Millions of Iranians are consuming the latest twists and turns of the presidential and city council election season on their Telegram accounts and Twitter feeds, with voting scheduled for May 19. And during this time of expanded public debate in Iran, candidates should be speaking out for the country’s many political prisoners.
One of those prisoners is 28-year-old Atena Daemi, a children’s rights activist who is serving a seven-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison. Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrested Daemi in October 2014 because of her activism, before releasing her on bail after 16 months. A revolutionary court had already sentenced her to 14 years in prison on charges including “assembly and collusion against national security,” and “propaganda against the state.” Her sentence was later reduced to seven years by an appeals court.
According to her family, when authorities arrested Daemi at their home in November 2016 to serve the remainder of her sentence, they refused to show their identification or an arrest warrant, both of which are required by law. The family therefore refused to allow them inside, an act which seems to have brought further charges against Daemi’s sisters. Four months later, a court in Tehran sentenced two of Daemi’s sisters to three months in prison on charges of insulting and obstructing law enforcement agents, but then suspended the sentence. To protest this state harassment of her family, Daemi has begun a hunger strike, which her family says she will continue until the authorities formally acquit her sisters of wrongdoing. She is now one month into her strike, and her family says her health is deteriorating rapidly.
Daemi is not alone. Ismail Abdi, the secretary general of the Teachers’ Association, is serving a six-year prison sentence in part for organizing a teachers’ demonstration in front of the parliament. He began a hunger strike on April 30 to protest authorities’ pressure on independent unions and the corrupt justice system.
Hengameh Shahdhi, a journalist who has been detained since March 9, is also on hunger strike to protest her arrest. Authorities have not let her see a lawyer for over two months.
The election period is one of those rare times in Iran when many candidates seem to champion greater respect for human rights. But are any of the candidates willing to acknowledge the suffering of these prisoners and press for their rights, and, better still, their freedom?