Iranian rights activists join in hunger strike behind bars

Iranian rights activists join in hunger strike behind bars
Renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh goes on hunger strike in solidarity with detained Farhad Meysami, as she advocates for his release.
5 min read
03 September, 2018
Human rights defender Farhad Meysami has been charged with 'national security offences' [Facebook]
Behind the imposing walls of Iran's infamous Evin prison, human rights activist and publisher Farhad Meysami is into his 33rd day of a hunger strike. Having survived merely on water and salt since the day after his arrest, his health is said to be deteriorating. 

On August 1, Meysami was detained for the possession and distribution of pin-on badges that oppose the country's strict mandatory hijab policy.

According to Iran's Human Rights Activists news agency (HRANA), which shares information about human rights issues in Iran, authorities are charging Meysami on three accounts: Collusion and conspiracy to threaten national security, disseminating propaganda against the regime and insulting the essential Islamic sacrament, the hijab. He has also been charged with "provoking women to appear without hijab in the street."

Initially, Meysami spent 16 days in solitary confinement before being transferred to a quarantine area for three more days, thereafter moving to the public area of Evin.

Reza Khandan, who has been in contact with Meysami over the phone, believes that while the badges provided Iran's Security Forces with the legal authority to make the arrest, he had been wanted for previous acts of civil dissent as well.

"Meysami had a lot of social and political activism besides that," Khandan tells The New Arab.

"His main focus was to scientifically study social and non-violent ways to fight the system. One of his efforts was to publish books on non-violent methods. Also, aside from that he's always been helping the families of the political prisoners and specifically other political prisoners."

Partners in activism

Meysami's activism gained notoriety through his support for the renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is married to Khandan.

During Sotoudeh's first imprisonment, from 2010 until 2013, she went on hunger strike a total four times. Meysami then initiated his own 28-day hunger strike to protest her incarceration.

Later, when Sotoudeh's licence was suspended for three years due to the charges on her record, she began a prolonged sit-in at the Iranian equivalent of the BAR Association in October, 2014.

"She did that for eight months and Farhad Meysami was with her every day when she was in front of them, among other people that joined them from time to time. But these two were always there," says Khandan.

Following the restoration of her licence, Sotoudeh offered to represent several women who had protested the compulsory hijab policy by removing their head scarfs in the busy streets of Tehran earlier this year. On June 13, shortly before the start of a trial, security forces arrested Sotoudeh again over a 2016 conviction, made in absentia.

On August 25, Sotoudeh wrote a letter from Evin prison that was posted to her Facebook profile. The letter declares the start of a new hunger strike in order to "protest against the continued pressure on my family and friends."

Sotoudeh's hunger strike now advocates for the release of Farhad Meysami, in the same way that Meysami had once committed to a hunger strike for her sake. 

Through his conversations with Sotoudeh, Khandan says that she has listed two primary demands. First, she calls for the immediate release of Meysami without further questioning or implication. Second, she requests government compensation for the searching of her and her family members' homes by security forces.

Sources within the prison have told Khandan that Meysami looked "very pale" and that he now weighed 66 kilogrammes, down from 78 kilogrammes when he was admitted to the prison. 

Friends of Meysami told The New Arab that they were concerned for his health as this weight is low for a 48-year-old, approximately 1.8 metres in height.

Both Sotoudeh and Meysami have also refused to participate in the prison interrogation process as those charged with national security crimes are only allowed to pick a lawyer from a narrow list approved by the government.

Meysami and Sotoudeh pickett for the right to work [Facebook]

Forces of dissuasion  

Meysami's arrest comes at a time of widespread social upheaval in Iran as protests concerning a range of issues, such as the worsening economy and allegations of corruption, grip the country. In response, the Revolutionary Guard has deployed to suppress dissenters and has conducted mass arrests. 

Yet, the security forces that jailed Meysami are under the control of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Rouhani administration.

The move came as a surprise to activists as Meysami had supported Rouhani's candidacy for president. 

Omid Minovi, whose name has been changed over concerns for his safety, has known Farhad for years. "He was not for boycotting the election. He was for participating in the election and given the choices, he was for Rouhani as well," says Minovi, adding that "this is why we cannot make heads or tails of his arrest."

Tara Sepehri, the Iran Researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes that Meysami's arrest signals the expansion of the government's crackdown on protesters and human rights activists.

"I think this is an unfortunate event because it shows that other intelligence agencies other than the Islamic Revolutionary Guards intelligence, basically, [the] Minister of intelligence [is] also stepping up their crackdown and I don't expect the space to open up anytime soon.

"Unfortunately, I think we might see an increased crackdown in the coming months unless authorities change their mindset about how they should approach peaceful descent."

Despite the arrests, Khandan predicts that Meysami and Sotoudeh will inspire others to join the anti-hijab movement, noting that his wife no longer wears the garment in prison and that she still has one of Meysami's buttons pinned to her uniform.


Scott Preston is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, covering refugees and political topics in the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @ScottAPreston