Sepideh Rashnu, a 28-year-old artist and editor, was arrested on July 16 after she was filmed arguing with a woman on a bus over forced hijab. Two weeks later, state TV aired a program showing her giving a forced confession while signs of beatings were visible even on her face. She is still in detention, her location unknown.
Days after the “confession” video aired, Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported that Rashnu had been transferred to Tehran’s Taleghani Hospital on July 21 due to a risk of internal bleeding. Eyewitnesses said she was suffering from very low blood pressure and had difficulty walking.
There has been no news of Rashnu since then. Judicial officials have refused to comment on the case. In response to the wall of silence, in recent weeks some Iranian social media users have replaced their profile pictures with hers, and under the hashtag #Where_Is_Sepideh have demanded to know her status.
A few days ago, dozens of women’s rights advocates joined a public protest calling on Iranian authorities to release her. According to the Free Union Workers of Iran's Telegram channel, like others before them, women who attended the rally in Tehran demanded to know: “Where is Sepideh Rashnu?”.
IranWire spoke to one of her friends, and to human rights lawyer Saeed Dehghan, about the case so far.
From the moment the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency reported the arrest of Sepideh Rashnu there was heightened concern for her safety, as well as praise for her courage. The stand the young woman took against forced hijab in the middle of a major state crackdown on women’s civil liberties made her a potentially high-value target. Since her forced confession was aired on state TV, some observers now fear for her life.
Where is Sepideh Rashnu? The question has dominated Persian social media for a month now. It also appeared on placards carried by women who took to the streets in Tehran to protest against her incarceration. And thousands of miles away, a group of Iranian women’s rights activists came together to publicize her case in a video in which they performed a poem, “Confession”, written by an anonymous peer in praise of Rashnu.
Hossein Razzagh, a civil rights activist in Iran, was one of many to take up the hashtag. “A month has passed since Sepideh Rashnu was arrested,” he wrote on Twitter, “but all the news is about her first week of detention: being transferred in handcuffs and shackles with a bandaged foot, being taken to a clinic, going on hunger strike, being hospitalized because of the risk of internal bleeding as a result of a blow to her abdomen, the airing of forced confessions with an injured face. Where is Sepideh Rashnu?”
“As far as I know,” a friend told IranWire, “Sepideh spoke to her family on the phone during those initial two weeks. But we’ve not heard anything since then. It might be that she is in contact but the family have been terrorized into not talking to anyone about her.”
Friends of Sepideh’s, they said, are increasingly worried about her health: “Like everyone else, we heard of the internal bleeding risk from the media and were horrified. Unfortunately we can’t confirm or deny the news. We have no information about her: not which agency arrested her, not where she’s being kept, or in what conditions.”
Earlier this month it was rumored that Rashnu was being held on ward 1A of Evin Prison, which is controlled by the IRGC. This, however, has yet to be substantiated. As HRANA reported, eyewitnesses who saw Rashnu being transferred to Tehran’s Taleghani Hospital said she was surrounded by security agents who refused to move even as the doctor was examining her.
“For a whole month now,” Rashnu’s friend said, “we’ve been asking, and received no answer. It’s quite clear that they will not let go of Sepideh until they get what they want.”
Regardless, she said: “The important thing is for Sepideh’s interrogators to know that she is not alone and all of us are Sepideh. It is important for them to know that the road taken by Sepideh will continue, even though they have tortured her and have forced her to confess. The hashtag ‘Where is Sepideh?’ means we must not forget her. We must not forget they have imprisoned and tortured one of us. We must not forget to make them realize that Sepideh is not only an individual but a whole generation enraged by oppression.”
When Arrest Becomes Abduction
“The Islamic Republic’s judicial system has no real understanding of decency, humanity or the half-baked laws of its own political system. Civilized society, and humanity, demand transparency and acceptance responsibility. “
The lawyer Saeed Dehghan, a member of the International Bar Association and UNESCO’s former chair of human rights, spoke to IranWire about the nature of the system that has imprisoned Sepideh Rashnu. “Transparency is conspicuously absent. Trials are not open to the public and the legal process is not just. Therefore, to expect accountability is not a justified expectation. Of course, this does not mean that civil and human rights activists and the media should remain silent.”
On occasion, Dehghan pointed out, public pressure has forced the Iranian regime to cave on a given political detainee. In September 2021, Javad Lal-Mohammadi, a teacher and civil rights activist, was arrested in Mashhad and taken to an unknown location. The resultant Twitter storm saw him released a few days later.
In June 2020, the Iranian Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of Saeed Tamjidi, Mohammad Rajabi and Amir Hossein Moradi, who had taken part in the November 2019 protests. More than 4.2 million people tweeted under the Persian hashtag #Do_Not_Execute, garnering global attention. Eventually the sentences were commuted.
In Dehghan’s view, the non-independence of the Iranian judiciary renders arrests made for political reasons unlawful: “This was not an arrest but a kidnapping. We have no information about this detainee, meaning they have been forcibly disappeared. It’s a move intended to terrorize and intimidate wider society. There is no other objective. It’s about security, not justice.”
Article 38 of the Iranian constitution forbids torture and the extraction of forced confessions. Despite this, treatment like that apparently suffered by Sepideh Rashnu is commonplace. “We are at a juncture,” Dehghan said, “where the judiciary itself is falling apart. In all cases like that of Ms. Rashnu, the law is similarly neglected, reinforcing the conclusion that we are witnessing the downfall of the judicial system.”