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Iran: Activist 'Dynamic Duo' Fight for Human Rights

(ISNA) He's spent almost a third of his life in prison as a political dissident. She's been arrested many times on myriad charges. Together, Taqi Rahmani and Narges Mohammadi are a dynamic duo of political activism -- husband-and-wife "superheroes" fighting human rights abuses by Iran's theocratic regime.

It's not easy. But despite the regular time in prison -- an increasingly common fact of life for Iranian activists, particularly during an intensified crackdown on dissent ahead of parliamentary elections next month -- the couple vows to continue its campaign to defend human rights in the Islamic republic.

Rahmani is the author of some 26 books and articles on religious modernism. In 2005, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch awarded Rahmani the Hellman/Hammett grant -- a prize that the group bestows on writers targeted for expressing views that governments do not want reported.

The 47-year-old has long been critical of the relationship between religion and politics in Iran. He says that theocratic rule has had an undeniably negative impact on his country's democratic development.

"As a Muslim who supports freedom and democracy, I am opposed to a number of principles and positions of the Islamic republic," Rahmani says. "That's how I got involved in politics as an author and activist. I belong to a movement that is known in Iran as a nationalist-religious movement. This movement believes that religion should serve civil society. It also believes that all Iranians have equal rights, and that they should be seen as equal citizens despite their different viewpoints. For these ideas, I've spent more than 14 years in prison."

Rahmani's wife knows all about prison, too. A 36-year-old mother of two, Mohammadi is an engineer by day. But her passion is the rights of political prisoners and women. She is a spokeswoman for the Iranian Center for Defenders of Human Rights, the organization led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Ebadi says both Mohammadi and her husband are well-known and well-respected among Iranian intellectuals and rights supporters, though the couple has paid a heavy price to gain such respect.

"Being a human rights activist in Iran is not easy work," Ebadi says. "It's not easy to work in this field. But we shouldn't forget that Iranian women, including Mohammadi, have a willpower far greater than all the difficulties they face."

University Activism

Mohammadi's political activities began during her student days at Qazvin University, where she studied physics and engineering.

It was at Qazvin where she met her future husband. Rahmani used to teach evening classes where participants -- including students, journalists, and teachers -- would discuss politics, human rights, and the role of religion in society. Rahmani says favorite topics included Islam and human rights, Islam and democracy, and Islam and civil society.

Mohammadi soon swapped her favorite hobby, mountain climbing, for a new one -- politics and human rights. In Iran, it was to prove a high mountain to climb.

Narges Mohammadi has fought for prisoners and women (ISNA)

She became known as a key activist at university and soon followed in Rahmani's footsteps by writing articles in independent newspapers criticizing the human rights situation in the country. It was the late 1990s, a favorable time for independent publications increasing in number under reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

By the time he met Narges, Rahmani had already served two prison terms -- 11 years in total -- for expressing his political views through books and articles.

In 1981, Rahmani was imprisoned for three years for his writings in an underground publication, "Pishtaz." Five years later he was arrested again, and sentenced to eight years in prison for his writing on religion and politics.

Rahmani resumed his work as a writer and journalist following his latest release from prison. But most newspapers remain reluctant to publish his work.

"Because of existing pressures, newspapers nowadays do not publish our articles," Rahmani says. "Generally, in countries like Iran, newspapers do not have too much freedom. They cannot publish whatever they want. There are certain conditions that usually create problems and restrictions for newspapers."

Both husband and wife have worked for reformist newspapers and magazines, including "Iran-e Farda" (Tomorrow's Iran,) a reformist publication that has subsequently been banned.

A Marriage Made In Prison

The couple got married in 2001, only to be separated soon afterward when Rahmani was again sentenced to two separate jail terms between 2001 and 2005.

In one case, Rahmani and two fellow journalists were arrested on the orders of Tehran's chief prosecutor. They spent almost two years under arbitrary detention without being charged.

Her husband's numerous arrests helped turn Mohammadi's attention to the plight of political prisoners in Iran. She began campaigning against the practice of putting people behind bars for merely expressing their opinion.

Mohammadi has publicly criticized the authorities for violating "the most basic principles of law -- keeping people in prison illegally, without charge, sentence, and trial." She says defense lawyers in many cases can't even get access to their imprisoned clients' files.

For such criticism, Mohammadi has twice been imprisoned. With firsthand experience of life behind bars, Mohammadi now tries to assist jailed dissidents and their families. Through the Center for Defenders of Human Rights, she provides lawyers for political prisoners who cannot afford to pay for their defense. The center also offers legal advice and counseling for dissidents' family members when necessary.

Mohammadi tells RFE/RL that the center's members want to raise people's awareness of their social, political, and human rights through media, meetings, and discussions. They also publish regular reports on human rights to attract domestic and international attention to the issue.

Are Mohammadi and her husband afraid of more time in prison -- or worse? "In Iran, you don't have to be a human rights activist to get arrested," she says. "In our country, many teachers and workers are put in jail merely for asking the government to increase their wages. Students are put behind bars for wanting their own publications. The Iranian government does not tolerate any criticism."

But is the sacrifice of Mohammadi and other Iranian rights defenders, scores of whom have been jailed in recent weeks, paying off?

Abdulfattah Sultani believes it is. A Center for Defenders of Human Rights founding member, Sultani says rights activism in Iran is not a line of work that shows quick results. However, he believes that activists such as Mohammadi and Rahmani have already brought positive change to Iranian society.

"Nowadays, the authorities are trying to comply with human rights -- at least, they try to make it seem that way," Sultani says. "They are trying to improve prison conditions. With regard to women's issues, society has gradually accepted the fact that patriarchic laws should be abolished. Several religious leaders in the city of Qom recently issued a religious decree, which says women have equal rights to compensation, and that a woman's evidence is no longer equal only to half of a man's evidence."

Mohammadi, for her part, says Iranian society is moving toward democratic changes and better human rights conditions. She believes there is "no going back."

"Iranian society is rapidly moving toward claiming its right to democracy," she says. "Students, workers, teachers, women, and young people -- these different groups have serious claims, and the government has to answer them. The government has to give them a satisfying response. It's not a question of a handful of people -- it is about an entire nation."

It's also about a brave couple that fell in love. And dared to speak truth to power.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.