By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
December 2, 2020
On the suggestion of the Prisons Organization, May 25 has been designated the national day of support for prisoners’ families, known as Nasim-e Mehr [Breeze of Love]. The families and loved ones of people in prison, according to Iranian government officials, are not criminals and should be supported by wider society.
In October this year the 18th General Assembly of the Prisons Organization heard from Jabbar Bagheri, director of the Iranian Association for the Protection of Prisoners, who reminded those present: “Prisoners’ families face serious challenges due to the impact of the family breadwinner being imprisoned.” Mr. Bagheri also met with the head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, asking for special attention to be paid to these vulnerable households.
Despite these displays of goodwill, however, the families of “security-related” and political prisoners remain out in the cold. Not only do they not receive financial or other support from any government agency, but if anyone publicly – or even privately – expresses support for them or empathy with their situation, they too are at risk of arrest.
Many prisoners of conscience in Iran find that contact with the families of other political prisoners is on their charge sheet, or is something they are questioned about during interrogation. In 2018, for instance, a 26-year-old called Alireza Varashteh was arrested and later jailed for 10 years for communicating with the families of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Human rights activists Saeed Shirzad and Narges Mohammadi were also accused of the same.
Last year Mohammad Banazadeh Amirkhizi, an elderly man who was first arrested in 2009 on charges of having ties to the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MKO) – when in fact, he was simply in contact with prisoners’ families – was put on trial again facing fresh charges of supporting the families of detainees.
The awful story of Mohsen Dokmechi, once one of the most famous businessmen of Tehran Bazaar as well as a prisoner of conscience, ended with his death behind bars. Arrested in September 2009 for financially supporting some political prisoners’ families, the merchant remained in custody in deplorable conditions even after being diagnosed with cancer, and ultimately passed away in March 2011.
More civil activists have been arrested on the same pretexts since the November 2019 protests. The mother of Arsham Rezaei, a young man arrested last December and sent to Rajaei Shahr Prison on November 17 this year, has previously told IranWire that her son’s crime was consoling and visiting the families of political prisoners. This so-called offence, coupled with his holding up a “No to Execution” placard in public, was enough to see Rezaei jailed for eight and a half years.
Hengameh Vahedian, daughter of teachers’ union activist and co-signatory of the 2019 “statement of 14” Abbas Vahedian, recently posted a video on social media saying that one of the charges levelled at her now-jailed father was collecting cash donations through a fund set up to support prisoners’ families.
There is no law against contacting or supporting the families of prisoners, political or otherwise, in Iran. But as Shervin Soltanzadeh, an attorney based in the country, tells IranWire: “The handling of political cases in Iran is different from the handling of ordinary cases; it is usually not subject to written law.” Many of those jailed on this pretext are instead accused of consorting with outlawed groups such as the MKO.
Activists and Families Hauled in for Questioning for Supporting Young Mother
Habib Pirmohammadi is a 30-year-old publishing house employee and a resident of Torbat-e Jam in Razavi Khorasan province. In March 2018, the father-of-one was arrested and sentenced by Branch 4 of the Revolutionary Court to 22 years in prison, for alleged links to ISIS. He had faced a full 103 days of interrogation, during which he reportedly confessed to collaborating with ISIS, and after sentencing was transferred to Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad.
Habib Pirmohammadi’s wife is from Afghanistan and lives in Mashhad with their three-year-old child. She received some scattered financial support from other sympathetic ex-political prisoners and their families, and both she and they faced questioning from the authorities as a result.
In autumn 2020, Fatemeh Sepehri – a signatory of the “statement of 14”, in which a group of prominent activists publicly called on Ayatollah Khamenei to resign – and Sedigheh Malekifard, herself the wife of a political prisoner in Vakilabad Prison, were summoned to intelligence offices in Mashhad for interrogation.
“It was a month and a half ago that I was summoned,” Malekifard tells IranWire. “They put a series of sheets in front of me to sign and said I had helped the family of an ISIS prisoner. I do not know much about Mr. Pirmohammadi’s case, but I have heard a great deal from other prisoners. He seems to be a young freedom fighter who, under duress, confessed to having ties to ISIS.”
Malekifard explains that Habib Pirmohammadi was the family’s sole earner and his wife is not being supported by her family. “When I found out about her condition,” she says, “I gave her a small amount of financial support.
“But the intelligence office summoned Ms. Sepehri and myself on the same day. Ms. Sepehri was asked if she had supported the family financially, and she said no. Then they asked me, and I said ‘Yes. This is a young couple, and you have arrested the man of the house. They have no source of income now. What is a poor woman with a child to do? Go out stealing? Go, God forbid, into prostitution? What kind of Muslims are you? Yes, I helped and if helping them is a crime, I am ready to go to prison.’
“I did not have my phone with me and I was ready to go to prison. But they said ‘No, Ms. Malekifard! We have no such intention.’” Instead, Sedigheh Malekifard was asked to write out and sign a statement.
Fatemeh Sepehri was summoned on the same day. After her interrogation, she was taken to an upstairs room and left with three sheets of paper in front of her to sign, which described her “helping a prisoner’s family”.
Sepehri herself had been arrested on August 11, 2019 along with her brother for signing the “statement of 14”. She spent nine months in Vakilabad Prison before receiving a conditional release, while her brother Mohammad Hossein is still behind bars. Her brother gave her phone number to Habib Pirmohammadi and some time later, his wife called Fatemeh Sepehri.
“I wasn’t able to help,” Sepehri says, “but I told her that sometimes friends of mine who were aware of my problems had offered me financial help, and if she wanted I could give her name to some of them. She said yes. But it seems her personal life, phone calls and bank account were being monitored. They brought her in and asked her, ‘Who is the person giving you money?’.”
During her interrogation, Sepegri says, she was made to watch a video of Habib Pirmohammadi’s confession – as though it might jog her memory. “The film was constantly disconnecting and reconnecting,” she said, “and my impression was that he was under pressure, repeating the dictated statements: ‘Yes, I am a Salafist and an ISIS member.’ Before this, they showed me a video of an ISIS member beheading someone.
“Then they put six pages in front of me, asking all kinds of questions, including whether I had paid them or been to their house, or whether they had come to my house. I explained that I had not been able to, both others had helped them out of their own pockets. It is not a sin for a person to want to help another human being. But it is a sin to give the wealth of our country to [Secretary-General of Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah.”
In the aftermath of these interviews, IranWire contacted the families of 12 political prisoners of different backgrounds, including Gonabadi dervishes, trade union activists, people arrested in the November 2019 protests and those detained for “security” reasons. We asked if any of them had received financial support from Jabbar Bagheri’s Association for the Protection of Prisoners, which is supposedly one of its core duties. Not one of them had.