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 31 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.
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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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Poetry behind bars: The Poems

15 November is the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writer Committee said about this day: It’s a way of saying to all imprisoned writers: “You are not forgotten. We stand with you and fight for you”. This blog post and the next one want to deliver exactly this message. To mark this day I want to share with you in this blog post poetry which was written behind bars, in the Women’s Ward of Iran’s Evin Prison by five women: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari. In next blog post I will introduce you to these women and will share their stories. 

The poems were read at a Vigil for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in front of the Iranian Embassy in London on National Poetry Day (28 September 2017). All poems deal with the themes of prison and freedom and some of them were written for and about Nazanin, her husband Richard and their daughter Gabriella (Gisou). 

1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

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Autumn Light

The diagonal light falling on my bed
Tells me that there is another autumn on the way
Without you
A child turned three
Without us
The bars of the prison grew around us
So unjustly and fearlessly
And we left our dreams behind them
We walked on the stairs that led to captivity
Our night time stories remained unfinished
And lost in the silence of the night
Nothing is the same here
And without you even fennel tea loses its odour.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

For Our Parents

I am sitting in a corner
Reviewing my dreams
And ploughing through my memories.
I think about my mum, who
Every time I touch Gabriella’s hair
Or kiss the back of her neck
Her eyes fill up with tears
I think of her safe hands, full of love,
And her longing look.

I think of my Dad
Whose hair has gone completely grey
Tired of walking up and down in the corridors
Of the courts
And the hope at the end of his eyes
That yet again reminds me
That these days will pass, however hard.

I think of your mum
That nothing would make her happier
Than seeing and embracing her granddaughter
After 19 months
To bring a smile on her lips and her pale face
And give her energy on her tired body
Flattened from illness.

I think of your dad
Who turned 68 this month without us
His silence is full of words for me.

I think of freedom, of return
Of that glorious moment of rolling into your arms
The arms I have longed for the past 500 days.

I think of my orchids and African violets
Have they bloomed without me?

It is true that the world in its great hugeness
Sometimes gets so small
As small as the eye in the needle
And unreachable like a dream
And I still
Am sitting in my corner
Reviewing my dreams
And ploughing through my memories.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

2. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee

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Couples in Prison

You are under the sky of the same city
Just a little bit farther
And a wall between us
As deep as a hand span
We drink tea without each other
And shape clouds in our dreams together
We experience not being with each other
And together we watch the trace of migrating birds

Our date will be
kissing the first star
That twinkles at us every night

Golrokh Iraee

 

For Gisou

Mummy’s Lullaby
I can’t remember
The scent of daddy’s cuddle
I can’t remember
Gisou grows up
A stranger to her homeland
A stranger to her daddy
To mummy

Between moments
And a misty city
That leads to a building
And stairs
Which have devoured mummy
Gisou grows up
With a poem in her heart
And a story on her lips

Golrokh Iraee

3. Narges Mohammadi

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Three Goodbyes

Three goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times

When Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old
I was arrested by the security guards when attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and patted him
And softly sang him a lullaby
He slept
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and was scared.
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the house
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her

When Ali and Kiana were five, and their father was away from us in France
The security guards attacked my father’s house
And arrested me
Ali took his yellow plastic gun
And held the hem of my shirt
And Kiana, in that pretty dress,
Ran towards me, and took the edge of my skirt
They wanted to come, with me
Not being able to resist looking into their innocent eyes
I took their little hands away from my skirt
And went into the car of the stone-hearted men

When Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy

And now in September 2017
I have not seen them in two and a half years

My writing might not be correctly worded
But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.

Narges Mohammadi
September 2017, Evin

4. Nasim Bagheri

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What Prison Means

Prison means tall walls
Prison means limitation
Prison is separation from what
Is precious to you
Prison means being kept in crisis

But a person with faith
Who believes in freedom
Looks for victory in that crisis
Looks beyond walls
Within the limitations and separations

Holding onto human dignity and values
And testing his soul
Be it in prison
Is being free.

Nasim Bagheri

5. Mahvash Sabet Shariari

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Not Seeing You

Not seeing you was enough
And
All this torture
The dark and small cell
And the wall of stone
Is for what?

Not seeing you was enough
For the world to become a cage
And I
A lovebird alone
Breathless, with a broken heart

Mahvash Sabet Shariari
(for Richard from Nazanin)

Sitting Alone

Sitting alone
In a corner of the earth
With women murderers, thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes
She is only skin on bones
With worry and stress
Like a stranger
That Nazanin
With the dream of your arms
That she has hidden away
In her heart

Away from the interrogator
The dream of a man with a bird on his finger
And the woman is only skin on bones
As if
She is filled with dreams
Dreams of a man who has a bird on his finger

Mahvash Sabet Shariari

I would like to thank Richard Ratcliffe for allowing me to publish all the poems in this blog post.

 

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.

2016 in review: Iran, Shawkan and Poetry

At the beginning of 2016 I wrote an article in which I looked back at the previous year. I thought it would be nice to start 2017 in a similar way. In the following post I will share my thoughts about 2016 and give you an idea about my plans for my blog in 2017. 

1. As last year I want to start this blog post with saying thank you to everyone who read and shared my blog posts. I also want to thank in particular those who participated in the campaigns. I saw that many of you clicked on the links to Amnesty International petitions and urgent actions and also actions by other human rights organisations. Thank you for joining the tweet storm for Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki in January 2016 and for joining the “Sky for Shawkan”-campaign from September 2016 onwards.

2. 2016 was my first full year of blogging. I wrote 16 blog posts during the year. The articles are in six different categories:

  • 11 posts about human rights in countries in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). Eight posts are about prisoners and activists in Iran, four about Saudi Arabia, two about Egypt and one each about a prisoner in Qatar and in the United Arab Emirates.
  • two posts about poetry (they are both in two categories “human rights” and “poetry”)
  • two posts about Twitter (again both posts are in two categories “human rights” and “Twitter”)
  • three posts about classical music
  • one post about art and
  • one post in the General category.

a) The most popular post in 2016 was Three years of injustice – Freedom for Mahmoud Abu Zeid “Shawkan” with 457 views. I would like to thank in particular the Australian comedian Wil Anderson who shared my post on Twitter and Facebook which resulted in a large number of visitors to this post, in particular from Australia. Also thanks to Melody Sundberg who shared this post on her website “Untold Stories of the Silenced” in English and in a translation into Swedish. Shawkan is sadly still in prison. Further hearings took place on 8 October, 1 November, 19 November, 10 December and 27 December 2016. The next hearing will be on 17 January 2017. Please continue to share his story and ask for his release.

b) The second most popular post was Tweet Storm for Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki with 298 views. The tweet storm for Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki took place on 18 January 2016, because after a furlough of about 6 months, he was ordered back to prison. Many visited my blog on the day of the tweet storm and it was great that so many of you participated in it. On 19 January 2016 Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki returned to prison. After 105 nights in prison and 38 days of hunger strike, he was again given furlough on 4 May 2016. Hossein is currently free, but can be called back to prison at any time.

c) I also want to mention the articles which were my third and fourth most popular ones: Sky for Shawkan with 171 views and Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami with 166 views.

“Sky for Shawkan” is a Twitter campaign for Shawkan. He mentioned in a letter that he misses the sky in prison and therefore we decided to take photos of the sky and tweeted them with the hashtag #SkyforShakwan to raise awareness for him. My blog post shares a selection of 60 photos which were tweeted by people from all over the world within the first week of the campaign. I am delighted that so many of you participated in it and still tweet photos for him. Please keep doing so. I hope Shawkan will soon be free and I wish he would be able to see the photos from all over the world.

“Forbidden Poetry” was the first of two posts about poets who are punished for their poetry. It tells the stories of Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran) and Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar). The second post shares one poem of each of the three poets. I would like to thank the editor of “The Wolfian” for publishing this article in Issue 8 of this magazine.

3. I was amazed last year about the number of visitors to my blog and the variety of countries they came from and I am amazed again this year.

During 2016 2,333 people visited my blog and it got 4,522 views. The visitors were from 79 different countries. Most views came from the following three countries: (1) United States (1,063 views), (2) United Kingdom (785 views) and (3) Germany (579 views). I hope for many visitors in 2017.

4. Enough about 2016, I want to share some of my ideas for 2017:

a) Raif Badawi is sadly still in prison and I will certainly again write about him in 2017. I wrote some time ago an article about my Raif Badawi translation project which I mentioned in my post Twitter is great in 2015. I have in the meantime even more languages and I want to republish this article in an amended form in the next days to mark the anniversary of the day on which Raif Badawi was lashed (9 January 2015) and his birthday (13 January 1984). I hope that he will be released soon, but I am afraid that can only happen if he receives a Royal Pardon.

b) I tweeted during 2016 a lot about Bahrain, but I did not write an article about it. Therefore I definitely plan to write articles about Bahrain in 2017. I still want to write about Hussain Jawad’s father Mohammed Hassan Jawad, also known as Parweez. Furthermore I am very impressed by Nabeel Rajab. Nabeel Rajab is currently in prison in Bahrain. He was arrested on 13 June 2016 on several fabricated charges. The trial is still ongoing. In the last hearing on 28 December 2016 the court ordered his release and adjourned the hearing to 23 January 2017. However, the public prosecution refused to release him and decide to keep him in prison on other charges. He is the only activist I mentioned in my first post about whom I have not yet written a blog post.

c) Another topic about which I would like to write this year is art and human rights. During the past year I came across a number of artists who use their art to highlight the fate of prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders. The prime example of an artist-cum-human rights activist is of course Ai Weiwei, but there are also lesser known artists who paint or make drawings to highlight specific human rights cases. I want to write about some of these artists and want to see what motivates them to use their art in their human rights activism.

d) There will be again blog posts about classical music. I will certainly write about the programmes of our concerts with Highgate Choral Society, but maybe also about other concerts or opera performances I visit.

e) Finally I would like to continue writing about art and exhibitions and also about poetry. We will see what the next year brings.

I hope you like my ideas. There will certainly be many more as the year progresses. If you like them, then please keep an eye on my blog or follow my blog. If you decide to follow my blog, you only need an e-mail address and you will get an e-mail each time I publish a new article.

Let me close this post with my best wishes for 2017 and the hope that 2017 will be a good year for justice, peace and human rights all around the world.

Human Rights Lawyer in Jail – Dr. Mohammed al-Roken, Waleed Abulkhair and Abdolfattah Soltani

On 10 December is Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to honour the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Human Rights Day was established in 1950. The United Nations and many human rights organisations mark this day with conferences, meetings, cultural events and exhibitions dealing with human rights issues. Also Amnesty International “Write for Rights” campaign is in December around Human Rights Day.

On the occasion of Human Rights Day, I want to highlight the fate of three men whose profession and passion are the defence of human rights. All three are human rights lawyers and all three are currently in prison for their work: Dr. Mohammed al-Roken (UAE), Waleed Abulkhair (Saudi Arabia) and Abdolfattah Soltani (Iran).

1. Dr. Mohammed al-Roken

img_3231Date of birth: 26 November 1962

Country: Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Profession: Academic, former professor of constitutional law, former president of UAE Jurists Association, member of many further legal associations and human rights lawyer. Dr. Al-Roken holds an PhD in Constitutional Law from the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.

Arrest: 17 July 2012, only hours after his son and his son-in law were arrested.

Trial: The trial against Dr. Al-Roken began in March 2013. It was a mass trial against 94 people, therefore it is also know as UAE94. The group of defendants included human rights lawyers, academics, judges, teachers and students. Many belonged to the Reform and Social Guidance Association (Al-Islah) which had called for more democracy in UAE.

There were altogether 14 hearings which took place on various dates between 4 March and 2 July 2013. 86 defendants pleaded non guilty and 8 were tried in absentia.

The trial and the pretrial detention were unfair and affected by several human rights violations, including

  • Rights on arrest: Most detainees were not informed about the reason for their arrest and did not have prompt access to a lawyer.
  • Right to liberty: All defendants were held in solidary confinement at secret places and were denied contact with their family and their lawyers. The family of the defendants were not informed and sometimes did not know their whereabouts for months.
  • Prohibition against torture: Many defendants said that they were tortured to get them to confess “their crimes” and some said that signatures on confessions were forged
  • Right to fair trial: The hearings were not held in public. Several defendants did not have access to defence lawyers. There were only seven defence lawyers in the case and they did not get the evidence in time to prepare appropriately. Dr. Al-Roken handed in a paper on 26 March in which he requested the defendants to be allowed to access the case papers. This application was declined. The defendants did not have the right to call and examine witnesses.
  • Right to appeal: All defendants were denied the right to appeal the judgement.

Charges: Founding and administrating an institution aimed at overthrowing the government pursuant to Art. 180 Federal Penal Code (UAE)

Sentence: The highest court of the United Arab Emirates sentenced Dr. Al-Roken on 2 July 2013 to a 10 year prison sentence. 55 other defendants were also sentenced to 10 years in prison, 5 others were sentenced to 7 years in prison and the 8 who were tried in absentia were sentenced to 15 years in prison. 25 accused were acquitted.

Background: Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken has acted as a human rights lawyer for individuals but also for organisations like Amnesty International for around two decades. For years he was targeted for his human rights activities. Since 2006 he was arrested and detained several times, his passport was confiscated and he was placed on travel ban. In March 2011 113 UAE citizens signed a petition which asked the government for more democracy in line with the constitutional provisions. The signatories included Dr. Al-Roken and also Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist. In April 2011 Ahmed Mansoor and four other persons were arrested. Dr. Al-Roken served as one of the defence lawyers in this trial (UAE 5) and was also defence lawyer in other important trials.

Current situation: Dr. Al-Roken is in Abu Dhabi’s al-Rezin prison. Amnesty International reports an incident in November 2015 when the prison authorities installed loud speakers in each block and played extremely loud propaganda music for hours. Dr. Al-Roken had a panic attack, high blood pressure and an ear infection. Amnesty International says that his health has now improved. He and other prisoners are still subject to insults and degrading treatment and his family members are harassed. img_1207

Further information: Amnesty International issued on 23 September 2016 an appeal with further information about Dr. Al-Roken and other UAE activists who were tried in the UAE 94 trial. Please read and share this appeal and take action for them. More information about the UAE 94 trial and details about the human rights violations can be found in a report by FIDH, Gulf Centre for Human Rights and other organisations and a report by International Commission of Jurists.

2. Waleed Abulkhair

img_0121Date of birth: 17 June 1979

Country: Saudi Arabia

Profession: Human rights lawyer and human rights activists, head of “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia” (MHRSA), an organisation he founded in 2008.

Arrest: Waleed Abulkhair was arrested on  15 April 2014 when he attended the fifth hearing in his trial. He was taken to al-Ha’ir prison, kept in solitary confinement and deprived of sleep. Waleed said he was beaten and denied food. He also did not have access to his lawyer and his family.

Trial: The trial against Waleed Abulkhair began on 6 October 2013 before the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh which deals with terrorism cases. Waleed Abulkhair did not defend himself because he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court. In February 2014 a new terrorism law came into force. Saudi Arabia applied this new law retroactively to Waleed’s case. The law labels free speech as “terrorism” and its aim is to persecute and punish human rights activists. He was the first human rights activist who was tried and sentenced under this new law.

Charges: There were numerous charges against Waleed Abulkhair, including (1) seeking to disarm the state legitimacy, (2) abuse of public order in the state and its officials, (3) inciting public opinion and insulting the judiciary, (4) publicly defaming the judiciary and discrediting Saudi Arabia through alienating international organizations against the Kingdom and make statements and documents to harm the reputation of the Kingdom to incite and alienate them, (5) adopting an unauthorized association and being its chairman speaking on its behalf and issuing statements and communicating through it and (6) preparing, storing and sending what would prejudice public order.

Sentence: On 6 July 2014 Waleed Abulkhair was sentenced to 15 years in prison (10 years executed and 5 years suspended), a 15-year travel ban starting from the end of his imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (over GBP 35,000). The sentence was upheld in appeal court on 12 January 2015. The judge in the appeal court told Waleed Abukhair that he will serve the full 15 years and not a reduced sentence of 10 years, because he had refused to apologise for the alleged offences.

Background: Waleed Abulkhair has dedicated his life to human rights and their defence. He began to practice law in 2007. He represented many victims of human rights violations and reformers. He advocated for democracy and reforms in Saudi Arabia. In 2009 the authorities banned him from representing certain defendants. Waleed did not obey and continued to defend human rights activists in court. One of the people he represented was Raif Badawi. Waleed Abulkhair was arrested several times and banned from travelling since March 2012 to prevent him from attending to human rights conferences or receiving international human rights prizes. While the trial in Riyadh was ongoing another criminal court in Jeddah sentenced Waleed to three months in prison for similar charges (29 October 2013). Part of the evidence in both trials was a petition Waleed Abulkhair signed in support of 16 Saudi reformists. He wrote over 300 articles in Arabic, he also wrote articles for Western newspapers and received several prizes. img_2411

Current situation: Waleed Abulkhair was transferred several times and was in different prisons. He is currently in prison in Jeddah (Dhahban). On 7 June 2016 Waleed started a hunger strike to protest against harassment, denial of reading material, ongoing ill-treatment and a refusal to provide him with medical care. On 12 June 2016 he ended his hunger strike after gaining concessions from the prison administration.

Further information: You can find more information about him on a blog in his support. Also the Wikipedia article about him is very detailed. The United Nations (UN) Working Group for Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted in their session in September 2015 an opinion in which they request the release of Waleed Abulkhair and eight other human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained in Saudi Arabia.

3. Abdolfattah Soltani

img_3200Date of birth: 2 November 1953

Country: Iran

Profession: Human rights lawyer and spokesman of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. He is also co-founder of this group together with Mohammed Seifzahdeh und Nobel Peach Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. He was a member of the Arbitrary Detention Investigation Committee.

Arrest: On 10 September 2011 security forces entered his offices and confiscated files, his briefcase, his computer and also several personal and family documents. Abdolfattah Soltani was arrested at the Revolutionary Court where he was to review the files of one of his clients.

Trial: The trial against Abdolfattah Soltani started on 8 January 2012 at Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. On 1 January 2012 he was allowed to see his file the first time for 3 hours per day. Abdolfattah Soltani did not defend himself, because he did not belief the court to be qualified. The rights of Abdolfattah Soltani were violated in several ways, in particular through an illegal extension of his imprisonment (after the pre-trail detention expired). He was not released on bail until the court of appeal issued his final ruling, even so he should have been released. He did not have access to records or law books and could not properly prepare his defence. In addition personal items which were confiscated at his arrest were not returned. His family were not allowed to visit him.

Charges: There were four charges against Abdolfattah Soltani: “propagating against the regime” (in particular interviews with media about his client’s cases), “establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Centre (founding an illegal group)”, “assembly and collusion against national security” and “accepting an unlawful prize”. The “unlawful prize” was the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award which he received in 2009.

Sentence: On 4 March 2012, Branch 26 of Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Abdolfattah Soltani to 18 years in Borazjan prison and a 20-year ban on his legal practice.

  • 10 years for founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center
  • 5 years for gathering and colluding with intent to harm the national security
  • 2 years for accepting an illegal award
  • 1 year for spreading propaganda against the system.

In June 2012 an appeal court reduced his prison sentence to 13 years.

Background: Abdolfattah Soltani has been a human rights lawyer for many years and represented many political and human rights activists and their families as well as Nationalist-Religous figures and Iranian union activists. In 2005 he represented the family of the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi who was allegedly tortured and murdered in Evin Prison in 2003. In the context of this trial Soltani criticised the fairness of the trial brought by Kazami’s family. Two days later, his house and office was searched and on 30 July 2005 he was arrested for espionage charges. In prison he was kept incommunicado. On 6 March 2006 Abdolfattah Soltani was released on bail.

During the unrest after the disputed president elections in 2009, Soltani and many other political figures, human rights activists and journalists were arrested – without an arrest warrant. He was arrested on 16 June 2009 and on 26 August 2009 after 72 days released on bail secured by property deeds. During this time his access to his family was limited; he was in solitary confinement for 17 days and lost 15 pounds in prison.

After his arrest in 2011, the Iranian conservative politician, Chief Justice of Iran and Iran’s highest human rights official Mohammad Javad Larijani made false allegations against Abdolfattah Soltani and claimed he was “connected with a  terrorist group” even so there were no such charges against him.

Current situation: Even so the judgement stated that Abdolfattah Soltani should serve his sentence in Borazjan prison which his almost 1,000 km from Tehran, he was not transferred to Borazjan. He has served his sentence up to now in Evin prison in Tehran. He spent several months in solitary confinement in the Intelligence Ministry’s Ward 209 in Evin prison. He went on hunger strikes to protest against inadequate health care and prison conditions. Abdolfattah Soltani has several health problems, in particular heart problems. The authorities prevented hospitalisation and treatments several times. He was also refused necessary medication. So far he was given once furlough on medical grounds on 17 January 2016 and had to return to prison before he had fully recovered. On all other occasions furlough was denied. On 17 May 2016 he was granted temporary leave on compassionate grounds, because his mother had passed away on the same days a few img_3201hours earlier. It was only the second time that he was granted furlough. He had applied for it several times to spend time with his dying mother, but the authorities delayed their decision until it was too late.

In addition also his family is harassed and was denied the right to visit him in prison on several occasions. His daughter stated in November 2016 that there are currently serious concerns about his health. She hopes that he will be released soon, because he has served half of his sentence and therefore qualifies for conditional release. So far none of their requests was answered.

Further Information: There is detailed article about Abdolfattah Soltani on Tavaana homepage. Also the homepage of the City of Nuremberg which gave him in 2009 their human rights contains a lot of information. Finally there were a number of articles on the website International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and HRANA (Human Rights Activists News Agency) which are worth reading.

Filmmaker Keywan Karimi in prison!

4c08417c-d235-42ca-b68b-bc8bb8e636b51. Keywan Karimi is an Iranian filmmaker with Kurdish origins. He is 31 years old and has directed more than 10 films. Initially he directed short documentaries, but now his work includes documentaries and feature films. He received several prices for his films. His documentary “The Broken Border” was awarded a prize for the best short documentary at the 2013 Beirut International Film Festival. His film “Drum”, a fictional film, was produced in 2016. It was premiered at the competition section of the Venice International Film Festival.

2. In 2012 Keywan Karimi began to produce the film “Writing in the City”. It is a 60 minute long documentary film about Graffiti on the walls in the streets of Tehran. On 14 December 2013 Keywan Karimi was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards. One of the charges against him was  “spreading propaganda against the system” with this film. At the time of these accusations no one had seen the film and only a trailer on YouTube was known to the public.

After Keywan Karimi’s arrest he was brought to Tehran’s Evin prison and was held in solitary confinement for 12 days. One week after his arrest he could briefly call his family. He was not allowed to disclose to his family that he was arrested and he could not speak with a lawyer. He was then released on bail.

3. His trial started on 11 May 2014 and ended on 13 October 2015. Each of the seven hearings only lasted 15 to 20 minutes. His lawyer was present during the hearings but he could not present his defence properly. There were generally many irregularities in his trial and several human rights organisations consider it an unfair trial.

On 13 October 2015 Keywan Karimi was sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the Islamic sanctities” and 223 lashes for “illicit relations short adultery”. The court saw “illicit relations” in “shaking hands” and “being under one roof” with a woman “who had not covered her head and neck”. In addition he has to pay a fine.

4. Keywan Karimi filed an appeal against this decision on 23 December 2015. In February 2016 he was informed that the appeal court upheld the sentence against him, but suspended five of his six-year punishment for a period of five years. This means that he will have to spend one year in prison. The appeal court also upheld the lashes.

A few days ago Keywan Karimi was  summoned to start his prison sentence on Wednesday, 23 November. He is now required to serve a one-year prison term and it is expected that he will receive the 223 lashes in prison.

5. Please take action for Keywan Karimi. Use social media and other media to spread his story and show your support.

Write to Iran and ask them to quash this harsh sentence and release him. You can find more information about actions you can take and addresses at the EnglishPen website and the Pen International website. There is also an interview with Keywan Karimi with Times of India from February 2016 which is well worth reading: “Keywan Karimi: I am not scared of the 223 lashes”.

Happy Birthday, Saeed Malekpour!

Today, on 5 June 2016, is Saeed Malekpour’s 41st Birthday. It is his 8th birthday he has spent in Evin prison in Iran. I write he “has spent” his birthday and not he “has celebrated”, because I cannot imagine that he would celebrate in Evin prison.

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1. Who is Saeed Malekpour?

Saeed Malekpour is an Iranian web designer and software engineer. He studied at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran where he got a degree in metallurgical engineering. In 2004 Saeed left Iran and moved to Canada to continue his studies and build a new life for himself in Canada.

In 2005 Saeed Malekpour became a permanent resident in Canada. He worked as a free lance web developer and lived in Victoria, British Columbia.

In October 2008, Saeed Malekpour’s father got very ill. Saeed went to Iran to see his dying father. On 4 October 2008 Saeed Malekpour was arrested near Vanak Square (in northern Tehran) by agents in plain clothes. He mentioned in a letter that they did not present an arrest warrant or any kind of identification. This “arrest” was rather an abduction. Saeed Malekpour was handcuffed and blindfolded. He was beaten and mistreated while he was brought to the place where he was questioned and detained.

2. What were the accusations against Saeed Malekpour?

Iran accused Saeed Malekpour of designing and moderating pornographic websites.

Maryam Nayeb Yazdi, a human rights activist and founder of @Persian2English, gave more details in her tweets over the last days. She explained that Saeed Malekpour run a website where he posted open source codes which he had written. Anyone could use these source codes and use it for whatever they want without his consent or without him even knowing about it. During his interrogation his interrogators claimed that they found a source code for uploading pornographic material to a website.

3. What was the evidence again Saeed Malekpour?

The only evidence which was presented during the trial was a confession by Saeed Malekpour.

After his arrest Saeed Malekpour was severely beaten and tortured in several ways. His interrogators claimed that they found Saeed’s source codes on a pornographic site. They forced him to sign a confession in which he acknowledged that his source codes were used to upload pornographic pictures and that he moderated these sites. He was blindfolded when he was asked to sign several papers and he did not see himself that his source codes were indeed used on such a website. He signed the papers and was also forced to make a confession in front of a camera. Contrary to the promises which were made to him this confession was broadcast by the Iranian state television several times which brought great distress to his family.

He made these confessions under severe pressure, physical and psychological torture, threats and false promises that he would be immediately released, if he confessed everything his interrogators wanted him to confess. During his first 18 months in prison, he spent more than 12 months in solitary confinement. He was blindfolded whenever he was allowed to leave his cell and was not allowed to contact his lawyer and for a long time he did not have any contact with his family.

Saeed Malekpour wrote a letter in March 2010 in which he describes the first 18 months of his detention and gave details about the torture and mistreatment he had to endure. You can find this letter here.

The only evidence used in the trial against Saeed Malekpour was a forced confession.

4. Which punishment was handed down against Saeed Malekpour?

The trial against Saeed Malekpour started on 16 March 2010. The charges against him were “conspiracy to commit crimes against national security”, “insulting Islam” and “insulting the Iranian Supreme Leader and the Iranian president, Mr. Ahmadinedjad”. In addition he was charged as “Corrupter of the Earth” which carries the death sentence. Saeed Malekpour did not know his case file and his lawyer was not allowed to discuss the case with his client and did not to attend the trial, because he was wrongly informed that the trial had been postponed.

In December 2010 Saeed Malekpour was sentenced to death. He was found guilty of “designing and moderating adult content websites”, “agitation against the regime” and “insulting the sanctity of Islam”. In June 2011 the Supreme Court annulled the verdict against him.

Despite this earlier decision the death sentence was upheld in January 2012 and the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from his lawyers. For one year this death sentence was open against Saeed Malekpour and he and his family feared that he could be executed at any time. In December 2012 his lawyer said that the death sentence was suspended.  His family reported later that his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Saeed Malekpour is still in Evin prison.

5. What can I do to help?

Saeed Malekpour’s sister Maryam Malekpour lives in Edmonton, Canada. She has been campaigning for his brother for years. Over the last two days there was again a tweet storm to mark Saeed Malekpour’s birthday and people all over the world were tweeting using the hashtags #FreeSaeedMalekpour #HBDSaeed and #CodingIsNotACrime.

If you use social media please follow her and support her fight for her brother. A few months ago she wrote a message to supporters and also suggested how people can help. Please have a look and sign and share the petition for her brother and generally make people aware of his fate.

6. Where can I find more information?

I used for my post the Wikipedia article about Saeed Malekpour and in particular information from the website Campaign for the Release of Saeed Malekpour. You will find a large amount of information on this website. It is set up on wordpress.com like my blog and you can also follow this website in the same way as you can follow my blog.

There were also a number of newspaper articles over the years. Here are links to four relatively recent articles:

Let us make sure that Saeed Malekpour is not forgotten and let us help his sister and his whole family in the campaign for this freedom.

I hope that this was Saeed Malekpour’s last birthday in Evin prison and I hope that he will be pardoned and that he can really celebrate his next birthday in freedom in Canada.

Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki is free!

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Good news from Iran! Yesterday, the blogger Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was released. 

If you know my previous posts, you might remember that I wrote twice about him. You find my two other articles here and here. I am delighted that the third time it is a post with good news – even though it is currently only a conditional release.

I will recapitulate in this post a little bit of the background of his case and write about the developments which resulted in his release. 

1. Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was arrested in December 2009. One of the reasons was his membership in Proxy Iran, a committee against censorship which helped Iranians to circumvent censorship in the Internet.

He was held in solitary confinement, tortured and forced to confess.

Hossein was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

  • 10 years for his membership in Proxy Iran
  • 4 years for insulting President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader
  • 1 year for propanda against the regime

During his detention and as consequences of torture and medical neglect he developed multiple health problems which lead to the loss of one kidney.

2. On 17 June 2015 Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was given furlough on medical grounds. In January he was ordered back to prison, against the recommendation of the doctors who said that he still required medical treatment outside of the prison. On 20 January 2016 Hossein returned to prison. He did so because otherwise a very large bail would have been confiscated.

3. After Hossein’s return to prison, the authorities refused to provide him with medication or to transfer him to a hospital, even so his health deteriorated further. His mother said in an interview that the prison doctors had stated that the prison hospital did not have the proper equipment for his treatment and that he had to be transferred to a hospital outside the prison. She also mentioned that he did not even receive the medication the family paid for and provided to the authorities.

As protest against his treatment, in particular the refusal to transfer him to a hospital and the unfair imprisonment Hossein started a hunger strike on 26 March 2016. His family and his friends were very worried about this development, because he said he would not stop until his situation changed. Laleh, a very close friend of him, warned him against the possible consequences of a hunger strike. She said to the website “Journalism is not a crime”:

“His response was that the status quo is a slow death sentence anyway. A hunger strike will speed things up, he said, but at least he wouldn’t go without a fight.”

4. On 4 May, after 105 nights in prison and 38 days of hunger strike Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki was released from prison.

Laleh mentioned in a tweet that he lost a lot of weight after his hunger strike in prison and will soon be taken to hospital. “Journalism is not a crime” reports that it was not an unconditional release, but he was released against a heavy bail pending a review of his case.

Laleh said to the website “Journalism is not a crime”:

“I hope authorities do the right thing and reduce his unjust 15-year sentence so he does not have to serve any more time. … According to the law, he is eligible for a pardon because of his health.”

5. The release of Hossein Ronaghi-Maleki is very good news indeed and I am happy and relieved about this development, but it is not yet time to stop campaigning for him.

Please continue to tweet for him and write to Iran, until they release him unconditionally and without the threat of calling him back whenever they decide to do so.

6. I want to add two additional information (on 17 May 2016):

Hossein clarified in the meantime in a tweet that he is not free, but that he was only released on a 30 day furlough until 4 June. Then he has to return to prison.

I also want to share a link to a post which was again translated by Laleh. The English translation is on her blog: “Hossein Ronaghi expresses concern for teacher Mahmoud Beheshti on hunger strike“. Hossein writes about the Iranian teacher Mahmoud Beheshti Langaroudi who was sentenced to several years in prison, because he tried to improve the conditions for teachers and students. He was sentenced after a trial which lasted less than eight minutes. He started a hunger strike on 20 April 2016 to protest against his sentence. Mahmoud Beheshti was in the meantime released (after 20 days of hunger strike), but Hossein’s post is still moving to read, because he describes in it also his own experience of a hunger strike.

Forbidden Poetry: The Poems

In the previous post “Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami” I gave you some background information about the three poets and their punishments. In this post, I want to share examples of their poetry in English translation and give links to further poems in English translation.

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

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The Name of a Masculine Dream

While you excel in worshipping anxiety –
didn’t you notice that your arteries have failed to pump your insomnia up to the eyes?
Didn’t you notice?
That the hearts of those abandoned on the pavements of the night
have split from your vision so many times?
The patterns of the night continue their work
until dawn appears on the edges of clouds gathering
on the ceiling of your imagination.
Didn’t you also notice –
how you enjoy interpreting the arteries of women
and the bodies tossed on the roofs of memories from long ago?

Your pages have been soaked with the sludge of exegesis
and not one word has been read
like you
these pages have exhausted all languages known to earth
in order to offer a name that matches your definition of self
your name – like an inkwell pregnant with possibilities
your build defies all definitions of its organs combined.

Come stand to where the thunder can see you so that your emaciated body may dissolve
and your soul be resurrected as a cloud followed by rain
pouring down life to where your name is not even a dream
that won’t come to pass as long as you’re unable to abandon the definitions
of dubious pleasures and drunken nights
and those who call out the sacred names of love.
Come – for the night is long for the beloved,
not long enough to write about pleasure
or bodies saturated in the smell of peaches
absorbed in all the forbidden pleasures of the night.
Come – to where the cloud chooses to shift your sickly form
and snatch your soul from its exile –
from a heart that had openly declared the absence of love
and from the mirages of the assumed homeland you thought you belonged
to every grit of its earth.

Since when does the wind honor traffic laws?
Since when?
Did the wind ever stop at your red light?
How long have you coaxed it to stop
so you could gather a few words
or find some news no longer fit for print?

Your eyes will confess that insomnia
has violated the secrets of the night
and the night too won’t keep silent for long.
Your heart is an idol to which your arteries have absconded
And they no longer offer your veins as sacrifice
as tribute to the throne of beautiful gods

Your name means nothing to me
it cannot deliver me of all the sins of drought
and it cannot supplicate the night so that I can walk free from its isolation
your name is a lost number –
a weight that has broken your back!

The poem “The Name of a Masculine Dream” is from the book “Instructions Within”. It was translated into English by Mona Zaki. It is published here with the consent of M Lynx Qualey, arablit.orga website for Arabic literature in English. This website has many more translations of Ashraf Fayadh’s poems into English, but also into other languages. Please click here for further translations.  M Lynx Qualey also mentioned in a post on 15 February 2016 that Ashraf Fayadh’s “Instructions Within” will soon be published in French and English translation.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

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I press my head down
It’s the result of insomnia oppressing me
I press my head to you and to my miserable memoirs
The night is pressing me too
But I’m so tough

Now it’s the sound of your scream coming
And there is blood
And there is the smell of tear and tear gas
A soldier is pressing my head down by his boots
Someone is pulling the trigger
Now there is a gun between my eyebrows
I feel the blood pressure in my head
The cowards have run
I press a cold hand in my cold hand

Someone was calling my name all the night
I feel the pressure of a lump in my throat
My throat is wounded
And I hear you screaming in the ear of someone who is all dead
I feel the pressure of life
And its wounds
And its marks
And I feel the pressure of the graves upon the solitude of dead
bodies

I press my fists to the wall and I swallow my cry
You are still screaming in the wild howls of the wind
I press my head down
A vessel is pressing a nerve
And I press a bottom to flash my life back
To go back to a scene where I’m opening a window towards light
Where everybody rise out of the graves
Where I hold a warm hand in my hand
And we are laughing in our homes and in our rooms
There I hear the sound of peace
And my heart beats normally
And that’s a better day with a green background

This poem is taken from a collection of poetry “When a breeze takes a shortcut” which includes poems by Iranian poets and by Radek Hasalik, a Czech poet. I am very grateful to Fatemeh Ekhtesari who allowed me to publish this poem in my blog. If you want to read another of her poems in English have a look at the Versopolis.com website.

3. Mohammed al Ajami (Qatar)

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Tunisian Jasmine

Prime Minister, Mohamed al-Ghannouchi:
If we measured your might
it wouldn’t hold a candle
to a constitution.
We shed no tears for Ben Ali,
nor any for his reign.
It was nothing more than a moment
in time for us,
historical
and dictatorial,
a system of oppression,
an era of autocracy.
Tunisia declared the people’s revolt:
When we lay blame
only the base and vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do so with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people:
their glory had worn away,
the glory of every living soul.
So, rebel, tell them,
tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave:
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.
A warning to the country whose ruler is ignorant,
whose ruler deems that power
comes from the American army.
A warning to the country
whose people starve
while the regime boasts of its prosperity.
A warning to the country whose citizens sleep:
one moment you have your rights,
the next they’re taken from you.
A warning to the system – inherited – of oppression.
How long have all of you been slaves
to one man’s selfish predilections?
How long will the people remain
ignorant of their own strength,
while a despot makes decrees and appointments,
the will of the people all but forgotten?
Why is it that a ruler’s decisions are carried out?
They’ll come back to haunt him
in a country willing
to rid itself of coercion.
Let him know, he
who pleases only himself, and does nothing
but vex his own people; let him know
that tomorrow
someone else will be seated on that throne,
someone who knows the nation’s not his own,
nor the property of his children.
It belongs to the people, and its glories
are the glories of the people.
They gave their reply, and their voice was one,
and their fate, too, was one.
All of us are Tunisia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful, thieves.
This question that keeps you up at night –
its answer won’t be found
on any of the official channels …
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West –
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?

The poem “Tunisian Jasmine” was translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. It is also published here with the consent of M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org. Mohammed Al-Ajami also wrote a “poem from the prison cell” which English PEN published in an English translation for last year’s World Poetry Day. If you want to read it, then please click here.

Forbidden Poetry: Ashraf Fayadh, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Mohammed al-Ajami

It is a dangerous undertaking to write poetry. Each of the three poets about whom I will write in this post will probably agree with this statement. For this year’s World Poetry Day on 21 March 2016, I want to raise awareness for three poets who were punished for their poetry: (1) Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), (2) Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran) and (3) Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar).

1. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)

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English PEN protest for Ashraf Fayadh at the Saudi Arabian Embassy, London

Ashraf Fayadh was born in 1980 in Saudi Arabia. He is a Palestinian poet and artist and a member of the Saudi-British group Edge of Arabia, a non-profit cultural initiative to connect artists and ideas between the Middle East and the Western World. Ashraf Fayadh curated a large art show in Jeddah in 2013 and was co-curator of the project RHIZOMA at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

2013 was not only the year in which he was curator of significant exhibitions. It was also the year in which his ordeal started. On 6 August 2013 he was arrested following the accusation that he was “promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people”. Someone filed a complaint with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice about his book “Instructions Within”, a collection of poetry which was published in 2008. He was released on the next day.

Ashraf Fayadh gave in an interview more background about the allegations: He said that the context was a personal dispute he had with another artist about contemporary art in a café in Abha, a city in the South-West of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 January 2014 he was rearrested. The exact charges against him were initially unclear, but his long hair was criticised and it was thought that his ideas contradict the values of the Saudi Arabian society. After his arrest he was detained in a police station for 27 days until he was transferred to prison.

His case went on trial in February 2014. The charges which were brought against him were very severe: apostasy (conscious abandonment of Islam) which carries the mandatory death sentence and in addition a violation of Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law by taking and storing photos of women on his phone. Ashraf Fayadh denied the accusations of blasphemy and apostasy and offered a formal apology to the court. In relation to the Anti-Cyber Crime charges he explained that he had only photos of fellow artists on his phone which were taken during the Jeddah art week. The prosecution had three witnesses: the man who had reported his allegedly blasphemous remarks and two officers of the Islamic religious police who had arrested him.

In May 2014 the General Court in Abha sentenced him to four years in prison and 800 lashes (for the charges relating to the imagines of women). He was cleared from the allegation of apostasy, because the court had accepted his apology. Ashraf Fayadh filed an appeal against the judgement, but the court of appeal dismissed it. To make things worse they also indicated that he should still be sentenced for apostasy. The case was then transferred back to the General Court.

The retrial took place in November 2015. On 17 November 2015, the General Court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh to death. This trial was unfair and violated International and Saudi-Arabian laws. Ashraf Fayadh did not have legal representation at court, because he could not mandate a lawyer without his passport which was seized by the police. The judge in the new trial did not even speak with him, but only gave the verdict: death sentence for apostasy.

Ashraf Fayadh’s arrest, trial and sentence were heavily criticised. Immediately after his arrest in January 2014 100 Arab writers and thinkers signed a petition and many others condemned his arrest in the social media.

The public outcry got obviously even louder after he was sentenced to death last November. Amnesty International and 60 other human rights groups and arts groups launched a campaign for him. In addition a large number of authors, artists and actors and also the director of Tate Modern joined the efforts for his release. Since January 2015 English PEN has been regularly protesting at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair. Since 27 November they have also been calling for the release of Ashraf Fayadh. The international literature festival Berlin had called for worldwide readings on 14 January 2016 to highlight his case. This was very successful and readings in support of his case were held in 44 countries.

Ashraf Fayadh filed within 30 days an appeal against the court decision which sentenced him to death. He claimed that there is no legal basis for the judgement, because of a number of formal errors:

  • He was arrested by the Islamic religious police, even so the arrest should have been done by the state prosecutor.
  • The allegations of apostasy were only based on the witness statement of the one person with whom he had the dispute. They were not corroborated by other evidence as required under the laws of Saudi Arabia.

On 1 February 2016 the court of appeal reversed the decision of the General Court. They overturned the death-sentence and replaced it with the following verdict: eight years in prison, 800 lashes (to be carried out on 16 occasions with 50 lashes each time) and public repentance. Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer said that they again filed an appeal against this sentence.

Ashraf Fayadh is currently in prison. Sofar he has not yet been flogged.

2. Fatemeh Ekhtesari (Iran)

hjFatemeh Ekhtesari was born in 1986. She is an Iranian poet and she is also a midwife. Her poems are often about women. On the one hand she writes poems about the female body with pregnancies, deliveries and abortions. On the other hand the poems are about the world of women including demonstrations and resistance. She also edited a modern poetry magazine.

Fatemeh Ekthesari belongs to the literary movement “Postmodern Ghazal”. Ghazal is a classic poetic form which consists of rhyming couplets and a refrain. Traditionally the theme of ghazals is unconditional superior love. Mehdi Mousavi who is a pre-eminent member of this literary movement explained that “ghazal” has a wider meaning in the term “Postmodern Ghazal”. It stands for all formal styles of classic poetry and is not restricted to the traditional ghazal. Poets who belong to this movement use classic poetic forms, but modernise them and write about contemporary themes in contemporary language.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s first book was published in 2010. She spoke in one article about her approach to deal with censorship. She put dots in her poems for all words which would not get past the authorities. After the book was approved and published, she added the missing words by hand before she sent copies to her friends.

In 2013 Fatemeh Ekhtesari took part in a literary exchange programme with Sweden with the title “A Resistance Movement on My Desk”. Six poets from Iran and six poets from Sweden collaborated in this project and translated together Persian poetry into Swedish. One of the highlights of the programme was the participation at the poetry festival in Stockholm and Gothenborg in September 2013.

On 6 December 2013 Fatemeh Ekthesari (and Mehdi Mousavi) wanted to travel to Turkey for a literary workshop. At the airport they were informed that they were banned from travelling and they were summoned for an interrogation.

Both of them did not go to the interrogation and two days later, on 8 December 2013, they were arrested by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp at their houses. They were transferred to solitary confinement and spent 38 days in the Guards’ Ward 2-A at Evin Prison. Both had to endure psychological pressure and repeated interrogations which finally led to forced confessions. These confessions were the main evidence in the following trial. On 13 January 2014 they were released on bail.

Fatemeh has not only been prosecuted personally, but also her poetry is under attack. One of her books which was published with the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was removed from the Tehran Book Fair in May 2015.

On 10 October 2015 the Tehran Revolutionary Court rendered their judgement. Fatemeh Ekhtesari was sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes (and Mehdi Mousavi was sentenced to 9 years in prison and 99 lashes). The charges against her were:

  • Insulting sanctities through her poetry (7 years)
  • Publishing unauthorised content in cyberspace (3 years)
  • Propaganda against the state (1 1/2 years)
  • Kissing (the cheeks) and shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex who was not related (99 lashes).

Her lawyer said that it is not entirely clear which of her poems were deemed to “insult the sacred”. The poems which were mentioned in court did not relate to sanctities. All her books were published with permits issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. It is therefore difficult to understand why the censors did not take offense and prohibited the publication in the first place, if some of the poems were really against the law. There is some indictation that she was accused to “insult sanctities” because she was previously in contact with the exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najaif who used her poems for one of his songs. Iran sees in him an apostate. However, he sang the song which was based on her poems some years ago and a long time before the allegation of apostasy were made against him.

The charge of “propaganda against the state” has to be seen in the context with her trips to Sweden for the exchange project. The ruling claims that she cooperated in Sweden with the press and with “spies” and is responsible for “negative propaganda about Iran”.

Her lawyer sees severe violations of due process and a fair trial, because there are some indications that the decision was made before the court hearing.

Several human rights organisations heavily criticised the decision against Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi. On 30 October 2015 PEN America sent a letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The letter is signed by 116 poets and writers and urges him to grant pardon for both poets.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi filed an appeal against the judgement. The appeal is still pending. In January they fled Iran. For security resons they do not disclose in which country they are currently. They mentioned however that they have both applied for political asylum.

Fatemeh Ekhtesari shall have the final word. She explained in an article about a months ago her motivation for leaving Iran:

“Self-censorship was among the reasons I left Iran. I was becoming afraid of writing. I feared that anything I write would be used by IRGC interrogations against me.”

“I used to say I have to be in Iran, I need to be in close contact with my audience. I need to see their problems and feel their pain. But I was forced to leave behind the people that I love, the people for whom I’ve been writing poetry.”

 3.  Mohammed al-Ajami (Qatar)

IMG_2009Mohammed al-Ajami was born on 24 December 1975 in Qatar. He is married and has four children. He writes also under the name Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb.

The background of his arrest and his sentence are the following: In 2010 Mohammed al-Ajami recited one of his poems in his house in Cairo (“The Cairo poem”). The recitation was in front of a small private audience. However, one of the audience members made a recording of the performance and posted it without his consent or even his knowledge on YouTube.

On 16 November 2011 Mohammed al-Ajami was summoned to a meeting with state security officials in Doha. When he arrived he was arrested. About two weeks later he was transferred to the central prison. The laws of Qatar allow a pre-trial detention of up to six months, however his detention exceeded the legal maximum and his trial was postponed five times. He was held in solitary confinement for a long time. For several months he did not have access to books, television or writing material. Mohammed al-Ajami’s family and friends were initially not informed about his whereabouts and for months they were not given any right to visit him.

On 29 November 2012 Mohammed al-Ajami was sentenced to life in prison. The charges against him were “incitement to overthrow the government” and “criticising the ruling emir.” The charge of “incitement to overthrow the government” could have even lead to the death sentence.

The whole trial was unfair. It was a trial behind closed doors. Al-Ajami was not allowed to defend himself and his lawyer was not allowed to plead or defend his client. His lawyer also says that the evidence was tampered with. The court heard as expert witnesses three “poetry experts” from the ministry of culture and education. They gave almost identical evidence and asserted that the poem insulted the emir and his son. Al-Ajami never denied that he was author of the poem, but always emphasised that he did not intend to insult anyone. In addition the offence of “incitement to overthrow the government” requires a public action. Because of the private nature of the reading this requirement was not fulfilled. During his interrogations Al-Ajami was forced to sign a false confession which stated that the poem was read in public in the presence of the press. In the final hearing in October 2012 Al-Ajami was expelled from court (for being unruly) and was not brought to court when the judgement was handed down.

It is not entirely clear for which poem Mohammed al-Ajami was punished. A lot of people think that the reason for his punishment is not “The Cairo poem”, but rather “Tunisian Jasmine”. In this poem he praises the Tunisian revolution and denounces corruption and oppression by Arab rulers:

All of us are Tunesia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
shameful thieves.”

Excerpt of “Tunisian Jasmine”

If you want to read the whole poem “Tunisian Jasmine”, you find it in the following post. There is also a link to another poem which al-Ajami wrote in prison.

The judgement against Mohammed al-Ajami was heavily criticised by Amnesty International and many other human rights organisations and also in the social media.

Mohammed al-Ajami filed an appeal against the judgement. On 25 February 2013 the court of appeal reduced the sentence to 15 years in prison.

Another appeal to the Court of Cassation was not successful. The Court of Cassation upheld on 20 October 2013 15 year prison sentence. The court made his decision to uphold the decision in less than three hours.

Several human rights organisation continously called for his release and there were readings of poetry in solidarity for Mohammed al-Ajami. On 20 October 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur raised his case and declared that his arrest, detention and sentencing “seem to be solely related to the peaceful exercise of his fundamental human rights”. He added that the charges are “clearly incompatible with international standard, which protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of arts, and the take part in cultural life.” English PEN held a protest in support of al-Ajami on 25 February 2016 and delivered a petition to the Qatari Embassy in London.

After the decision of the Court of Cassation in October 2013 there were no further ways to challenge the judgement. The only hope which was left for Mohammed al-Ajami was a pardon by the Emir.

Two days ago, on 15 March 2016, there was surprising good news reported via social media: Qatar has granted Mohammed al-Ajami a royal pardon and English PEN reported yesterday that he has been released.

I have decided to include him nevertheless in my post as acknowledgment of his suffering and the unfair imprisonment for more than four years. His story and story of every other poet who is punished for their poetry shall be heard and shared.

Please read also the following post in which you find examples of Ashraf Fayadh’s, Fatemeh Ekhtesari’s and Mohammed Al-Ajami’s poetry. 

I want to thank English PEN which allowed me to use the photo of their protest for Ashraf Fayadh and the pictures of Mohammed Al-Ajami in this post and of Ashraf Fayadh in the next post. I also want to thank M Lynx Qualey, arablit.org, who allowed me to use translations of the poems of Ashraf Fayadh and Mohammed Al-Ajami in the next post. Finally I want to thank especially Fatemeh Ekhtesari. She sent me the two photos I used in this and the next post, English translations of some of her poems and was patient enough to answer my questions.