Just a few days before Christmas, on 21 December 2020, Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and Letters with Wings invited everyone to watch a Facebook live stream for Yalda Night in support of prisoners in Iran. Yalda Night is an Iranian feast which marks the longest and darkest night of the year. Yalda means rebirth (of the sun). Family and friends gather to share food and drink and read poetry (in particular by Hanfez and Sa’adi).
I want to share in this blog post the YouTube clip of this event and give you some insight on the campaign and the clips we received for this evening. .
I. #GiveThemAVoice campaign
If you read my previous post, you know about the #GiveThemAVoice campaign. We asked people around the world to be the voice of a political prisoner in Iran and make a recording of themselves reading a poem or another text (often an excerpt from a letter) which was written by a political prisoner in Iran and help that their voices will be heard across the prison walls and not silenced. I suggested in my previous post ten prisoners and one or more texts for each of the prisoners, but I also said that people are free to read other texts of the same prisoners or read texts of other prisoners. We asked people to tweet their contributions with the hashtag #GiveThemAVoice. In a post on our Amnesty website on 1 December, we also asked people to submit the clips to us via a Dropbox link.
The resonance was very positive and we had in the end 82 files in our Dropbox folder. We received contributions from all over the world, in particular many clips from different parts of the UK, from Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Canada and Australia. Many individuals sent their clips, some of them are associated with Amnesty International, some are not. In addition a good number of Amnesty Groups in the UK and beyond participated in the campaign. I want to mention and thank in particular the Amnesty Group Reading, Amnesty Group Richmond Twickenham and Amnesty Group Mayfair & Soho (all UK), as well as Amnesty Group Furesø, Denmark and Amnesty Toronto Iran Action Circle, Canada for their support and their wonderful clips.
II. Yalda Night
Viviana Fiorentino, Letters with Wings, saw my blog post about the campaign and suggested that Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and Letters with Wings could run the #GiveThemAVoice campaign together. She also suggested that the campaign could culminate in a joint online event on Yalda Night (21 December). Letters with Wings is an initiative of Northern Ireland based poets. They started during the first lockdown and invited the public for Poetry Day in Ireland to send poetic letters to artists who are in prison all over the world.
Our event was live streamed on Facebook. If you want to watch the event on Facebook you find it here.
The video of the event is in the meantime also on YouTube. If you prefer to watch it on YouTube you can find the clip here:
When we put the event together, we discussed whether we should show all video clips or just a selection. Some people submitted more than one clip and for some prisoners we received various versions containing the same text. In the end we decided to show all the clips in our event. We thought it is wonderful to hear so many different voices reading these texts and reading them in different ways. It is also fascinating to see a wide range of different video clips. Some people filmed themselves reading the text, some used one or more pictures of the prisoner and you can only hear the voice of the person who is reading the text. Some people even used music in their video clips. Some only read the text they have chosen and some decided to give some background about the prisoner or end the clip with a demand to the Iranian authorities to free the prisoner.
The whole event lasted about 2 hours 50 minutes. If you are looking for a specific section, the following overview and time data (for the clip on YouTube) might be helpful.
1. The event starts with an introduction to the campaign and to Yalda Night.
2. The first prisoner is Anoosheh Ashoori (starting at 5.29 min). He is a British-Iranian dual national and a retired engineer who was arrested on 13 August 2017 when he visited his mother in Iran. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on trumped up charges. We received five clips in support of him. The activists in the clips read a text by Anoosheh Ashoori from 2020.
3. The second prisoner in the event is Aras Amiri (at 14.29 min). She is an Iranian national who lives in London. She is a British Council Worker and was arrested in March 2018 when she visited her sick grandmother in Iran. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. We received one clip in support of Aras Amiri, reading her text “Remembrance”.
4. The third prisoner is Arash Sadeghi (at 18.16 min). He is a civil rights activist who has been harassed for years. The last time he was arrested was on 7 June 2016. He is serving 19 years in prison (15 years from 2016 and 4 years from a suspended sentence in 2010). Arash Sadeghi is very ill, because he suffers from a rare form of bone cancer and he does not receive proper medical care. We received five clips in support of him. The activist read the end of an open letter by Arash Sadeghi from March 2020.
5. After Arash Sadeghi follows his wife, the poet, writer and human rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (at 27.30 min). She was also arrested several times. On 24 October 2016 she was arrested to serve 6 years in prison for an unpublished story about stoning and her Facebook posts. She was temporarily released on 3 January 2017 (after Arash Sadeghi’s 72 day hunger strike), but rearrested after three weeks. In 2019 her original sentence was reduced and she was released in April 2019. In November 2019 she was rearrested to serve a new sentence (2.1 years in prison). We received ten clips in support of Golrokh Iraee and activists read the following poems: “The Lips of the Wind”, “Couples in Prison”, “For Gisou”, “Standing Straight” and “Counting Up, Counting Down”.
6. The next prisoner is Atena Daemi (at 48.52 min.) Atena Daemi is a human rights defender, campaigner against the death penalty and for children’s and women’s rights. She was arrested on 27 March 2014. She initially was sentenced to 7 years in prison (on appeal). She was meant to be released on 4 July 2020, but the authorities brought new charges against her and in July 2020 she was sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes. We received five clips in support of Atena Daemi. The activists read excerpts from a letter by Atena Daemi from 2020.
7. After Atena Daemi follows a poem by the French-Iranian anthropologist and academic Fariba Adelkhah (at 57.21 min). Fariba Adelkhah was arrested on 5 June 2019 in Iran. On 16 May 2020 she was sentenced to six years in prison. She was given furlough at the beginning of October 2020 and she is currently with her family in Iran under house arrest. We received two clips. Both are readings of her poem “Le silence”, but one is a reading of the French poem and one of its English translation.
8. The following section is about Kylie Moore Gilbert (at 1.03.38 h). She is fortunately not any longer a prisoner in Iran. Kylie Moore Gilbert is a British-Australian national. She is a lecturer and researcher in Middle East Politics at the University of Melbourne Asia Institute. She was arrested on 14 September 2018 when she was about to fly home after participating in a university programme about Islam for foreign academics. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “espionage” and other trumped up charges. On 25 November 2020 it was confirmed that she was released in exchange for three Iranian prisoners. She is now back home in Australia. We received three clips in support of Kylie Moore Gilbert, one activist reads excerpts from her letters from prison and two read her poem “Endure”
9. The next prisoner is Maryam Akbari Monfared (at 1.10.46 h). Maryam Akbari Monfared is a human rights activist. She was arrested on 31 December 2009 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. According to Amnesty International Maryam’s conviction is solely based “on the fact that she had made phone calls to her relatives, who are members of a banned group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), and had visited them once in Iraq”. We received six clips in support of her. The activists read an excerpt of an open letter she wrote from prison for Nowruz.
10. The next section is about another human rights defender who is fortunately not any longer in prison: Narges Mohammadi (at 1.19.55 h). Narges Mohammadi is a human rights defender, journalist, member of Centre for Defenders of Human Rights (CDHR) and in particular active against the death penalty throught her membership in the group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” (LEGAM) .The last time Narges Mohammadi was arrested on 5 May 2015. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In addition she had to serve 6 years from a previous sentence. On 8 October 2020 she was released and is now reunited with her husband and her tweens Kiana and Ali (born 2006). We received one clip in support of her and it contains a reading of her poem “Three Goodbyes”.
11. After the section for Narges Mohammadi follows a section for another well known Iranian women rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (at 1.24.43 h). Nasrin Sotoudeh is married with Raza Khandan and they have two children (son Nima, 12 years & daughter Mehraveh, 20 years old). She was arrested twice. First in 2010 and then again on 13 June 2018. She was sentenced to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. In addition there were a five years sentence from the previous trial. In accordance with Iranian law, she will “only” serve the longest sentence for one of the convictions against her, which is 10 years. However, another two and a half years were added due to the high number of charges against her, raising her total sentence to around 12 years. After six weeks of hunger strike she was temporarily released on 7 November 2020. She tested positive for Covid 19. At the beginning of December she was ordered back to prison. We received two clips in support of her. One contains a reading of an excerpt from an interview with her from March 2014 and the other one a reading of two letters to her children (March 2011 to Nima & April 2011 to Mehraveh).
12. The next is a clip which we received from Nasrin Parvaz in support of 14 men who were condemned to be executed in Iran (at 1.35.00 h). Nasrin Parvaz is Iranian, but lives in the UK. In the 80s she was herself arrested in Iran, tortured and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison. She spent eight years in prison until she was released. She is now fighting to save 14 men in Iran who were sentenced to death. Nasrin started a petition on Change.org and it would be wonderful, if you could sign and share her petition. If you want to read more about Nasrin’s own story, then please read her book “A Woman’s Struggle in Iran: A Prison Memoir“
13. The next section is dedicated to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (at 1.37.02 h). Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian dual national. She is a project manager for Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable arm of the news agency Thomson Reuters. She is married to Richard Ratcliffe and they have a daughter Gabriella (now 6 1/2 years old). She was arrested on 3 April 2016 when she was visiting her parents together with her daughter. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison. She was temporarily released on 17 March 2020 and is currently in house arrest at her parents place. However there are threats that she has to return to prison. There is also a new trial pending and she could potential be given an additional long sentence. We received eight clips in support of her. Activists read three different poems by her: “Autumn Light”, “For Our Parents” and “A Yard of Sky”.
14. After Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe follows Niloufar Bayani (at 1.57.15 h). Niloufar Bayani is an Iranian wildlife activist and researcher. In January 2018 she was arrested on charges of espionage and similar charges. She was held incommunicado for eight months, was tortured and intimidated with sexual assault. She said that she was interrogated for 1200 hours. She was sentenced to 10 years of prison the “returning the funds” she had allegedly received from the US. The conviction is based on forced confessions. We received one clip in support of her. The clip is a reading of her powerful poem “A Blindfold Remains”.
15. The next section is also dedicated to a poet, to Sedigeh Vasmaghi (at 2.03.43 h). Sedigeh Vasmaghi is also a theologian and women rights activist. She was sentenced to one year in August 2020 for signing a petition against police brutality in November 2019. There is in addition a suspended five year sentence which is open from 2017. This means that she will have to serve 6 years. She is currently free, but can be arrested every day. We received six clips in support of her. They contain readings of her poems “When the Stars Die Down” and “Just Think of All the Freedom I Have”.
16. The penultimate prisoner in the event is Soheil Arabi (at 2.13.18 h). He is a photographer, blogger and human rights activist and was arrested in November 2013. He was initially sentenced to death for “insulting the Prophet of Islam” on Facebook. This sentenced was commuted to ultimately 6 1/2 years. There are a number of other charges and other convictions against him. He is currently in Rajaei Shahr prison. We received seven clips in support of him. All contain a reading of an excerpt from a letter from August 2017.
17. The last prisoner is Zeynab Jalalian (at 2.22.40 h). Zeynab Jalalian is a Kurdish human rights activist. She was arrested on March 2008. In December 2008 she was sentenced to death in a summary trial for being a member of the Kurdish group Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Zeynab denied that she is a member. In December 2011 her sentence was commuted to life in prison. She has several medical conditions and the authorities deny her medical treatment. In June 2020 she was diagnosed with Covid 19. We received 13 clips in support of her and therefore more clips than for any other prisoner. Most of the activist read an excerpt from a letter she wrote in June 2018, but the clips also include two readings of an open letter for International Women’s Day (8 March 2018) (one in Farsi and one in English) and an excerpt from a letter to her mother in March 2018.
18. The last few minutes of the event (at 2.47.44 h.) are dedicated to a few concluding remarks and thank yous to everyone who watched the event, who submitted clips and who supported it in other ways.
I close this post, as many other of my posts, and want to ask you to continue to be a voice of political prisoners in Iran and campaign for their release. We put not only the recording of the whole event on YouTube, but we also put up all clips which were submitted to us. You can find them in the brand new YouTube channel of my Amnesty Group Amnesty Westminster Bayswater. Please subscribe to the YouTube channel. Please watch and share in particular the individual clips and like them. There are playlists for each prisoner which you can also share.
I think the words of all the prisoners and former prisoners in this campaign are very powerful. It would be wonderful, if you continue to use the videos in your campaigns for them and if their words will continue to be heard.