The Islamic Republic is clear on its attitude toward political prisoners and prisoners held on national security charges. In its view, these prisoners are set apart from other inmates, and their crimes require a very particular punishment.

As part of this, the judiciary targets the family members of these “criminals,” using them as implements of torture against them. Often, these family members have nothing to do with civil society activism or protest or human rights or opposition politics, but they are punished all the same, just for being related to the people the regime really wants to destroy. 

And this practice is on the rise. In recent decades, authorities have stepped up threats against and detention of the family members of prisoners accused of crimes against national security. Agents of the Islamic Republic have taken their news cameras into detainees' homes, forcing their families to incriminate or confess against their loved ones, or to renounce the behavior of their child, parent, sister or brother.

Those that resist the demands to confess or make statements can also end up in jail, and charges of illegal political activity can be brought against them too. 

Although these measures are on the rise, they are not new. In fact, they date back to the very early years of the Islamic Republic. Emotional ties and family relationships have always been regarded as potential tools for torture.

Today, Iran’s judiciary operates in a similar way it did in the 1980s. The methods of torture from that time have returned with force and greater brutality, and been rolled out even further, going beyond Iran’s borders.

So what cases reflect that 40-year history of targeting the families of political prisoners? What are the most prominent and disturbing examples that show the depth and breadth of this cruel tactic the Islamic Republic uses against political activists?

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Narges Mohammadi

On July 20, 2020, political activist Taghi Rahmani released a video of his twins, Kimia and Ali, appealing to the media to help their mother, the activist Narges Mohammadi, currently serving a 16-year sentence. 

In the clip, Taghi Rahmani and Narges Mohammadi’s two children appeal to the public to speak up for them so they can hear their mother's voice for the first time in 11 months. That's how long it has been since Iran’s judiciary stripped Narges Mohammadi of her right to speak to her children over the telephone.

"I wish I could at least hear your voice,” Mohammadi has previously written to her children. “I have asked for phone calls many times but this has been rejected. They say I am not allowed to make phone calls because I am a security prisoner and because your father is Taghi Rahmani [a prominent activist].”

Under international law, prisoners are entitled to basic rights, including communication with family. But this is just one of many rights the Islamic Republic denies political and security prisoners. Legal experts point out that the violation of prisoners' rights amounts to torture and harassment, and so is considered a crime against humanity.  

Mohammadi's and Taghi’s children have been denied access to their mother on and off for years, as she has faced successive times in prison. The teenagers describe in the video how they have suffered being away from their mother, and what this separation has done to their relationship. They appealed to the international community to listen to them, saying they have never been listened to by Iran’s politicians or judicial figures. They say they hope the people can be their voice.  

Narges Mohammadi, the spokeswoman for the Defenders of Human Rights Center, was sentenced to 16 years in prison by Branch 36 of the Tehran Court of Appeals, presided over by Abolghasem Salavati, for her human rights activities, showing empathy with political and security prisoners, and her campaign against the death penalty. She will serve at least 10 of the 16 years.

 

Alireza Alinejad

Five days before the video was released, on July 15, the lawyer Saeed Dehghan announced on Twitter that Alireza Alinejad, the brother of US-based journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, had been sentenced to eight years in prison. His conviction followed a long period of detention and torture after he refused to speak out against his sister.

“This is not the first time the Iranian regime has tried to pressure journalists by persecuting their relatives,” Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of press freedom organization Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), said. “Can we imagine the degree of institutional abomination? Sentencing a brother to imprisonment because he refused to be an accomplice to his sister’s attempted abduction by the special services, or targeting a mother in the same way because she drew attention to the plight of her imprisoned and ailing son – this flouts all the obligations that a country has under international law, as well as the most basic institutional dignity.”

Prior to Alireza Alinejad’s ordeal, a relative of the two had said that the arrest of film director Navid Mihandoost was due to his close links to the family.

Alireza Alinejad, who was arrested in September 2019, is the father of two children. According to a video he sent to his sister Masih before his arrest, security forces had threatened and pressured the journalist's family to take a stand against their daughter.

Despite these pressures, Alinejad encouraged his sister not to give up. According to Masih Alinejad, Alireza’s crime is merely “being a brother.”

Masih Alinejad told RSF: “These charges were fabricated with the sole aim of silencing me,” Masih Alinejad told RSF. “My brother’s only crime was to have thwarted a plan by the Revolutionary Guards to abduct me in Turkey and take me back to Iran. My brother tipped me off and their plan failed.”  

Alireza Alinejad has been sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of "conspiracy to act against national security,” "insulting the leader" and "propaganda against the regime.”

 

Children, Brothers Mothers Used as Leverage 

IranWire also interviewed Richard Ratcliffe about his experiences as the husband of British-Iranian prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and how the regime had turned their daughter, Gabriella into a tool of harassment. "Interrogators used Gabriella to pressure Nazanin and threatened to take her daughter back to England or imprison her. At one point, they would call their own children in front of Nazanin to show her what she had lost."

Iran’s judiciary also barred Nasrin Sotoudeh, a jailed lawyer, from visiting her children. Prisoners' phone calls are now limited, with 10 minutes of the allotted time having to be shared between all family members and sometimes lawyers. For many, this has led to emotional upheaval and instability. "Prison authorities have gone so far that the situation becomes harder every day for children and their parents to tolerate.”

The brother of journalist Hossein Ronaghi wrote on Twitter that he had been arrested in 2009 — again for the crime of "being a brother” — and had been beaten with a baton and a whip, and given electric shocks. His torture was so extreme he was unable to shout. His torturers told him to confess against his brother.

Recently, the Human Rights Activists News Agency published a letter from a prisoner held following the November 2019 protests. Abolfazl Karimi was 18 at the time of his arrest and has been imprisoned for 27 months in Greater Tehran Prison. He wrote about his interrogations and tortures in a ranjnameh, or complaint letter: "I was interrogated for two days in Evin. They said, ‘if you do not speak, we will bring your mother here and … we will bring your girlfriend here and rape her.” The security forces then asked the teenager to confess that he was carrying a gun during the November 2019 popular protests.

In her account of prison, some of which IranWire has published, civil activist Sepideh Gholian describes how Arab women prisoners are tortured and badly treated because of the activism of their family members, including a woman named Makieh, who described what she went through. Gholian says that prison guards are disproportionately harsh with Arab prisoners and their families.

This discrimination is evident in the case of Nasser Aziz Shaverdi, the presenter of Al-Ahwazana TV. Following protests in November 2019, security forces went to the homes of four members of Aziz Shaverdi’s family several times, including his sister, and eventually arrested them. Security forces told his mother that she must persuade her son to quit his job.

 

Targeting BBC Persian

There has also been widely-publicized harassment of the families of BBC Persian Service journalists in recent years.

Security forces raided the house of the sister of Saeedeh Hashemi, a reporter for the Persian-language network, at night and arrested her. According to Hashemi, less than 24 hours after her sister's arrest, she received a message from her sister’s account saying she wanted to talk to her from Evin Prison, and that the conversation would be in the presence of an interrogator.

Hashemi's sister was held in solitary confinement for 17 days. During her sister’s incarceration, Hashemi was urged to act as informer, providing information about what was happening with the BBC.

The family of Negin Shiraghaei, a former BBC Persian journalist, was also harassed by the security services. Two years after she joined the network, security services repeatedly summoned her father, who was undergoing chemotherapy, and tried in various ways to persuade Shiraghaei to meet with security officials in Indonesia or Armenia, away from her home in the United Kingdom.

According to BBC Persian, out of the 96 Iranian employees working for the network, 86 said they had been harassed by Islamic Republic agents, 85 members of their family had been interrogated and 59 of them had been slandered and defamed.

The brother of journalist Hossein Ronaghi wrote on Twitter that he had been arrested in 2009 — again for the crime of "being a brother” — and had been beaten with a baton and a whip, and given electric shocks. His torture was so extreme he was unable to shout. His torturers told him to confess against his brother.

Maryam Akbari Monfared was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009 and has been denied temporary leave since then, despite being eligible for it under Iranian law. 

She has also been targeted for “being a sister" and because several of her relatives were members of the opposition group Mojahedin Khalq Organization, also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK). Three of her brothers and one of her sisters were executed in the summer of 1988 — a year when thousands of political prisoners lost their lives in a mass extrajudicial killing — and years later she was imprisoned on charges of moharebeh [waging war against God] for a phone call she made to her relatives linked to the MEK.

In 2016, Akbari Monfared filed a complaint with the Tehran Prosecutor's Office, requesting an investigation into the details of her sister and brothers’ execution. But not only did they not address her complaint, they stripped her of her rights, including the right to medical treatment.

The Islamic Republic’s longstanding policy toward political prisoners has been designed to cause widespread damage to a wide range of people. It’s not just the prisoner who is interrogated, family members also face brutal tactics. Fam

Family members, including children, are used as weapons of torture, and as leverage to make prisoners and their loved ones say or do what the regime wants them to. Security forces call for confessions, for people to return from exile, for family-wide repentance. 

Often families are never left alone, as in the case of Masih Alinejad and Hossein Ronaghi. Authorities beat them down, depriving them of any peace. In many cases, targeted family members carry the trauma with them for years, if not always. International human rights campaigners have expressed anger that the children of Narges Mohammadi Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be among them.  

In cases such as the one inflicted on the family of Nasser Aziz Shavardi, the family is pressured to ask their child or relative to return to Iran or change their profession. Or in the case of Abolfazl Karimi, family harassment and persecution become a tool for forced confessions.

Banoo Saberi was a supporter and activist for the Tudeh Party. After marrying Abbas Ali Monshi Rudsari, she became a member of the Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas. Following the 1979 revolution, Saberi and her husband were summoned several times and detained for several days before their imprisonment in August 1986. Banoo Saberi was imprisoned until February 1987  and spent three months in solitary confinement in Evin Prison’s ward 209, which was known for housing political prisoners. During this time, Saberi spent three months in solitary confinement with her two children, a baby and a two-year-old. 

At the time of his arrest, interrogators had repeatedly told her husband Abbas Ali Monshi Rudsari, "Banoo is a whore." While in prison, he was tortured for over four years. He was executed in the summer of 1988 along with thousands of other political prisoners. 

Saberi talked to IranWire about the torture and harassment her husband suffered — both physical and mental — and what authorities put her and her children through by forcing them to be kept in solitary confinement. The pressure on the family was immense and unbearable, she said. 

"There was no food, no water, no air. The lights were always on in the cell and it was dirty. Due to lack of food, I could not produce milk for three-month-old Bijan. Other prisoners placed pieces of bread on the walls of toilets so  I could pick them up, soaked them in my mouth, and give them to my children. Bahareh always had a small piece of cheese. We were always hungry. To entertain the children, I pointed out to Bahareh the days and nights, looking at the top of the wall when the light came and went.” She described that when Bahareh went to live with her own mother, she would explain to her grandmother how her mother had distinguished day from night while in prison. “My son Bijan was a few months old and after he was given to my mother, he got diarrhea and blood in his stools and nearly died. Bijan still does not want to talk about those days or his father." Saberi described her relief when her children left prison. For her, having her children in confinement was like a double torture.

In 1995, nearly nine years after her release, the security forces summoned Saberi again, put a telephone in front of her, and told her to contact her sister's husband, Tahmaseb Vaziri, a member of the People's Fedayeen guerrillas. At that time, Tahmaseb Vaziri, whose brother Ali Akbar Vaziri had been executed along with Hamid Ashraf, was living in Germany. The security forces instructed Saberi to tell Vaziri that her friend was going to Germany and ask him to do whatever he could for her. "They wanted to contact him through a spy,” Saberi told IranWire. “They threatened to take my children away from me and warned me of what they would do if I did not cooperate. I was shamelessly asked how I got sexual satisfaction now that my husband was not there? Despite all, I did not accept to cooperate.”

Parvin Bakhtiarnejad, a journalist, researcher, and religious rights activist, was imprisoned in the 1980s along with her son for several months. "Children were a tool in the hands of the prison guard to torture the mother," she had said in interviews about her time in prison, what her family went through and what other prisoners and their families suffered. Bakhtiarnejad later went into exile, but then returned in October 2016, was interrogated and tried,and sentenced to six years in prison. 

IranWire recently spoke with lawyers based in and outside of Iran with IranWire. They described how the pressure and harassment has intensified since Ebrahim Raeesi was appointed head of the judiciary in March 2019. Since he has been in charge, they say, the harassment of political prisoners and their lawyers has increased, with judiciary officials routinely violating Iranian laws. 

The 1980s was one of the darkest times for political prisoners in Iran’s contemporary history. And many believe Iran is in that dark place again, so familiar are the tactics used by the judiciary, by interrogators, by prison guards and police chiefs. Survivors include the prisoners themselves, but also children, sisters, brothers, parents, spouses, fiancés, friends, colleagues.

The judiciary today resembles that of the 1980s, and with it has come a revival in the brutal treatment of political prisoners so prevalent in that decade. Although the regime has always vilified and targeted people it does not agree with and their loved ones — this practice has never gone out of fashion — Iran is certainly experiencing a resurgence in this tactic at the moment. The Islamic Republic has reminding its people of one of the most deadly weapons it has at its disposal: the power to sever and destroy families. Family can be used as an implement of torture, and the regime wants people to remember it is not afraid to commit a crime against humanity if it will destroy the people it wants to silence.

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