A Tale of two countries – Atena Daemi (Iran) and Hatoon al-Fassi (Saudi Arabia)

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran goes back a long time. It has dramatically intensified after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The two countries are fierce competitors, in particular ideologically and geopolitically. Recent conflicts in the Middle East saw often direct interventions of both states and both engage in a proxy competition, in particular since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Despite all the rivalry Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to agree in their disdain of human rights and their suppression of civil society. They are also among the worst countries for women’s rights. Occasionally both make small concessions. One example is that Iran allowed in October women to enter a football stadium to watch a match. Women had been barred from football stadiums for more than forty years. Saudi Arabia eased in August the male guardianship laws and allowed women to travel without the permission of a male relative. These concessions cannot distract from the severe restrictions women face in both countries.

Both countries also stand out in their crackdown of civil society and their harassment of human rights defenders.

The following post is about two brave women who are human rights defenders and therefore double under pressure in the two countries: Atena Daemi (Iran) and Hatoon al-Fassi (Saudi Arabia). Atena Daemi is currently in prison. Hatoon al-Fassi was temporarily released earlier this year, but the trial is still pending and she could potentially face a long prison sentence.

1. Atena Daemi (Iran)

a) Personal background

Atena Daemi was born on 27 March 1988. She is a human rights activist who campaigns against the death penalty and for children’s and women’s rights.

Atena Daemi uses Social Media to campaign for human rights, in particular Facebook and Twitter. She is outspoken against the death penalty in Iran. She wrote about executions in Iran and she also participated in gatherings outside prison in solidarity with families of death row prisoners. She writes also about other human rights violations in Iran, including about the forced hijab.

Atena Daemi also campaigns for children’s rights. She organised art classes for street children and protested against the conditions of children in Kobane, Syria.

b) Arrest and pre-trail detention

Atena Daemi was arrested on 21 October 2014 by several members of the Revolutionary Guards. They searched her house for three hours and confiscated several mobile phones which belonged to her and her relatives.

She spent the first 20 days in terrible circumstances. Her cell was infested with insects and did not have toilet facilities. According to Amnesty International the interrogators offered her better conditions, if she would “cooperate”. She was interrogated for almost two months, often for ten hours a day or longer. During the interrogation she was blindfolded and had to sit with her face against the wall.

She was only allowed to call her family one week after her arrest and there was no permission given for any family visits for almost the first months of her detention. She spent 88 days in isolation without access to a lawyer at Section 2A of Evin prison which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards.

She was initially held in prison without any information about the charges. Six months after her arrest she was formally charged. The charges against her were “propaganda against the state”, “acting against national security” and “insulting the Supreme Leader and Islam”. Her lawyer requested that the judge would set bail to have her released, but this did not happen.

c) Trial and judgement

The trial against Atena Daemi took place at the beginning of May 2015. The exact date is not entirely clear. It seems that the trial was a joint trial of her and three other activists (Omid Alishenas, Ali Nouri and Aso Rostami, initially also Atena Feraghdani, but she was then tried separately). The trial was grossly unfair and lasted only 45 minutes.

She was informed a few days later that Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran had sentenced her to 14 years in prison. That included seven years for “gathering and colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system”, four years for “concealing evidence” and three year for “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader”.

The charges were based on her Facebook posts and her tweets, in particular about executions and on other material stored on her mobile phone, including protest songs by Shahin Najafi, an Iranian musician who lives in exile in Germany and whose music is banned in Iran. “Gathering and colluding against national security” was based on her participation in gatherings against the death penalty and the protest for the children in Kobane. “Concealing evidence” seems to relate to her failure to provide the interrogator with details of Facebook and email accounts of other activists.

d) Release on bail and appeal against the judgement

Atena Daemi filed an appeal against the judgement, but for a long time no date for the appeal hearing was set. On 15 February 2016, after almost one year and four months in prison, she was temporary released on bail while she had to wait for the outcome of the appeal. The bail was set to five billion Iranian rials (approximately USD 166,000).

On 5 July 2016 Omid Alishenas, Atena Daemi, Ali Nouri and Aso Rostami were summoned to the appeal hearing in front of Branch 36 of the Court of Appeal. The decision of the court was delivered to Atena Daemi and her lawyer on 29 September 2016. The guilty verdicts against her and the other activists were upheld, but the Court of Appeal reduced her sentence to seven years.

Also the appeal trial was unfair. Atena Daemi said in an interview with Campaign for Human Rights in Iran on 29 September 2016:

“Our case was not judged fairly by any means. …In fact, it was the Revolutionary Guards agents who were mostly in charge of prosecuting us. My lawyer and I were not given a chance to present a defence during the preliminary trial and we saw a letter from the Revolutionary Guards addressed to the Appeals Court asking for the maximum punishment against us.”

According to Iran’s Islamic Penal Code someone convicted for a crime is eligible for release after having served the prison term for the heaviest punishment. For Atena Daemi this meant that she would be eligible for release after serving five years in prison.

e) Violent re-arrest and new charges against her and her sisters

On 26 November 2016 Atena Daemi was arrested by members of the Revolutionary Guards to start serving her seven year sentence. Atena Daemi’s mother Masoumeh Nemati said about the arrest:

“After my daughter was detained [to start her prison term], she and her father filed separate complaints against the Revolutionary Guards for breaking and entering into our home and taking Atena away without showing a summons.”

Atena Daemi was able to leak a letter from prison on 1 December 2016 in which she describes further details about the arrest. She was beaten and pepper sprayed by the guards when she asked to see the arrest warrant. One of her sisters who tried to help her was punched in the chest. On the way to prison Atena Daemi was blindfolded and threatened that a new case would be opened against her.

She filed a complaint against the Revolutionary Guards, but it was never followed up. To the contrary, in January 2017 she and her sisters were charged with “insulting the Supreme Leader”, “insulting state officials”, “spreading lies”, “resisting agents carrying out their duty” and “insulting agents while on duty”. Some of the charges were dropped after a hearing on 17 January 2017, but the full trial in relation to the other charges went ahead. On 23 March 2017 Atena and two of her sisters, Hanieh and Onsieh were sentenced to three months and a day for “insulting public officers on duty”. She was informed that in her case, the sentence was added to the seven years, she was already serving. The sentence against her two sister was suspended for one year on the condition of their “good behaviour”.

f) Health concerns and hunger strike

Since her arrest in October 2014 Atena Daemi developed several health issues.

She suffered in 2015 from a weakness of her hands and feet, a blurred vision and constant headaches. In August a doctor at Evin prison diagnosed her with early signs of multiple scleriosis. He suggested Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to get greater certainty and also said that she should be checked by a neurologist outside the prison. However, the authorities did not follow this advice.

In March 2017 she suffered a temporary loss of vision in her right eye and was transferred to the prison medical clinic. She did not receive any treatment and was transferred back to her cell. According to information from Amnesty International she vomited repeatedly over two days and was finally transferred to a hospital outside prison. Doctors again suggested an MRI to scan her brain, but the authorities told her family that they would have to pay for that themselves. That is breach of international law.

On 8 April 2017 Atena Daemi started a hunger strike in protest of the suspended prison sentence against her sisters. This lead to a further decline of her health. She lost weight, suffered nausea, blood pressure fluctuation and severe kidney pain. She briefly lost consciousness on 2 May 2017 and was transferred on 8 May to a hospital outside prison. The doctors warned that her kidney infection had reached critical levels, but the prison authorities accused her of “faking illness”. On 15 May the doctors advised that she should be admitted to the hospital immediately, but the prison authorities refused to do so.

On 31 May 2017 Court of Appeal acquitted Atena and her sisters of the new charges in relation to her arrest in November 2016. Atena Daemi ended her 54 day hunger strike. 

g) Transfer to Shar-e Ray Prison and new charges against Atena Daemi and Golrokh Iraee

On 5 July 2017 Iran organised a visit of foreign diplomats to Evin prison. It was a staged visit and the diplomats did not see any political prisoners. Three days later on 8 July Atena Daemi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee wrote an open letter. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee is a writer and human rights activist. She was in prison serving a six year sentence for “insulting the sanctities of Islam” and “spreading propaganda against the system”. The charges were based on her Facebook posts about political prisoners and an unpublished story the authorities found in her house.

The two women pointed out in the letter that the diplomats were not shown wards under the control of the Revolutionary Guards and not the solitary cells. They were also not informed about interrogation methods, torture and overcrowding in the prison.

This letter had severe consequences for Atena and Golrokh.

On 24 January 2019 both women were transferred from Tehran’s Evin prison Shahr-e Ray Prison in Varamin (near Tehran). They were subjected to insults and sexual slurs and they were kicked and punched when they peacefully protested their transfer. Shahr-e Ray Prison is a disused chicken house which is overcrowded and unhygienic. There are hundreds of women convicted of violent offences and therefore also high levels of assault between the inmates. It seems that the transfer was a reprisal because they had spoken out against human rights violations behind bars in particular through their open letters in July.

To protest against the transfer to Shahr-e Ray Prison Atena and Golrokh started a hunger strike on 3 February 2018. Already a few days earlier, on 27 January 2018, Golrokh’s husband Arash Sadeghi who serves 19 years in prison for his human rights activism had started a hunger strike in support of Atena and Golrokh.

After one week Atena and Golrokh decided to go on a “dry hunger strike”. This means they did not only refuse food, but also liquids. Atena Daemi stopped her hunger strike after 13 days (6 days on dry hunger strike). Golrokh continued, but went back to a “wet hunger strike” in which she drank water.

The health of both women suffered because of the hunger strike. Again the authorities denied proper medical treatment.

Finally on 12 May 2018 Atena and Golrokh were transferred back to Evin prison.

However this was not the end of the repercussions against them. In April 2019 a new case was brought against Atena Daemi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. The trial against them took place in July 2019 and both were informed that they were sentenced to an additional 3.7 years in prison for “insulting the leader” (2.1 years) and “propaganda against the state” (1.6 years). The charges were based on the open letter in which they criticised the prison conditions and another open letter in which they condemned the execution of Kurdish political prisoners in September 2018.

On 5 September 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld the judgement against Atena Daemi and Golrokh Iraee. They will both have to serve an additional 2.1 years in prison.

Atena Daemi was supposed to be released on 4 July 2020. Now she will have to stay behind bars for several more years. Her case was included in Amnesty International’s Write for Right campaign last year. There was also an online action for her which still seems to be open. Please support her and campaign for her release.

2. Hatoon al-Fassi (Saudi Arabia)

a) Personal background

Hatoon al-Fassi was born on 18 September 1964 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She grew up in a liberal families. In a interesting interview which she gave in December 2004 she spoke about her family, her time a school in relative openness and how Saudi Arabia became stricter from 1985 onward.

She finished school in 1982 and then studied history. In 1986 and 1992 she obtained degrees in history from King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In 2000 she received a PhD in ancient women’s history from the University of Manchester, UK.

Hatoon al Fassi is an historian who specialises in women’s history. Since 1992 she is a member of the history department at King Saud University, Riyadh. Since 2008 she has been an associate professor. She wrote and published three books, including in 2007 “Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia: Nabataea”, BAR International Series 1659, British Archaeological Reports, Oxford. She also writes regularly for several newspapers and had a weekly column for the newspaper Al-Riyadh.

She received several prices including in 2008 the prestigious “Ordre des Palmes Académiques” – a French order of knighthood for distinguished academics and figures in the world of education and culture and the MESA Academic Freedom Award in 2018.

b) Baladi initiate and other campaigns

Hatoon al-Fassi has been campaigning for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia for many years. One focus for her has been active and passive voting rights for women in the Saudi Arabian local elections. She is a co-founders of the “Baladi Initiative” which wants to support women in local elections.

2005 were the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia since the 1960s. Initially it was not clear whether women would be able to participate in the election. Hatoon al-Fassi supported potential candidates for this election. Then in October 2004, the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abd al-Aziz announced that women would not be able to do so. They would neither be allowed to stand for office nor vote in the elections. Interestingly, the Saudi authorities did not give religious or traditional reasons for barring women from participating, but rather logistical reasons.

The next local elections were in 2011. Saudi Arabia again denied women the active and passive voting right and argued that the country is “not ready yet for the participation of women” in the municipal elections. Hatoon al-Fassi criticised this decision and said that this is “an outrageous mistake that the kingdom is committing. It’s just repeating the same mistake of 2005”. When they learned that women would not be allowed to stand as candidates, they decided to create their own municipal councils in parallel to the men-only elections. Between 23 and 25 April 2011, they tried register women as electors.

In a speech on 25 September 2011 King Abdullah announced that women would finally be able to participate in the 2015 municipal elections. Some say that campaign by Baladi was “the main motor behind King Abdullah’s decision to allow women to vote and run in municipal elections”. The Baladi initiative planned to organise training sessions to educate participants on methods of campaigning for office and help them create their own platforms and agendas. In the years leading to 2015 about 350 women received training through 13 workshops which were held in ten different regions. In August 2015 the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs blocked any further courses. The Ministry said they wanted to protect the women from “exploitation”, a reason al-Fassi did not find very convincing given that their workshops had been free of charge.

Hatoon al-Fassi campaigned for many other important issues including in 2006 equal participation in worshipping areas in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and in particular for the right of women to drive.

c) Arrest and pre-trial detention

On 24 June 2018 was an important day for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, because the prohibition of women to drive a car was lifted. Around the same time Saudi Arabia cracked down on human rights activists and in particular on those women who were strong advocates of the right to drive.

Hatoon al Fassi told her friends that she was under a travel ban since 19 June 2018, but she had nevertheless planned to celebrate that day and drive officially in Saudi Arabia.

However, she did not have to chance to enjoy the freedom of driving a car, because she was arrested on or around 24 June 2018. There are conflicting information when the arrest took place. Some reports say that she was arrested between 21 June and 24 June in Riyadh. Gulf Centre for Human Rights and ALQST give 27 June 2018 as day of her arrest. ALQST adds that she was arrested in a raid on home by security forces.

There is very limited information available where she was detained and about the circumstances of her detention. It seems that she and other detainees were held incommunicado without contact to their families or to lawyers. Washington Post refers in an article in January 2019 a Saudi Twitter account “Prisoners of Conscience”. They had tweeted that Hatoon al-Fassi had spent long periods in solitary confinement and had been transferred to a “common cell in al-Hair prison, south of Riyadh”.

In November 2018 there were very worrying reports about torture and sexual harassment of Saudi activists. Amnesty International reported that they three separate testimonies which confirmed that activists were tortured:

the activists were repeatedly tortured by electrocution and flogging, leaving some unable to walk or stand properly. In one reported instance, one of the activists was made to hang from the ceiling, and according to another testimony, one of the detained women was reportedly subjected to sexual harassment, by interrogators wearing face masks

It seems that torture was used to extract “confessions” as well as punishment, if the activists refused to “repent”. It became later clear that one of the women who was tortured was the human rights activist Loujain al-Hathoul. She had been arrested on 15 May 2018.

There is no information about Hatoon al-Fassi’s treatment but the general reports about the torture and other abuse against detainees give ample reason to be worried about her treatment.

d) Charges, trial and temporary release

Saudi Arabia initially did not make the charges against Hatoon al-Fassi public. Several organisations report that she and other women were charged under the Saudi Cybercrime laws which carry sentences between one and ten years in prison. In detail they were charged and tried for allegedly communicating with international organisations and foreign media and promoting women’s rights.

On 13 March 2019 Hatoon al-Fassi and ten other women (including Loujain al-Hathoul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Nafjan) appeared before a court for their trial. The trial was behind closed doors. Several reporters and diplomats from Europe and the USA were not allowed to attend. It is unclear whether the women had legal representation. Relatives of the defendants were told that the hearing would not took place in front of a normal criminal court, but rather at special court which was set up for terrorism cases. These special courts are often used in political cases. The second hearing in the trial took place on 27 March. The public prosecutor claimed that the women undertook “coordinated activity to undermine the security, stability and social peace of the kingdom” After that hearing the court released three activists (Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Rokaya al-Mohareb). There was a third hearing on 3 April 2019. The remaining defendants (including Hatoon al-Fassi) were denied bail.

On 2 May 2019 at the end of criminal court hearing, Hatoon Al-Fassi and three other women’s rights activists (Amal al-Harbi, Maysaa al-Manea and Abeer Namankani) were temporarily released.

There are currently no further hearings in this trial and the other defendants are still in prison. Loujain al-Hathoul’s brother Walid al-Hathoul said that the trial is suspended and there is no information if and when the trial will continue. There is also no information about the conditions of Hatoon al-Fassi’s release.

The arrest of the women human rights defenders from May 2018 onward attracted large international attention. On 12 October 2018 several UN human rights experts called for the immediate release of all women’s rights defenders. On 14 February 2019 the European Parliament adopted a motion about “Women rights defenders in Saudi Arabia”. The European Parliament specifically mentions a number of women rights defenders, including Hatoon al-Fassi. They call for the immediate and unconditional release of all human rights defenders.

There are a large number of human rights organisations which have campaigned and still campaign for the release of all Saudi women’s rights defenders. The American Historical Association as well as Middle East Studies Association and Scholars at Risk campaigned specifically for Hatoon al-Fassi. Scholars at Risk has an ongoing campaign for her, because even so she is released, she could still be put on trial. Please support this brave women and take action for her.

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