Hunger Strikers Throw Down Gauntlet to Iran’s Rulers

Gareth Smyth

BEIRUT — At least seven prisoners have been on hunger strike in Iranian jails in recent months, international human rights groups report. Social media campaigns have highlighted the strikes as a means to secure basic rights and criticised President Hassan Rohani for not making good on his Citizens Rights Charter launched in December.
Dokhi Fassihian, senior programme manager for the Middle East and North Africa for Freedom House said the hunger strikers were “risking their lives… to protest their inhumane conditions and inaction on human rights by… [Rohani] as he campaigns for re-election” in the presidential vote scheduled for May.
Fassihian called Rohani’s charter, which the president promised during his 2013 presidential election campaign, “largely meaningless” and demanded the president “make concrete proposals to improve Iran’s appalling human rights record and uphold the government’s obligations under international and domestic law”.
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel peace laureate living in Britain, called for Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran’s judiciary, to resign over mistreatment of political prisoners. Ebadi wrote in December that Larijani was “overseeing a miscarriage of justice… in the name of religion and with the excuse of national security”.
The best-known hunger striker, Arash Sadeghi, abandoned his fast at the beginning of January after 72 days when the authorities gave his wife a furlough.
In 2016, Sadeghi was sentenced to 15 years in prison for offences including “conniving with counter-revolutionaries against the system” and “insulting the sharia”. His wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi-Iraee, was imprisoned in October for blasphemy.
Among others reported to be refusing food were Mohammad Reza Nekounam, a dissident cleric; Saeed Shirzad, a children’s rights campaigner; and Azeri-language activists Mehdi Kukhian and Karim Chaichian.
Another Azeri, Morteza Moradpour, was released from Tabriz prison at the end of December after ending a 65-day hunger strike at his mother’s request.
But the best-known hunger striker after Sadeghi took food is probably Ali Shariati, jailed for five years for organising protests outside parliament against acid attacks on women in Isfahan. He began his fast on October 31 demanding a review.
The protests have reached parliamentary deputies. Shariati’s case has been raised by Ali Motahari, who asked the judiciary not to allow it to become “an excuse for the enemies of the Islamic revolution to criticise us for human rights [violations]”.
A second deputy, Bahram Parsai, told the Iranian Labour News Agency he had met judicial officials over Sadeghi in fear his plight would be “misused by enemies”.
For some of Iran’s conservatives, international advocacy groups are under suspicion, even if their inconsistent figures belie accusations of conspiracy. Amnesty International has claimed the charges against Sadeghi came partly from his communications with them.
Spokeswoman Sara Hashash said Amnesty was unable to “provide an estimate for the total number of political prisoners in Iran” but could confirm that the organisation regarded four “human rights defenders” arrested in 2016 as “prisoners of conscience” — Shariati, Ebrahimi-Iraee, Atena Daemi and Omid Alishenas.
Daemi was arrested in October 2014 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) for her posts on Facebook, according to the New York-based US charity International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), which named Alishenas among five others interrogated in the same case.
The ICHRI was apparently first to report that Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman, who had been a resident in the United States, began a hunger strike on December 8.
Zakka, who heads the Arab ICT Organisation, which promotes information technology, and has received funding and contracts from the US government, was sentenced in 2015 to ten years in prison for spying. His US lawyer said Zakka was refusing food because he was innocent and “wants to be released”.
Activists and advocacy organisations say publicity will embarrass Iran’s judiciary and government and help free prisoners. They have claimed Ebrahimi-Iraee was released because of a demonstration outside Tehran’s Evin prison.
So far foreign attention has not helped imprisoned Iranian dual-nationals, 38-year-old British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 80-year-old US citizen Baquer Namazi and his son Niamak.
Their cases are often analysed as a way for fundamentalists in Iran’s judiciary or security services, including the IRGC, to undermine the international outreach of Rohani.
Also, keen to undermine detente between Iran and Western powers are the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), the exiled Iranian opposition group previously allied to Saddam Hussein, which argues new US President Donald Trump should learn from the Sadeghi case.
“Acting virtually on their own, domestic activists were able to compel a repressive, but fearful regime to release one of its political prisoners and prevent the death of another,” the MEK said.
“In the wake of that victory, it is inspirational to think of what else they could accomplish if they had the full support of the international community. Hopefully, the Trump administration will take note.”
Gareth Smyth
has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
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