On Tuesday, Iran’s regime judiciary ordered the forcible transfer of Maryam Akbari Monfared from Evin to Semnan Prison. Monfared has served approximately 12 years of a 15-year sentence stemming solely from her political activism and her familial relationships with members of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). Her transfer represents the latest instance of arbitrary pressure and extrajudicial pressure targeting the woman who was the first political prisoner to issue a formal complaint about the Iranian regime’s past crimes, chiefly the 1988 massacre of political prisoners.
That massacre took place in the summer of 1988, and it stemmed from a fatwa issued that year by the regime’s founder and supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomenei. The religious edict declared that MEK members were enemies of God himself and thus subject to summary execution. In response, prisons throughout Iran assembled “death commissions” to interrogate political prisoners over their affiliations and impose capital sentences upon those who failed to demonstrate loyalty to the regime. It is estimated that within several months, over 30,000 of those political prisoners were killed.
Among the victims of the massacre were two of Monfared’s siblings – a brother and a sister. Two other brothers were killed by regime authorities earlier in the 1980s, one by execution and one under torture before even being convicted of any crime. Monfared’s issued her complaint over these killings in October 2016. It read in part:
“My brother Abdolreza and my sister Roqieh were executed on an unknown date during the summer of 1988… They were deprived of their right to have a lawyer to represent them. Abdolreza was arrested when he was only 17 for selling Mojahed publication (affiliated to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran – PMOI or MEK). He was sentenced to three years imprisonment in 1980, but the authorities refused to release him after he completed his prison term until he was finally executed in 1988.”
Monfared immediately followed up on this complaint by publishing an open letter aimed at informing the international community about the massacre and associated human rights issues. In response, regime authorities accused her of “defaming Islam” by bringing up the clerical regime’s past offenses. They also exacerbated the problems in their own human rights record by applying new pressures on Monfared, including the cancellation of family visits and revocation of access to vital medical services.
These actions made Monfared the subject of an Urgent Action campaign by Amnesty International in the month after the complaint was filed. But in the absence of any meaningful follow-up from the United Nations, the European Union, or their member states, this campaign ended up doing very little to dissuade the regime from keeping up the pressure on her, much less on other female detainees and political prisoners.
In September 2018, Monfared and two other female prisoners of conscience, Golrokh Ebrahimi Eraei, and Atena Daemi, staged a protest over authorities’ efforts to subject them to new, coordinated interrogations with the apparent purpose of compelling them to provide false confessions or levy accusations against others as a means of justifying further prosecution.
Tehran has a long history of violating its own laws to keep political prisoners behind bars or return them to detention soon afterward. In fact, that practice often goes hand-in-hand with the pressure exerted through denial of medical treatment and family visits, as well as other tactics that have been highlighted in recent years by Monfared and other detainees who have had the courage to stand up in protest despite threats of retaliation.
This courage was proudly highlighted by women from Iranian expatriate communities just one day before the news broke of Monfared’s forcible transfer. That Monday was International Women’s Day, and the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) marked the occasion by hosting a virtual conference to highlight the plight of women in Iranian society, the particular hardships faced by those women who are also detained on political grounds, and the fact that those detentions reflect a special prominence of place for women in the pro-democracy Resistance movement.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) March 8, 2021
“From December 2017 to January 2020, our sisters and daughters demonstrated their heroism,” said NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi, referring to a period during which Iran witnessed at least three nationwide protest movements, the largest of which encompassed nearly 200 Iranian cities and towns. “Women and youths were the pivotal force in the uprisings.”
Mrs. Rajavi went on to say that as conditions in Iran have worsened, Iranian women have reacted with even greater strength of commitment, refusing to be cowed by retaliation on the streets or within the judicial system. She then addressed female activists directly, saying, “Each of the obstacles, restrictions and [acts of] oppression that the regime imposes on you is an opportunity that tests your willpower.”
The Monfared case has certainly showcased that willpower over the past several years. The international community should be paying more attention to her story and countless other stories coming from the political wards of Iran’s prisons, the populations of which have swelled in the wake of the recent uprisings. The European Union and other world powers should acknowledge these cases not only for the sake of praising Iranian activists’ defiance but also as a precursor to providing them with actual support.
The EU usually condemns the violation of human rights in words. But, unfortunately, it turns a blind eye and continues its relationship with the regime as business as usual when it comes to the deeds. This is while the EU has a ready mechanism for holding the regime accountable for its violation of human rights in the form of sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. Magnitsky Act “allows the EU to freeze the assets of, ban entry to, and prohibit dealings with human rights abusers wherever they may be located.”
Beyond that, member states should downgrade diplomatic and trade ties with the Iranian regime, pending a verifiable improvement in the regime’s actions with respect to human rights.
There is ample justification for any such European measures. With sufficient courage to promote them, policymakers could highlight individual cases like Monfared, whom one Iranian judge explicitly described as paying the price for her late siblings’ opposition to the clerical regime. They could also highlight broad statistics such as the 12,000 arrests recorded just during the several days of nationwide uprising in November 2019 or the 1,500 people killed in shooting incidents during that same period.
Policymakers could also point to the roughly 60 death sentences that were carried out in just the first two months of 2021. On the one hand, that statistic calls attention to the regime’s lifelong contempt for human rights, as embodied by its status as the world’s foremost abuser of the death penalty. On the other hand, it suggests that familiar tactics of repression are growing even more commonplace, with potentially fatal consequences for those activists who stand up against tyranny in the absence of international support while the regime struggles to regain control over people.