Outside the walls of Evin Prison, Jila Karamzadeh Makvandi is known to her friends as a civil and women’s rights activist who holds fast to her convictions no matter the danger. Charged for the second time with “propaganda against the regime” and “conspiracy to disrupt national security”, she now faces half a decade in Evin for her ongoing support of a women-led pressure group, the Mothers of Laleh Park. Her former cellmate spoke to IranWire of how Jila’s patience, fortitude and creative talent saw her through her first period of incarceration – but also of her ongoing fears for Jila’s health.
Who is Jila Karamzadeh Makvandi and why is she in prison?
Jila Karamzadeh Makvandi was arrested for the first time in February 2009, at her home in Tehran, amid the popular protests over the results of the presidential election. She was charged with "propaganda against the regime" and "conspiracy to disrupt national security", as were other civil society activists. She was released on bail about 35 days later, in March of that year.
According to the indictment, the charges against Karamzadeh relate to her "lighting a candle" and "weekly walks with the Mothers of Laleh Park". In April 2011, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced her to four years in prison, later commuted to two and a two-year suspended sentence by the Court of Appeal. In December 2011 she went to the passport office for administrative purposes, and was arrested there and transferred to Evin Prison. Now in 2022, Jila Karamzadeh faces another five years behind bars for continuing her peaceful campaigning.
Who are the mothers of Laleh Park?
The Mothers of Laleh Park is a grassroots group of activists formed in July 2009 in pursuit of justice for those killed and wrongfully imprisoned since the Green Movement protests. On its website, the group describes itself as "the voice of the movement for Iranian mothers’ and affected families’ advocacy... calling on a number of women lawyers to protest against the killing and the imprisonment of people who took to the streets with their essential human demands."
Shiva Nazarahari is a fellow activist and Jila’s former cellmate in Evin Prison from 2011 to 2013, who now lives in Slovenia. "Members of the Mothers of Laleh Park used to gather every week in small groups in [Tehran’s] Laleh Park,” she told IranWire. Later, the security forces dispersed the gatherings and eventually arrested a large number of them."
The group’s name, she said, is thought to have been inspired by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo: a large group of Argentinian women who mobilized against human rights violations in the late 1970s, when up to 30,000 people were killed or disappeared under the dictatorship of then-President George Rafael Videla. Their calls for justice for their lost children saw them go on to become one of the most well-known advocacy movements in the world.
After her initial release from prison, Nazarahari said, “Jila remained present at the gatherings. If ever a prisoner was released or they met with the families of political prisoners, Jila was always there. I always saw her in the photos. This is the second time she’s been arrested – and this time sentenced to five years – all because of a small gathering.”
Karamzadeh was detained by plainclothes officers alongside a number of others at one of the Mothers’ rallies on November 11, 2019. Her companions were released a few hours later, but she was transferred to the notorious Ward 2A of Evin Prison, run by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization. She was released on bail after 20 days and later sentenced by Branch 29 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran to six years in prison on the same charges as before.
"This sentence was issued in absentia, without the presence of Jila herself,” Nazarahari said. “That is to say, she was not at all aware that a trial was taking place. They hadn’t even informed her of it so she could defend herself, despite the fact that she was in Tehran, and available."
Why is prison dangerous for Jila Karamzadeh?
Karamzadeh, her former cellmate said, is an adept poet, always reading and composing her own verse. "Jila is very calm. She cares about her own affairs. She also made dolls in prison. Whenever anyone had a birthday, she would give them a doll in his or her own likeness. After she was released she didn’t have a specific job, so she kept making dolls and would sell them in the bazaars from time to time.”
But Nazarahari is also anxious for her friend’s health. “Jila has high blood pressure and [during her previous term] the prison environment exacerbated it. With the slightest incident, I remember, Jila’s blood pressure would rise dangerously high. We were always worried about her and tried to keep the atmosphere calm. I’ve been really concerned about her since I found out she was in prison again. I keep thinking about the one time her blood pressure rose so much we took her to hospital. I'm really worried about how she is to endure the pressure of prison again, and for five years."
From 2011 to 2013, Nazarahari said, Jila Karamzadeh’s elder sister was allowed to visit. But she too was in poor health and found it difficult to travel the distance between the south of Tehran and Evin Prison every week. “By re-imprisoning Jila, they’ve made the family situation difficult again.”
Despite this, Nazarahari believes Karamzadeh will stick to her principles behind bars yet again. "We went on a hunger strike for about a week together, in protest against the body searches, which were a form of sexual harassment. Jila was among those who stayed with us until the very end, despite her high blood pressure and the danger of it. She went through very difficult days; she was forced to go to hospital many times, but she did not break her strike until we all ended it together."
"She hasn’t done anything wrong. The fact that she has to endure five more years in prison in an unfavorable physical state is deeply worrying. This is the second time Jila has been jailed because she has not backed down from seeking justice. She has continued on the path she believes in."