Vicious Wave of Repression Sparks Global Movement to Free Iran’s Political Prisoners

She should imagine thousands of people in the court room, standing next to her and demanding: #FreeNahid

That’s what Mariam Claren told her imprisoned mother, a 66-year-old, dual German-Iranian citizen and women’s rights activist, before her first Iranian court appearance on April 28.

As the world’s attention concerning Iran largely focuses on the nuclear negotiations between governments (Iran, the U.S. and other big powers), the Islamic Republic has unleashed a sweeping but largely unreported wave of arbitrary arrests.

This in turn has sparked new protests in Iran, courageous resistance by political prisoners and a growing global movement of relatives, former prisoners, human rights organizations, arts organizations and other supporters demanding their freedom. The renowned, now imprisoned attorney Nasrin Soutedeh, who has continued to speak out for all Iran’s political prisoners from behind bars, has attracted wide international support.

Nahid Taghavi is one of those political prisoners. “My mother was held in solitary confinement for 151 straight days,” Claren says, “and interrogated 80 times – a total of 1,000 hours – all without legal counsel. She suffers from diabetes and hypertension and she feels she’s been imprisoned for her system of belief, as I told the Guardian (Dec 7, 2020).”

Amnesty International calls Taghavi “a prisoner of conscience” who “must be immediately and unconditionally released.” In a May 17 press release, Claren states her mother has been transferred out of solitary and will face trial and possible sentencing on June 13.

“I started the campaign #FreeNahid (which has garnered some 40,000 signatures) to raise awareness about my mother’s arrest,” Claren continues. “But her case made me realize I’d been living in a bubble: hundreds even thousands of prisoners were being abused – and her case was not an exception.”

So Claren joined with other relatives, former prisoners, prominent voices of conscience including Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, novelist Ariel Dorfman, writer and activist Gloria Steinem, advocate for women’s reproductive rights and co-initiator of this Campaign Carol Downer, Burn the Cage/Free the Birds movement spokesperson Kave Milani, and over 1,500 social justice activists, artists, academics, faith leaders, medical professionals, and others in signing an Emergency Appeal – The Lives of Iran’s Political Prisoners Hang in the Balance—We Must ACT Now. The Appeal, from the Emergency Campaign to Free Iran’s Political Prisoners, demands freedom for ALL of Iran’s political prisoners, while opposing any U.S. aggression, bullying or sanctions on Iran as well.

November 2019: Massive Uprising Rocks the Theocrats

In November 2019, Iran’s ruling theocrats were rocked by one of the most powerful rebellions they’d faced since taking power in 1979. This was not some U.S.-inspired effort at regime change, but a massive uprising from below involving at least 90 towns – big and small – and often centered in the most impoverished neighborhoods.

The security and armed forces were quickly brought out and began shooting. Hundreds were killed and between six and eight thousand people were reportedly arrested.  The Islamic Republic of Iran justified their murderous crackdown, with the pretext that the protests were “a threat to national security.”

This uprising and one in 2017 were extremely significant. They “oxygenated all of Iranian society,” the Burn the Cage, Free the Birdsmovement writes. Iran’s oppressive theocrats took it as a grave threat to their whole system, including because of its breadth, youthful, and militant character. “The regime is dead serious about not allowing such an actual threat to their rule. They want to make sure the upsurge is not infused with the outlook and program of the need for the most radical revolutionary societal change,” Burn the Cage argues.[1]

October 2020 — Massive New Wave of Arbitrary Arrests

Beginning in October 2020, as the anniversary of the 2019 uprising approached, the Islamic Republic launched a massive new wave of arbitrary arrests. Artists, intellectuals, women’s rights advocates, minority nationalities and religious groups, radicals, revolutionaries, filmmakers, dual nationals and others have been targeted and imprisoned.

To cite a few examples:

* Mehran Raoof, a British-Iranian citizen and labor rights activist, is “being held in prolonged solitary confinement,” even as his health is at risk according to Amnesty International.

* Noted filmmakers Mohammed Rasoulof (There Is No Evil, now online) and Jafar Panahi have both faced arrest and imprisonment, and currently imprisoned documentary filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad is reportedly very near death.

* Iranian-Swedish academic Ahmadreza Djalali is reportedly close to death as a result of months of prolonged solitary confinement in a cramped cell where he’s kept awake by bright lights which are on around the clock.

* Female political prisoners face increased psychological torture, including being arbitrarily moved far from their homes and families.

* Baha’is, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran numbering some 300,000, face intensified persecution, arrests, and assault.

“We’re always talking about repression in Iran,” says Hadi Ghaemi of the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (something I’d seen first-hand when I reported from Iran in the summer 1979 and spring 1980 as the Islamic Republic attempted to crush its opponents and consolidate power).

“But the degree of it has really reached a new level, going back to November 2019,” Ghaemi continues. “The number of persecutions and prosecutions of peaceful activists in Iran from all walks of life has been increasing tremendously. Anyone who wants to challenge, criticize, or ask for solutions has been thrown into jail. I’ll give you examples of writers, journalists, artists, directors, women’s right activists. No matter how small or big, political or non-political their demand is, they end up in jail,” he says, with sentences now averaging 7-10 years in prison. “Just imagine the impact it has on their families and loved ones.”

Making matters worse, many are being tortured, held in solitary confinement, and denied legal rights, assistance or medical aid (as COVID rages in Iran’s prisons), while the Islamic Republic attempts to force “confessions,” conducts sham “trials,” and carries out brutal floggings.

This savage repression includes arbitrary executions: Iran executed at least 246 people last year, according to Amnesty International, including juveniles, political opponents and journalists.

Repression – Met with Inspiring Heroism, Support for Iran’s Political Prisoners

There are frequent reports of prisoners going on hunger strikes – for example Saba Kord Afshari is now on hunger strike to protest the detention of her mother, Raheleh Ahmadi despite her ill health.

The Iranian Writers Association – with support from PEN – has denounced the execution of prisoners of conscience, even as it is under extreme repression. Several members are imprisoned, including Arash Ganji, sentenced to 11 years for translating a book on the Kurdish struggle in Syria.

Journalist and Defenders of Human Rights Center member Narges Mohammadi, who was imprisoned for eight and a half years and remains in Iran, is calling for protest against the solitary confinement of the two brothers of Navid Afkari. Afkari was the Iranian wrestling champion executed last year for being part of the 2018 mass rebellion. His brothers are sentenced to 54 and 27 years in prison, and now face the threat of execution.

Worker strikes and street protests are frequent – here citizens rallied to protest the closure of their shops, chanting “Political prisoners must be released.” On May 10, security forces fired on a crowd of protesters who gathered in Iranshahr in southwest Iran following the death of a minority nationality Baluch boy who was shot in the head.

Rolling Stone reports “A group of Iranian musicians have contributed to a new compilation, Homanity, to raise awareness about the censorship and persecution artists face in Iran. The compilation was spearheaded by Crowdsourcing Human Rights and Democracy Council, and will be released May 7th.”

Many human rights groups including Amnesty International and the Center for Human Rights in Iran, writers and artists groups including PEN and Ms., have actively spoken out against the abuse of Iran’s political prisoners. The Burn the Cage, Free the Birdsmovement in Europe has held protests to free them. And relatives and supporters of prisoners, like Mariam Claren, have launched active online campaigns to free their loved ones — #FreeNahid, #FreeNazanin, #FreeAnoosheh, #FreeNasrin, #FreeThemAll and more.

Emergency Appeal: The Lives of Iran’s Political Prisoners Hang in the Balance—We Must ACT Now!

The Campaign to Free Iran’s Political Prisoners was launched in March 2021 in solidarity with supporters, friends, and families of Iran’s political prisoners and the Burn the Cage movement in Europe. The Campaign is initiated by and calling on those of us inside this country — “in the belly of the beast” — to support those in Iran who are standing up at a moment when the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran — both reactionary, outmoded forces – are in collision, and the repressive nature of Islamic Republic must not be used to justify cruel sanctions and threats or attacks by the US and/or Israel.

Standing with the people of Iran is especially important for people in the U.S. given this country’s history of threatening, intervening and attacking Iran, and at this particular moment. The U.S., Iran and other global powers are now engaged in talks to revive their 2015 nuclear agreement, and there is speculation in the media that Iran’s political prisoners may be used as pawns or bargaining chips in various ways by the different parties involved.

That makes the Emergency Appeal’s stance all the more timely and important: The governments of the U.S. and Iran act from their national interests. And, in this instance, we the people of the U.S. and Iran, along with the people of the world, have OUR shared interests, as part of getting to a better world: to unite to defend the political prisoners of Iran. In the U.S., we have a special responsibility to unite very broadly against this vile repression by the IRI, and to actively oppose any war moves by the U.S. government that would bring even more unbearable suffering to the people of Iran.

All those who stand for justice and yearn for a better world must rally to the cause of freeing Iran’s political prisoners NOW!

I encourage CounterPunch readers to join me in endorsing it.


1. “The core of these rebellions was mainly the impoverished youth. According to official newspapers in Iran, one-third of the population around mega-cities like Tehran and Mashhad live in shanties. As of 2017, 19 million Iranians lived in very poor shanty towns infested with drug addiction.”