Terrorism, pain, suffering, torture, blood and fear. These are the currencies the Iranian regime trades in. From their support for global terror groups to their development of weapons of mass destruction – this is a regime which seeks to be a force for ill in the world. But while others focus on their geo-political impact it is their treatment of their citizenry which most concerns Index, especially those dissidents whose bravery inspires us every day.
It is clear that the protection of citizens comes secondary to the Iranian authorities who prioritise holding onto power over all other matters.
The murder of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who was just 22-years-old, following her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s strict dress code, on 16 September 2022 saw a new phase in challenging the status quo. This was the spark that lit the fuse on the Iranians’ want for freedom with ongoing protests across the country.
In response to these protests, the regime in Iran has doubled down on their repression. Eight protesters have been executed for daring to participate in the protests. Iran is ruthlessly targeting anyone who dares to challenge one of the most tyrannical regimes in the world. In recent days we have seen their barbaric treatment of one of our Freedom of Expression Award winners, Toomaj Salehi, who has been re-arrested after detailing the horrendous torture he has received in prison.
We will write a great deal in the coming months about what is happening to Toomaj. Today though I want to highlight the experiences of the voiceless. As ever with such regimes it is the children and the vulnerable who suffer most. Those whose voices are easiest to silence.
We all would agree, I hope, that children should be given warmth, love and security as they grow up. It is the most basic of human rights. This is simply not the case in Iran.
Their repression knows no bounds and has culminated in their use of the death penalty on a child.
Hamidreza Azari, a 17-year-old, was executed by the Iranian government as part of their recent slew of capital punishments. Hamidreza allegedly killed a man during a fight when he was 16 years old. We have no details of the incident but what we do know is that he is not in prison. He is now in a grave; murdered by the state, along with Milad Zohrevand, a dissident.
This act is against international law. Juveniles cannot be subject to capital punishment. Iran knows this only too well – which is why they lied about Hamidreza’s age in the official reports.
In the United Kingdom protesting does not come with the fear of death. It’s vitally important that people like me and you use our freedom to extol those of others. If we fail to stand up for the voiceless, then the estimated 582 people who have perished at the hands of the Iranian government since 2022 will continue to grow.
Tyrants win where silence prevails.
Narges Mohammadi is locked in a vicious circle. The 2023 Nobel Peace Prize winner has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison since September 2022 and the Iranian authorities seem determined to keep the prominent human rights activist there.
Mohammadi became active in fighting against the oppression of women in Iran as a student physicist in the 1990s and has promoted human rights ever since, including campaigning for an end to the death penalty in a country where 582 were executed last year alone.
In her nomination for the Peace Prize, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said: “Her brave struggle has come with tremendous personal costs. Altogether, the regime has arrested her 13 times, convicted her five times, and sentenced her to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes.”
During her current detention, Mohammadi has been summoned to the courts on numerous occasions to face new charges. Yet Mohammadi argues that the revolutionary courts are not independent judicial bodies and she has also stopped lawyers attending on her behalf for that same reason.
Some of these charges relate to her ongoing human rights work from inside prison, including smuggling out an article which was published in the New York Times on the anniversary of Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s death in custody, the event that sparked the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests that erupted in Iran in 2022. Mohammadi’s message from prison was: “The more of us they lock up, the stronger we become.”
At the beginning of last week, the woman human rights defender started a hunger strike in protest against delayed and neglectful medical care for sick prisoners, as well as the rule which makes wearing the “mandatory hijab” a condition for the transfer of the women prisoners to medical facilities. Then, earlier this week Mohammadi heard that she was to face a series of new charges, but after refusing to wear hijab the prosecutor prohibited her from attending court. As a result neither Mohammadi nor her lawyer know the nature of the new charges levelled against her. She has now ended her hunger strike.
The regime will be infuriated with her refusal to engage with the justice system, while Mohammadi knows that each time she doesn’t attend it draws yet more attention to her plight.
Mohammadi knows only too well the methods the authorities use to break prisoners. Index has recently been given a video made by Mohammadi just before she returned to jail, shot by the Iranian film-maker Vahid Zarezadeh. In it she says that people should not be surprised if, in the event that she dies in jail, the authorities blame an undiagnosed health problem, perhaps a dodgy heart.
“This system sets up the conditions for the prisoner’s death,” she says.
In sharing the video, she has put the regime on notice that they are being watched. You can watch the video here.
Zarezadeh tells me, “It was filmed at the time when she was rushed from the prison to the hospital due to the blockage of her heart veins, which were opened through angioplasty. She was on medical leave and not in good health. Shortly after this video, she was returned to Qarchak women’s prison.”
He says, “Qarchak Women’s Prison is a notorious facility designed for women, where many human rights activists and opponents of compulsory hijab are held. The prison’s lack of adequate drinking water, as well as poor hygiene and medical care, leads to the spread of various diseases among inmates. Originally used as a livestock centre, Qarchak has been expanded over time. Numerous reports highlight human rights violations in this prison, yet Iranian judicial authorities show no inclination to change the conditions of detainment.”
Iran’s appalling human rights record has also come under scrutiny at this week’s Alternative Human Rights Expo, which highlighted human rights issues related to the suppression of freedom of expression and assembly in the Middle East and North Africa. The virtual event, hosted by the Gulf Center for Human Rights and its partners, was held to focus attention on the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP28) to be held from 30 November to 12 December 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. It featured artists, poets, writers and singers from the region including Iranian poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari.
Ekhtesari performed her poem She is Not Woman as part of the event (which is available to view here) which includes the following lines:
We’re sick of queuing for the gallows
Clotted grief in our blood
Trouble is all that’s left
Rage is all we own
Narges Mohammadi’s rage is clear for everyone to see. It is high time that she and other human rights defenders in Iran’s jails are unconditionally released.
An Iranian rapper, an Indian fact-checker and an Afghan with a motorbike classroom. One thing that connects these three is the time they’ve spent, or are still spending, behind bars. The other is that they all took home Freedom of Expression Awards last night. We’d like to spend this article introducing you to these champions of free expression, as well as honouring our Trustee Award winner, who needs no introduction. Who else could it be but Sir Salman Rushdie?
Every year when we gather in London to celebrate these annual awards and the relative safety we feel is in stark contrast to the positions our awards nominees find themselves in. This year was no different.
Toomaj Salehi, a well-known hip-hop artist from Iran, took home the 2023 Arts Award. Even if we’d wanted to bring Salehi to London to receive his award, it would have been impossible. Right now, as you read this, he is in jail for “corruption on earth”, and he’ll stay there for a further five-and-a-half years. Salehi sings about injustice and abuses by the Iranian authorities — even earlier arrests didn’t stop him from standing up to atrocities through his music. After supporting protests after the death of Jina “Mahsa” Amini, Salehi was once again arrested, this time violently, and it’s believed he was tortured into a false confession. Although he is still locked away, his music is not silenced, and you can listen to it here.
Our Campaigning Award winner comes from Afghanistan, the brilliant Matiullah Wesa. Through his organisation Pen Path, Wesa has been protecting education in the country, even more so after the Taliban takeover. Since 2009, he has re-opened over 100 schools closed by the Taliban in remote villages, as well as establishing new ones. He’s given pens and books to hundreds of thousands of children, and set up libraries in rural areas. And he’s set out on a motorbike, using it as a mobile classroom, complete with a computer screen, speakers and bookcase. But in March this year, he was detained by the Taliban and had his house raided. Seven months later there’s no sign of release. His family has not been allowed to visit him.
This year’s Journalism Award winner is Mohammed Zubair. He co-founded the fact-checking platform Alt News, set up to dismantle propaganda networks and debunk fake news. After setting its sights on political fact-checking and amplifying dissidents, the outlet came under pressure from the outside. And it wasn’t long before Zubair himself became a target. He was arrested in June 2022 for a tweet, and bailed. But every time he was released on bail, he was arrested again for something else — a cycle which lasted for almost a month. No doubt a very long time when you’re in and out of prison.
It’s not often that we mention Colin Firth in Index, but today we have good reason. He joined our chair Trevor Phillips on stage last night to present the Trustees Award, which was given to a bastion of free expression, novelist Sir Salman Rushdie. It won’t be news to Index readers that Rushdie has faced appalling threats to his life since publishing The Satanic Verses, the most serious of which was an attempted murder in New York last summer, leaving him blind in one eye. This week, Rushdie announced an upcoming release of a memoir about the attack. Understandably, Rushdie did not attend our event, but he did leave us with a video message. To round up our newsletter this week, we’d like to leave you with a few of his words:
“My connection with Index goes back really a long way…something like 40 years on and off that we have done things together. You know, I can’t avoid saying that the work is more important than ever because it seems like the urge to censor is stronger than ever and doesn’t come only from one direction. It comes from every possible direction, from the young and the old, the left and the right, and needs to be resisted as strongly as ever.”
For the last 22 years Index on Censorship has been proud to host the annual Freedom of Expression Awards. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the brave artists, journalists and campaigners from around the world who fight for freedom of expression in the most challenging of circumstances. There are some truly incredible nominees for the awards this year, who more than ever, are challenging the repressive regimes they live under to fight for the rights of ordinary people.
2023 has seen the continuation of Russia’s war on Ukraine with its horrific consequences for the people of Ukraine and the severe repression for those speaking out against the war in Russia. The CCP in China continues to repress journalists, particularly those who attempt to uncover the crimes against the Uyghur people, and activists and protesters for women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan face vicious attacks from the authorities.
The shortlisted candidates for the Arts award are Visual Rebellion, a platform for sharing the work of photographers, filmmakers, and artists documenting the protests in Myanmar; Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi, who sings about injustice and the abuse of civil society by the authorities, for which he has been imprisoned; and Ukrainians, curator Maria Lanko and artist Pavlo Makov, who have worked to protect Ukrainian art in the face of Russian war crimes.
The shortlisted candidates for the Campaigning award are Matiullah Wesa from Afghanistan who has worked to ensure all children, but especially girls, have access to education and educational materials; Russian student Olesya Krivtsova who has publicly opposed Russia’s war on Ukraine and has fled the country to avoid up to 10 years’ imprisonment; the Xinjiang Victim’s Database, which records the incarceration and persecution of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province; and the Africa Human Rights Network which works to support and protect human rights defenders across the Great Lakes region of Africa.
And the shortlisted candidates for the Journalism award are Bilan Media, Somalia’s first women-only media organisation and newsroom; Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the Indian fact-checking platform Alt News which has led to threats after challenging misinformation; and Afghan Mortaza Behboudi, in exile in France, who continues to travel to Afghanistan every month to work with different media outlets to ensure the voices of Afghans are heard.
The Freedom of Expression Awards are a time to remind ourselves of the importance of freedom of expression and to commit ourselves to protecting our own freedom of expression. It is easily lost but hard fought for. We must not forget that.