On Monday, September 26, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry announced that authorities had released Iranian-Canadian anthropology professor Homa Hoodfar, who had been detained since June 2016.
The release comes days after a meeting between Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on September 21. Both ministers were in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Hoodfar had been held on “certain charges,” but that she had been released on humanitarian grounds, including illness. She was hospitalized on August 30 for a neurological disease, myasthenia gravis, which causes severe muscle weakness. He said she would return to Canada via Oman.
The release will be seen as concrete proof of months of hard work to improve relations between the two countries and their governments. Canadian-Iranian relations deteriorated significantly after the death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in prison. Kazemi was beaten to death on June 2, 2003 after being arrested for taking pictures of Tehran’s Evin Prison. The deterioration in relations came to a head when Canada closed its embassy in Tehran and broke off diplomatic relations in 2012.
Recently, a number of Iranian officials have hinted that the death of Zahra Kazemi had been due to neglect by the disbarred prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who is now on trial in Tehran. In an interview, Kazemi’s lawyer said there was hope that a new court case around her death might be opened.
Homa Hoodfar, 65, an anthropologist at Concordia University whose work has focused on the rights of women and the role of the family in Muslim societies, traveled to Iran in February 2016. In March, a day before she was due to fly to London, Revolutionary Guards agents raided her apartment, confiscated her belongings and her passports and for three months regularly summoned her for questioning. They finally arrested her in June, and sent her into solitary confinement.
Her arrest triggered sharp reactions in Canada and the West. Canadian officials said they would do whatever they could to secure her freedom. At the time it was speculated that the Islamic Republic had arrested Hoodfar to pressure the Canadian government to turn over Mahmoud Khavari, the former president of Iran’s Bank Melli, who had escaped to Canada after he was charged with corruption.
An “Infiltration” Network
But on June 15, the website Mashregh News reported that Hoodfar had been arrested for activities against national security and because she had been a member of an organization aiming to overthrow the Iranian regime. The website also accused Hoodfar of creating a network of media and social activists and claimed that she had opened channels to Rouhani’s vice president for the family and women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi.
On June 24 Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi announced that Hoodfar had committed crimes in “areas of feminism and security” and that his office was reviewing her case. Two weeks later he said that the bill of indictment against her had been issued and had been sent to court.
Hoodfar’s family said the charges were false and took issue with the fact that she had spent three months in solitary confinement without being able to contact the outside world.
Her release also suggests that Iran’s judiciary and the security establishment did not have enough evidence — whether real or trumped up — to resist the government’s demand to release her.
Over the last year, authorities have arrested a number of Iranians holding dual national or foreign passports. Their families, activists campaigning for their release and Iran specialists have argued that these prisoners have become victims of domestic political infighting. Many ultra-conservatives and opponents of President Rouhani believe that, following on from last year’s nuclear agreement between Iran and world leaders, western governments have launched attempts to “infiltrate” Iran with a view to overthrowing the Islamic Republic. They argue that these attempted plots have carried out with the help of journalists and civil rights activists. They have criticized the Rouhani administration for remaining silent about the attempts to compromise the Iranian regime, and some even accuse the government of cooperating with the so-called “infiltrators”.
On September 9, Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on security charges, while just three days prior to this, the Iranian-British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe received a prison sentence of five years.