Female human rights activists imprisoned in Iran face increased jail terms and transfers to prisons with “dangerous and alarming” conditions, hundreds of miles away from their families, according to campaigners.
Warnings of the deteriorating treatment of female prisoners in Iran come days after Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian national who has served a five-year prison sentence in Iran, was sentenced to a further year in jail and a year-long travel ban by the Iranian courts.
Human rights campaigners said that in the past six months increasing numbers of Iranian women jailed for human rights and political activism had been moved from Evin prison in Tehran to prisons outside the capital city without warning.
The women were locked up in the same area as criminals who had committed serious offences such as murder, in breach of Iranian law and international standards. Campaigners said that some had been raped by interrogators, attacked by fellow prisoners or denied medical treatment.
Shiva Mahbobi, spokesperson for the Campaign to Free Political Prisoners in Iran, described it as “a way of subjecting them to psychological torture”.
“It is really, really bad,” she said. “[The guards] take away all their stuff; the family does not know where they are. There is a lack of drinking water, and lots of illnesses and contagious diseases.
“The guards intentionally plan for non-political prisoners to attack them. Some families can’t go and visit; if they can, it’s difficult to do often.”
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer imprisoned for her work defending women’s rights and protesting against Iran’s forced veiling laws, was transferred from Evin prison to Shahr-e Rey prison in Varamin, outside Tehran, in October last year. In January she was diagnosed with a myocardial bridge – symptoms include angina, chest pain and other heart complications. She was told by a doctor to avoid stress and that she should be held in a well-ventilated space.
But the conditions in Shahr-e Rey prison are “extremely poor”, according to Nassim Papayianni, Amnesty International’s Iran campaigner. It is a disused chicken farm that holds several hundred women convicted of violent offences in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, without access to decent food, medicine and fresh air, she said.
There are no windows, and prisoners have no access to safe, drinkable water. Reports from the facility indicate high levels of assault towards inmates by other inmates and prison staff, as well as rampant drug use and infectious diseases.
In December last year, Saba Kordafshari, a human rights defender, was also transferred from Evin to Shahr-e Rey prison.
Zeynab Jalalian, a Kurdish Iranian woman, was moved to four different prisons between April and November last year including Yazd, Evin and Kermanshah. She has described prison transfers as a type of mental torture. She was not allowed to take her personal belongings, including clothes, with her and said she had been denied healthcare, which caused her more suffering, especially as she recovered from Covid-19.
In January, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was moved almost 120 miles (200km) from Shahr-e Rey to Amol prison in northern Iran without notice and deprived of her personal possessions. She had already served one sentence when she was imprisoned again in November 2019 for “insulting the supreme leader” and “spreading propaganda against the system”. In an open letter, her husband wrote that guards had dragged her across the floor by her hair.
Atena Daemi, a women’s rights activist, has been sentenced in two further cases for peacefully protesting while serving time for campaigning against the death penalty in Iran. She was transferred suddenly, and without notice, from Evin prison to Lakan prison in Gilan province, north-west of Tehran, last month.
Also in March, Sepideh Gholian, a human rights defender, was transferred from Evin prison to Bushehr prison, which is nearly 300 miles from her family home. And Maryam Akbari Monfared was transferred from Evin prison to Semnan prison, east of Tehran. She is serving a 15-year sentence and has been in prison since 2009 without a single day of leave.
Yasaman Aryani and Monireh Arabshahi were transferred in October last year from the women’s ward of Evin prison to one in Karaj, Alborz province.
Papayianni said that all the women had been wrongfully convicted and should be released. “At Amnesty International, we believe that none of them should be in prison at all. We believe all their sentences are unjust and that they should be immediately released.” She added that the situation for these women was deteriorating and that transferring women was commonly used to silence detainees, particularly when they had campaigned from behind bars.
Mahbobi said that she suspected the increasing number of transfers were part of a political move to close Evin prison, where most political prisoners are traditionally held, in an effort to declare that Iran does not detain human rights defenders.
“It’s quite dangerous” she said. “It’s really alarming. On one hand, they can send these prisoners to prisons that are really unimaginable and put their lives in danger, and then [the government] can claim they don’t have any political prisoners.”
The Iranian government has been approached for comment.
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.