“Ten years ago they reduced my salary for a few months. At first I thought it was nothing important and paid no attention. But little by little, the story changed. They started framing me up from the very first moment Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president and I started criticizing him explicitly. I said that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not an upstanding person. The charge they brought against me was interesting: ‘Instilling religious doubts through introducing deviant issues.’ It was on this charge that I was sent to [the Education Ministry’s] preliminary administrative tribunal.”
Trade union activist and a teacher for 25 years, Mohammad Hossein Sepehri lives in Mashhad, the capital of Razavi Khorasan province, where he teaches high school physics. He has made a name for himself by posting videos on social media that are critical of corrupt authorities or those who violate human rights. In 2009, his salary was reduced and then he was laid off for two months before being invited back to work. Sepehri is married to Fatemeh Gholami Gol Khatmi, who is also a teacher. They have been married for 20 years and have two sons, Fereydoon and Fariborz.
Over the last 10 years, Sepehri says, he has been continuously “teetering on the edge.”
“I always had an open court case against me and this continued until May 10, 2018, when teachers held a rally outside the Education Department of Razavi Khorasan. That day I spoke a few times and a couple of video clips of my statements were posted online. I had used very harsh words and I was waiting for something to happen but nothing did. Then Hassan Rouhani said something that, to tell the truth, was very hard for me to take. I said I must answer him. I went to my workshop, recorded a video and posted it.”
Sepehri’s video criticizing the president was well received by the public. Then he posted another critical video — this time in response to a speech Ayatollah Khamenei gave to the Assembly of Experts in which he praised the achievements of the Islamic Republic, but then warned: “We should not become arrogant.” In his video, Sepehri said: “Beg your forgiveness, sir. What do we have to be arrogant about? Has the country been left with anything to be arrogant about?”
After he published two other critical video clips in which he talked about various issues Iran was facing, he began to receive threats. “They sent me messages and made phone calls telling me that I must shut up,” Sepehri says. “But when I received these messages I made more videos. Then the threats became more serious. They told me that I must go to a certain place on a certain day and present myself. But I told them off. What is more, I published the threats that I had received. I had noticed that if you use cyberspace and the media you put these beloved oppressors in a bind because they cannot silence us so easily.”
A Failed “Sneaky” Arrest
Then security agents tried a roundabout way to arrest Sepehri. “They came outside my home and laid in ambush to arrest me,” he says. “But what is interesting is that they first called me and said, ‘Mr. Sepehri, where are you? We want to serve you with a notice of your charges.’ I said that I would be in so and so school the next day and they said, ‘Okay, we will bring you the notice tomorrow at the school.’ They assured me that I would be served with the notice the day after while they were waiting outside my home to arrest me. When the doorbell rang I became suspicious and did not open the door. For a quarter of an hour they waited and kept on ringing the doorbell. I knew something was going on. I went to the garage, got in the car, opened the door with the remote and drove out. I stopped in front of them and, still in the car, asked them, ‘may I help you?’ The guy told me to roll down the window. I did not answer him and drove off. They saw that they could not arrest me this way and they could not tackle me on the street.”
Sepehri told this story in a video and then published it. “I said, ‘look, my dear, if you have been sent to serve me notice and know where I live, okay, come and give it to me,” he told IranWire. “Or send me a text message or a phone message. If you want to summon somebody to court, this is the right way to do it. But, I said [in the video] their trick to arrest me flopped.”
After this, the Education Ministry’s Preliminary Administrative Tribunal summoned Sepehri. “First they called for me to have a talk with them,” he says. “I had been to the tribunal many times before so this time I asked my sister to accompany me. I told her I knew the very first question they were going to ask me. Their first shot would be to ask me, ‘do you know why we asked you here?’ They want me to say something that they can take advantage of. And this is exactly what happened. I replied: ’I believe you want to apologize to me!’ Then we got into an argument. ‘Apologize for what?’ they exclaimed. I said, ‘during the time of Ahmadinejad I said that he was not an upstanding person, that he was unbalanced, and you brought me here and suspended me from my job for two months. Now you have asked me to come here [so you can] apologize to me.’ They were ready to give me their worst but when they saw that negotiations with me were not getting anywhere they handed me the notice of the charges against me. And I posted this notice online and wrote a strong defense.”
“Say no to the Islamic Republic”
In June 2019, Sepehri and a group of civil, political and trade activists wrote an open letter demanding the resignation of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and urging people to “say no to the Islamic Republic.”
“For years, social and cultural luminaries and civil society activists have given heart-wrenching accounts of the need for structural and fundamental changes to the social, political, cultural and economic order of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said the letter. “The woeful history of the last 40 years demonstrates that our leaders feel no accountability to the Iranian people. Iran's rulers insist upon their deviant and irredeemable ways and on perpetuating a cult of personality around the Supreme Leader.”
Sepehri had written the first draft of this statement. Today he laughs when he remembers how other signatories reacted to the draft. “They said that my style was like that of schoolchildren,” Sepehri said, “because they start their compositions with: ‘These truths are self-evident that...’ They said that it was no good and they were right. It was too long-winded and tedious.”
The finished statement was followed in early August with an open letter by 14 women's rights activists who also called on Khamenei to step down, protesting against what they described as "gender apartheid" and the"patriarchal approach" dominating the country. "Four decades of this theocracy has eliminated the rights of half of the country's population," said the letter, and it called for "civil and non-violent measures" to leave "this anti-women system behind" and compose a new constitution for Iran.
Sepehri's case was lodged at Branch 903 of Mashhad’s Revolutionary Court. On March 10, it suspended him from his job for six months on charges of “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “participating in an illegal gathering” and “being absent from his job during working hours.” But he decided to fight on, and appealed against his case. He believes his statement of defense was much stronger than what he presented at the lower court. He also posted a note, protesting against the arbitrary nature of the decisions taken by the Ministry of Education’s administrative tribunal. “I came to the conclusion that I am at a juncture that, if I retreat, they will undoubtedly railroad me in a way that, in the end, it will appear that Sepehri no longer exists or never existed. I have to go forward with all my might and continue my civil activities.”
After Sepehri was arrested on August 11, the examining magistrate set his bail at 100 million tomans ($8,600) and he was taken to prison. Sepehri was arrested along with at least 10 others while they were protesting against a 13-year jail sentence for Dr. Kamal Jafari Yazdi, one of the 14 signatories to the statement demanding the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei. Sepehri is now a prisoner at Ward 601 of Mashhad’s Vakilabad Prison and has joined the men arrested with him in a hunger strike [Persian link].
Before his arrest, in an interview with IranWire, he said: “I feel safer as time goes by. They have a thick dossier in the case against me at Branch 903. When I went there for interrogations, I noticed that the charges against me belong to a case that I had described in one of my video clips: ‘insulting the Supreme Leader, ‘propaganda against the regime’ and ‘unsettling the public mind.’ But there was no mention of ‘dissemination of lies.’ So I had acted correctly. If I continue this course I know we will get results. I am not particularly worried.”
A “Lackey” of Ayatollah Khamenei
In one of his videos published online, Sepehri called the Iranian judiciary the personal “lackey” of Ayatollah Khamenei, adding: “40 years of the Islamic Republic has gotten us nothing but ruin and destruction.” In the summons the Administrative Tribunal issued, this statement was reproduced word for word, but Sepehri argues that criticizing Ayatollah Khamenei’s performance is not the same as insulting him.
“If the Ministry of Education decides that I cannot return to school, I will not be helpless,” Sepehri says. “It would put me under heavy financial pressure but I would not be destitute.” To survive, he has created a second job for himself: a workshop to make cables that he hopes will find a niche in the marketplace.
14 Activists Inside Iran Call for Khamenei's Resignation, June 12, 2019
Workers Beaten and Arrested at May Day Parade, May 1, 2019
Crackdown on Labor Activists on Eve of May Day, April 29, 2019
Labor Activists Face Intense Pressure for Another TV Confession, February 22, 2019
Intelligence Ministry Takes Revenge on Labor Activist, February 4, 2014
Torture of Arrested Labor Activists and Their Families Continues, February 1, 2019
Agents Target Jailed Activist's Family in Brutal Attack, January 23, 2019
Iranian TV Airs Forced Confessions of Labor Activists, January 23, 2019