The New York Times
By Thomas Erdbrink
Monday, 9 January 2017
TEHRAN — The hunger strike, a pressure tactic of self-starvation used by political protesters around the world, is forcing Iran’s powerful judiciary to reconsider the conditions of at least one of its inmates after several started fasts that are leading to widespread support on social media.
The exact number of hunger strikers in Iranian prisons is unclear, but according to human rights organizations and reports in local media outlets, seven inmates, sentenced for crimes against the state, have refused to eat for intervals ranging from several weeks to more than two months.
Their backgrounds vary, but they include an antigovernment protester, a children’s rights activist, an ayatollah, a spiritual leader and a Lebanese computer technology specialist convicted of espionage.
It is not possible to verify their conditions because of restrictions preventing foreign reporters from visiting Iranian prisons without permission. While some members of Iran’s Parliament have said on their social media accounts that they are investigating the reports, other officials have dismissed the hunger strikes as plots organized by foreign opposition groups.
Conservative critics further argue that the extensive support for the hunger strikers seen on social media networks is an exaggeration created by automated messages.
One of the inmates, Arash Sadeghi, stopped his strike last Tuesday, after the judiciary met his demand to temporarily release his imprisoned wife. She was transferred back to prison on Saturday, said the couple’s lawyer, Amir Raeesian.
Refusing to eat to protest conditions in prison is illegal in Iran, but is not uncommon. However, the number of inmates now simultaneously fasting, in combination with a large social media campaign, is unusual in the country. It also providing a publicity platform for those in prison, Iranian analysts say.
“The success is clearly motivating others to join,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a journalist close to the reformist factions in Iran.
Two of the hunger strikers, Mr. Sadeghi and Ali Shariati, have been convicted of crimes against the state — charges that by Western standards would make them political prisoners. They went for nearly 70 days without food, advocates say, surviving on water and salts.
Mr. Sadeghi received a 15-year sentence last year for offenses like “provoking protest gatherings,” “conniving with counterrevolutionaries against the system,” “making propaganda against the system,” “insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” and “insulting the sharia,” his lawyer, Mr. Raeesian, said. The “system” is an Iranian ideological term for the country’s political establishment: a coterie of clerics, commanders and revolutionary comrades.
Mr. Sadeghi’s sentence is lengthy even by Iranian standards, and reflects what rights activists regard as a new trend in which relatively unknown offenders receive long sentences, often as a warning to others.
He began his fast on Oct. 24 after his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi-Iraee, started serving a six-year prison term for an unpublished story found on her private computer about a woman watching a film about a stoning and burning a Quran in anger afterward. She was convicted on blasphemy charges.
Mr. Shariati, 30, is serving a five-year sentence for his involvement in a 2014 protest supporting the female victims of acid attacks. He is demanding to be released.
Their ordeals have galvanized supporters to highlight the hunger strikes on messaging platforms, using hashtags like #savearash and #sosali. Both became worldwide trending topics on Twitter.
The use of the hunger strike in Iran has in some ways put the government in an embarrassing position, as it exalted the Northern Ireland hunger strikers who once vexed the British.
The embassy of Britain in Tehran is on Bobby Sands Street, renamed for the Provisional I.R.A. member who was imprisoned in Northern Ireland and died in 1981 after refusing to eat for 66 days.
Amir Raeesian, above, is the lawyer for the hunger striker Arash Sadeghi. CreditVahid Salemi/Associated Press
An Iranian journalist, Reza Dehaki, a supporter of his country’s hunger strikes, noted that incongruity.
“In the regulations for Iranian prisons, hunger strike is against the law, but we have a street named after #Bobby_Sands the most renowned person who went on hunger strike! #contradiction #savearash,” Mr. Dehaki wrote on his Twitter account.
Last Monday, a group of around 50 activists, ignoring the dangers that come with organizing unauthorized protests in Iran, gathered in front of Tehran’s Evin prison, where Mr. Sadeghi and Mrs. Ebrahimi-Iraee are being held, and called for their release.
A day later, Iran’s judiciary capitulated to a crucial demand of Mr. Sadeghi. Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran’s prosecutor, announced that Mrs. Ebrahimi-Iraee would be given a leave from prison. Mr. Sadeghi ended his fast, after 72 days.
“He was brought to a hospital Saturday, after four days,” said his lawyer, Mr. Raeesian.
The judiciary, dominated by Iran’s hard-liners, is engaged in a barely veiled battle with the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which is seeking to limit its powers.
Some hard-liners say the hunger strikes have been organized with Mr. Rouhani’s tacit support to embarrass the judiciary. Last month Mr. Rouhani released what he called a citizenship rights charter that outlined the personal freedoms of Iranians. “The government, by giving out such charters, is adding fuel to the fire of the hunger strikes,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line political analyst. “These are all opportunities for outsiders to apply new pressure on Iran.”
The other hunger strikers are in prisons scattered across the country. Information on their conditions is leaking out through foreign-based human rights organizations and local opposition websites.
One of the inmates, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekounam, was reported to have been hospitalized on Saturday after 15 days of fasting, according to his website. He is accused of having relations with “spirits,” but supporters say he has been critical of the religious establishment.
A children’s rights activist, Saeed Shirzad, 27, has vowed not to eat for at least a month and supporters say he had his lips sewn closed.
An open letter with his name on it, published on a Kurdish website, said he was protesting the lack of basic rights for prisoners.
Mehdi Kukhian and Karim Chaichian, imprisoned for “spreading propaganda” over the internet, have been on hunger strike for the last three weeks, according to Oyan News, a website promoting the Azari language that the Iranian authorities have sought to block. Another hunger striker, a spiritual healer named Mohammad Ali Taheri, is accused of leading a cult, his supporters say.
The Lebanese man sentenced to 10 years for spying, Nizar Zakka, started a hunger strike on Dec. 8, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, a group based in New York.
For inmates, refusing to eat is sometimes the only way to be heard, one prominent Iranian human rights lawyer said. “To do a hunger strike is a last resort for inmates and political prisoners, who are arrested at midnight, interrogated in unknown jails, under horrible pressures, while their families witnessing the ordeals from afar, what can they do but go on hunger strike?” said the lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was imprisoned herself for several years. “It is incredibly hard, but in some cases it leads to success.”
In 2012, while serving a six-year sentence, Mrs. Sotoudeh went on a hunger strike for 49 days after authorities refused to allow her 12-year-old daughter to leave the country. She fell into fragile health, drinking only water mixed with salts and sugar. Her weight dropped to 95 pounds.
It was the second time that Ms. Sotoudeh had stopped eating. She declared her first hunger strike in 2010, after her family was forbidden to visit or make phone calls. In that showdown, the authorities capitulated after four weeks, allowing her husband and two children to visit weekly.
Mrs. Sotoudeh, who was given the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2012, said she was haunted by the deprivations of those protests, even though she prevailed.
“I am over 50 years old and I have sustained several diseases, suffered pains for different reasons physically,” she said. “But I should say the hunger strike was the most painful experience which I have suffered in my life and I will never forget it.”