(Beirut, November 8, 2014) – Iran’s judiciary should quash the conviction of Ghoncheh Ghavami for “propaganda against the state” and immediately release her since the charge is on its face a punishment for peaceful speech and protest, Human Rights Watch said today. Ghavami, a dual Iranian-British national, was arrested June 30, 2014 after protesting a ban on women attending volleyball matches. She began a hunger strike on November 2 to protest her detention, her brother Iman Ghavami told Human Rights Watch.

The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has called on the Iranian government to release Ghavami, and affirmed its commitment to “inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis.” Nevertheless, on November 2, the Asian Volleyball Confederation reportedly announced that it had selected Iran to co-host the 2015 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championships. Ghavami’s conviction and Iran’s continuing ban on women spectators should prompt the FIVB to step up its actions on her behalf and for equal access to sporting events, Human Rights Watch said.

“The list of people Iran has jailed for demanding their rights is a long one,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives. “To that list we can now add a courageous voice for women’s right to watch a sporting event.”

A Tehran revolutionary court convicted Ghavami in a closed trial on October 14. On November 1, her lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei, told the Iranian Labour News Agency that the court had yet to issue the written judgment, which would explain the basis for the guilty verdict. Tabatabaei said that Iranian law requires courts to issue their written verdicts within one week of a trial’s conclusion. The delay in this case has fueled fears that authorities may bring additional charges against Ghavami, a family friend following the case, told Human Rights Watch.

Tabatabaei said that he was not able to meet with his client except on October 14, the day of the trial.

Security authorities initially arrested Ghavami and about 20 others on June 20 after they protested a ban preventing women from entering the Azadi Sports Complex to watch a match between Iran and Italy. The protesters were taken to Tehran’s Vozara Detention Center, where women arrested for breaches of the Islamic dress code are often held. Officials released Ghavami after several hours, but re-arrested her on June 30, when she returned to the detention facility to collect her phone.

Iman Ghavami said that security officials then searched his sister’s home, confiscated her laptop and other possessions, and transferred her to Evin prison, where she remains. Ghavami spent her first 41 days in solitary confinement in section 2A of Evin prison , he said. It is believed that Section 2A is controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

On September 22, Iran’s judiciary spokesperson said that Ghavami’s arrest was for national security reasons and “has nothing to do with sports.” However, no judiciary or other state officials has disclosed any of the evidence used to convict Ghavami.

The male-only policy for spectators at volleyball matches dates to 2012, when the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry extended the existing policy on soccer matches to cover volleyball. Iranian officials claim that mixed attendance at sports events is un-Islamic, threatens public order, and exposes women to crude behavior by male fans.

Human Rights Watch urged the FIVB in a September 29 letter to raise Ghavami’s case with the Iranian government and to ensure that “the FIVB will not, in the future, authorize games in venues where the entry policy or national laws violate the principle of non-discrimination on gender and other prohibited grounds.”

The FIVB responded that it had sent a letter to President Hassan Rouhani urging him to reconsider the decision to keep Ghavami under arrest. In an October 21 meeting with Human Rights Watch staff, the FIVB affirmed its commitment to inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sports and said that Iran would not be able to host a world championship or any international event until this problem is solved.

On November 1, at the FIVB World Congress in Cagliari, Italy, Dr. Ary S. Graça, the body’s president, publicly called for the release of Ghavami and declared, “[W]omen throughout the world should be allowed to watch and participate in volleyball on an equal basis.” The Asian Volleyball Confederation’s announcement came the next day.

“Sports associations have no business bringing events to countries where women will not be welcome as spectators – or where they could get attacked or arrested for cheering a team,” Worden said. “Sporting bodies and leaders need to agree that they will not back mega-sporting event host countries that violate the sport’s fundamental commitment to equality.”

Human Rights Watch has called on organizers of international sporting events to include non-discrimination clauses in their host city contracts, following the decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in September to include that requirement. The IOC has informed the finalists bidding for the 2022 Winter Games of this requirement. 

“The FIVB took a positive stand for the principle of gender non-discrimination in sports – a principle that Ghoncheh Ghavami is paying an enormous price for,” Worden said. “Countries that discriminate against women who want to play or watch sports should quite simply be denied the chance to host international competitions until they change their policies and play by the rules.”