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In Or Out Of Jail, Veteran Iranian Human Rights Defender Narges Mohammadi Won't Be Silenced

"Despite the price I've paid, I remain hopeful, and I'm confident that our efforts will bear fruit, although not immediately," Narges Mohammadi says.

Despite being repeatedly threatened by Iran's security apparatus, harassed, sent to prison multiple times, and prevented from seeing her children, the authorities have failed to silence Narges Mohammadi.

One of Iran's leading human rights defenders, Mohammadi has long campaigned against the death penalty and defended victims of state violence.

While in prison, she has gone on several hunger strikes to protest the conditions there, attended a sit-in to condemn the security forces' killing of several hundred protesters in November 2019, and spoke out about human rights abuses in open letters and statements smuggled out of her cell.

Since her release in October 2020, the award-winning Mohammadi has remained in a defiant mood, speaking out publicly against state tyranny and injustice. "Despite the price I've paid, I remain hopeful, and I'm confident that our efforts will bear fruit, although not immediately," she says.

Mohammadi's 10-year prison sentence on charges stemming from her human rights work was shortened due to concern for her health during the coronavirus outbreak in Iranian prisons and after calls for her release by the UN and rights groups.

Punished For Not Backing Down

A journalist and trained engineer, Mohammadi tells RFE/RL that despite everything she has endured, she remains positive and determined to keep fighting for better rights, freedom, and democracy in Iran.

Mohammadi, the spokeswoman of the banned Defenders of Human Rights Center co-founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, has been meeting with mothers whose sons were victims of the recent deadly state crackdowns while continuing to raise concerns about rights violations.

In a video posted online last week, she highlighted violence against female detainees, including herself, saying she was subjected to force during her 2019 prison transfer from Tehran to the northwest city of Zanjan, some 300 kilometers from the Iranian capital. Mohammadi, who suffers from a neurological illness, has said the prison transfer was aimed at punishing her for protesting the killing of demonstrators.

Mohammadi said she was physically assaulted by male guards and a prison director despite Islamic laws enforced in Iran that men should not touch women to whom they are not related. "How come you do not have to obey Islamic laws [in prison]? So what you've seen saying [about the need to uphold Islamic rules] was a lie," she said.

"I protest against assault by the Islamic establishment's men against women and I won't be silenced," Mohammadi said in the video, where she also mentioned jailed environmentalist Niloofar Bayani, who has accused her interrogators of sexual threats and pressure.

Narges Mohammadi (right) joins Behnam Mahjoubi's mother (center) and others protesting in front of the hospital in Tehran where he died.
Narges Mohammadi (right) joins Behnam Mahjoubi's mother (center) and others protesting in front of the hospital in Tehran where he died.

In late February, Mohammadi was among the activists demanding accountability for the situation of jailed Sufi Behnam Mahjubi, 33, who fell into a coma after suffering from what authorities said was medicinal poisoning.

In online videos, Mohammadi was seen asking hospital staff about Mahjubi, who later died amid accusations of medical neglect. She was also seen attempting to comfort Mahjubi's mother outside the hospital where he was fighting for his life. She later criticized Mahjubi's treatment in media interviews.

Earlier this month, Mohammadi joined a group of civil society activists and rights defenders to file an official complaint against the use of solitary confinement while calling for the prosecution of officials who authorize it. Political detainees in Iran are often held in solitary confinement for weeks or months with no access to the outside world.

Mohammadi, who has endured solitary confinement several times in prison, condemned the "inhuman" practice in a 2016 letter from Tehran's Evin prison, where she called it "psychological torture" aimed at forcing prisoners to make false confessions.

Mohammadi's outspokenness could be difficult for the authorities to ignore, especially as they are in no mood to tolerate dissent amid a deteriorating economy and a deadly coronavirus pandemic that Tehran has struggled to contain.

The prominent rights defender says she is well-aware of the risk she's facing. "It's not like I'm not worried, but the truth is that despite being concerned and despite the risk of arrest, I believe we have to keep working on issues that matter in our society," Mohammadi tells RFE/RL.

"The efforts that are being made will definitely bring results in the mid- or long term and help remove injustices and discrimination against our people in different areas -- including in the economy, culture, politics, and women's rights -- and allow society to grow," she says.

Increasing The Pressure

In December, Iran executed Ruhollah Zam, the manager of the popular Amadnews Telegram channel, who was convicted of inciting violence during the anti-establishment protests in late 2017 and early 2018.

Scores of activists, academics and dual nationals have also been arrested, and a number have been sentenced to harsh prison terms. The authorities have also pressured a prominent NGO that fights against poverty, ordering its dissolution.

Even after her release from prison, the authorities kept pressure on Mohammadi by banning her from traveling outside the country and by bringing new charges against her over her 2019 prison protest.

She has said she will refuse to appear in court, saying her prison sit-in was a peaceful protest against "the repressive policies of the Islamic republic" and the "ruthless" crackdown on protesters two years ago who protested a large, sudden rise in the price of gasoline amid rising poverty in the country.

"Iranian authorities' persecution of human rights defenders often continues even after they are released from prison," Human Rights Watch Iran researcher Tara Sepehrifar told RFE/RL. "Yet Narges, like several other Iranian human rights defenders, continues to show resilience and commitment to peaceful resistance against repression by speaking up and also building pressure by utilizing potential legal avenues open for challenging authorities' abusive behavior."

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Mohammad's teenage daughter and son, Kiana and Ali, live in France with their father, political activist Taghi Rahmani, who left the country in 2012 to escape a jail sentence. Mohammadi remained behind, believing she could be more effective inside the country, and has not seen her children since July 2015.

Mohammadi says the authorities have rejected her demand to be allowed to visit her twins, who took to social media in late January to condemn the travel ban against their mother.

Even if the ban is lifted, Mohammadi is not planning to live in exile like many other activists who have been forced to flee Iran to escape state repression. "I told Tehran's prosecutor that I want to be with my family for two months and then return. Unfortunately, they refused [my request] and I don't plan to leave the country illegally," she says.

Standing with the people is the principle that has guided her throughout her life, she adds.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.