Iran: Harsh prison sentences for two female activists highlight rampant injustice
The sentencing of Iranian artist and activist Atena Farghadani to more than 12 years in prison – far in excess of the statutory maximum punishment for the charges she faced – is a terrible injustice, and a violation her rights to free expression and association, Amnesty International said.
This case follows the sentencing last month of Atena Daemi, another Iranian woman, to more than a decade in prison – also on charges stemming from her peaceful activism. Both are prisoners of conscience and must be freed immediately.
“Atena Farghadani has effectively been punished for her cartoons with a sentence that is itself a gross caricature of justice. No one should be in jail for their art or peaceful activism,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Such harsh and unjust sentences seem to be part of a disturbing trend in Iran, where the cost of voicing peaceful dissent is escalating, with punishments even worse than those issued in the post-2009 election crackdown.”
Atena Farghadani has effectively been punished for her cartoons with a sentence that is itself a gross caricature of justice. No one should be in jail for their art or peaceful activism
Atena Farghadani, 28, was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison on charges of “gathering and colluding against national security”, “spreading propaganda against the system”, “insulting members of parliament through paintings”, “insulting the Supreme Leader of Iran”, and insulting her interrogators.
The charges appear to stem from her artwork and from her association with the families of those killed in the crackdown that followed the 2009 contested presidential election. She held an exhibition in memory of those killed, while one of her cartoons depicted legislators as monkeys, cows and other animals. The cartoon satirized parliament’s efforts to pass a bill that criminalizes voluntary sterilization and restricts access to contraception and family planning services.
Under Iranian law, the maximum statutory punishment that Atena Farghadani could face under these charges is eight years and six months. However, a provision in Iran’s new Penal Code allows for the imposition of sentences exceeding the statutory maximum when there are more than three crimes.
This is giving rise to a new trend where the Iranian authorities throw as many spurious charges as possible in order to secure multiple convictions. The charges are frequently for vague and overly broad national security-related offences and for “offences”, such as insulting officials or Islamic principles, which criminalize the exercise of human rights.
Another young activist, Atena Daemi, was recently handed down a sentence of more than 10 years on multiple charges relating to her peaceful activism.
A 27-year-old anti-death penalty and civil society activist, she was sentenced to 14 years in prison last month. The punishment includes seven years for “gathering and colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system”. She was also sentenced for “concealing evidence” and for “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Supreme Leader”.
The charges stem from her criticism on Facebook and Twitter of executions and human rights violations in Iran, as well as her participation in gatherings outside prison in solidarity with families of death row prisoners, distribution of anti-death penalty pamphlets, and her association with human rights defenders and the families of those killed during the post-2009 election crackdown.
The charge of “insulting the Supreme Leader and founder” of the Islamic Republic of Iran appears to relate to Facebook posts where Atena Daemi made a pun on a famous statement by Ayatollah Khomeini in order to condemn Iran’s disgraceful execution record over the past three decades, and another where she said his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, was widely regarded by Iranians as a dictator.
The charge of “concealing evidence” appears to relate to her failure to provide her interrogator with details of an activist friend’s Facebook and email accounts.
Atena Daemi was convicted of these charges after a grossly unfair trial at a Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The trial apparently lasted no more than 15 minutes and took place at the same time as the trial of three other prisoners of conscience.
If the sentences are upheld on appeal, both women will serve up to seven-and-a half years in jail on the most serious charge of "gathering and colluding against national security". This is under new provisions in Iran's 2013 Penal Code which stipulate that those accused of multiple charges serve the lengthiest single sentence.
“The sheer absurdity of these convictions and long prison sentences reflect the extreme lengths that Iran’s judiciary is going to in order to squeeze the life out of freedom of expression and association,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The Iranian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Atena Farghadani and Atena Daemi and ensure their convictions and sentences are quashed. Not doing so would show the world that Iran is surpassing the darkest abuses of the post-2009 election crackdown, which the world had hoped might end with the election of President Rouhani.”
The sheer absurdity of these convictions and long prison sentences reflect the extreme lengths that Iran’s judiciary is going to in order to squeeze the life out of freedom of expression and association
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards first arrested Atena Farghadani on 23 August 2014. They searched her house, confiscated her personal belongings and took her away, blindfolded.
She spent several spells in solitary confinement at Tehran’s Evin Prison and started a hunger strike in protest at her detention. Atena Farghadani later told media she was interrogated for nine hours every day over a period of a month-and-a-half at Evin Prison. She also says she was beaten and subjected to degrading body searches and other mistreatment by guards.
Atena Daemi was arrested by nine members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in October 2014 and transferred to Tehran’s Evin Prison. She was held in conditions of extreme isolation for 88 days without access to a lawyer. Her cell for the first 20 days was infested with insects and lacked toilet facilities. She said her interrogators offered to grant her easier access to the toilet in exchange for her “cooperation”.
She says she was interrogated for 58 days, often for periods of 10 hours or longer. During these lengthy interrogations, she had to sit blindfolded while facing a wall. She now has several health problems, including weakness in the limbs and blurred vision – but the authorities have denied her specialised medical care outside prison.