Activists representing workers and unions, teachers and pensioners have increasingly used the internet to express their demands and to inform the wider public of the pressures they face in Iranian society. Using online platforms – including social media channels – has also been essential in an environment where many news agencies, newspapers and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) shape public perceptions of labor and related issues.
But any actions online, such as posting an Instagram post, tweeting or exchanging views, and publishing news on messenger channels, can lead to arrests by Iran’s security agencies including the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards.
Over the years, many union activists have been summoned, arrested, and finally sentenced to life imprisonment for posting online about their union status, sharing about overdue salaries and benefits, and other union problems. And in many cases the interrogators, after arresting union activists at rallies, have raided homes and investigated the activists’ online activities, to bring other charges against them.
Members of Gam Magazine
Four young men named Amir Amirgholi, Asal Mohammadi, Sanaz Alahyari, and Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Fard were members of the online magazine Gam, which published articles about the situation of the workers of Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company. The four were arrested during the Haft Tappeh sugarcane workers' protests in the fall of 2018 and sentenced by the Revolutionary Court on charges such as "conspiracy to act against national security," "membership in the Gam group," and "propaganda against the regime and spreading lies."
The case of Asal Mohammadi, Sanaz Alahyari and Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Fard, as well as that of another individual, Marzieh Amiri, was pardoned and closed in April 2020; but the case of Amir Amirgholi, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison on the same charges, is still open. He is due to spend five years in prison – based on the law that only the penalty relevant to the most severe sentence can be carried out.
Amirgholi, Mohammadi, Alahyari and Mohammadi-Fard have preferred to remain silent during their trials and, after their arrest, Gam magazine also stopped publishing.
Monireh Abdi: The Judiciary is Responsible for Everything that Happens to My Husband
Esmaeil Abdi, mathematics teacher and Secretary-General of the Teachers’ Union of Iran, who was sentenced to prison for speaking publicly about labor issues, participating in protests and sit-ins, and criticizing the treatment of the Teachers' Union, was released from Evin Prison on April 10, 2021, and transferred to the Karaj penitentiary, where prisoners are not held on the basis of the segregation of crimes.
In an interview with IranWire, Monireh Abdi, Esmaeil Abdi’s wife, expressed concern about her husband's situation and said the judiciary is responsible for everything that happens to political prisoners in the penitentiary: "Every day there is a risk that Mr. Abdi may be attacked by high-risk prisoners in this prison."
Monireh Abdi also spoke about her husband’s current situation: "Mr. Abdi is currently in Ward 6 of the Karaj penitentiary which is highly over-crowded. Each room in this ward has 25 prisoners and for each room there is only one telephone. We do not have the opportunity to talk to him for more than a few minutes a day."
Mrs. Abdi added that visiting her husband at the penitentiary is possible only every two weeks.
Esmaeil Abdi has been arrested and tried several times since 2009 for his trade union activities. In 2011, he was sentenced to a 10-year suspended prison term by the Revolutionary Court on security charges. In 2015, he was arrested again and the court sentenced him to six years in prison which he began to serve. But in May 2020, he was again sentenced to a further 10 years in prison; he therefore remains behind bars.
International human rights organizations have repeatedly called for the release of the union activist by the judiciary in recent years. Abdi has also been transferred between several prisons many times during his imprisonment. His wife says she has repeatedly referred to the judiciary, including the prosecutor, prison officials, the director-general of Alborz prisons, and so on, but has not received a response: "None of these judicial officials have told us why a prisoner should be transferred so many times; especially moving from Tehran to Karaj."
Monireh Abdi also announced the formation of a campaign and a petition by Iran’s Teachers' Union and the Coordinating Council of Iranian Cultural Associations in which teachers are calling for a review of Abdi's trial in the Supreme Court and a revision of "union crimes” as a part of Iranian criminal law.
The laws of the Islamic Republic stipulate that a prison sentence must be issued only once for a trade union crime. But in Abdi's case the execution of a sentence of 10 years imprisonment is the second penalty he has received for trade union activities. The previous six-year prison term was also handed down on similar charges.
Monireh Abdi also explained: "In this petition, it is requested that [Abdi’s] sentence be overturned by the Supreme Court. In addition to teachers, other civil and political activists, ideological groups and some artists, including actors, poets, directors and ordinary people, also signed the petition. The petition is going to be sent directly to the judiciary when the signatures are completed."
Mrs. Abdi also said about her husband’s leave status: "His case is in Tehran. The case must first be transferred to Karaj so that Mr. Abdi's conviction can continue in Karaj. The case is currently under the supervision of the Tehran Prosecutor's Office, and our follow-up for his leave has remained unanswered. One of the answers they gave was that Mr. Abdi should serve a third of his sentence in order to be granted leave, but now they say that when the case is transferred from Tehran to Karaj, then they could deal with the [question of his] leave.”
Sepideh Gholian Bakes Sweets in Bushehr Prison
Hossein Gholian, the father of Sepideh Gholian, a labor and civil activist from Ahvaz in the southwest of Iran who has been sentenced to five years in prison, told IranWire: "My daughter was to be transferred to Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz, but [the request] was not accepted. But there is no problem, our trust is in God."
Despite the distance of 400km between Ahvaz and Bushehr, Mr. Gholian said that he regularly visits his daughter at the prison in Bushehr, and the last time he was able to meet his daughter in person was on April 11, 2021.
Sepideh Gholian has been in prison for more than 10 months without leave. Her father said: "The file should have come from Tehran to Branch 1 of the Bushehr Enforcement department, but when we came back, they said that the case has not been sent from Tehran."
He said Sepideh had a pastry shop outside prison for some time and now she is doing the same thing in Bushehr prison.
Hossein Gholian hopes that a decision will be made on his daughter’s case in the coming weeks and that she will be granted prison leave.
Sepideh Gholian was arrested in 2016 for her labor activities, participating in protests and publicizing the situation of workers in the Haft Tappeh case. She was then forced to confess against herself under pressure. Eventually, these confessions, as well as the confessions of Esmaeil Bakhshi, a worker at the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company, were broadcast on Islamic Republic television under the title The Burnt Plan.
Gholian later filed a complaint against the director of IRIB, the editor-in-chief of the relevant broadcast and Ameneh Sadat Zabihpour, an IRIB reporter, regarding the preparation and broadcasting of her forced confessions.
After her release on bail, Gholian revealed that the intelligence agents used cables to physically torture her and attributed sexual charges to her to obtain confessions. Gholian also experienced several transfers between Tehran prisons and from Tehran Prison to Ahvaz.
She was sentenced in court in the Haft Tappeh case in December 2019 to five years in prison on charges of "colluding and conspiracy to act against national security."
Her sentence was carried out on June 21, 2020, and she has been in prison since that date.
In the latest news about the prisoner's condition, she was handcuffed and deported to Bushehr Prison in March 2021 under the pretext of being transferred to Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz.
Sepideh Gholian was also charged with "limited disruption to public order" after being arrested during the November 2019 protests, but was eventually acquitted.
The Fate of Detainees on International Labor Day 2019
Sajad Shokri, aged 72, is a labor rights activist and was arrested in International Workers' Day street protests in 2019 in front of the Iranian parliament. One of the charges against him was "spreading lies" about his activities on social media.
The court sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of "conspiracy and colluding to act against national security" and to one year in prison on charges of "propaganda against the regime." Shokri was denied access to a lawyer during his trial. The labor activist was arrested in July 2020 and no news has been published about his release so far.
Sajad Shokri was not the only person arrested and sentenced to prison for participating in the International Workers' Day protests. Keyvan Samimi, editor of Iran-e Farda magazine and a labor activist, was sentenced in December 2020 to three years in prison on charges of "conspiracy and colluding with the intention of acting against national security" and taken to Evin Prison in Tehran.
Samimi published the charges against him on his Telegram channel: "The formation of the illegal People's Liberation Party of Iran (that was 22 years ago!), the editor of the Iran-e Farda (good to know that the Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Guidance Ministry, the Judiciary ... had have issued the license for Iran-e Farda monthly!), uploading content in line with the Great Satan [the United States] online, giving speeches and inciting audiences, supporting political prisoners, and participating in illegal Workers' Day rallies."
Despite Shokri’s advanced age, and that he suffers from heart disease, stomach issues and knee pain, this journalist has been imprisoned in Evin Prison for more than four months. In the early days of April 2021, news was published about the formation of a new case against him and his summons to the prosecutor's office, the details of which are not known.
Repression and Silence of Labor Activists After Summoning
Peyman Farhangian, a labor activist and poet from Kiashahr port in Gilan province, is yet another person sentenced to prison for activities and views published to Instagram and on other channels regarding the situation of workers and other social or political issues in Iran. Farhangian is also a fisherman in the city of Bandar Kiashahr.
He had published his comments on his Telegram channel, entitled Red Ghost Library, and was later charged with "insulting the sanctities of Islam,” "insulting the Imams,” "insulting Ayatollah Khomeini,” "insulting Ali Khamenei,” "insulting the officials of the regime,” "propaganda activities against the regime,” "incitement and seduction of the people through the publication of materials about the November 2019 uprising" and "action against national security," and was sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison. The labor activist is awaiting an appeal and has not been active in recent months.
Amir Chamani is another detained labor activist and journalist. He was sentenced to imprisonment and flogging after his first arrest, in 2012, and served his sentence. He was sentenced again to prison in 2018 after continuing his activities in the form of writing critiques and articles on Iran's economic and cultural issues.
But Chamani’s second imprisonment was not the end of his work. He was summoned to the Tabriz FATA Internet Police in April 2020. Since then, the journalist's activities on Twitter have dropped dramatically.
Kamyar Fakour, another labor activist, economic journalist, and Persian rapper, was arrested on March 7, 2021 during a rally of pensioners and workers in front of the Ministry of Labor on Azadi Street in Tehran. His activities on social media decreased after his release on bail. Fakour had been previously reacting constantly to social issues on his Instagram page.
His case was opened in Branch 2 of the Evin Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Intelligence arrested and detained him and kept him in Ward 209 of Evin Prison. Fakour may now also face charges for his artistic activities.