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Iran's Female Political Prisoners

February 13, 2019
Maryam Dehkordi
20 min read
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Narges Mohammadi
Narges Mohammadi
Nasrin Sotoudeh
Nasrin Sotoudeh
Azita Rafizadeh
Azita Rafizadeh
Zeynab Jalalian
Zeynab Jalalian
Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee
Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee
Atena Daemi
Atena Daemi
Zahra Zehtabchi
Zahra Zehtabchi
Roya Saberinejad Nobakht
Roya Saberinejad Nobakht
At least seven Gonabadi Sufi women are currently in prison
At least seven Gonabadi Sufi women are currently in prison

Imprisoned Iranian activist and journalist Narges Mohammadi has clearly articulated what so many Iranian activists and human rights advocates are thinking: “10 women and 132 years of prison are not merely two numbers. They are parameters for analyzing a regime that claims Islamic mercy, human norms and divine commands, coupled with freedom and democracy.”

Narges Mohammadi posted this short message from Evin Prison: “On the 40th anniversary of the victory of the Iranian people’s revolution to achieve democracy, freedom and justice, it is necessary for the future ahead of us to review the government’s record.” She pointed out the great strides the women’s movement had made over the last 40 years, and urged people to scrutinize the Iranian regime’s repressive role in holding back women in legal, social, economic and cultural areas.

But, in particular, what stands out in this message is Mohammadi’s reference to 25 female prisoners of conscience in just one of the many prisons in the Islamic Republic — the Women’s Ward at Evin Prison. She points out that at least 15 of these prisoners qualify for pardon and many of them who have been detained for a long time have been denied leaves of absence or visits.

Apart from the figure Mohammadi reveals in her message, there are no accurate statistics about the number of female political prisoners in Iran. The Iranian judiciary and security establishment are both reluctant to be transparent about this figure, but many of them are known to the international public because they have been in the news or they have had their voices heard outside the prison.

Below, IranWire provides a short review of some of the female prisoners of conscience currently held in Iranian jails.


1. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian dual national who was arrested on April 3, 2016 as she was leaving the country with her daughter after a visit to her family. She was first imprisoned at Kerman Prison and was later transferred to the security ward at Evin Prison.

At the time of her trip to Tehran, she was a project manager for the charity Thomson Reuters Foundation and had previously worked for BBC Media Action, an international development charity. In September 2016 Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison on vague national security charges in connection with her work at Media Action and Iranian authorities accused her of plotting the “soft overthrow” of the government of the Islamic Republic. In October 2017 it was reported that a new case against her could increase her prison sentence by 16 further years.

In January 2019, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Narges Mohammadi went on a three-day hunger strike to protest against the denial of medical treatment. Prison doctors had determined that both prisoners urgently need medical care outside the prison, which they outlined in an open letter published on January 3. However, prison authorities have refused to transfer Mohammadi and Zaghari-Ratcliffe to outside facilities for treatment.

More on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe:

Iranian TV’s New Conspiracy Series, January 12, 2019

Iranian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike Is a Plea for Basic Rights, January 16, 2019

Nazanin on Temporary Release, August 23, 2018

No Release for Nazanin Until UK Pays Debt, July 23, 2018

“Nazanin’s Treatment is Torture”, February 14, 2018

Iranian State TV’s Smear Campaign Against Nazanin, November 9, 2017

Iran says it honors family values — so why are authorities holding a young mother hostage?, December 20, 2016

The Iranian Government Should be Ashamed of Taking My Wife and Daughter Hostage, September 17, 2016


2. Narges Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi, human rights activist and vice president of the banned Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), was first arrested in 2010. In July 2011, she was found guilty of conspiracy against national security, illegal activities through her work with the DHRC and propaganda against the regime at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison. In March 2012, the appeals court reduced her sentence to six years.

Authorities transferred Mohammadi from Evin Prison in Tehran to a prison in the provincial capital of Zanjan. But her health deteriorated further and eventually doctors concluded that she could not survive in prison. She was released in July 2012. However, on May 5, 2015, she was arrested again so that she could serve the rest of her sentence. On September 28, 2016, while in prison, Tehran’s Revolutionary Court of Appeals upheld an earlier verdict against Mohammadi that had sentenced her to a further 16 years in prison.

Taghi Rahmani, Mohammadi’s husband, who has himself spent 14 years behind bars in Iran and now lives in Paris, told IranWire that the appeals court verdict was “revenge by the intelligence ministry against a human rights activist for her activities in defending human rights. It is revenge for the rally [she held] outside the parliament to protest against acid attacks, and for her support for women ... The intelligence ministry is behind this.”

In January 2019, Narges Mohammadi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe went on a three-day hunger strike to protest against denial of urgently-needed medical treatment and limitations on their contact with their children.

More on Narges Mohammadi:

Iranian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike Is a Plea for Basic Rights, January 16, 2019

Imprisoned Human Rights Lawyer Narges Mohammadi Hospitalized, August 15, 2018

Narges Mohammadi Awarded Sakharov Prize, April 16, 2018

Iran’s Judiciary is Slowly Murdering Prisoners of Conscience, November 10, 2017

"The Revenge of the Intelligence Ministry": Narges Mohammadi's 16-Year Sentence Upheld, September 28, 2016

The Price of Staying in Iran: Narges Mohammadi on Hunger Strike, June 29, 2016

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Narges Mohammadi, August 27, 2015


3. Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh is well known to those who follow human rights in Iran. She has been indefatigable in defending victims of the Islamic Republic, and in combating its hostility toward human, minority and political rights. As a result, she has been repeatedly harassed and arrested. The most recent instance was her arrest over her defense of “Revolution Women” who protested against compulsory hijab laws by removing their headscarves in public places, placing the scarves on a stick and waving it in front of them.

Sotoudeh was arrested on June 13, 2018  at her home after she took up the defense of Shaparak Shajarizadeh, one of these Revolution Women, following a complaint by the judge handling the case in the city of Kashan. The charges against her have not been officially declared but her lawyer reported that she had been arrested to serve a five-year sentence that had been handed down in 2016.

Following this, according to her lawyer Payam Darafshan, she was charged with espionage. “In the prosecutor’s indictment, her charges were ‘propaganda against the regime’ and ‘insulting the Supreme Leader,’ but Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court has now charged her with espionage,” Darafshan told the media on August 15, 2018.

In prison, the pressures on Sotoudeh continue. According to her husband Reza Khandan, she was denied prison visits when a small pair of scissors was found among her belongings. Khandan himself was arrested in early September 2018 and was not released until late December.

More on Nasrin Sotoudeh:

Human Rights Lawyer Charged With Assisting Spies, August 16, 2018

Protesters Demand Release of Human Rights Lawyer, June 17, 2018

The Regime’s Tactics Against Iran’s “Revolution Women”, February 26, 2018

Nasrin Sotoudeh: “Preventive Arrest” is Illegal, January 8, 2018

“The Security Forces are Trying to Ruin us Financially”, September 24, 2015

50 Iranian Women you Should Know: Nasrin Sotoudeh, September 9, 2015

Nasrin Sotoudeh, My Lawyer, September 19, 2013


4. Azita Rafizadeh

Many prisoners of conscience in Iran are behind bars simply because they follow the Baha’i faith, although Iranian officials repeatedly deny anyone is jailed on religious grounds. Azita Rafizadeh and her husband Peyman Kushak-Baghi are two of them. Baha’is are banned from higher education In the Islamic Republic, and before their arrest, Rafizadeh and Kushak-Baghi were teachers for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a virtual university that peacefully addresses this blatant discrimination.

The couple were arrested on May 22, 2011 when security forces raided their home. The agents ransacked the home and seized every religious item there, as well as books, pictures on the wall, posters, booklets, CDs, a laptop and desktop computers. In 2014, Rafizadeh was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of acting against national security and membership to “the illegal Baha’i organization.” Her husband was sentenced to five years in prison at the same time. She started serving her sentence in 2015.

The couple have a 10-year-old son, Bashir, who, in the absence of his parents has been trusted to the care of another family. Rafizadeh was prevented from taking a leave of absence from prison to visit her son. “The prison authorities said she must sign a statement to repent for her work [with BIHE] and promise that she will not work there again,” a source close to the family told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on January 3, 2018. “But Azita said she has done nothing to repent for. She said she is proud of her work and if she went back in time she would do it again.”

Finally, on November 2018 the authorities granted Rafizadeh a four-day leave of absence so that she could attend the funeral of her father who had died in a car accident.

More on Azita Rafizadeh:

Baha’i Parents sent to Prison, Leaving their Child Alone, March 31, 2016

"In a few days we're going to jail because we're Baha'is", October 14, 2015


5. Zeynab Jalalian

Zeynab Jalalian is Kurdish political activist who has been in prison since 2007. In 2009 she was sentenced to one year in prison for illegally leaving Iran. She was also sentenced to death for “waging war against God” (moharebeh) by participating in the armed activities of the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, a separatist group, a charge she has consistently denied. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei granted her a pardon, and the death sentence was reduced to life in prison.

During her detention, Zeynab Jalalian has been subjected to extensive torture. She was kept in solitary confinement, brutally beaten while blindfolded, threatened with rape, hit on the soles of her feet, and thrown so violently against a wall that she suffered a brain hemorrhage. After she was convicted, she was tortured in an attempt to force her to make a televised confession but she steadfastly refused to do so.

Denied proper medical treatment, Jalalian is slowly going blind because of the injury she incurred under torture nearly a decade ago. In June 2018, Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal for authorities to allow her to receive proper medical care outside prison, including eye surgery and dental treatment.


6. Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee

Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee is a writer and a civil rights activist who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2016 on charges of “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “propaganda against the regime” in connection with her unpublished story about the Islamic law of death by stoning as punishment for adultery. Authorities discovered the story on September 6, 2014 when men believed to be Revolutionary Guards agents arrested Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee together with her husband Arash Sadeghi at his workplace in Tehran. The men did not present an arrest warrant and took the couple to their house, where they searched their possessions and seized items, including their laptops, notebooks and CDs.

“I was accused of ‘insulting the sacred’ based on the hand-written stories and poems that they found in my home,” Ebrahimi told IranWire in a 2016 interview after her conviction. “They were never published anywhere. The night that we were arrested, they searched the house and seized my writing. Afterward, based on these writings and a Facebook posting in support of Shahin Najafi [an Iranian musician whose songs are considered ‘blasphemous,’ and who now lives in Germany] they gave me five years in prison. I got another year for ‘propaganda against the regime’ for my Facebook posts and for my relations with the families of political prisoners and those [who had been] executed.”

Amnesty International has reported on Ebrahimi’s and Sadeghi’s cases. “Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee has said that during her periods of detention she was subjected to long hours of interrogations while blindfolded and facing a wall, and that interrogators repeatedly told her that she could face execution for ‘insulting Islam’ ... She could also clearly hear interrogators threatening and verbally abusing her husband in the next cell, adding to her distress. Arash Sadeghi has since said that he was tortured while in custody — his interrogators kicked him, punched him in the head, slapped him and choked him.”

Arash Sadeghi is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence in Evin Prison on charges including “spreading propaganda against the system,” “gathering and colluding against national security” and “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic.” Two of their friends, Naveed Kamran and Behnam Mosivand, also received lesser sentences.

“The charges against Golrokh Ebrahimi are ludicrous,” said Philip Luther of Amnesty International. “She is facing years behind bars simply for writing a story, and one which was not even published. She is effectively being punished for using her imagination.”

More on Golrokh Ebrahimi:

The Murderous Neglect of a Sick Political Prisoner, September 20, 2018

Golrokh Ebrahimi: Six Years in Prison for an Unpublished Story, December 30, 2016


7. Atena Daemi

Atena Daemi, a human rights and children’s rights activist born in 1988, was first arrested on October 21, 2014. The Revolutionary Guards held her in “temporary detention” at Evin Prison in Tehran for several months. On March 7, 2016, Daemi stood trial on charges of “conspiracy against national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” “insulting the Supreme Leader and the sacred,” and “concealing evidence of a crime.”

According to a source quoted by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), all charges against Daemi were based on her Facebook posts, information stored on her phone, her participation in gatherings opposing the death penalty and in protests against acid attacks on women in Isfahan.

In the lower court, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh – who the European Union has accused of violating defendants’ human rights – sentenced Daemi to 14 years in prison. The sentence was consolidated into seven years based on the Islamic Republic’s Penal Code.

In 2017 Atena Daemi went on a 55-day hunger strike at Evin Prison to protest against the verdict brought against her two sisters, Aniseh and Hanieh, on spurious charges. She ended her hunger strike only after an appeals court struck down the additional charges against her and her sisters on 1 June 2017.

More on Atena Daemi:

Iran’s Judiciary is Slowly Murdering Prisoners of Conscience, November 10, 2017

"I Fear for My Daughter," Says Atena's Mother, May 17, 2017

What do the Revolutionary Guards Have Against my Daughter?, April 27, 2017

Atena Daemi: "I Will Not Stand Silent", October 10, 2016

Civil Society Under Attack: The Cases of Atena & Atena, June 18, 2015


8. Maryam Akbari Monfared

At least six women in the Women’s Ward of Evin Prison are serving long prison sentences for alleged and tenuous connections to the opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK). In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, security forces cast a wide net and even summoned people who had been in prison in the 1980s and the families of those who were killed in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners. Maryam Akbari Monfared is one of them.

She was arrested in December 2009 during widespread demonstrations on the Shia holy day of Ashura. She joined thousands in a protest against the official results of the contested presidential election earlier that year. On June 1, 2009 the Revolutionary Court Judge Abolghasem Salavati sentenced her to 15 years in prison for being a member of the MEK. Akbari-Monfared has repeatedly denied the charge, but Judge Salavati has maintained a single response: “You are paying for your sister and brothers.” Her siblings were among those killed in the 1988 mass executions. Her elder brother is serving time at Rajaei Shahr Prison.

In September 2016, Maryam Akbari-Monfared filed a formal complaint with Iran’s Judiciary, demanding an investigation into the extrajudicial executions of her siblings, Abdolreza and Roghieh Akbari-Monfared. After receiving no response from the judiciary, Akbari-Monfared appealed to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. And in February 2017, she urged the UN to question the Islamic Republic on the cases of her brother and sister.

More on Maryam Akbari Monfared:

"Rouhani's Rival is a Mass Murderer", May 18, 2017

Political Prisoner: "Iran Must Investigate 1988 Executions", October 19, 2016


9. Reyhaneh Haj Ebrahim Dabbagh

Reyhaneh Haj Ibrahim Dabbagh was arrested in 2009 in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election on charges of supporting the MEK. She was sentenced to death by Judge Salavati from Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court. The court of appeal reduced the sentence to 15 years.

Dabbagh and her family had no connections to the People’s Mojahedin Organization but at the time of her arrest she was engaged to Ahmad Daneshpour Moghaddam, who had been arrested separately along with other members of his family, including his father Mohsen Daneshpour. Two of Mohsen’s brothers were executed in the 1980s and one of his sons had joined the MEK in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era. The couple were later allowed to marry inside the prison.

Dabbagh’s health deteriorated while in prison but she was denied proper medical treatment and barred from taking a leave of absence for medical reasons.


10. Zahra Zehtabchi

Zahra Zehtabchi is the daughter of Ali Asghar Zehtabchi who was executed in 1981 on the charge of supporting  the People’s Mojahedin Organization. She was 12 at the time of her father’s execution. Following the execution, her mother and 16-year-old brother were also arrested. Her mother spent a year in prison while her brother was a prisoner for four years.

Zahra Zehtabchi, who holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology, was arrested along with her husband, her sister and 20-month-old daughter, on October 16, 2013. Others were released but Zahra Zehtabchi was held in Ward 209 at Evin Prison for 14 months after her arrest, and she was then transferred to the Women’s Ward at Evin. In 2014, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of supporting the MEK. The sentence was upheld  by the Court of Appeal.

Zahra Zehtabchi has two daughters, Narges and Mina.

11. Fatemeh Mosana

Fatemeh Mosana is serving a 15-year sentence on the charge of supporting the MEK. Mosana, her husband Hassan Sadeghi Khorramdashti and their 17-year-old son Nima Sadeghi were arrested on January 29, 2013 as they were preparing to hold a funeral ceremony for Khorramdashti’s father, Gholam Hossein Sadeghi Khorramdashti, a supporter of the MEK and a resident of Iraq who had died of cancer on January 23.

This was not the first time that the couple had been incarcerated. In 1981, when she was just 13, Fatemeh Mosana was arrested and was imprisoned with her mother and her sisters for three years. Hassan Sadeghi was also arrested in 1981 when he was 17 and spent seven years in prison.


12. Behnaz Zakeri

Behnaz Zakeri, a mother of two, is a dual citizen of Denmark and Iran and a resident of Sweden. She was arrested in 2012 as she was returning from a visit to Iran after the death of her mother. Authorities also arrested her sister and they were both charged with giving “effective” support to the MEK. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In December 2016, Behnaz Zakeri was hospitalized when she suffered a nervous breakdown and repeatedly attempted suicide [Persian link]. According to her lawyer Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabi, the Medical Examiner had concluded that she was in no condition to continue her sentence but the judiciary officials did not agree with recommendations for her release.

Her daughters regularly travel to Iran and the family pays Zakeri’s hospital expenses and buys her medication. The Danish embassy has tried to secure her release but Iranian officials have rebuffed these efforts because she had travelled to Iran on an Iranian passport and the Islamic Republic does not recognize dual nationality.

13. Roya Saberinejad Nobakht

Iranian-born British citizen Roya Saberinejad Nobakht  was arrested in October 2013 at Shiraz airport as she was arriving for a visit with relatives. She was sentenced to 18 years, three months and one day in prison at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court presided over by Judge Moghisei. Her sentence was later reduced to five years but she is currently still being held at Evin Prison.

According to the British newspaper The Independent, her husband Dariush Taghipoor told a family friend in the UK that his wife was arrested for comments she made on a Facebook group about the government, in which she said it was "too Islamic" and that she was only charged after a confession was extracted from her "under duress."

More on Roya Saberinejad Nobakht:

Roya Saberinejad Nobakht, Crime: Journalism, October 20, 2014

Revolutionary Guards Crackdown on Facebook “Conspirators”, July 17, 2014


14. Elham Barmaki

Elham Barmaki is a dual Iranian-Cypriot and was first arrested on December 28, 2011. She spent three months in solitary confinement at Evin Prison’s Ward 209. She was then released on bail and later acquitted. On July 23, 2012, she was arrested again, this time spent 14 months in solitary confinement. On September 29, 2013, she was transferred to the prison’s women’s ward.

Barmaki was sentenced to 10 years in prison and given a fine of $70,000 on a charge of spying for the UK. The sentence was officiated at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court, presided over by Judge Moghiseh. She has two children, Amir-Parviz and Anita, who both live abroad. She was granted prison leave in March 2017 for the occasion of the Persian New Year but her request for parole has been rejected.


15. Marjan Davari

Marjan Davari is a veteran translator and author of philosophy texts. She was arrested on September 23, 2015 and held for three months in solitary confinement at Evin Prison’s Ward 209. She was denied access to a lawyer or any kind of legal counsel.

On March 12 Davari was tried on charges of “conspiracy against the Islamic Republic,”“spreading corruption on earth,” “membership to Eckankar,” an American spiritual cult, carrying out an“illicit love affair,” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.” Judge Abolghasem Salavati at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced her to death for blasphemy and an additional 16 months of prison for insulting the Supreme Leader.

In March 2018, Branch 47 of Iran’s Supreme Court rejected the death sentence that had been handed down to Marjan Davari and ordered the Revolutionary Court to reexamine her case.


16. Gonabadi Sufi Women

On Monday, February 19, 2018, violent clashes between protesting Gonabadi dervishes and police resulted in the deaths of five people. The next day, on the morning of Tuesday, February 20, police spokesman Saeed Montazer Almahdi announced that 300 dervishes had been arrested. These included at least seven women — Shokoufeh Yadollahi, Sepideh Moradi, Shima Entesari, Sima Entesari, Nazila Nouri, Avisha Jalaleddin, and Elham Ahmadi — who were taken to Gharchak Prison in the desert outskirts of Tehran.

The lower Revolutionary Court sentenced each of the women to five years in prison, but the appeals court reduced this sentence to two years. Beside this sentence, Avisha Jalaleddin and Elham Ahmadi were also sentenced to 148 lashes for “spreading lies” about conditions at Gharchak Prison.

They were on Wednesday, June 13, 2018, by Special anti-riot prison guards attacked and beat the prisoners on June 13, 2018 armed with batons and shockers. Prison officers then placed the women in solitary confinement. Their family members have gathered in front of the prison but they have still not been allowed to contact or visit any of the prisoners.

Some of the female prisoners were seriously hurt — for example, Shokoufeh Yadollahi suffered fractures to her head and ribs — but both the judiciary and prison officials have ignored the issue.


More on Gonabadi Sufis:

Iran Executes Gonabadi Sufi, June 18, 2018

Gonabadi Sufi Dies in Prison, March 5, 2018

The Sufi Case: From 2014’s Civil Resistance to 2018’s Violent Clashes, February 21, 2018

Clashes Between Police and Sufis Leave Five Dead, February 20, 2018

Who are the Gonabadi Sufis?, February 13, 2018




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