Hunger Strikes: The Last Resort for Iran’s Desperate Prisoners

Hunger Strikes: The Last Resort for Iran’s Desperate Prisoners

Toby Dershowitz, Saeed Ghasseminejad
4th January 2017 - FDD Policy Brief

Arash Sadeghi, a political prisoner in Iran, is 13 months into a 19-year sentence in the notorious Evin Prison. His alleged crime: “Assembly and collusion against national security, propaganda against the state, spreading lies in cyberspace and insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic and its supreme leader.”

In October 2016, his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, was sentenced to six years in the same prison after authorities entered their apartment, reportedly without a warrant. They arrested her for insulting Islamic sanctities, based on an unpublished fictional story on stoning in Iran found on her computer.

Sadeghi has been on a hunger strike for ten weeks advocating for his wife’s release. Twitter users, including international leaders, have posted more than half a million tweets in solidarity. In response, Iran announced it would briefly release the two from prison upon payment of $500,000 in bail. On January 3, his wife was released on temporary bail, but judging by similar cases in the past, she will returned to prison in a matter of days or weeks.

According to Ahmed Shaheed, the former UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Tehran’s human rights record has worsened since President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013. In response, political prisoners have increasingly turned to hunger strikes as a weapon of last resort.

One of them, Ali Shariati, has marked his ninth week on a hunger strike. In 2015, he was sentenced to five years in prison for protesting a string of acid attacks against women in Isfahan alleged to be wearing insufficiently modest hijabs. Two years after the attacks, the perpetrators are still free, but those who protested them languish in prison. 

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-born permanent U.S. resident, was invited to Iran by Shahin Molaverdi, Rouhani’s vice president, in 2015. He was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and sentenced to 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges of espionage. He is now approaching his fourth week of a hunger strike.

Rouhani is up for re-election in May. That is likely why two weeks ago, he unveiled a Citizens’ Rights Charter with great fanfare, including sending text messages to millions of cellphone users reading, “Noble people of Iran, let’s know our rights and protect them.”

However while the Charter may be good public relations, it cannot hide the appalling human rights abuses that the Rouhani government commits against citizens perceived to violate the government’s ideology.

The incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump and the new Congress must therefore ensure that Iran’s human rights record is high on their agenda. There are ample ways to put pressure on the regime, including appointing a special U.S. envoy on Iran’s human rights and blacklisting individuals and entities that set and execute these policies. Trump has vowed that unlike the current administration, he would not turn a blind eye to Iran’s malign activities. Highlighting the Islamic Republic’s dismal human rights record may be a good place to start.

Toby Dershowitz is Vice President for Government Relations and Strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Saeed Ghasseminejad is an Associate Fellow. Follow them on Twitter @SGhasseminejad and @tobydersh

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