On December 5, prison sentences for two high profile Iranian political figures were announced within a few hours of one another.
First, news broke that Shahindokht Molaverdi, President Hassan Rouhani's former vice president for women and family affairs, had been sentenced to two and a half years in prison on charges of “revealing classified information and documents with the aim of undermining national security,” “propaganda against the regime” and “promotion of corruption, prostitution and encouraging individuals to sexual deviancy.” Following the announcement, Molaverdi gave a short interview, in which she said she would appeal.
Just hours later, the media reported that Isa Kalantari, one of Hassan Rouhani's vice presidents and head of the Department for the Environment, had been summoned to the Government Employees' Court and charged, and then released on bail.
Both were sentenced for comments they made regarding social and political issues, though there are further charges against Molaverdi that do not merely concern her political statements.
Molaverdi was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of providing classified information and documents while in government office with the aim of disrupting the country's security, and to six months in prison on charges of “propaganda against the regime.”
During Molaverdi's tenure she was a target for criticism from Iran’s extreme conservatives. She repeatedly offended these hardliners with her views and opinions, which included support for women being allowed to attend sporting events in stadiums, advocating for more equality for Iran’s religious and ethnic minorities, opposition to underage marriage for girls under 15, and reforms to Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Although she served as a vice president during Rouhani’s first administration, from October 2013 to August 2017, in his second term, the president re-assigned her as the Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights.
But two incidents in 2015 laid the ground for even more severe criticism and eventually a case was filed against her.
“All the men have been executed”
In a speech delivered in March 2016, Molaverdi spoke of a unique and troubling situation in a village in southeastern Iran. “There is a village in Sistan and Baluchistan where all the men have been executed,” she said. “Their survivors are now potential smugglers, both to avenge their fathers and to provide their livelihoods, but nobody is supporting these families.”
She warned officials that if the families of those executed were not supported, these crimes would happen again and again. "Society is responsible for these families who are the victims of the crime of their guardian."
These few words, though they aptly described the situation in the province, provoked a strong reaction from principlists and hardliners, who all turned against Molaverdi.
Sistan and Baluchistan’s provincial judiciary later sued her for this statement. One week after the complaint was filed, Molaverdi was summoned to court, where she was charged with "spreading lies and defamation."
Discussing the complaint, Mohammad Ali Hamidian, Deputy Chief of Social Affairs for the Sistan and Baluchistan province judiciary, said: "Unfortunately, the deputy president has attributed most of the problems to the judiciary and has claimed that we have a village in Sistan and Baluchistan where all the men of that village have been executed and the survivors are today potential smugglers.” He said the situation was actually due to “the problems and inability of the executive bodies to solve the problems of the province” and the claim was “ an example of projection.”
Nizar Zakka: Hostage in Iran
A few months before these comments, in summer 2015, the President’s Office for Women and Family Affairs hosted the second International Conference on the Role of Women in Sustainable Development.
One of the speakers at the conference was Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen, US resident, and telecommunications expert. Following the conference, Revolutionary Guards agents arrested Zakka as he was leaving the country. For days, no information was made public about him. He was then sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage.
Principlist conservative media outlets attacked Molaverdi for inviting a spy to the country, and a photograph of her with Zakka at a conference dinner was widely circulated, along with the headline: ”Molaverdi with an American spy."
After four years of being unjustly incarcerated and tortured, Zakka was released on June 11, 2019. Molaverdi posted a sarcastic remark on Instagram three days later referring to the Revolutionary Guards: "If they were aware that Nizar Zakka was a spy, why did they not arrest him when entering the country and let him go around the country freely?"
At the end of her Instagram post, she added: "Now we are waiting and hoping for [the day] when the campaign of fabricated cases in this country will come to an end... Alas, that day is far away and too late!”
In 2020, IranWire founder and director Maziar Bahari produced a film about Zakka’s ordeal, The Treacherous Host, in which they contact Molaverdi and asked her, ”You invited me to Iran, but why did you not support me?” In response she said the “judiciary and the security apparatus” had been in control of the situation and that she and others in the government had not been able to do anything about it.
In response to Nizar Zakka's request for the release of other innocent prisoners who are still in Iranian prisons, Molaverdi said,“You know I have no responsibility anymore. But we will definitely do whatever we can as a civil duty.”
In an interview with Khabar Online in March 2018, Molaverdi also defended the “Revolutionary Street Women” protest movement: "If I were not in a government position, I would definitely have made a more explicit statement. In the current situation, what I say will not be considered to be my personal opinion, but will be attached to the government. In any case, I believe that as long as wearing the hijab is the law in this country, it should be respected, but I personally do not like the coercive treatment of the Enghelab [Revolution] Street Girls, because the treatment should be commensurate with the crime, and we unfortunately do not see such a thing. It is against the law to set a bail of 500 million tomans [$25,000], because none of them can afford it and they will be kept in detention."
Molaverdi’s outspokenness on Nizar Zakka, the anti-hijab movement and the situation in a poor village in Sistan and Baluchistan, as well as her belief that women should be allowed to enter stadiums to watch sports, all contributed to the regime’s case against her.
On July 13, the media reported Molaverdi had been indicted on charges of "propaganda against the regime," "encouraging corruption and prostitution," and "providing classified information and documents with the aim of disrupting security.” Now she has been handed down a prison sentence.
Also on December 5, the judiciary summoned Isa Kalantari, one of President Rouhani’s vice presidents and the head of the Department of the Environment, to the Government Employees' Court on charges of "insulting the founder of the revolution.” He was later released on bail. The summons followed the broadcast of an edited version of an interview with him on social media. In the clip, he referred to Ayatollah Khomeini as "the rebellious child of America" and suggested Khomeini was able to take power because of the support of the United States. "Perhaps it is easier to say that Imam Khomeini was a rebellious child for them. They took their support away from the Shah and took full advantage of the opportunity under the leadership of the Imam, which led to the elimination of the Pahlavi regime."
Kalantari apologized for the 2017 interview, pointing out and expressing dismay that it had been edited and only presented one small part of a much longer interview. His apology made no difference to his opponents.
After the interview was broadcast, Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, the Imam Khomeini Publishing House and numerous other figures in the regime demanded that Isa Kalantari be removed from his government post, and many called for him to be prosecuted, including an article published in Kayhan that linked Kalantari to a "counter-revolutionary gang.” The article said: "Although a few days have passed since the release of the video with these insulting remarks, the government has not yet apologized for this insult and has not dismissed him. At the same time, the judiciary has failed to take action. He should be held accountable and reprimanded."
A few days later, Kalantari was summoned to court and notified of his charges.
Detained Environmental Activists
Prior to this scandal, Kalantari had called for the release of a group of detained environmental activists, stressing there was no evidence that they had been spying. However, Jafari Dolatabadi, who had been prosecutor of Tehran at the time of the campaigners’ arrest in 2018, attacked him, saying the judiciary was not obliged to answer to anyone and that individuals should not interfere in the case.
According to Article 514 of the Islamic Penal Code, "Anyone who insults Imam Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Supreme Leader in any way, will be sentenced to between six months and two years in prison.”
But Article 25 of Iran’s Charter on Citizens’ Rights states: "Citizens have freedom of thought. Inquisition is prohibited, and no one can be persecuted merely for his or her beliefs.”
According to Article 28 of the charter, "Citizens have the right to criticize, express dissatisfaction, invite to do good, and advise the government and public entities regarding their performance. The government shall be required to promote and develop the culture of accepting criticism, tolerance and compromise.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
This right to free expression is interpreted freely by Iran's security institutions and judiciary in accordance with their specific judgment, and any opposing statement results in the opening of a case, summoning, interrogating, and detaining. Insiders and regime officials can also be caught up in this process.
With charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “insulting Ayatollah Khomeini” being brought against these two vice presidents, one current, one former, it remains to be seen whether Shahindokht Molaverdi and Isa Kalantari will join the ranks of Iran’s prisoners of conscience at a crucial time for the country, politically and in terms of social issues.
Journalist on Hunger Strike at Evin
Vida Rabbani, a journalist for the weekly Seda and a member of the Etehad-e Mellat party, told her family during a phone call on December 4 that she had gone on a hunger strike two days after security agents arrested her on November 22. She has been kept in solitary confinement in Ward 209 at Evin Prison, which is under the control of the Ministry of Intelligence.
Posting on Twitter, civil society activist Bahareh Hedayat reported that Rabbani had begun a hunger strike and quoted Anthony Bellanger, the Secretary General for the International Federation of Journalists: “We condemn the arrest of journalist Vida Rabbani and the systematic harassment of media workers by the Iranian regime. This is yet another example of how the Iranian government abuses the legal system to clamp down on critical voices in the country. She must be released immediately.”
Rabbani had posted on Twitter about the November 2019 protests and protests that followed the Revolutionary Guards shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020.
However, 13 days on, no reasons have been given for her arrest and the charges against her have not been made public. No judicial official has so far commented on her detention or on her hunger strike.