Give them a voice – join our campaign for Iranian prisoners

A few days ago, on 15 November was the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. On this day people around the world are encouraged to support and recognise writers who are in prison. I would like to invite you to share poems and other texts of Iranian prisoners and give them a voice.

I. Background of the Campaign

Some of you probably watched our event “The Prisoner and the Pen”, a joint event by my Amnesty Group Westminster Bayswater and Gulf Center for Human Rights, or read my blog post about the event (I encourage you to watch the YouTube clip, if we have not seen it yet. You can find it in my blog post).

Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband participated in the event. He spoke about poems which were written in 2017 by five women in Evin prison (Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari). Richard and others read these poems at a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy on World Poetry Day 2017. I shared the poems in my blog and the poems were read afterwards at different protests and other events. Richard said:

“It was really powerful for the women that their voices had reached across the walls … and despite all that happens in Iran’s prisons that their voices had not been silenced.”

“The Prisoner and the Pen” focussed on so many prisoners from different countries in the Middle East that there was not so much time for the Iranian poems. Therefore I thought we could start a new campaign and make sure that these poems but also other texts by Iranian prisoners really “reach across the walls”. You can help to give your voice to the prisoners and make their words to be heard.

II. What do we want you to do?

I discussed this idea with my Amnesty Group and we would like you to do the following:

  1. Please pick a text by an Iranian prisoner. This can be a poem or an excerpt from an open letter. We have a couple of suggestions for prisoners and text which you can choose. You will find them in the next section, but you can of course also choose any other text from an Iranian prisoner.
  2. Please make a recording of yourself reading this text and urge Iran to release the prisoner. You can make a video clip using your phone or computer to record yourself. You can also use Zoom to make a recording and choose a photo of the prisoner as your background or, if you do not want to show your face, you can choose a photo of the prisoner as your profile picture and turn the camera off, then the picture of the prisoners is on screen.
    As an alternative, you can make a just a sound recording or write the text on a picture, if you are really uncomfortable making a recording or have technical difficulties.
    Ideally your clip should not be longer than 2 minutes. If it is shorter than it is more likely that people will listen to the whole clip.
  3. Please share the video clip, the sound recording (maybe together with a picture of the prisoner) or just the text on Social Media. Please use the specific hashtag #GiveThemAVoice. Please also use the usual hashtag for this prisoner, like #FreeNazanin, #FreeAtena, #FreeGolrokh etc. If you do that, then people who look for the hashtag of the prisoner, will also find your tweet.
    Please tag in your tweets Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani. You can also tag the Iranian embassy in your country or politicians in your country. Let them know that the prisoners will not be silenced but have a voice in campaigners around the world. If there is a special account who campaigns for the prisoner, you can also tag this account.
  4. Please retweet other tweets which use the hashtag.
  5. Please consider making more than just one clip. Even if you usually support primarily the campaign for one of the prisoners, please pick a couple of them or make even a clip for each of them over the next weeks.
  6. Finally, please ask you followers to join the campaign.

We hope that many people will join the campaign. We thought it would be good to have the campaign running until Yalda Night. Yalda is an Iranian feast which is celebrated on the 21 December (Winter Solstice). It celebrates the longest and darkest night of the year. One of the traditions in this night is to read poetry to each others.

III. Prisoners and Texts

We want to suggest ten Iranian prisoners and theirs texts, but please feel free to use other texts from these prisoners or texts written by other prisoners. All our suggestions are English translations, but can obviously also read texts in Farsi or any other language. As long as you use the hashtag #GiveThemAVoice people will find you tweets and can retweet them.

1. Atena Daemi

Occupation: Human rights defender, campaigner against the death penalty and for children’s and women’s rights

Date of Arrest: 27 March 2014

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 7 years in prison (on appeal in 2016). In July 2020 she was sentenced to an additional five years in prison and 74 lashes

Key information: Atena Daemi has developed over time severe health issues and has been on hunger strike several times. She was originally meant to be released on 4 July 2020, but there was in the meantime a new convictions against her.

Suggestion for a text: Atena wrote several open letters while in prison. One suggestion is a few paragraphs of the text which we used in our event “The Prisoner and the Pen”. Here is the first paragraph:

To think, tell and write freely is one of the most basic rights of every
human in the world! However, to see, hear and read the diverse thoughts
is intolerable for the rulers of authoritarian governments and the
freedom to speak about it is a great crime. When these basic rights are
taken away and forbidden or what they call Haram [unlawful], the strife
for achieving it becomes the reason for social and political struggles which has consequences like prison, detention, execution and … which is based on pure injustice!

You can find the full text in this presentation on page 52:

2. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Occupation: Project manager for Thomson Reuters Foundation, a charitable arm of the news agency Thomson Reuters.

Date of Arrest: 3 April 2016

Place of Detention: Nazanin was in Evin prison. She was temporarily realised on 17 March 2020. She is at her parents home In Iran. However there are threats that she has to return to prison.

Sentence: 5 years in prison

Key Information: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian dual national. She was arrested when she was in Iran visiting her parents together with her daughter Gabriella (now 6 years old). There is currently a new trial against her (which presents the same evidence as in 2016). The last hearing was on 2 November. She could potential given an additional long sentence.

Suggestion for a text: Nazanin wrote a couple of poems in prison. You can find them in a blog post I published three years ago.

Here are two poems put in pictures. They were made by activists and are frequently shared on social media

3. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee

Occupation: Writer, poet and human rights activist

Date of Arrest: 24 October 2016.

Place of Detention: Qarchak Prison

Sentence: Initially 6 years in prison. On the basis of new charges in September 2019 Golrokh was sentenced to an additional 2.1 years in prison.

Key Information: Golrokh is married to Arash Sadeghi. She has been (temporarily) released and arrested several times since 2016. She was released on 3 January 2017 after her husband Arash Sadeghi went on hunger strike for 72 days. She was rearrested on 23 January 2017. Her original sentence was reduced and she was released in April 2019. In November 2019 she was rearrested to serve the new sentence.

Suggestion for a text: Golrokh wrote a number of poems which are translated into English. You can find them in a blog post I published three years ago.

Here are two poems put in pictures. They were made by activists and are frequently shared on social media.

You can also find one additional poem “Counting Up, Counting Down” in the presentation for the event “The Prisoner and the Pen” (see for the link at Atena Daemi’s section).

4. Arash Sadeghi

Occupation: Civil activist and human rights defender

Date of Arrest: 7 June 2016

Place of Detention: Rajaei Shahr Prison

Sentence: 15 years in prison. However, there was a suspended sentence of 4 years from his conviction in 2010 which was added to his sentence. He therefore serves currently 19 years in prison.

Key Information: Arash Sadeghi has been on hunger strike several times. In July / August 2018 he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. The Iranian authorities withheld medical treatment several times. He had surgery in September 2018 outside of prison, but was transferred after three days back to prison. Even so he contracted an infection he was denied another transfer to hospital for weeks. In August 2020 he was again denied medical check ups.

Suggestion for a text: Arash wrote several open letters while in prison. One of the latest was in March 2020 where he blamed the officials for their neglect in relation to Covid-19. Here is the conclusion from his letter:

“If living in a labyrinth of lies is the pillar of this authoritarian regime, it is no surprise that the most dangerous threat to it is living in the circle of truth and reality. This is why, the truth is suppressed more than anything else… Because all the real problems and vital issues are concealed underneath a thick cover of lies.”

5. Anoosheh Ashoori

Occupation: Retired engineer

Date of Arrest: 13 August 2017

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 10 years in prison.

Key Information: Anoosheh Ashoori is a British-Iranian dual national. He was arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned while visiting his mother in Iran. His convictions is based on trumped up charges.

Suggestion for a text: I asked Anoosheh’s wife Sherry Izadi for a text. She made a short recording of a text he wrote, when she spoke with him on the phone.

Here is the text:

The world of the living dead

When you die, you are completely detached from this world, but here in Evin, it’s another universe. Looking around me, I see prisoners with long sentences, including myself, and the unfortunate ones who are awaiting execution. Desperate individuals, clinging to hope and daydreams, despite the worst odds. Most spend their days walking back and forth in a small yard, constantly asking themselves: What have I done to deserve this? Agonising days turn into months and years, while any chance of happiness fades away.

We are not disconnected from your world, but in a parallel universe, we witness how in your world, young children grow up, deprived of the love and comfort of their father’s or mother’s presence. As for our spouses and partners, some stay and bear the pain, but for others, the pain becomes too much and they finally succumb and drift away towards an alternative future. A once warm and close family gradually disintegrates into nothingness, into the abyss. All this happens in front of our eyes, out of reach, in the parallel universe, while we watch helplessly as we get older, weaker, and lonelier. Meanwhile, the evil tyrant keeps on killing, burning, and destroying everything it can, just to stay in power, even for one more day, and the world powers claiming to be advocates of justice, remain mostly indifferent as politics and trade dominate all else.

Cosmologists are still searching to find intelligent life out there. Maybe they too have given up on finding any compassion or humanity here on this earth.

6. Kylie Moore-Gilbert (Released on 25 Nov!)

Update on 25 Nov: It was confirmed that Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released in exchange for three Iranian prisoners!

Occupation: Lecturer and researcher in Middle East Politics at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute

Date of Arrest: 14 September 2018

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 10 years in prison.

Key Information: Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a British-Australian national. She was in Iran to participate in a university programme on Islam for foreign academics. She was arrested when she was about to fly home. She spent months in solitary confinement and she has been on hunger strike.

Suggestion for a text: Kylie Moore-Gilbert wrote a number of letters between July – December 2019 which were published on the website of Center for Human Rights in Iran. You can choose an excerpt from one of these letters. I think there two short excerpts which I find particularly suitable:

“I, an innocent woman, have been imprisoned for a crime I have not committed and for which there is no real evidence. This is a grave injustice, but unfortunately it is not a surprise to me – from the very beginning [of my arrest] it was clear that there was fabrications and trumped-up accusations, by the hands of IRGC and intentionally.”

Letter, 2 August 2019

And:

“I have never been a spy and I have no interest to work for a spying organization in any country. When I leave Iran, I want to be a free woman and live a free life, not under the shadow of extortion and threats”

Letter, 23 August 2019

7. Soheil Arabi

Occupation: Photographer, blogger and human rights activist

Date of Arrest: November 2013

Place of Detention: Probably Rajaei Shahr Prison. He was informed at the beginning of November 2020 that he will be transferred from Evin prison. “His” Twitter account tweeted on 11 November that he is now in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Sentence: 6 1/2 years in prison (and additional sentences at a later point in time).

Key Information: Soheil Arabi was on 30 August 2014 sentenced to death for “insulting the Prophet of Islam” on Facebook. On 3 September 2014 he was in addition sentenced to 3 years in prison for “insulting the supreme leader”. On 27 June 2015 the Supreme Court commuted the sentence to 7 1/2 years in prison, 2 years of “Shi’ism studies as well as the hand copying of thirteen Shi’a textbooks“. In November 2015 the sentence was reduced to 6 1/2 years in prison. In July 2018 he was sentenced to another 6 years in prison and in September 2018 in another case to three years in prison, three years exile to the city of Boazjan and a fine. Soheil Arabi defends prisoner’s rights and speaks often about the conditions in prison. He has been harassed for that. He has been on hunger strike several times. Also his mother who campaigns for him is harassed and punished for campaigning for him.

Suggestion for a text: Soheil Arabi wrote over time a number of open letters. I would suggest an excerpt from an open letter from August 2017 which you can find on the Journalism is not a crime website:

“I, Soheil Arabi, was the cry of a generation who no longer wanted to be part of a burnt generation and a generation that has not lived; that was afraid of death, not free and that was afraid of your prisons. I spent four of my birthdays behind prison bars. My daughter is four years old and all of her memories of me are in meeting rooms in Evin Prison. 

I have forgiven all the oppression that was inflicted on me. But I could never be silent in the face of the unjust and continued harassment of my family”.

8. Maryam Akbari-Monfared

Occupation: Human Rights activist

Date of Arrest: 31 December 2009

Place of Detention: Evin Prison

Sentence: 15 years in prison.

Key Information: Three of Maryam’s brothers and one of her sisters were executed during the 1988 mass executions in Iran. 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”.

Suggestion for a text: Maryam Akbari Monfared wrote several open letters during her time in prison. I would suggest an excerpt of an open letter which she wrote for Nowruz:

“My beautiful daughter grew up walking along prison walls and going through metal gates and looking through the thick glass in meeting halls. I mark her growth on the wall next to the visiting booth. My daughter learned what prison is all about from a very early age.” 

9. Zeynab Jalalian

Occupation: Human Rights activist

Date of Arrest: March 2008

Place of Detention: Yazd Prison

Sentence: Life in prison.

Key Information: Zeynab Jalalian is Kurdish Iranian. 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 the 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.

Suggestion for a text: There are a number of open letters by Zeynab Jalalian. I would suggest and excerpt from a letter from June 2018:

Do you hear the voice of my liberation behind bars? Let me relieve your imagination; A free man uses one’s mind (and not one’s body) when fighting for freedom, So I do not feel pity that my body is secluded in the prison. Thankfully, a liberal mind can never be captured.

For me, even death and pain in the way of freedom is sweet. In fact, the authorities are their own best enemy and their efforts are futile and condemned to failure.

No one and nothing is strong enough to prevent me from achieving my goals. I am stronger than all and I will continue to be stronger than ever.

10. Sedigeh Vasmaghi

Occupation: Theologian, poet, writer and women’s rights activist

Date of Arrest: Currently free, but can be arrested every day

Place of Detention: N/A

Sentence: 6 years in total

Key Information: Sedigeh Vasmaghi 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. After the one year sentence was upheld on appeal in October 2020, she waits to be summoned to prison. Her books are banned in Iran.

Sedigeh Vasmaghi was one of the case on which Pen International focussed this year in their campaign for the Day of the Imprisoned Writer a few days ago.

Suggestion for a text: Pen Sweden published some of Sedigeh Vasmaghi’s poems. You can find them here.

9 thoughts on “Give them a voice – join our campaign for Iranian prisoners

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