A decade of resistance behind Iranian bars

Soudeh Alikhani of the Justice for Iran campaign writes on the 10th anniversary of the women’s rights activist Zeinab Jalalian’s arrest – on International Women's Day

Zeinab Jalalian, second from the left.

Ten years have passed since Iranian-Kurdish political and women’s rights activist Zeinab Jalalian was unlawfully arrested by the security and intelligence services. Now in Khoy Prison in the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan, she is believed to be the only political prisoner in Iran serving a life sentence.

As a woman and a Kurd, she has been subject to a legal system that effectively discriminates against women and ethnic minorities, a system that does not work on the presumption of innocence, which has elevated arbitrariness to a central principle of justice.

Further, she has also suffered the injustice of a penal system that metes out brutal and arbitrary punishment to those who are unlucky enough to fall foul of it.

Zeinab, now 35, was arrested in her native Iranian Kurdistan in early March 2008. A social and political activist who worked to empower women by providing educational and social services in Iraq and Iran, she had earlier visited a girls’ school in Kamiaran, Iran and given a speech about women’s rights and International Women’s Day.

Zeinab was arrested by four security officers, who kicked her, tied her hands and feet and locked her in the trunk of their car before taking her away. She wasn’t told of the charges against her for months after her arrest, she was denied access to a lawyer, and was prevented from contacting her relatives until a month after her initial detention.

The Iranian authorities subjected Zeinab to extensive torture: she was kept in solitary confinement, brutally beaten while blindfolded, threatened with rape, hit on the soles of her feet, and thrown so violently against a wall that she suffered a brain haemorrhage near her eyes. Denied proper medical treatment, Zeinab is slowly going blind because of that injury, sustained almost a decade ago.

Zeinab was eventually accused of participation in the armed activities of PJAK (The Party for Free Life in Kurdistan), a charge she has consistently denied. She was convicted of moharebeh, ‘enmity against God’, and sentenced to death in a summary trial in which her lawyer, appointed only three weeks earlier, was not even present to defend her.

Even after her conviction, the Iranian government tortured Zeinab in an attempt to get her to provide a confession that could be televised. However, she has steadfastly refused to confess to something she insists she did not do.

In December 2011, Zeinab contacted her lawyer to inform him that she had been told her death sentence had been commuted to life in prison. It took her lawyer several weeks to confirm that she no longer faced execution.

However, this development in her case has not been accompanied by an improvement in the conditions she has had to face. Zeinab has been transferred between prisons at least five times without explanation, and has been in Khoy prison since 2015.

Her access to lawyers and her family has been severely circumscribed. In 2017, Amnesty International reported that the prison authorities have refused to give her access to the specialist medical care she needs to save her deteriorating eyesight, despite the fact that doctors recommended she have surgery to save her eyesight as long ago as 2014. Instead, prison authorities have given her eye drops, which do not treat her condition.

Amnesty has also reported that Zeinab suffers from heart problems, as well as intestinal and kidney complications. While some of her requests for medical treatment have been rejected outright, others have been accepted on the condition that she make a videotaped ‘confession’.

Following a submission filed by REDRESS and Justice for Iran, in 2016 the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Zeinab had not received a fair trial according to international standards and that she was one of seven individuals in Iran whose detention was arbitrary.

The committee also reported that it had received credible information that basic procedural requirements under Iranian law had not been met in Zeinab’s case. These failings included the absence of both an arrest warrant and an order for her temporary detention, the fact that a court review of her custody was not carried out four months after her arrest, as it should have been by law, and that the four intelligence officers who arrested her had no legal authority to arrest or detain her.

In the judgment against her, the court found Zeinab guilty of ‘refraining from telling the truth about transporting arms and hand-grenades’ for the armed wing of PJAK, even though no weapons were found in her possession at the time of her arrest. The court regarded the charges against her as self-evidently true; the fact that no evidence existed to corroborate them was irrelevant.

Zeinab’s case is an indictment of the Islamic Republic’s justice system, which bears down hardest on women and minorities, the most marginalized and vulnerable elements in Iranian society.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, let us reaffirm our solidarity with all women of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran who, like Zeinab, stand strong in the face of oppression.