December 11, 2018 | Policy Brief

U.S. Urges Iran to Release Women’s Rights Activist on Hunger Strike

December 11, 2018 | Policy Brief

U.S. Urges Iran to Release Women’s Rights Activist on Hunger Strike

The State Department on Friday called on Iran to release women’s rights activist Farhad Meysami immediately, noting that his “life is in imminent danger” due to his ongoing hunger strike. Meysami’s plight marks the latest episode in Tehran’s ongoing efforts to suppress protests against the mandatory hijab, or headscarf, which have punctuated nationwide demonstrations over the past year.

On July 31, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence arrested Meysami at his home; confiscated books on human rights as well as buttons with the slogan, “I am against forced hijab”; and incarcerated him in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. He began his hunger strike the next day. The judiciary charged him with “collusion and conspiracy to threaten national security,” “disseminating propaganda against the regime,” and “insulting the hijab, an essential sacrament of Islam.” On September 3, the prosecutor’s office said the third charge had changed to “spreading corruption and prostitution.”

Since then, Meysami’s health has gradually deteriorated. In August, prison wardens called his elderly mother, Seddiqeh Pishnamaz, and had her listen to her son’s screams while he was being tortured. Prison officials have reportedly kept Meysami alive by forcing him to receive serum and fluids intravenously. “He is just bones,” Pishnamaz said after a November 19 visit with him in jail. “His face was ashen and he did not have the strength to talk. What I saw is enough to upset any mother.”

Meysami’s defiance has prompted another prominent women’s rights activist to follow suit. Renowned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, whom Tehran imprisoned in June on spurious espionage charges, began a hunger strike on November 26 in support of Meysami – her second on his behalf since August. Sotoudeh’s renewed campaign followed the September 4 arrest of her husband, Reza Khandan, who had publicly advocated for the release of his wife and Meysami.

In a letter from prison released by Iran Wire on October 2, Meysami indicated that the couple’s endeavors had strengthened his determination to continue his hunger strike. “In this situation,” he wrote, “how can I retreat and just look on? How I can let go of the bond that ties us together in our collective resistance?” Accordingly, he added, “my only strict demand for ending my hunger strike is dropping the charges against Mr. Reza Khandan and restoring the warmth of his presence to his home and to his children.”

The judiciary has sent Meysami’s case to Branch 15 of Iran’s Revolutionary Court, led by Judge Abolghassem Salavati, which functions primarily to prosecute ideological opponents of the regime. Widely known in Iran as a “hanging judge,” Salavati has prohibited Meysami from choosing his own lawyer, instead requiring him to select an attorney from a list of names preapproved by the judiciary. To date, Meysami has rebuffed the demand, and still lacks legal representation. He also has refused to appear before the Revolutionary Court. Instead, his preferred lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, has called for an open trial – with a jury – at the Tehran Criminal Court.

The Trump administration’s call for Meysami’s freedom constitutes an important step. However, it can express further solidarity with him by sanctioning Judge Salavati, who already has sentenced, over the course of his career, scores of political dissidents to lengthy prison terms, including several American citizens. In so doing, Washington can demonstrate that it will continue to challenge Iran’s kangaroo courts, cruelty against prisoners, and treatment of women as second-class citizens.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahnFollow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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