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Iran: Award-Winning Rights Activist Charged With Spreading Propaganda

Parvin Ardalan (file photo) ( Noted Iranian rights activist Parvin Ardalan has been interrogated at the security branch of a Tehran court after being charged with spreading propaganda against the government.

"I was asked about my activities on the 'Change for Equality' and 'Zanestan' websites," Ardalan told Radio Farda after her court visit on April 5. "They asked about the content of some of my articles and, as a member of the editorial teams of both websites, I defended that content. I was charged with propaganda against the state, but I reject the charge."

Iranian authorities have summoned Ardalan to court at least three times on a variety of charges since February, when she won Sweden's Olof Palme Prize for her commitment to defending women's rights.

On March 4, the authorities prevented Ardalan from traveling to Sweden to receive the $75,000 prize, confiscating her passport a few moments before her plane was to take off. Ardalan said she still does not have her passport, and the travel ban is still intact.

Ardalan is a founding member of the One Million Signatures campaign, a movement set up in August 2006 to promote equal rights for Iranian women. The 37-year-old feminist has worked for a number of women's publications, including "Zanestan," "Zanan," and "The Feminist Tribune of Iran," focusing on the lives of Iranian women. All of the publications have been closed by the government. Ardalan is currently an editor of "Change of Equality," an online publication promoting women's rights.

40 Members Arrested

Although "Change of Equality" and the One Million Signatures campaign have somehow survived Iranian officials' attacks, Ardalan and her fellow members of the signature campaign have paid a heavy price for being involved in feminist activities.

While the campaign members insist their movement is a nonpolitical, purely social association that has nothing against the state and religion, some 40 of its members have been arrested by Iranian police and intelligence services. Most of them have been charged with acting against the state.

Two of the campaign supporters in Kurdistan Province, Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi, were arrested by security services last autumn and remain imprisoned. Both are in their early 20s. After spending several months in prison without formal charges and without access to lawyers and relatives, the women have recently been accused of cooperating with terrorists and illegal armed groups. Both deny the charges, which have been condemned by rights groups as baseless.

Last year, Ardalan was handed a 3 1/2-year suspended prison sentence for taking part in a demonstration in Tehran.

Tehran Wants 'Total Silence'

Reza Moeni is in charge of the Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan desk at the Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders. Moeni says the Iranian government has increased its pressure on the signature campaign and other feminists by "arresting the movement's members, filtering their websites, and closing down the women's magazines."

"The Iranian government wants total silence," Moeni says. "Even when they free a journalist or a feminist from prison, they set them free under heavy bails, and obviously such journalists or activists would hesitate to continue their activities."

However, Tehran's efforts to silence the rights' activists sometimes bring the opposite effect, and end up attracting international attention and support to the activists' cause.

"There is pressure from the government's side, but there is resistance from the opposite side," Moeni says. "A few days ago more than 1,000 human rights activists, feminists, and civil-rights groups issued a statement to support Safarzadeh and Abdi, who have been imprisoned in Kurdistan. The statement worked against the Islamic republic's efforts to say that the two women were involved in terrorist activities and cooperating with armed groups."

Ardalan says the government pressure has to some extent made the feminists' activities less effective. "The campaign doesn't have a newspaper, and it is very difficult to access and read our websites inside Iran," Ardalan says.

After spending a few weeks in prison or perhaps having a criminal case hanging over one's head, many members of the signature campaign have become more cautious in their activities. However, Ardalan says she and most of the Iranian rights activists are determined to continue to fight for equal rights, and they "have always known that there is a price to pay for such goals."

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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.