Lucy Popescu

Narges Mohammadi & Mahvash Sabet

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, PEN is focusing on the cases of two Iranians detained in violation of their right to free expression. Human rights activist and journalist Narges Mohammadi (LR, June 2012) was arrested on 5 May last year and has been charged with ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and ‘gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security’. Teacher and poet Mahvash Sabet (LR, December 2014) is currently serving a twenty-year sentence in Evin prison for her work with the Baha’í community.

Mohammadi is president of the executive committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, which was set up to oppose military conflict and promote human rights. She has also campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran and founded the campaign group Step by Step to Stop Death Penalty. As a result, she has been accused of belonging to an ‘illegal organization whose aim is to harm national security’.

The Iranian authorities have previously persecuted Mohammadi for her activities in support of human rights. In 2009 her passport was confiscated and she has been unable to travel abroad since then. In 2010 she was arrested in connection with her work for the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), which was cofounded by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi. She was put on trial the following year for ‘acting against national security’, ‘membership of the DHRC’ and ‘propaganda against the regime’. She was eventually convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison, though this was reduced on appeal to six years in February 2012. She was released in July that year on medical grounds in order to obtain treatment for an existing health condition exacerbated by her imprisonment.

Mohammadi has told Amnesty International that the latest charges against her stem solely from her activities in support of human rights, including giving media interviews, attending rallies outside prisons prior to executions to support the families of death row prisoners, and meeting Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, in March 2014.

Mohammadi is married to Taghi Rahmani, a prominent journalist and activist who has spent a total of seventeen years in prison. Rahmani left the country in May 2011 in response to growing pressure from the authorities. Mohammadi has a neurological disorder that can result in seizures, temporary partial paralysis and pulmonary embolism. She reportedly suffered several seizures in August and October 2015. She was taken to hospital on each occasion and was returned to prison against medical advice. During one stay in hospital she was handcuffed to her bed for several days. Her trial has been postponed repeatedly and she remains in prison.

Mahvash Sabet is one of a group of seven Baha’í leaders known as Yaran-i-Iran (‘Friends of Iran’) who have been detained since 2008 for activities aimed at supporting the human rights of the Baha’í community. The Baha’í, Iran’s largest religious minority, have suffered systematic, state-sponsored persecution since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although Yaran-i-Iran was formed with the full knowledge of the government, its entire membership was arrested in 2008. Sabet was detained on 5 March of that year while on a trip to Mashhad. The other six members of the group were arrested two months later at their homes in Tehran. They were charged with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country and ‘spreading corruption on earth’. They were detained without trial for two years. In August 2010 each defendant was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. Their sentences were reduced to ten years after an appeal court revoked three of the charges. However, in March 2011, the original sentences were reinstated.

Sabet began writing poetry in prison ‘as a coping mechanism’. A collection of her work, entitled Prison Poems, has been published in English (translated by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani) and is available to buy online. Prison conditions for women are particularly harsh in Iran, as Sabet makes clear in the following lines, which appear in the poem ‘From Evin to Raja’i Shahr’:

Each whip is stained with hatred here, as well as blood;
each scourge betrays a woman’s shame as well as pain.
And everywhere you look, another sinks to the ground
waiting for Mother Earth to revive her again.

Readers may like to send appeals calling on the Iranian authorities to release Narges Mohammadi and Mahvash Sabet and all other female prisoners of conscience currently detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression; and urging that further measures be taken to fully enshrine the right to freedom of expression in law in Iran, as provided for under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.

Appeals to be addressed to:

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei
Twitter: @khamenei_ir

The ambassador’s post is currently vacant but readers can send copies of their appeal to the chargé d’affaires:

Mohammad Hassan Habibollahzadeh

Updates: On 16 January, Jason Rezaian (LR, May 2015), an Iranian-American Washington Post reporter held for over a year in Iran, was released from prison along with three other dual nationals. Their release was part of a prisoner swap with the United States. 

On 2 February, a Saudi Arabian court commuted the death sentence imposed on Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh for apostasy (LR, February 2016) to an eight-year prison term and eight hundred lashes. Thanks to all readers who sent appeals. PEN continues to call for his immediate release.

Sara Stewart


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