Caught in a web of repression: Iran’s human rights defenders under attack

Iran is waging a ruthless crackdown against people who stand up to injustice and defend human rights.

The country’s courageous human rights defenders have come under suffocating levels of repression at the hands of Iran’s judicial and security apparatus. 

Scores of human rights defenders, including anti-death penalty campaigners, women’s rights activists, trade unionists, minority rights activists, human rights lawyers, and activists seeking truth, justice, and reparations for the mass extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of the 1980s are facing lengthy prison sentences in connection with their peaceful activities, and many others are being subjected to surveillance, interrogations and drawn out trials. Those who defend human rights are often labelled “foreign agents” and “traitors” by state media, and prosecuted and jailed by the authorities on bogus “national security” charges. 

The Iranian authorities must release immediately and unconditionally all human rights defenders imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and end the misuse of the justice system to silence activists. 

Join Amnesty International’s campaign in support of Iran’s brave human rights defenders who have risked their life and liberty to help others. Sign our petition.

These human rights defenders are people who have risked everything to build a more humane and just society

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa


The criminalization of human rights defenders in Iran takes place against the backdrop of ongoing smear campaigns against them. The authorities routinely equate the defence of human rights to “espionage” and “incitement to sedition”.

Women who oppose compulsory veiling (hijab) have also been subject to severe smear campaigns on state media. State media often use derogatory terms such as “sluts”, “deviant” and “corrupt” to demean and degrade these women.

Smear campaigns against human rights defenders are not only intended to discredit their work in the eyes of the public but also ferment an attitude of mistrust, and even hostility, toward human rights defenders on the part of the media and the rest of society.

Charges under which human rights defenders have been routinely criminalized include:

“gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”
by attending peaceful protests or holding solidarity gatherings in support of prisoners of conscience.
“spreading propaganda against the system”
by handing out anti-death penalty leaflets or speaking out against torture.
“founding a group composed of more than two people with the purpose of disrupting national security”
by taking part in a campaign to abolish the death penalty.
“insulting the Supreme Leader”
by posting Facebook posts condemning the authorities’ execution record.
“insulting Islamic sanctities”
by writing a story about the horrific practice of stoning.

BRAVE is defending human rights in Iran

Iran: Release human rights activists from unjust imprisonment

The space for human rights activism in Iran is rapidly shrinking, as the state’s judicial and security bodies intensify their crackdown. But anti-death penalty campaigners, women’s and minority rights activists, trade unionists, and many others bravely continue to speak up.

Their determination is met with severe consequences – they are locked up after grossly unfair trials, and branded as “enemies of the state” and “traitors” by the Iranian state media. 

Narges Mohammadiis a distinguished and award-winning human rights activist. An inspiration to many, she speaks out against the death penalty and passionately defends women’s rights. She has already served six years in prison for her work at the Centre for Human Rights Defenders. She has now been sentenced to a further 16 years behind bars. Narges has suffered seizures in prison and requires specialized medical care which she cannot receive there. She has been cruelly separated from her family, including her two young children, Ali and Kiana, who she has not seen for two years.

Arash Sadeghihas been sentenced to 19 years in prison. His crime? Peaceful human rights activities, including communicating with Amnesty International. Arash’s treatment in prison has been chilling. He’s been tortured, beaten and sexually humiliated. He was arrested along with his wife, and he could hear her cries in the next cell as she, too, was interrogated. He is critically ill following a prolonged hunger strike and urgently needs specialized medical care.

Narges and Arash’s cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of others in Iran are being harassed, and some even tortured and jailed – just for having the courage to speak out against injustice.

But we can find the spark of courage in all of us to speak out for what’s right. Join us, and call on Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif to:

  • Release Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi immediately and unconditionally
  • Release all other human rights defenders who have been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights and, until they are released, make sure that all they are given the medical care they need, and if necessary are taken outside prison to receive it;
  • Make sure that the criminal justice system is not used to target human rights defenders for their peaceful activities, and ensure a safe and enabling environment where it is possible to defend and promote human rights without fear of reprisal, punishment or intimidation.

We won’t stop until they’re all free. Sign the petition now and let Iran know that the world is watching.

“Here I am… in my own homeland… imprisoned for the crime of being a human rights defender, a feminist, and an opponent of the death penalty.”

Narges Mohammadi, Evin prison, June 2016


Narges Mohammadi, a distinguished and award-winning human rights defender, a vocal opponent against the death penalty, and a passionate advocate for women’s rights, has been sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment because of her peaceful human rights work and has been subjected to public smear campaigns for her human rights work. She is currently imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin prison. She has already completed a six-year prison sentence for her work at the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, which had operated in Iran for a number of years before it was forcibly shut down by the authorities in 2008.

Narges Mohammadi has faced years of harassment and intimidation from the Iranian authorities and has been in and out of prison for over a decade for her peaceful human rights activities. Her most recent arrest took place in May 2015.  The authorities told her that she was arrested to resume serving the six-year prison sentence from 2011. She believes that her arrest was in reprisal for her meeting with Catherine Ashton, the then EU foreign policy chief on International Women’s Day in 2014.

In May 2016, following an unfair trial before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to an additional 16 years in prison for “forming a group composed of more than two people with the purpose of disrupting national security”, “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”, and “spreading propaganda against the system”. The first charge, which accounts for 10 years of her sentence, was brought in connection with her involvement with an anti-death penalty campaign.

The “evidence” brought against her in court included her media interviews about human rights violations in Iran, her participation in peaceful gatherings outside prisons to support families of death row prisoners, her contact with other human rights defenders including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, her participation in peaceful protests to condemn acid attacks against women, and her 2014 meeting with Catherine Ashton, the EU’s former European Union’s former High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Narges Mohammadi has health conditions, including a neurological disorder, which has led to her suffering seizures in prison. She requires ongoing specialized medical care.

She is also the mother of two 10-year-old twins, Ali and Kiana, whom she has been cruelly separated from and has not seen in over two years. Her children were forced to leave the country to live with their father in France after she was imprisoned because there was no one to look after them in Iran with her imprisoned.

“Narges Mohammadi cares for the suffering of others. Whenever she heard that a prisoner was due for execution, she did everything to save them. If she did not succeed, she joined their family in front of the prison in solidarity.”

Human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi, October 2016.

Arash Sadeghi, who will spend his second consecutive birthday in prison on 29 September, is imprisoned in Tehran’s Evin prison, serving two separate prison terms totalling 19 years.

Human rights activist Arash Sadeghi is imprisoned in Evin prison, serving two separate prison terms totalling 19 years. He is being punished for his peaceful human rights activities, including communicating with Amnesty International and providing the organization and other human rights groups with information on the human rights situation in Iran. His is critically ill following a prolonged hunger strike earlier this year and needs ongoing specialized medical care, which he cannot receive in prison. Despite this, the Iranian authorities have consistently blocked his admission to a hospital outside of prison.

Arash Sadeghi was arrested on 6 September 2014 together with his wife Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, also a human rights defender. He was then taken to Section 2A of Evin prison, which is run by the Revolutionary Guards, and held in solitary confinement for six months before being released on bail on 14 March 2015. He reported that during this period, he was repeatedly tortured, including through beatings and sexual humiliation.

In August 2015, following an unfair trial before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Arash Sadeghi was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment on spurious charges including “spreading propaganda against the system”, “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”, “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic” and “spreading lies”. The court verdict cited over 50 peaceful human rights activities as “evidence” of Arash Sadeghi’s involvement in “actions against national security”. The court also activated a four-year suspended prison sentence from 2011, which also related to his peaceful activism.  Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, who was tried with her husband, was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, in relation to an unpublished story she wrote about the cruel practice of stoning.  This sentence was later reduced to 3-and-a-half years as part of a Nowrooz (Iranian New Year) pardon. She is currently held in Evin prison.  

Peaceful human rights activities that landed Arash in jail:

On my second day of detention, I heard my wife crying in the next room. They told me they would execute her.

Arash Sadeghi

Online Activities

To communicate and organize, many defenders rely mainly on social media and digital communication platforms. As a result, the authorities are increasingly using their posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media as “evidence” of criminal activity. Alireza Farshi Yekenli, the founder of an online campaign to commemorate International Mother Language Day in Iran, has received a 15-year prison sentence for his peaceful activism supporting minority language rights.  Alireza Farshi’s posts on Facebook and Telegram, a popular social media application, are mentioned as “criminal evidence” in the verdict of his case. According to the court, these posts reflect Alireza Farshi’s “hostile mentality against the country’s territorial integrity” and “promote separatist thoughts”. In reality, the posts cover a wide range of subjects from the situation of prisoners of conscience belonging to Iran’s Azerbaijani Turkish minority to broad questions related to history, language, nationhood and identity.

Intensified Repression

The use of national security-related and other charges to silence human rights defenders is not new in Iran, nor are the grossly unfair trials before Revolutionary Courts. However, across the board, human rights defenders caught in the web of state repression have experienced noticeably worse treatment at the hands of Iran’s abusive criminal justice system.

Trials of human rights defenders on national security-related charges in Iran take place before Revolutionary Courts, which are characterized by unfair, summary and predominantly secret processes. The trial of anti-death penalty campaigner Atena Daemi before a Revolutionary court in March 2015 was grossly unfair – it took place with three other activists, lasted about 45 minutes in total, and Atena Daemi was not permitted to be in the courtroom at the same time as the others who she was being tried with. She is now serving a seven-year prison sentence after being convicted of charges related to her activism, including her involvement in Iran’s growing movement against the death penalty.   

Human rights defenders are also often held in prolonged solitary confinement and are given little or no access to their families. Many are subjected to torture or other ill-treatment during interrogations and some are coerced into making “confessions”, while judges systematically fail to order investigations into their torture allegations. Arash Sadeghi said that after his September 2014 arrest his interrogators tortured him, including by kicking him, punching him in the head, slapping and choking him.  No investigation was conducted into his allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. Arash Sadeghi reported that he told the judge during his trial he had been tortured in detention, but he was laughed at and told “everyone says that”.  Minority rights activists Mohammad Ali Amouri and Rahman Asakereh have said after their arrests in 2011 they were repeatedly tortured, including through sleep and food deprivation, kicking, beatings with electric cables and gas hoses and suspension from the ceiling.

Human rights defenders are routinely denied access to a lawyer from the time of arrest and during investigations. Not only are lawyers routinely denied access to their clients, they are often themselves targeted by the authorities. Prominent human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani continues to languish in Iran, serving a 13-year prison sentence on spurious national security-related charges for carrying out his professional work and peacefully defending human rights.

#FreeOurDefenders NOW!

Join @amnesty and tell Iran’s @JZarif that defending human rights is NOT a crime. #FreeOurDefenders