When Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi started her hunger strike on June 27, she wrote an open letter pleading with the government to let her have telephone contact with her 9-year-old twins.
“I have gone through our last meeting a hundred times. I cannot remember how much I cried,” she wrote in the letter that was published by her supporters. “I meet with my dearest Kiana and Ali in my daydreams. I smell their small hands and kiss their beautiful faces.”
The letter struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of Twitter users in Iran – many of them women, according to activists monitoring the campaign. They took to Twitter under the hashtag #FreeNarges to express their support and press authorities to improve the conditions for all female political prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Mohammadi, 44, was given a 16-year prison sentence in May for publicly supporting an anti-death penalty campaign in Iran. Her son Ali and daughter Kiana have been living in France with their father since she was arrested last year.
Evin Prison is notorious for its harsh treatment of detainees, many of them political prisoners. According to Mohammadi, there are around 25 female inmates being kept on her ward. These women are supposed to be allowed regular contact with family members, but the activist said in her letter that they are being denied their rights with no explanation from prison authorities. She said she has been allowed one phone call with her children in over a year and her repeated requests to speak to them have gone unanswered. She said in her letter that her hunger strike was a last resort.
“In a land where being a woman, being a mother and being a human rights defender is difficult on their own, being all three is an unforgivable crime,” she wrote.
Fears are growing for Mohammadi’s health four weeks into the strike, especially as she suffers from a pulmonary embolism and a neurological disorder that has caused her to have seizures and experience temporary, partial paralysis.
“Doctors treating her say every day she continues the hunger strike is like pumping poison into her veins,” said Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s researcher on Iran. The organization is in contact with the prison and with Mohammadi’s husband, and said there is no evidence yet that the authorities will back down.
“A representative of the prosecutor has said she will not be able to speak to her children if she continues the hunger strike because [the strike] has been used by opposition groups and the media to tarnish the reputation of the state,” said Bahreini.
Women & Girls Hub contacted the Iranian embassy in London for comment but got no reply.
But Mohammadi’s supporters say the show of solidarity she has received from ordinary Iranians has helped raise awareness of Evin Prison’s mistreatment of its female political prisoners.
“We were very heartened when we saw so many people inside Iran joined the social media campaign to free Narges,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “This shows the situation of these women is becoming known to the general population in Iran.”
Ghaemi said the #FreeNarges campaign was the fifth highest trending topic on Twitter on the day they launched, 15 days into Mohammadi’s hunger strike. Using keyword-tracking software, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has determined that over 60 percent of the campaign’s supporters are tweeting from inside Iran, despite the fact that Twitter is officially banned in the country. Iranians access the social media network through virtual private networks (VPNs) and other circumvention tools.
Ghaemi said the move by the prison authorities to block Mohammadi from having contact with her children is just one way female prisoners of conscience are intimidated and punished while serving their sentences. “This is a form of double punishment,” he said. “These women should never be in prison in the first place. The authorities want to make sure that these women have suffered so much inside prison that they will be silenced when they are released.”
A report published in June by Ghaemi’s organization contains testimony from scores of other current and former detainees detailing other ways authorities mistreat female prisoners. These include denying detainees access to medicines or healthcare, providing the prisoners with inadequate food rations, depriving them of heating in the winter and repeatedly strip-searching them.
A July report by Amnesty International drew a similar picture of mistreatment in Evin Prison, saying the authorities were “toying” with the lives of prisoners of conscience by denying them medical care. The report said female prisoners in Evin were routinely denied care for serious medical conditions because the clinics are only staffed by men and it was deemed inappropriate for women to be treated by male medical staff.
Authors of both reports said international attention could be the only way to force the authorities to make changes. “Things won’t happen overnight,” said Ghaemi. “But public interest in [Mohammadi’s] case puts the judiciary under the microscope and forces them to be accountable.”
Mohammadi was arrested in May 2015 to serve the remainder of a six-year prison sentence dating back to September 2011, when she was found guilty of acting against national security because of her support for human rights groups.
She was given a further 16 years in May this year in relation to her work with an anti-death penalty campaign. The ruling sparked international outrage and calls for her immediate release.
“We are appalled by the sentencing of a prominent Iranian anti-death penalty campaigner, Narges Mohammadi, to 16 years’ imprisonment on charges that stem from her courageous human rights work,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Mohammadi has dedicated years to exposing human rights abuses in Iran. In 2009, she won the Alexander Langer award for her work, and this year, she received the City of Paris medal for her peaceful activism.
She is believed to have developed her neurological disorder after a previous arrest in 2010, when she was kept in solitary confinement in Evin.
In a letter she wrote to PEN International after her sentencing earlier this year, Mohammadi said that 23 of the inmates in the women’s ward have been sentenced to a total of 177 years.
“We are all charged due to our political and religious tendency and none of us are terrorists,” she wrote. “The reason to write these lines is to tell you that the pain and suffering in the Evin Prison is beyond tolerance.”