(Beirut) – Iran ’s government should immediately and unconditionally free three female rights defenders unlawfully detained for their support of women, students, and political dissidents, Human Rights Watch said today, International Women’s Day. On March 2, 2014, one of the three was sentenced to seven years in prison. The others were already serving prison terms.
The three activists are among at least 14 women in the women’s political prisoners ward at Tehran’s Evin Prison. The Iranian government should also address gender discrimination codified in the country’s legal system, Human Rights Watch said.
“International Women’s Day is an occasion to shed light on the courageous women behind bars in Iran solely because they spoke out for people’s rights or called for an overhaul of the country’s discriminatory laws,” said Sarah Leah Whitson , Middle East and North Africa director. “The detention of these women activists is a stark reminder that Iran’s government deprives its people of their most basic and fundamental rights.”
On March 2, a revolutionary court found Maryam Shafipour, a student rights activist, guilty of violating the country’s national security and sentenced her to seven years in prison.
Bahareh Hedayat, a women’s and students’ rights defender, was sentenced in May 2010 to 10 years in prison in relation to her peaceful activities. Since her arrest in 2009, her husband told Human Rights Watch that authorities have not allowed her to get adequate medical treatment  outside of prison for serious gynecological problems. The lack of gynecological services in prison and the denial of such treatment outside jail could amount to gender-based discrimination, Human Rights Watch said.
The third activist, Hakimeh Shokri, is serving a three-year sentence for peaceful activities in support of political prisoners and protesters killed during the 2009 postelection violence.
Shafipour, 27, was summoned to the Evin Prison prosecutor’s office on July 27, 2013, and then arrested. She had spent several years advocating for the rights of university students barred from higher education  because of their activism and for the release of political prisoners, including the 2009 presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, who is under house arrest .
A source close to the family told Human Rights Watch that Shafipour spent seven months in pretrial detention, including over two months in solitary confinement, during which she had no access to her lawyer. Another source told Human Rights Watch that during her pretrial detention, interrogation officials subjected her to psychological and physical abuse, including kicking her.
The source close to the family told Human Rights Watch that branch 28 of Tehran’s revolutionary court convicted Shafipour of “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against the national security,” and “membership in an illegal group” that the source said was defending the rights of university students barred from education. The source said evidence, presented by the prosecutor’s office as proof of these “crimes,” included information posted on her Facebook page about the situation of political prisoners, and her peaceful activities and statements she signed in support of students barred from higher education. The sentence against Shafipour includes a two-year ban on the use of Facebook and other social media sites upon release.
In 2010, Emam Khomeini International University officials in the northwestern city of Ghazvin barred Shafipour from continuing her university studies because of her rights activities. The activities included visiting family members of political prisoners and her affiliation with Karroubi’s presidential campaign. Shafipour has 20 days to appeal her conviction and sentence.
Shafipour and Shokri are both members of the Mothers of Laleh Park , a group established in June 2009 by mothers whose children lost their lives in the violent government-sanctioned response to protests following Iran’s disputed June 12 election. The group has also shown solidarity with political prisoners and their families. Authorities have repeatedly targeted the group, previously named “Mourning Mothers ,” arrested its members, and prevented them from gathering at Laleh Park in Tehran and other public places.
A Tehran revolutionary court convicted Shokri on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “acting against the national security” in April 2012 because of her activities with the group, according to rights activists . Security forces arrested her and several other members of the group on December 5, 2010, as they gathered at a Tehran cemetery to commemorate the death of a protester killed by security forces during the 2009 postelection violence.
Hedayat, 32, is the first secretary of the Women’s Commission of the Office to Foster Unity (Tahkim-e Vahdat), one of the country’s largest student groups, which has been banned  since 2009, and the first – and only – woman elected to its central committee. Authorities arrested her on December 30, 2009, and eventually charged her with various national security crimes, including “propaganda against the system,” “disturbing public order,” “participating in illegal gatherings,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” and “insulting the president.” An appeals court upheld the sentence in July 2010.
Amin Ahmadian, Hedayat’s husband, told Human Rights Watch that Hedayat is serving an eight year sentence because of public speeches and joint statements she made as a central committee member of Takhim-e Vahdat criticizing the government clampdown on political dissidents and students in the wake of the 2009 presidential election. He said Hedayat is serving an additional two years based on a previous suspended sentence in connection with public demonstrations  she attended in 2006 with the One Million Signatures Campaign , a grass-roots campaign aimed at overturning laws that discriminate against women.
Ahmadian said that although Hedayat is suffering from a chronic reproductive system complication that requires immediate medical attention, judiciary and prison authorities have refused her an adequate medical leave.
Iran’s judiciary should release Hedayat and other political prisoners based on recent amendments to Iran’s penal code, Human Rights Watch said. Under article 134, a person convicted of multiple charges may only receive the maximum penalty for their most serious charge, instead of a compounded sentence based on each individual charge. Article 134 also allows the judiciary to free Hedayat after she has served half her sentence.
Since 2005, and especially since the 2009 presidential election, Iran has stepped up arrests and other repressive measures  against activists, including those who advocate student’s rights and speak out against discriminatory laws based on gender . Iranian women face discrimination  in personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A woman needs her male guardian’s approval for marriage regardless of her age, and cannot pass on her nationality to her foreign-born spouse or their children.
On August 1, 2013, Human Rights Watch wrote  to then-President Hassan Rouhani asking him to take concrete steps in several key reform areas, ranging from freeing political prisoners to expanding academic freedom in universities and respecting women’s rights. Human Rights Watch urged Rouhani to remove disciplinary boards that unlawfully monitor students’ activities and suspend or expel them solely because they have exercised their fundamental rights, and to allow organizations like Tahkim-e Vahdat to resume operating.
Human Rights Watch also urged Rouhani to work toward gender equality in the country, noting that while “the president has limited ability to directly change the discriminatory personal status laws related to marriage, inheritance, and child custody … [he] should nonetheless support efforts to amend or abolish such laws” and support groups like the One Million Signatures Campaign.
On November 26, President Rouhani’s official website presented a draft Citizens’ Rights Charter for public comment. In a joint letter  Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran noted that many of the draft charter’s provisions, including those addressing women’s rights, fail to protect rights adequately or violate Iran’s legal obligations under international law. Among the problems are limitations on rights based on seemingly subjective criteria such as “national security” and “principles of Islam.”
“Iran’s judiciary bears primary responsibility for freeing rights defenders like Shafipour, Hedayat, and Shokri from prison, and ensuring that the country abides by its international rights obligations,” Whitson said. “But Rouhani’s government can also play a critical role by advocating the release of these rights defenders and pressing security and intelligence forces to stop harassing and targeting activists.”