Ghoncheh Ghavami, a University of London SOAS graduate who was jailed in Iran in June last year for attending a volleyball match, will not go back to an Iranian prison, her brother Iman Ghavami has said online.
Ghoncheh was freed on bail on November 23 last year but it was unclear whether the Islamic authorities would send her back to jail. The authorities have now changed her punishment from a prison sentence to a fine of 10 million tomans, the equivalent of just over 3,500 dollars.
“Today I can tell you that Ghoncheh is free!” Iman Ghavami said. “As we were celebrating Iranian New year, the Iranian Government wiped out the rest of my sister's sentence. Ghoncheh will not have to spend another day, another hour in prison.”
Ghoncheh, 26, is a British-Iranian national who was charged with “propaganda against the regime” in late September having already spent more than three months in detention. Her imprisonment has received worldwide support from governments, human rights organizations and citizens demanding her release.
“Campaigns to release jailed protesters put pressure on the regime – or its allies – to comply with international standards and respect the right to freedom of expression,” says Melody Patry, senior advocacy officer at Index on Censorship. “Free speech violations must be condemned and campaigning is part of denouncing these abuses. Many jailed activists and journalists have expressed how campaigns for their release have helped them cope with a challenging, sometimes depressing situation.” When Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja was freed last month, she told Index, "I know that the international campaign that was created for me during my imprisonment was the reason I was released from prison in Bahrain."
When asked if campaigns like Ghavami’s can jeopardize the safety of political prisoners, Patry explains there are circumstances in which the security and safety of imprisoned protesters needs to be taken into account.
“Family members are best placed to decide to what degree campaigns can be public-facing,” says Faraz Sanei, Iran researcher with Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. “Once they have decided this is the best course of action, it’s up to campaigning organizations to get the word out, which does have a positive impact and can affect change. More international attention can shine a light on what’s going on in Iran,” he says, “and this is ultimately a good thing.”
“Every case is unique, and we do our best to respect the family and employers’ strategy to help an imprisoned journalist,” says Sherif Mansour, a program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “But in the overwhelming majority of cases, we publicize the cases, which helps, and make sure the government in question is held accountable about the prison conditions and the ultimate release.”
“There was a sigh of relief when Hassan Rouhani was elected as president,” Human Rights Watch’s Sanei says, as many associated the oppression in the country with Ahmadinejad. But although some groups have been able to protest freely – even without a permit — he says, “The government is very sensitive, and this hasn’t changed under Rouhani. The government has been taken by surprise with the power of collective action. It puts them on edge. And if they can’t control the message, authorities will arrest protesters, they will interrogate people, they will charge them.” At the same time, he says, Iranian leaders do care what the international community thinks. “They do react,” he says, "and we’ve seen this with the recent UPR and during other international engagement. Advocacy is all about finding leverage points and using them to have an impact, and this was a good example of this. If there are changes within Iran, however slight, this is a positive outcome.”
Ghoncheh’s brother Iman Ghavami set up an online appeal on Change.org to campaign for his sister’s release. It received more than 777,000 supporters. He also flew to New York when President Hassan Rouhani was due to talk at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to raise further awareness of the case.
The campaign for her release also spread to Twitter with the hashtag #FreeGhonchehGhavami being used for posts referring to her plight.
Ghavami was kept at Evin Prison, a jail known for housing political prisoners, until November 5, when she was reportedly moved to Qarchak in Tehran Province, a prison known for housing prisoners convicted of serious criminal offences, including murder, rape and drug-dealing.
Reformist newspaper Kaleme reported that Ghavami was moved because Revolutionary Guards had taken over her case and were using it to embarrass President Rouhani’s government.
Ghoncheh was one of several Iranian women arrested outside the Azadi Stadium in Tehran when they attempted to watch a volleyball match last summer. Although the police originally released her, she was re-arrested 10 days later and taken to Evin Prison when she went back to collect belongings the authorities had confiscated.
Women are banned from watching live volleyball matches in Iran, to “protect them from male fans.” Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have also been prohibited from watching football matches.
Human Rights Watch was among the NGOs that appealed to the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) to take action in support of Ghoncheh. Last November, the federation announced that Iran would be barred from hosting future FIVB-run international events, including the World Championships, until it allows women to attend volleyball matches.
Prior to her arrest, Ghoncheh was working in Iran for a charity that teaches literacy to street children and visiting relatives.
Because Ghavami holds joint British-Iranian nationality, the British Foreign Office raised concerns over Ghavami’s detention with the Iranian government but the Islamic authorities do not recognize her dual nationality, believing that British extraterritorial rights do not apply.