The 26 year old British Iranian may have been thrown into jail because of breaking remedial rules. But now it's a whole new ball game, writes Faraz Sanei as her astute comments appear to be giving the authorities sleepless nights – perhaps explaining why her 'trial' has become a parody of justice.
"[The trial] lasted an hour and a half... The judge in the case is supposed to issue his ruling next week. I hope that next week, by this time, my nightmare will be over and my daughter will be in my arms. Pray for me."
These were the words posted on Susan Moshtaghian's Facebook page on October 14, after a revolutionary court in Tehran tried her daughter, Ghoncheh Ghavami, on national security charges. Authorities arrested Ghavami, a dual Iranian-British national, along with around 20 others who held a peaceful protest in June against the official ban that prevented them from attending an international volleyball match in Tehran's Azadi Sports Complex.
The prohibition has been in place since 2012, when the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs extended a 1979 ban on Iranian women and girls attending football matches in the country's stadiums to cover volleyball. Iranian officials claim that allowing women to attend sports events that men attend is un-Islamic, threatens public order, and exposes women to crude behavior by male fans.
Security authorities released Ghavami and the others next day after questioning them, but re-arrested Ghavami 10 days later when she returned to the detention facility to collect her phone, which had been confiscated. Security officials then searched her home, confiscating her laptop and other possessions, and took her to Tehran's notorious Evin prison. She has remained there ever since.
For more than a month, Ghavami was kept in solitary confinement in a section of the prison reputedly controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, and not permitted access to her lawyer and family. She is said to have endured lengthy interrogation sessions with heavy psychological pressure. The authorities finally moved her into a cell with other detainees.
Iran's judiciary spokesperson said on September 22 that Ghavami's arrest was for national security reasons and "has nothing to do with sports." The statement came shortly after Ghavami's family learned that prosecutors had charged her with "propaganda against the state," which could result in a prison term of up to one year. Judiciary officials have provided no further public explanation of the charge.
Ghavami's ordeal encapsulates all that is wrong with the flawed system of "justice" so often meted out by Iran's revolutionary courts. So-called national security charges are often vaguely drawn to serve as a "catch all" to lock up dissidents under an aura of legality. The charge of "propaganda against the state" is used almost exclusively by security and judicial officials to criminalize the peaceful exercise of basic rights.
Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which Iran's powerful security authorities, aided by the revolutionary courts, have jailed peaceful critics and activists on this same charge. We have repeatedly called on Iran to abolish or amend the charge to ensure that it does not impinge on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly or association.
Even if she were facing a legitimate charge, though, Ghavami has not received a fair trial. From the outset, the authorities breached her basic due process rights. Security and judiciary officials repeatedly prevented Ghavami's lawyer from seeing her while she was in pre-trial detention, a period when many detainees in Iran face torture or other ill-treatment at the hands of interrogators eager to extract "confessions." The authorities also prevented the lawyer from gaining unfettered access to Ghavami's case file before her trial, which was held behind closed doors.
The judiciary's declarations notwithstanding, Ghavami's plight has, once again, focused international attention on the situation for women in Iran. Despite the many achievements of Iranian women in social, cultural and economic affairs, and even political life, Iranian women face systematic discrimination under the Islamic Republic's laws and justice system, including in matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
Women have also faced an uncompromising pushback from conservative hardliners, often allied with Iran's security and intelligence agencies, which has led to the introduction of new retrograde laws and regulations in recent years. This despite President Rouhani's, and his administration's, occasional remarks cautioning against increased enforcement of public morals rules and regulations, especially against women.
In 2012, for example, officials imposed restrictions that further curtailed academic freedom at some Iranian university campuses that particularly affected girls and women. They were banned from studying certain courses of study in the technical and applied sciences that could lead to more lucrative careers, and subjected to a quota system for other courses.
Other changes have required stricter segregation of classrooms and other campus facilities and called for increased enforcement of the Islamic dress code. And officials have announced possible future restrictions barring women from some government jobs and public spaces. Lawmakers are also pushing for increasing restrictions on women's reproductive rights by drafting legislation to criminalize certain birth control measures and reduce access to family planning facilities as part of official efforts to boost population growth.
In a recent report that relied heavily on the government's own statistics, the UN special rapporteur responsible for monitoring human rights in Iran said it appeared that Iran's discriminatory laws were, at least in some cases, having their desired effect. The report noted a decrease in the percentage of female students entering universities, from 62 per cent to just over 48 percent in five years, and found that Iranian women suffer disproportionately high rates of unemployment and serious income disparities in the labor force.
On June 20, while waiting for security officials to release her from Tehran's Vozara Detention Center, where women arrested for breaches of the Islamic dress code are often held, Ghavami posted a Facebook message in which she described the contemptuous and defiant attitudes of the detainees vis-a-vis the police officers in charge. She wrote:
"The daily insubordination of women in the face of government policies creates a consciousness that can pave the way for collective action when the opportunity presents itself. Notwithstanding their immediate objectives, individual acts of resistance, which are often triggered by reactionary or emotional impulses, are one of the most important ingredients for creating a collective identity."
Whether peacefully protesting discriminatory laws banning them from sports stadiums or talking back to morality police ordering them to veil, Iranian women are challenging laws and government policies seeking to define who they are and how they should act. At its core, the "propaganda" case against Ghavami is an indictment of the judicial and political structure itself.
Faraz Sanei is the Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter @farazsanei