Like so many other political prisoners in Iran, Bahareh Hedayat’s crime was speaking her mind.
A student activist known for her work on the One Million Signatures Campaign aiming to change discriminatory laws against women, Hedayat was repeatedly detained and harassed beginning in 2008. Despite the intimidation, she continued her activism, publicly calling on other Iranians to do the same. She was among those arrested in the wake of the 2009 antigovernment protests following disputed presidential elections, and in 2010 was convicted on various charges, including “insulting the leader,” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”
After serving more than five years in prison, she was set to be released this summer by order of an appeals court in Tehran, but was suddenly given an additional two-year sentence, which human rights lawyers argue contravenes Iranian law. Hedayat is the winner of Sweden’s 2012 Harald Edelstam Defence of Human Rights Award, and was among the 20 women political prisoners whose cases were highlighted in September 2015 as part of the U.S. State Department’s #FreeThe20 campaign.
RFE/RL’s Persian language service, Radio Farda, has doggedly followed her case on a weekly radio program focusing on human rights that is hosted and produced by Mahtab Vahidi Rad.
“I have talked with the judiciary about my wife’s new sentence and her court process, but I have not received any official legal response,” Amin Ahmadian, Hedayat’s husband, told Vahidi Rad in a September 2015 interview after the additional sentence was handed down.
Vahidi Rad says this development, along with the recent closed-door trial and conviction of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, does not bode well for the future of the hundreds of other political prisoners estimated to be incarcerated in Iran.
The families and lawyers of the imprisoned write to Vahidi Rad, sometimes passing her messages directly from prisoners themselves, which then allows her to update listeners on conditions in the prisons.
Radio Farda journalist Mahtab Vahidi Rad
“They write to me that they are not given access to medical care, that they are not allowed to see their family or legal counsel,” she said. “Especially for women prisoners this can be very damaging to their mental and emotional health when they are not allowed to see their children.”
Tehran's Evin Prison, where both Hedayat and Rezaian are being held, is notorious for rights abuses, but Vahidi Rad says that based on her reporting of first-hand accounts from relatives and prisoners, the situation is even worse in provincial prisons not under the same scrutiny as a facility in the capital.
In addition to political prisoners, the program, which Vahidi Rad has produced since 2011, covers censorship, imprisonment of journalists and bloggers, the conditions for ethnic and religious minorities, and executions in Iran--all topics not otherwise discussed in Iranian media.
“If an Iranian woman wants to speak out for women’s rights in Iran, it’s risky, and we have seen many cases like Hedayat’s in recent years,” said Vahidi Rad. “But the overwhelming number of messages I get on social media and on our website shows Iranians care about these women and other political prisoners.”