As Saba Azarpeik faces her 66th day in prison, her mother, who has been warned not to speak to the media, has broken her silence, speaking of her fears for her daughter and about why she thinks she has been held incommunicado for such an extended period.
Azarpeik’s mother, Akram Mohammadi, says that the journalist is being punished for talking to MPs about the raid on Cell Block 350 in April, during which dozens of political prisoners were brutally attacked. “When I ask about the charge against Saba,” Mohammadi says, “I am told she is being held because she talked to MPs about what the families of block 350 prisoners were saying.”
Azarpeik, who reports on parliamentary matters for reformist newspaper Etemad and writes for the weekly Tejarat-e Farda, was arrested on May 28. This is the second time that the journalist has been arrested in connection with her work. In winter 2013, she and other reporters were detained after they spoke to foreign media.
Her mother has been given no information about her daughter’s whereabouts, or even about the authorities that carried out the arrest. Azarpeik, who was recently brought before a Revolutionary Court, has been denied legal defense. Her family has spoken to her twice, and her mother has been allowed to visit her once.
“From the very beginning, I was told not to talk to anybody or else conditions for Saba will get worse,” she says. When she referred to her daughter on Facebook, she was ordered to stop.
Though there were some hints that she might be released on bail after appearing before the Revolutionary Court on July 21, at the last minute, the warrant against her was renewed.
IranWire spoke to Akram Mohammadi about the day her daughter was arrested, her worries for her health and why she thinks she is still being held.
Where was Saba arrested and how was she treated?
Saba left home at 8:30 in the morning to go to work. She was arrested on the street. After the arrest two agents came to our door. They had no warrant but my son welcomed them, inviting them to enter the house. My son explained to them that the last time Intelligence Ministry agents came to our house, they took all of Saba’s things away, so they left what was in the house alone and went to Saba’s workplace. There were two cases in her office. One of them belonged to a colleague of hers and she explained that to the agents. but it was no use. They took away both.
Do you know where she is being detained?
We still don’t know where they are keeping her. I only know that she is not at Evin and has never been there. I think she is in solitary confinement at the Revolutionary Guards’ detention center.
When you pursued the matter what answers were you given?
They kept telling us that they were under no obligation to answer us. The first day after charges were read, Saba said that she was under arrest in Ward 59 of the Judiciary Detention House, but when she phoned me on the 40th day of her detention, she told me that she had been moved to the Guards’ detention center because Ward 59 was being reconstructed.
How many times Saba has contacted you since her arrest?
Thirteen days after her arrest Saba phoned me and we talked for about five or six minutes. During the call the interrogator asked Saba to tell me that I should not talk about the call to anybody because it had been allowed without the knowledge of the authorities. They said it would cost us dearly if they got wind of it. I wrote on Facebook that I had dreamed that Saba had called us.
Her second call took place on July 6, 40 days after her arrest. With that call I got the news that her vertebrae had been injured and she been taken to Evin’s clinic. When I asked the reason she told me it was because of bowing low and for long periods during prayers.
Did you pursue the matter?
We did, though it got us nowhere. But on July 21, with the permission of Judge Moghisei [who presided over the Revolutionary Court for Azarpeik’s case], I was given permission to see Saba for a few minutes.
I told Saba that nobody’s vertebrae is dislocated because of bowing. She was upset that I was so worried. But I still am. I think that maybe Saba has had an accident and that’s why she’s injured. The same day, when I hugged her, I noticed she had a high fever. That heat is still burning through me.
Have you been able to talk to the judicial authorities about Saba?
We talked only to the deputies at the prosecutor’s office. We were not permitted to talk to the prosecutor himself or the higher-up officials. We tried very hard but were refused.
Can you explain how the case is progressing? Has an arrest warrant been renewed for the third time?
The warrant has been renewed. There was no order to renew in her case file, the examiner was absent and the warrant was supposed to expire on Saturday. We requested the matter to be pursued but unfortunately, the case was sent to another branch [of the court] and was renewed there.
Was a reason given for renewing the arrest warrant?
No. Prosecution officials reported that her case was going smoothly, giving us hope that Saba might be released soon. But then the warrant was renewed at the last minute. When we pursued the matter they told us that there was nothing they could do. In other words, they made us understand that Saba’s arrest warrant was renewed by decree, by someone outside the normal proceedings of the case. We gathered from the way they talked that they themselves did not agree with the renewal. But it was an order and they had to obey it.
On July 28, when we were informed that the warrant had been renewed, we filed an objection. But we were told there was nothing they could do. Even the chief official told us to go home and not expect any results from the appeal. We persisted. At last, they came with the excuse that “the lawyer’s form is incomplete and we cannot review the objection.” We were told: “the case has been sent to the Culture and Media Court.”
Has Saba been able to meet her lawyer?
Her lawyer has not been able to meet with Saba or talk to her. He has not been even permitted to read the case.
How did you pursue the case?
Forty-five days after the arrest they told us to have the bail money ready. They even told us that the fee should be submitted in Tehran and not in Karaj so we would be able to save time. They assured us, they gave us hope. But in practice, they have taken no notice of any of our objections. They kept us happy with their promises.
What have you been told about the charges against Saba?
From the first day, whenever I asked about her charges and why she had been arrested, officials asked again and again: “Why did she convey the complaints of Cell Block 350 families to MPs, leading them to pursue the matter?” I think this has cost the judiciary a lot. Saba was only a liaison between the families and the MPs. I don’t think this is crime.
On that first day, when they read the indictment against Saba, Saba shouted “Mother, the case against me is because of Mr. Rasaei. [Hamid Rasaei, an MP appointed by parliament to attend the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, announced earlier this summer that he would not be able to attend the tournament because of “personal reasons.”] He couldn’t go to Brazil and blames me for not being able to go on his dream journey. It’s because of Mr. Esmaili, the head of the Iran Prisons Organization, and what happened in Cell Block 350. [Gholam Hossein Esmaili was removed from his job after events in Cell Block 350 became public.] The other thing is my first arrest, which now they have attached to this case.”
Saba’s 2013 case has gone to court. Has a verdict been issued?
Saba was arrested along with other journalists, but was released. President Rouhani had ordered the Intelligence Ministry not to pursue cases against journalists but Saba’s case was sent to court anyway. Fortunately, the case had no merits—even Judge Moghisei said this. He had the right attitude and said that he wanted to help. Last week I heard that the verdict had been issued but they have not notified us yet. I hope Judge Moghisei proves his good intentions in the verdict.
You saw Saba in the court for a few minutes. It has been reported that she has faced mental torture and threats. Did she tell you anything about it?
The second time that Saba phoned me she asked me about her colleagues. She had been told that they had been arrested. I told her that no, it was not true. A few of them were arrested because they were distributing sweets on the eve of the Twelfth Imam’s birthday, but they were later released on bail. She said: “Mother, tell my friends that I have had nothing on anybody to say or to write and I have not written anything against them.” The first time she was arrested she was asked to write things against a few MPs, but she refused. When she phoned she said, in the presence of the interrogators, “Tell those MPs that I neither know anything nor I did I write anything against them.”
Did they bar you from giving interviews to the media?
Yes, from day one they told us that if we give interviews, the situation for Saba would become worse. In the early days after Saba’s arrest, when I was posting on Facebook, one of the arresting officers—who I think is also Saba’s interrogator—called my son’s mobile and told us not to post anything further on Facebook. I told him that I had not given any interviews; I was just writing about what goes on in my heart. He said, “then we will bring you a notebook so you can write your memoirs.” And I said, “no need for a notebook. I’ll write them on Facebook.”