A love story in Iran – #SaveArash

On 30 December 2016, the hashtag #SaveArash was at one point in time worldwide trend no. 1. I want to tell in my blog post the story behind this hashtag. It is the story of Arash Sadeghi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, a story about their harassment and persecution by Iran but also about their love for each other. There are also some recent worrying developments which mean that this hashtag is sadly still relevant.

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1. Arash Sadeghi is an Iranian student activist. He was born on 29 September 1986. He studied at Tehran’s Allame Tabatabai University for a master degree in philosophy. However he was not able to finish his degree, because he was banned by Iran from studying because of his human rights activism.

2. Arash Sadeghi’s harassment and persecution by Iran started in 2009 after the disputed Iranian presidential elections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the first time elected in 2005, run against Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an independent candidate (and two other challengers). When Iran’s news agency announced that Ahmadinejad had won with a clear majority of more than 60% of the votes, many Iranians protested against the result, because of substantial irregularities of the election. They feared that the election was rigged. Arash Sadeghi had been a member of Mousavi’s election campaign and joined the protests.

On 9 July 2009, Arash Sadeghi was arrested the first time. He was held for 53 days in Section 2A of Tehran’s Evin Prison which is under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. On 31 August 2009, he was released against bail without charges. A few months later, on 27 December 2009 (Day of Ashura) there were Iran-wide protests against the election. Arash Sadeghi participated in these protests and was arrested again. He was released after 15 days against a bail of USD 96,000.

On 4 April 2010, he was sentenced by branch 26 of the Revolutionary Courts to 74 lashes and six years in prison. The charges against him were (i) propaganda against the regime and (ii) gathering and colluding against state security. Arash was imprisoned several times in 2010. He was tortured. His shoulder was dislocated twice and his teeth broken. He gave an interview in November 2010 with Rooz Online News Agency in which he gave more of the gruesome details of the torture he had to endure. You can find a summary in the Amnesty Urgent Action for him from July 2013 (page 2).

3. In November 2010 security officials broke into his home in the middle of the night and wanted to arrest Arash Sadeghi. He was not at home, because he spent the night at his grandfather’s house. His mother and his sister were the only ones who were at home. As the officials forced entry, his mother suffered a heart attack and died within a few days. Initially his family blamed him for the death of his mother. In December 2010 Arash Sadeghi turned himself in to the prison. He was again tortured. They wanted him to say that his mother’s death was unrelated to the night raid. He did not give in, but rather launched an official complaint about the night raid after his release. After one year in prison he was released. He was informed that his sentence was reduced to one year in prison and four years suspended sentence depending on good behaviour.

4. On 15 January 2012, Arash Sadeghi was arrested again. He was immediately transferred into solitary confinement in Ward 209 Evin prison, the ward which is controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence. Arash Sadeghi did not have access to a lawyer and was only allowed very limited visits by his grandfather. Arash was twice on hunger strike. In 2012 he went on hunger strike in support of another prisoner, Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki, about whom I wrote a number of blog posts last year. He went another time on hunger strike in June 2013 to protest against his ill-treatment in prison. His father was harassed and intimidated. He was warned against speaking to the media about his son. His grandfather was arrested and detained for one week for giving interviews about his grandson and for the announcement that Arash was on hunger strike.

Arash Sadeghi was released in October 2013. He had been detained for 22 months without charges or a judgement against him. Following his release he and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee got married.

5. On 6 September 2014, Arash Sadeghi, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee and two friends (Navid Kamran and Behnam Mousivand) were arrested at their work place by men in civil clothes which likely belonged to the Revolutionary Guards. They searched the place and confiscated personal belongings like computers, memory cards and personal papers and documents. Arash and Golrokh were both interrogated throughout their detention. At one time Arash could hear Golrokh crying who was interrogated near his cell. The authorities put pressure on him. They told him that his wife had been accused of burning the Quran and was facing execution. Also Golrokh describes that she was interrogated and threatened and could hear her husband being beaten and kicked in the next cell. Golrokh was released on bail on 27 September 2014, but Arash was detained for several months. He was kept in solitary confinement and was not allowed to speak with his lawyers. He had only very limited contact with his family during this time – mainly very brief telephone calls and hardly any family visits. Arash Sadeghi was released on bail on 15 March 2015.

The trial against Arash Sadeghi, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee and their two friends was held between May and July 2015. Arash Sadeghi was sentenced by the Revolutionary Court in Tehran to 15 years in prison on charges including “spreading propaganda against the system”, “gathering and colluding against national security” and “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic”. 15 years is the maximum statutory punishment for the charges of which he was convicted. His Facebook posts, interviews and correspondence with journalists and human rights organisations were used as evidence against him. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities of Islam” and “spreading propaganda against the system”. The charges against her were based on her Facebook posts about political prisoners and an unpublished story the authorities found in her house. The novel is about a woman who watches a film about a woman who is stoned to death for adultery. The protagonist of the novel is so angered by it that she burns a copy of the Quran. Navid Kamran and Behnam Mousivand were both sentenced to 18 months in prison for “spreading propaganda against the system”. The trial was unfair. Their lawyers had no access to the case files. Golrokh was not able to defend herself in court, because she was in hospital on the day of her hearing and the court refused to adjourn the hearing.

In February 2016 the court of appeal confirmed the convictions against Arash Sadeghi and Ebrahimi Iraee. Arash faces 19 years in prison, because the suspended sentence of four years from his conviction in 2010 was added to the 15 years to which he was sentenced this time. Arash Sadeghi was arrested on 7 June 2016 to serve his sentence of 19 years in prison. He attended on that day a court hearing against another human rights activists (Shahid Moghadas) and was arrested in court to be sent to Evin prison.

6. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was arrested on 24 October 2016. Security officials broke through the front door of her house, arrested her and brought her to Evin prison to start serving her sentence. Golrokh did not receive a written summons, but only a telephone call by someone who introduced himself as an enforcement officer from the court and who told her that she must report to the prison. She refused to do so, because a formal summons is legally required.

img_3407In protest of her arrest and the start of her imprisonment Arash Sadeghi started a hunger strike on the same day. He demanded her release and a judicial review of her case. Against the prison regulation he was denied visiting rights and he and his wife Golrokh were not allowed to see each other for weeks. The prison authorities initially told him that he would continue to be denied to see her while he is on hunger strike. On 14 November Arash and Golrokh were allowed to meet in prison. Prison had hoped that Arash would stop his hunger strike. He did not do so, but continued. Arash Sadeghi’s health declined. The website International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reported on 8 December 2016 that his condition was “critical and worrying” after 45 days of hunger strike. They mention that he was suffering from stomach and intestinal problems, his blood pressure had dropped severely and he was spitting blood. He was “constantly in and out of prison clinic during the past week”. He continued his hunger strike throughout December 2016. The reports about his declining health got even more worrying and family and friends feared for his life. Many people used social media to show their support for Arash Sadeghi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. On 30 December 2016, Arash Sadeghi’s 68th day of hunger strike, a tweet storm in his support took place and the hashtag #SaveArash was worldwide the highest trending topic on Twitter which probably meant that more than half a million people were joining the tweet storm. ICHRI highlights that this is even more remarkable, because Twitter is censored in Iran and can only be accessed via proxies. The international media reported widely about his case. Iran’s immediate reactions to the tweet storm were mixed. Some hardliners claimed that the trending hashtag was generated by robots and not by real people supporting Arash Sadeghi, but a few Iranian MPs criticised the trial in closed courts and asked for the review of Golrokh’s case. On 2 January 2017 hundreds of people marched to Evin prison and demanded the release of Arash Sadeghi and his wife. On the 72nd day of hunger strike the authorities finally yielded to his demands. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was released from prison against bail and the Iranian prosecutor promised to review her case. Arash Sadeghi stopped his hunger strike, but remained in prison.

7. Arash Sadeghi’s health status was critical, but it took several days until he was transferred to hospital. He did not get proper medical care and was soon transferred back to prison. Golrokh’s release was only temporary and the authorities ordered her back to prison after a few days. She resisted the order to return to prison, because the prosecutor had initially promised that the furlough would be extended until the review of her case was completed. On 23 January 2017 the Revolutionary Guards arrested Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee again while she was on the way to visit her husband. The Revolutionary Guards also block a review of her conviction by the courts. Arash Sadeghi had said that he would start his hunger strike again, if Golrokh is brought back to prison. Social media reported that he started a new hunger strike on the day of her arrest. Today is his 14th day of this hunger strike. Given that he has not recovered from his last hunger strike, his life is at risk.

8.  The story of Arash Sadeghi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee temporary release show that pressure from the public and media attention work. Therefore please keep sharing his story and raise awareness for both of them in social media and out of social media. Use the hashtags #SaveArash #FreeArash and #FreeGolrokh and help to make as much noise as possible.

Please also support other Iranian prisoners. Over the last months there were a number of prisoners who went on hunger strike to protest about their unfair treatment, like Ali Shariati, Saeed Shirzad, Mohammed Ali Taheri, Morteza Moradpour and many more. There was an interesting article in the New York Times about hunger strikes in Iran, one in Iranwire about Arash Sadeghi and other prisoners on hunger strike and also the press release by the German Commissioner for Human Rights Bärbel Kofler is worth reading.

Let’s hope that the Iranian authorities yield again to pressure from inside Iran, but also through the international community and that Arash Sadeghi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee are both released. #SaveArash #FreeGolrokh

9. Addendum (8 February 2016): United for Iran reported yesterday that Arash Sadeghi ended his latest hunger strike after receiving pledged from the prosecutor. Please continue to support him and ask for his release.

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