Life and death in Iran’s prisons

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.

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo’s chair is still empty

Update: On 13 July 2017 the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, jailed for his pro-democracy work, died in hospital aged 61.

When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Chinese authorities were sent into a state of panic. Liu had been in prison since 2009, following the release of Charter 08, a pamphlet he co-wrote that called for greater democratic freedoms. As the world’s attention was on China and on Liu, all references to Liu and the prize were blocked online and off. Then his wife and many of his acquaintances were detained in an attempt to stop them from going to Oslo and collecting it on his behalf. At the ceremony itself, an empty chair became a stark reminder of his absence and soon the words “empty chair” started to race through the internet. These too were blocked.

Liu has since remained in prison and efforts to stamp out his name continue. But last week he once again made headlines following his release from prison on health grounds. At the time of writing, reports say Liu, who is suffering from late-stage liver cancer, is close to death. For free speech advocates around the world, this news is saddening. No figure has come to represent the fight for Chinese democracy as much as Liu Xiaobo.

Born in 1955 in Jilin province in northeast China, the son of two teachers, Liu went on to become a writer, activist and academic. It was while teaching at Columbia’s Barnard College in New York in 1989 that the Tiananmen Square protests broke out. Liu decided to return to China to take part in them on their final, fateful day. This led to his arrest and imprisonment, the first of four times.

Liu was shunned by China’s academic community when he left prison two years later, but that did not silence him and he continued to build on his reputation within China as an outspoken critic of the Communist Party. He also started a tradition of writing poems about Tiananmen every year to mark the anniversary – a powerful reminder that the government does not have a monopoly on memory.

For Liu the internet was a lifeline. He described it as “God’s gift to the Chinese people” in an essay that was published in Index on Censorship magazine in 2006. The web became his primary portal to publish his thoughts to the outside world and to reach audiences when traditional forms of media were out of bounds. Liu wrote that “the effect of the internet in improving the state of free expression in China cannot be underestimated”.

Liu’s influence peaked in December 2008 with Charter 08, a document modelled on Václav Havel’s Charter 77, written in Communist Czechoslovakia 30 years earlier. The document outlines the basic principles and fundamental rights that should govern China’s political landscape. Over 350 intellectuals and activists initially signed it, with a further 10,000 people including academics, journalists and businessmen adding their names to it upon its released. The government’s reaction to Charter 08 was swift and harsh. Liu was initially arrested two days prior to its official publication and later charged with 11 years in prison for incitement to subversion, during a trial in which he said he had no enemies. Index has repeatedly called for his release.

Isabel Hilton, a leading expert on China, told Index back in 2010 that “when the history of free expression and freedom of ideas is written, he and the other signatories of Charter 08 will be remembered as courageous citizens who sought the best for their country”.

In an interview Liu gave prior to his arrest, he said: “The way I see it, people like me live in two prisons in China. You come out of the small, fenced-in prison, only to enter the bigger, fenceless prison of society.” Since Liu’s arrest almost a decade ago, China has continued to change at breakneck speed. When it comes to human rights and free speech, sadly this change has been predominantly for the worse. The bigger, fenceless prison that Liu spoke of is today a lot more closed and draconian. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has overseen a huge crackdown on dissent. And the internet, God’s gift to China, is more regulated that ever before. Even seemingly innocent entertainment channels are frequently shut down, such as Kuaishou, a video-sharing site, which Index on Censorship reported on in its most recent issue.

Despite this, people continue to fight for greater freedom and rights in China, exploiting loopholes online as and when they can, and showing remarkable courage in the face of extreme adversity. The role of Liu in setting an example and providing inspiration cannot be underplayed. Liu’s Nobel chair might still be empty, but he is never forgotten, nor will he ever be.

Read more:

Liu Xiaobo’s article on the power of the internet in full

A poem by Liu translated for Index on Censorship magazine

Esteemed writer Ma Jian’s response to the Nobel Peace Prize and thoughts on Liu

The government ban of words related to Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize

Who nominated Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Press briefing after the talks between Putin and Merkel - Berlin

There was much raising of eyebrows yesterday when it was announced that Russia’s “International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation” are putting forward Vladimir Putin as a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. But who are the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation.

A source suggests to Index that they are “a typical pseudo cultural organisation” that gets budgets for loyalty to Putin and is ruled by ex-Soviet nomenclature. But judging by this list of presidents, vice presidents, and Heroes of the USSR, they are very, very important people indeed. (Source)

Composition of the Management Board and the Academy
The President
Trepeznikov Shilov

First Vice-President
Gennady Zgersky,

First Vice-President
Alexander Leonidovich Manilow

First Vice-President
Topchiy Sergei Stepanovich

First Vice-President
Paul P. Petrik,

First Vice-President
Taras Shamba Myronovych,

The first vice-president
Sergei K. Kamkov.

Vice – President
Viktor Gorbatko – twice Hero of the Soviet Union (astronaut), B

Vice – President
Mikhail Tikhomirov – Advisor to the President of the Russian Olympic Committee

Vice – President
Aliyev Phase Gamzatovna folk poet of Dagestan,

Vice – President
Sergey Makarov

Vice – President
Malik – Ohanjanian Rafael Gegamovich – Branch Manager in Armenia

Vice – President
Todash Guinn, Head of the Representation in Japan

Vice – President
Yankovskaya Ludmila – Head of Representation in Ukraine

Vice – President
Bishop Vissarion – Head of Mission in Abkhazia, head of the Orthodox Church in Abkhazia,

Vice – President
Stoyan Topalov – Head of Representation in Bulgaria

Members of the Presidium

Sergei Shamba Tarasovich – Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia.
Glebov Vladimir Vladimirovich – Academician of the Academy of Architecture.
Dadaev Gadzhievich Felix – People’s Artist of the USSR.
Antoshkin Nicholas T. – Hero of the Soviet Union.
Bepko Yegorov – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (MFA).
Yuri Dubinin – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (MFA).
Primakov Yevgeny Primakov – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (MFA), President of the Chamber of Commerce of the Russian Federation.
Peter A. Makarov – Project Manager CNNS Russia.
Kabzon Iosif Davidovich – People’s Artist of the USSR.
Rogozhkin Nicholas E. – Deputy. Minister for the Interior Ministry, Interior Troops Commander of the Russian Federation.
Ivan Sergeyev – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (MFA).
Alexander Golubev Titovich – Chairman of the RAF veterans’ organization.
Kuz’kina Galina – a journalist, deputy. chief editor of the magazine “Our Power.”
Valentin A. Prikhodko – gene. Director of the “Pride of Russia”.
Sergei Baburin, rector of the institute.
Novozhylov Valery Yu – Major – General of the Russian Federation Ministry of Internal Affairs of explosives.
Zalikhanov Michael Chukkaevich – Hero of the Soviet Union, deputy of the State. Duma
Samvel Samvel Grigoryan – Academician of the AHP.
Valentina Tereshkova – the pilot – cosmonaut.
Arthur N. Chilingarov – the hero of the Soviet Union, Hero of the Russian Federation, the deputy of the State. Duma.
Mesenzhnik Jacob Z. – Academician of the Academy of science and business.
Mikhail Vinogradov – Head of Federal Agency for Industry.
Aydarov Letcho Ayubovich – gene. manager of the “Larakas” in Moscow.