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Society & Culture

Political Prisoners and the Challenges of Voting

May 23, 2016
Fereshteh Nasehi
5 min read
Dissident cleric Ahmad Reza Ahmadpour spent 40 months in various prisons
Dissident cleric Ahmad Reza Ahmadpour spent 40 months in various prisons
Ballot boxes in prison
Ballot boxes in prison

Ahmad Reza Ahmadpour, a dissident cleric and a disabled veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, is known in Iran as “the Blogging Mullah." He was a member of a reformist party called the Participation Front, which Iran banned in 2009. On December 27, 2009, he was arrested and served time in “security” prisons across Iran. He was released but exiled from Iran in 2013.

During his 40 months in prison, Ahmadpour was not allowed to vote in elections. “I never saw a ballot box,” he says. “In March 2012, when elections for parliament and city councils were being held, I was at Sepidar Prison in Ahvaz. I heard from other prisoners, and from the ward representative and prison officials, that they had brought the ballot box into the prison. But nobody invited us to vote. There was a rumor that they had used our names to put their own ballots in the box.”

Accounts of political prisoners’ participation in elections vary from place to place. It is not always prison officials who stop prisoners from voting. “There are pressures from the political prisoners themselves,” says M.H., a Sufi prisoner of conscience who was in prison from 2010 to 2013. “Some political groups boycott elections and accuse those who want to vote of colluding with the regime. Prisoners often forgo voting to escape these pressure and accusations.”


No Secret Ballot

The ballot box is usually placed in the warden’s quarters or in the communal hall. Human rights activist Bahareh Hedayat, who is still in prison, wrote about her voting experience during the February 2016 elections on the website Kaleme. “We were cellmates until yesterday, but suddenly we became the jailer’s accomplices,” she writes. In Iran. voters have to write down the name of every single candidate for whom they want to vote on the ballot. When Hedayat was about to cast her vote, she objected to the lack of privacy in the small space available. An unknown man — not a prison official but probably an intelligence agent assigned especially for the elections — told her shut up and vote. The confrontation descended into a shouting match between the man and the prisoners, and prison officials tried to calm things down. “When I was returning to my room, I passed an inmate who had apparently had heard about the insults, Hedayat wrote. ‘This is what you get for voting!” he said with a mocking smile. ‘There is no stamp on my ID.’”


Fear of Electoral Fraud

There are serious questions about electoral standards in prisons. “They either do not ask for your ID when you vote, or they are not very strict about it,” one inmate tells IranWire. “Most probably there are many fake votes cast in the name of prisoners who do not actually vote.”

“Inmates at Evin’s communal ward 350 boycotted the 2012 parliamentary elections,” says a journalist who spent three years in the ward. “Only a few political prisoners announced that they were going to vote, but, in the end, they did not.” 

But the situation changed somewhat with the 2013 presidential elections. “In that election, some prisoners were determined to vote,” he says. “At first, prison officials were supposed to bring the ballot box to the ward, but then they said prisoners must leave the political ward to vote, and a few people did.”

“They made it hard for the political prisoners,” he says. “They said that we must have IDs. As far as I know, some families got the IDs into the prison, although it was difficult. But there should really be no need for IDs.” After all, the jailers know who the inmates are.


Peer Pressure and Self-Censorship

Heshmatollah Tabarzadi is a prominent journalist and social activist who has spent years of his life in the prisons of the Islamic Republic. (According to recent reports, he has been arrested yet again.) “When you are in solitary confinement,” he told IranWire, “there are no elections.” “During the elections of 2001 and the re-election of President Mohammad Khatami, I was in solitary confinement at Eshratabad,” he says. During the 2003 elections, I was in solitary at Evin’s Ward 2A, which is run by the Revolutionary Guards. In both case there was no question of a ballot box, because when you are in solitary you are not seen as a human being.”

In 2005, he was transferred to Ward 350 of Evin, a communal ward. “The atmosphere was strongly against participating in elections,” Tabarzadi says. “Prisoners like us who were opposed to the regime as a whole, as well as student activists, Mojahedin, and Kurds, were all against voting. Even if somebody wanted to vote, he wouldn’t dare. The exception was those ‘security’ prisoners who had been accused of things like espionage and wanted to ingratiate themselves. Of course, I did hear that that same year, one prominent prisoner had voted for Karroubi.”

In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, when the number of reformist prisoners increased, more prisoners became interested in voting. Interest increased further still with the presidential elections of 2013. “I heard that in recent elections, Narges Mohammadi, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Bahareh Hedayat, and Isa Saharkhiz all voted,” Tabarzadi says.

Another political prisoner, who is serving time at Rajaei Shahr Prison near Tehran, tells IranWire about the peer pressure political prisoners themselves have imposed. “I have been in Rajaei Shahr for eight years,” he says. “We can vote. It is enough to print a copy of the National ID on the prison’s printer and nothing else is needed. But we are under pressure and surveillance from each other.”

In the past eight years, he says, he has only voted only once. “If you go and vote publicly, they slander you in a thousand ways and boycott you, so eventually you would prefer to censor yourself. The only time I voted, I voted for Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani. The other prisoners called me ‘backward’ and ‘a prostitute.’ I never dared to vote in later elections.”


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