Why We Should 'Adopt' Iranian Women Prisoners of Conscience

Now that many names of those in Evin prison have been published, these courageous women must not be forgotten and the Iranian government should be pressured for their immediate release.
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The plight of Iranian women prisoners of conscience was under the radar. Now that many names of those in Evin prison have been published, these courageous women must not be forgotten and the Iranian government should be pressured for their immediate release. Iranian Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, asserted: "Journalists, human rights lawyers and rights defenders held solely on account of their peaceful activities -- none of these people should be in prison in the first place."

The number of political detainees in the women's ward at Tehran's Evin prison has reached 33, the highest number in three years. Some are serving sentences related to the demonstrations that followed the disputed elections in June 2009; others include student and human rights activists, journalists, five Baha'is and two converts to Christianity. In some cases, their husbands are also political prisoners serving time in different jails.

The UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran has described rape, mock executions and sleep deprivation used by authorities to molest political prisoners. Blogger, Sattar Beheshti, was arrested at the end of October and detained for expressing his political views online. He died in custody and reportedly, had been tortured.

Over the past few months, political prisoners have been denied adequate medical treatment and regular visits by family, in contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Iran.

The charges leveled against prisoners include "crimes against national security," "propaganda against the regime," "collusion to disrupt national security," "membership in a human rights organization," "blasphemy," and "insulting Islamic sanctities."

Nine of the women prisoners of conscience staged a hunger strike in early November to protest harassment and searches by guards. Eight have since stopped in order to seek legal action but human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has continued, in protest against her husband and daughter's travel ban and the restrictions on family visiting rights. Sotoudeh, aged 47, is currently in solitary confinement and there are fears for her health, as she has been on a hunger strike since 17 October.

Together with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, Sotoudeh was recently awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for her work in upholding the rights of women and children.

She has defended dissidents, journalists, juvenile offenders facing execution, and Iranian women activists, who courageously took to the streets in peaceful rallies and the One Million Signatures Campaign. They were demonstrating against discriminatory legislation in regard to family law, court testimony, inheritance, Islamic dress, moral policing and so on.

Some Westerners of Iranian origin have also found themselves trapped behind the bars of Evin. Iranian-Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, was arrested in 2003 for taking photographs outside the prison. After she died in Evin, her body showed evidence of rape, torture and a fractured skull.

In 2009, Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who had been living and working in Iran for about six years, was arrested and charged with espionage. Under duress she signed a false confession, was kept from discussing her case with an attorney, and sentenced to 8 years in prison. Thanks to the efforts of her parents and an international campaign, Saberi was freed after 100 terrifying days of incarceration.

Haleh Esfandiari, an academic and director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, had come to Tehran in 2007 to visit her elderly mother, when she was arrested, charged with subversion and imprisoned. Eventually, she was released, but only after months of campaigning by family and colleagues to secure her freedom.

In recent months, the Islamic Republic has stepped up restrictions on women by scrapping the state birth control program and closing over 70 university subjects to women. Currently, a law under consideration would require single women up to the age of 40 to obtain permission from a male guardian if they want to travel abroad. Since the "Arab Spring" uprisings, the tide has turned against Muslim women reformers in revolutions that elevated the Muslim Brotherhood, whose charter promotes the Islamic state and its inherent male-dominated society at the expense of women's freedom. The Brotherhood's success has given encouragement to the Iranian Shia theocracy.

In spite of increasing human rights violations in Iran, there are precedents for effective intervention by the West. Last March, 52 nations, including many members of the U.N. not on the 47-member Human Rights Council, co-sponsored a resolution calling for a special investigator to monitor Iran's compliance with international human rights standards. In another example, the 'Stop Stoning Forever' campaign led by female Iranian attorney, Shadi Sadr, prompted the European Parliament's resolution in 2006 against stoning, as well as an international reaction, which was followed by a reduction in stoning executions.

Iranian women prisoners of conscience deserve recognition, and non-governmental organizations are in an ideal position to muster grassroots support and lobby governments for this purpose. In particular, they could 'adopt' individual political prisoners with the aim of broadcasting their names, offering solidarity, and maintaining pressure on the regime to set the women free. In this capacity, the ordinary person in the West could work with NGOs to overturn major human rights violations in Iran and advance the objectives of the women's reform movement.