Poetry behind bars: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and fellow prisoners

In the previous post I shared with you poems which were written behind bars, in the Women’s Ward of Iran’s Evin Prison. In this blog post I want to introduce you to the five women who wrote the poetry: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari and I want to share their stories with you. 

1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Nazanina) Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was born on 26 December 1978. She is a British-Iranian dual national and worked as project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable arm of the news agency Thomson Reuters. She is married to Richard Ratcliffe. They have a daughter Gabriella who turned three on 11 June 2017. Richard and Gabriella are both British citizens.

b) Nazanin’s parents live in Tehran. In March 2016 Nazanin was on holiday visiting her family for Nowruz (Iranian New Year) together with her daughter Gabriella. On 3 April 2016 when Nazanin went to Tehran’s Iman Khomeini Airport with Gabriella, because they wanted to fly back to London, she was arrested by officials who were likely part of the Revolutionary Guards. Nazanin was allowed to leave her daughter in the care of her parents and was then taken by the officials. Gabriella’s British passport was confiscated.

After her arrest Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was held in solitary confinement for 45 days. She had during this time very limited contact with her daughter and parents and no contact with her husband. She was interrogated several times, but was not given access to a lawyer. On 15 June a unit of the Revolutionary Guards released a statement saying that she “participated in devising and carrying out media and cyber projects aimed at the soft overthrow of the government”. On 14 August 2016 the trial against her took place before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. On 6 September the judge announced that she was sentenced to five years in prison on unspecified “security charges”.

c) Nazanin was initially in Kerman prison, nearly 1000 km from Tehran. In mid June 2016 she was transferred to section 2-A of Evin Prison in Tehran. This section is under control of the Revolutionary Guards. She was held in isolation in this ward.  Altogether she spent 130 days in solitary confinement in different prisons. End of December 2016 / beginning of January 2017 she was transferred to the Women’s Ward in Evin Prison.

She is currently allowed to call her husband once a week for one hour. Her daughter Gabriella can visit Nazanin once a week, sometimes twice a week.

d) Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s health declined dramatically after her arrest. She suffered form heart palpitations, blurred visions and pains in her hands, arms and shoulders. She did not receive proper medical treatment. In autumn 2016 she was on a hunger strike for five or six days and she even considered committing suicide. There were also times when she felt better, but recently she discovered two lumps in her breast. She also feels a stabbing pain in her breast. Her husband says that there is a history of breast cancer in her family and she is afraid that the lumps might be breast cancer. She is therefore kept under “close surveillance” .

e) On 22 January 2017 a spokesman of the judiciary announced that the five year sentence against Nazanin had been upheld upon appeal. She was convicted of “membership of an illegal group” in connection with her work for BBC Media Action and Thomson Reuters Foundation. There were more absurd allegations including the allegation that she married a “British spy” and that the extent of media coverage shows that she is “an important person“. On 23 April 2017 she was informed that also the Supreme Court had upheld her five-year prison sentence. All trials violated the principle of due process, were held under unclear charges and denied her full and proper legal representation. Her husband Richard describes the lack of representation vividly in an interview with Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

On 28 September, the day after she was diagnosed with an advanced depression, her request for furlough, a temporary release, was denied. On 8 October 2017 Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had to appear again in court. The Revolutionary Courts had reopened her case and she was informed that she was now facing two new charges which could result in 16 more years in prison.

f) Richard Ratcliffe started campaigning for the release of his wife a few weeks after her arrest. Initially he thought and was told that it would be best to stay silent. He hoped that she would be released eventually. He has been campaigning tirelessly for now 18 months. He also had been urging the British government for a long time to condemn Nazanin’s treatment and her sentence and publicly call for her release. On 1 November 2017 Boris Johnson spoke at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He was asked about Nazanin and condemned her detention by Iran at last. However, he also said the following: “When I look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism as I understand it.” This incorrect statement was taken by Iran as proof that Nazanin was not only visiting family, but was working in Iran to influence journalists. On 4 November she was again brought in front of the Revolutionary Guards and she had to answer a new charge “propaganda against the regime”. It took Boris Johnson a long time to apologise, but he had done so last Monday (13 November).

Boris Johnson’s wrong statement lead to a lot of press coverage about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and Boris Johnson said that he is prepared to meet Richard Ratcliffe the first time and he also said that he is willing to travel to Iran. Richard hopes that Nazanin will be back home for Christmas, but this is not more than a hope. There are also discussions whether the UK could give Nazanin diplomatic protection and by that make stronger demands on her behalf. With so much information at the moment, I feel the best summary of Nazanin’s current situation is an open letter Richard wrote to Boris Johnson. The letter was published on 13 November 2017 in the Evening Standard.

g) If you want to know more about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the Free Nazanin  campaign, please have a look at the Free Nazanin Website. The petition at Change.org has in meantime more than 1 million signatures, but please sign, if you have not yet done so, and continue to share it. Also Amnesty International campaigns for Nazanin and published a few days ago a new petition for her. Please also sign and share this petition.

If you are inspired by the poems in the previous blog post and want to write poetry in form of Haikus yourself, then please join the new campaign #haikus4Naz. You find here more information.

2. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee

IMG_1110a) Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was born on 30 July 1980. Golrokh is a writer and a human rights activist. She is married to Arash Sadeghi who is also a human rights activist. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you might already know both from my post “A love story in Iran – #SaveArash” which I published earlier this year.

b) Golrokh Iraee was arrested on 6 September 2014 together with her husband Arash Sadeghi and two friends (Navid Kamran and Behnam Mousivand) by men which likely belonged to the Revolutionary Guards. They searched their place and confiscated several items, including her computer. She was interrogated and threatened and could hear how her husband was beaten and kicked in the next cell. On 27 September 2014 she was released on bail.

The trial against her, Arash Sadeghi and their two friends took place in May and July 2015. Golrokh 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.

In February 2016 a court of appeal confirmed her sentence.

c) Golrokh Iraee was arrested on 24 October 2016. Security officials broke through the front door of her house and arrested her without showing an arrest warrant. In protest of her arrest Arash Sadeghi started an hunger strike. After 72 days of hunger strike, the authorities finally yielded to his demands. On 3 January 2017 Golrokh Iraee was released from prison against bail and the Iranian prosecutor promised to review her case. Arash Sadeghi stopped his hunger strike.

Golrokh Iraee could only enjoy her freedom for a few days. 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 started a new hunger strike to protest against her new arrest. On 6 February he ended his hunger strike after the prosecutor gave some promises.

In March 2017 30 months were reduced from her imprisonment as part of a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) pardon. Golrokh Iraee serves her sentence in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison.
IMG_2159

d) Her husband Arash Sadeghi was also in Evin Prison serving a sentence of 19 years. Golrokh and Arash could see each other in weekly visits and knew that they had just “a wall between us // As deep as a hand span” as Golrokh describes in her poem “Couples in Prison” which you find in the previous post. However on 18 October 2017 Arash Sadeghi was transferred to Rajaee Shahr Prison which is  about 50 km from Tehran. This was a punishment after photos of him and the political prisoner Soheil Arabi as well as him and the political prisoner Esmail Abdi were shared on Social Media in which they smiled. Rajaee Shahr Prison is a prison known for his inhuman conditions. This also means additional hardship for Arash and Golrokh, because they will not be able to see each other.

3. Narges Mohammadi

IMG_3581a) Narges Mohammadi was born on 21 April 1972 in Zanjan (Iran). She studied at Imam Khomeini University in Qazvin and got a major in applied physics. She began her career as journalist writing for a magazine which was dedicated to women issues. She wrote mainly about human rights and women rights.

Narges Mohammadi is one of the well-known human rights activist. She has been targeted by the Iranian authorities for years for her support for human rights and women rights as well as her activism against the death penalty and her membership in the group “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” (LEGAM) .

In 2002 five lawyers (Shirin Ebadi, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah and Mohammad Sharif) founded the Center for Defenders of Human Rights (CDHR). The purpose of CDHR was to report on human violations and to provide pro bono legal representations for political prisoners and their families. Narges Mohammadi become the vice president of the CDHR. In December 2008 the centre was forceably closed.

Narges Mohammadi is married to Taqi Rahmani. He is also a political activist and they have known each other since their time at the university. He spent 14 years in prison in Iran. After his release from prison he want to France in exile. Narges and Taqi have twins Kiana and Ali. They were born on 28 November 2006. After Narges’ last arrest the children joined their father in France.

b) Narges Mohammadi has a long history of activism and Iran has a long history of arresting and harassing her. She was arrested the first time in 1998 and spent one year in prison. Since then she had been summoned and questioned numerous time and was also arrested several times. Her passport was confiscated in 2009 and since that time she was banned from travelling.

The most recent arrest of Narges Mohammadi took place in the early hours of 5 May 2015 at her house in Tehran. The security forces had threatened to break down her front door, if she does not open. This arrest took place two days after she had appeared at court for a trail against her.

c) Narges Mohammadi’s general state of health is not good. Her health had been effected by years of harassment and intermittent periods of detention. After her arrest in May 2015 her health declined further. On 1 August 2015 she was transferred to hospital, because she had suffered a partial paralysis for eight hours that day. On the next day she was transferred back to prison and did not receive specialised medical care. On 11 October 2015 she was again transferred to hospital suffering a seizure. She was chained to the bed during the first days and was again transferred back to prison after a few day (on 28 October 2015) against her doctor’s advice.

d) After the first trial date on 3 May 2015, the trial was postponed four times and began at last on 20 April 2016 . The trial was before Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Courts. Narges Mohammadi was accused of several security related charges. The “evidence”‘ which was used against her were her participation in peaceful protests, vigils in front of the prison with families of prisoners who were sentenced to death, interviews she gave to international media,  several speeches at different ceremonies and a meeting between Narges Mohammadi and Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on the Women’s Day on 8 March 2014 at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran.

The trial against was unfair and violated the principles of due process. She did not have proper legal representation and she was not allowed to defend herself properly.

On 18 May 2016 Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to ten years in prison for “membership in the [now banned] Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty (LEGAM),” five years for “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state”. She will have to serve ten years of this sentence, because in accordance with Iranian law only the heaviest sentence has to be served if someone is convicted for several charges. In addition there is prison sentence of 6 years open from a conviction in 2011 for peaceful campaigning with CDHR and she faces charges for “insulting officers”, because she had filed a complain about the degrading and inhumane treatment she received by prison officers when she was transferred to hospital.

e) On 27 June 2016 Narges Mohammadi went on hunger strike to protest against the refusal of the Iranian authorities to let her speak with her children on the phone. Since her arrest in May 2015 a call of a few minutes on 2 April 2016 were her only contact with her children. She wrote an open letter on 27 June 2016 in which she explains her motivation and her feelings about not being able to speak with her children:

For a year now, my only contact with my two small children has been limited to me asking about them from my sister and brother. I always hear the same sentence back: “Don’t you worry. They are doing fine.” I have forgotten their voices. I don’t keep their photos by my bed anymore. I can’t look at them. My sister said: “Every time I want to come see you, Ali tells me to ask ‘Mommy Narge’ if she dreams of me?” My only way to connect with my children is in our dreams. How strange it is that they also see their mothers in their nightly, childish, sweet dreams and this is how they connect with me.

After thirteen days of hunger strike she was transferred to hospital, because her physical condition had deteriorated severely. On 16 July 2016 she ended her hunger strike after she was allowed a 30-minutes telephone call with her children. She also said in an open letter that she had received the permission to have one telephone call with her children every week.

f) On 19 September 2016, Narges Mohammadi and her lawyers appeared in front of Branch 36 of the Court of Appeal in Tehran to argue their case and present their evidence. However the Court of Appeal had already made their ruling. On 27 September 2016 the court refused to consider new evidence and upheld the sentence. In April 2017, Iran’s Supreme Court rejected her request for judicial review.

g) Narges Mohammadi is also in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison. She is very ill and is has several serious health conditions. Please support the campaign for her release. You can support her on Social Media. Please use the hashtag #FreeNarges. A group of human rights activists started a campaign on social media which is called #Mountains4Narges. Please join the campaign. You can find more information here.

4. Nasim Bagheri

IMG_2144a) Nasim Bagheri was born in 1984 in Tehran. She has two sisters and a brother. After school she studied at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) general psychology and received her master degree. The BIHE was founded in 1985 when it was certain for Baha’is that their children were barred from higher education because of their faith. The university is effectively an “underground university” and many of its staff and students are in prison. Nasim Bagheri decide to become an associate professor at BIHE, because she had first hand experience of discrimination for being a Baha’i and wanted to help other students. She later did also administrative work at the university.

b) Nasim Bagheri’s persecution and harassment goes back to 2011. On 22 May 2011 the authorities raided the houses of several people who were associated with BIHE. Also Nasim Bagheri’s house was searched and she was questioned. On 12 March 2012 she and nine other people who taught at BIHE were summoned to the prosecutor’s office and questioned. They were all asked to sign a declaration that they would cease to teach at BIHE. They all refused to do so and were then charged with “propaganda against the state” and “acting against national security through membership in an illegal organisation” (the Baha’i Online University). On 8 October 2013 Nasim Bagheri was tried by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran and then sentenced to four years in prison. Initially she was released on bail, but on 27 April 2014  four agents of the Ministry of Intelligence come to her house with search and arrest warrant in order to enforce the court sentence against her.

c) Nasim Bagheri serves her sentence in the Woman’s Ward of Evin Prison. She suffers from thyroid decease and does not receive proper treatment in prison. Online sources report in October 2015 and in September 2016 that she had been denied furlough at several occasions, even so she has a right under Iranian law to a temporary release from prison. She only received a 6 day temporary release in January 2016 for her sister’s wedding. Iranwire adds that also her family faces harassment.

5. Mahvash Sabet Shariari

IMG_2146a) Mahvash Sabet Shariari was born on 4 February 1953 in Ardestan (Iran).

Mahvash Sabet was a teacher and school principal who had been dismissed of public education for being a Baha’i after the Islamic revolution. She was one of the founders of BIHE and since 1993 the director of this institution for 15 years. Mahvash Sabet was one of the seven members of “Yaran”, an informal community leadership group for 300,000 Baha’is in Iran.

b) Mahvash Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 while she was on a trip to Mashhad (Iran). She was transferred to solitary confinement in ward 209 of Evin prison. On 14 May 2008 also the other six members of “Yaran” (Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaleddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezai, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm) were arrested. All of them were held incommunicado for weeks and did not have access to a lawyer for more than a year. Mahvash Sabet was not informed of her charges during the first 20 months of her imprisonment. On 11 February 2009 a security court announced the charges of all seven Yaran members: “espionage, insulting sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”.

The trial against all seven Yaran members started on 12 January 2010. At the trial the Baha’i leaders had four lawyers Shirin Ebadi, Abdolfattah Soltani, Hadi Esmaeilzadeh and Mahnaz Parakand. The lawyers had only very limited access to their clients and soon ended up either in exile or in prison. Maybe you read my blog post last year about one of them, Abdolfattah Soltani. After six short sessions, all seven were sentenced on 14 June 2010 to 20 years imprisonment. The charges were “espionage, insulting sanctities, propaganda against the regime and spreading corruption on earth”. They were convicted even so all seven did not attend the last court hearing. In December 2015 sentence was reduced to 10 years in prison. Iranwire says that no formal verdict was issued to the seven prisoners or their lawyers.

c) Mahvash Sabet began writing poetry in prison. She composed the poetry on scraps of paper in her cell in Evin prison. Friends and family were able to bring them out of prison and eventually out of Iran. The writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani got to know her poems and translated them into English. Her book “Prison Poems” was published in April 2013. Mahvash Sabet was selected as one of the 100 writers who featured in PEN International’s “Day of the Imprisoned Writer” in 2014.

The American-Iranian journalist Roxana Sabert who was imprisoned in Iran for 100 days in 2009 wrote a moving account about Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, the other female member of Yaran in two articles in the Washington Post: “Two shining lights in an Iranian prison’s darkness” and “In Iran, shackling the Bahai torchbearers“. Both articles are well wort reading.

In August 2017 Mahvash Sabet was awared the Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award which was accepted on her behalf by English PEN’s director Antonia Byatt.

d) During Mahvash Sabet’s time in prison she spent two and half years in solitary confinement and served altogether time in seven security and general prison wards, including the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison. About two months ago, on 18 September 2017, Mahvash Sabet was released from prison, after having served almost 10 years in prison. You can find an exclusive interview with her on Iranwire.

In October 2017 Mahvash Sabet was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize which she shares with the Irish poet Michael Longley. The award was presented at an awards ceremony on 10 October in London. You can read here her acceptance speech which Bahiyyih Nakhjavani accepted on her behalf and watch a video of Mahvash Sabet in which she accepts the prize and also recites one of her poems. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani also wrote a moving article about her: “Loosened Locket: on Mahvash Sabet“.

 

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6 thoughts on “Poetry behind bars: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and fellow prisoners

  1. Thanks @CiLuna27for a good blog/writings, and thank you all for your campaigning.

    #FreeNarges @FreeNazanin #FreeGolrokh & ALL other unjustly[& politically] prosecuted…/ #Free_Iranian_Activists.

    Like

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