reported on Thursday that Afshin Sohrabzadeh, a former member of a banned political party serving a 25-year prison sentence for “enmity against God,” is currently suffering from cancer an internal bleeding but has been systematically denied access to medical treatment outside of the prison facility.
The human rights group quoted a source familiar with Sohrabzadeh’s case as saying that “his death in prison is a real possibility.” The article further implies that this may in fact be the outcome that the regime authorities have in mind. The prosecutor in his case had initially set bail for his medical furlough at approximately 300,000 dollars. But after Sohrabzadeh’s family collected the money, the prosecutor doubled the amount and reportedly taunted the family by saying that if they could not raise sufficient funds they could just pick up the inmate’s corpse once he died.
While Mohammadi’s and Sohrabzadeh’s cases illustrate the ongoing repression that is being directed against current political prisoners in the Islamic Republic, other stories indicate that the population of political prisoners continues to rise in the midst of a widely-recognized Iranian crackdown on activists, journalists, and persons with perceived Western ties or Western sympathies.
By many accounts, there is especially strong pressure in favor of such arrests and prosecutions in the midst of current political circumstances. This became newly apparent after Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Iranian cleric and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, visited a leader of the fiercely persecuted Baha’i religious minority when the latter was on a five day furlough from prison earlier this month.
On Thursday, the human rights group published new details on the calls for punishment of Hashemi that have emerged from the clerical establishment and from hardline authorities. The country’s judiciary promised that it would take action against the “very ugly and obscene act” of visiting a former cellmate who is also a member of what the regime refers to as a “deviant sect” and a creation of “colonialists.”
Judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei added, “So far as I have gathered, many people, grand ayatollahs, religious scholars, and even her own father have condemned this act.”
While Rafsanjani did not strictly call for judicial punishment of his own daughter, he did indeed refer to her visit with Fariba Kamalabadi as a mistake which would need to be corrected. This is significant not only because it seriousness of the ongoing crackdown on perceived threats to Iran’s Islamic identity, but also because it illustrates the relatively narrow spectrum of political and religious opinion within the regime’s establishment.
Underscoring this fact, the human rights group points out that even members of the supposedly moderate Rouhani administration have sharply criticized the Baha’i faith in the wake of the recent controversy. This is despite the fact that there are significant grounds for the administration to challenge the persecution. The Baha’i faith is not technically illegal, but regime authorities have seized upon the Iranian constitution’s support for religious fatwas in order to utilize these against the group.
Such legal assaults may be indicative of growing paranoia about non-Muslim influence on Iran, especially at a time when the Islamic Republic is engaged in deal-making with Western powers and when much of the domestic population is demanding change in line with President Rouhani’s three year-old campaign promises of a more open Iranian society.
There are various means by which regime authorities push back against that supposed non-Muslim influence, other than through arrests and prosecutions. These include aggressive censorship of the Iranian media and outright bans on activities and cultural expressions that are deemed to be somehow at odds with Islam.
The escalating paranoia about that influence has manifested itself in escalating crackdowns on such things as music performances. For instance, IranWire pointed out on Friday that during the week of May 9 in one Iranian province alone, local authorities had forced the cancellation of concerts by two famous musicians, both of which had previously been cleared by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
IranWire went on to quote one Iranian musician as saying that performers are under extreme stress from monitoring authorities, and can be held accountable for the actions of anyone in the crowd. He added that this excessive scrutiny is in contrast to the initial clearance that is given to various concerts, and that the threat of cancellation after-the-fact has actually driven Iranian citizens away from public performances out of frustration.
But this is not to say that the crackdown has actually created genuine conformity with the regime’s views. In fact, quite the contrary, both IranWire and the International Campaign have argued that the public exposure of such crackdowns as that on the Baha’i faith is actually starting private discussions that improve social attitudes about these targets and bring marginalized groups together in opposition to the regime.