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Society & Culture

Civil Society Under Attack: The Cases of Atena & Atena

June 18, 2015
Nargess Tavassolian
10 min read
Atena Daemi
Atena Daemi
Atena Faraghdani
Atena Faraghdani
Atena Faraghdani and Atena Daemi
Atena Faraghdani and Atena Daemi
Judge Salavati
Judge Salavati

The case of Atena Farghadani, the 28-year-old artist and civil rights activist sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison on May 28, has been widely covered in the international media and championed by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Her story is one of courage and huge risk, symbolizing for many the arbitrary brutality of Iranian authorities. The recent news that her lawyer has also been detained will send further shockwaves throughout Iran’s civil society and journalism communities.

Farghadani was first arrested on August 23, 2014 and sent to ward Section 2(A) at Evin Prison. She was kept there for two months and spent 15 days of this period in solitary confinement. She was denied her right to see her family and her lawyer, and went on hunger strike in protest. While she was on strike, prison guards insulted and harassed her.

Farghadani was released on November 6 after settling a large bail and being informed that she was banned from continuing her university education. Upon her release, she wrote letters to Iranian authorities, including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. When she did not receive any response, she decided to talk about the harassment she faced in prison on video, which she uploaded to YouTube in January. By posting the video and sharing her experiences, she hoped to take a small step toward preventing abuse and harassment in Iran’s prisons.

A few days later, Judge Salavati summoned Faraghdani to Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court. Authorities arrested her on January 10 and sent her to Gharchak Prison in Varamin near Tehran. In February 2015, Faraghdani went on hunger strike again, in protest against her mistreatment in prison. She was taken to hospital in late February, and was said to have suffered a heart attack. She was then transferred back to Evin Prison.

Farghadani appeared in court on May 19. According to her father, she was beaten in front of her parents in the courtroom.

On May 28, Judge Salavati handed down a 12-year, nine-month prison sentence on charges of “propaganda against the state for publishing reports about the families of political prisoners”; “activities against national security”; “gathering and colluding with counter-revolutionary elements”; “insulting members of parliament by painting images of them and publishing the caricatures on social media” and “insulting the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards and the three branches of government”.

Lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifehloo says the charge of “propaganda against the state” is baseless. “Propaganda against the state occurs when a false statement is attributed to the state, as a whole (and not a specific branch of it). What Atena said on her video was not against the whole system and it was not a lie: the mistreatment of prisoners in Iran’s prisons has even been confirmed by some Iranian authorities, for example, in the case of Kahrizak Detention Center.”

Regarding the charge of insulting MPs by drawing them as animals, Barzin says, “First of all, insult is a relative matter and secondly, the crime of insult requires a specific mens reas [motive]. I do not believe that Atena wanted to insult MPs through her caricatures; rather, she wanted to criticize MPs who voted for a law that would criminalize voluntary sterilization. If the court wants to charge her with insult, it must prove that she had the required mens reas.”

But can Farghadani’s caricatures be deemed to be insulting? Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who also faced charges for his artwork, explains that drawing people as animals is a common practice among satirists. Artists and cartoonists have drawn politicians and leaders as animals for centuries: a cartoonist drew Napoleon III as a donkey, for example, and the book Animals Who Govern Us, by three French cartoonists, also depicted French politicians as animals. “We might not approve of this style and we might not like it,” Neyastani says, but in a system where laws are dictated to the people and people cannot respond to authorities, any kind of criticism should be tolerated. We should not forget that Atena’s caricature was a reaction to a discriminatory bill that, if approved, would affect the lives of many Iranians. The caricature, in the worst-case scenario, is only a painting on a piece of paper. Even if a caricature is deemed insulting, it should not be punished by imprisonment — let alone long-term imprisonment.”


The Case of Atena Daemi

On May 12, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran handed down a harsh sentence to another young civil rights and children’s rights activist, who happens to have the same first name. Atena Daemi was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment after being arrested in October 2014. She spent 58 days in solitary confinement. She was then transferred to a cell sharing with one other prisoner. She, like Farghadani, was denied access to her lawyer.

According to Amnesty International, since being detained, Atena Daemi has complained of weakness, particularly in her hands and feet, and spells of blurred vision. Authorities have refused her family’s request to grant her leave to receive specialized medical care outside prison, insisting that her reported heart palpitations are stress-related and can be treated in prison with anti-anxiety drugs or sedatives.

The charges against Daemi are similar to those against Atena Farghadani, and include: “gathering and colluding against national security”; “spreading propaganda against the system”; “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Supreme Leader”; and “concealing evidence”. Atena Daemi was charged in connection with her criticism about executions and human rights violations in Iran, which she posted on Facebook and Twitter. She was also prosecuted for participating in protests outside prisons in solidarity with the families of death row prisoners, distributing anti-death penalty pamphlets and association with human rights defenders and the families of those killed during the crackdown that followed the 2009 election. None of these acts are considered crimes under Iranian laws.

It is not clear why the new penal code, which was introduced in 2013, has not been applied in either Farghadani’s or Daemi's case. According to its stipulations, in case of multiple crimes, only the harshest punishments — which in Farghadani’s case would be seven and half years of imprisonment — should be applied, and not the combined punishment of all the criminal offences of which she has been found guilty. In Daemi’s case, the court also ruled on the combination of the punishments (rather than the harshest punishment).

“As a lawyer who has defended many cases, I have to say that judges at the revolutionary courts are inclined to use certain charges against activists and journalists,” says Barzin. “One of these is ‘gathering and collision for committing crimes against national security’, which has also been used in Farghadani’s case. According to Article 610 of Iran’s penal code, ‘When two or more individuals collude and conspire to commit crimes against the national or foreign security of the country or prepare facilities to commit the aforementioned crimes, unless they are regarded as mohareb [a person who takes up arms to create fear and to deprive people of their freedom and security], they shall be sentenced from between two to five years’ imprisonment.’ According to this article, conspiracy can only occur when it has been decided that a crime against national security has been committed. As a result, not every agreement can be considered to be conspiracy. For this reason, the court must clarify what crimes the conspirators have agreed upon. Unfortunately, judges do not pay attention to this matter.”


Violation of Rights — and Torture

In both cases, authorities have repeatedly violated the two prisoners’ rights, including the right to be protected against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments in the course of questioning; the right to communicate with family and the outside world; and the right to a lawyer. These rights are central to all major international human rights conventions, to which Iran is a signatory and has legal obligations. In addition, these rights are enshrined within Iran’s own laws.

What does Iran’s constitution say? Article 39 states: “All affronts to the dignity and repute of persons arrested, detained, imprisoned, or banished in accordance with the law, whatever form they may take, are forbidden and liable to punishment.” And Article 22 outlines: “The dignity of life, property, rights, residence, and occupation of the individual are inviolate, except in cases sanctioned by law.” Keeping Farghadani and Daemi in solitary confinement for 15 and 58 days respectively goes against the law, and amounts to yet another breach of their rights. According to Iranian law, solitary confinement can only be used in case of the prisoners who have committed a disciplinary offence — in other words, going against prison rules.  And, even then, solitary confinement can only be used following approval from the Disciplinary Council, run by the prison system. Solitary confinement must not exceed 20 days. Any other use of solitary confinement is not only against the law, it is considered to be torture.

The right for a prisoner to receive visits from his or her family is stated in various Iranian codes. According to Article 180 of the Bylaw Governing Iran’s State Prison Organization, “All prisoners have the right to communicate with their family members and friends through visits and correspondence.” Article 182 of the same bylaw states: “The spouse, the parents, the siblings, the children, and the parents of the spouse, have the right to visit prisoners in arranged weekly meetings. Other relatives and friends can meet the prisoner subject to receiving permission from the head of the institution or the presiding judge.”

The right to have access to one’s lawyer has also been recognized, including in Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure. Under Iranian law, a defendant can have up to three lawyers.

Ambeyi Ligabo, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, has stressed that prison terms and floggings are clearly disproportionate punishments for abuse of freedom of expression.

As with the right to protection from torture and the right to have access to a lawyer, the right to freedom of thought and expression is stated in several human rights instruments to which Iran is signatory. Because of its membership to these mechanisms, Iran is obliged to abide by the provisions of them (including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Again, these provisions also exist in Iranian law, including in Article 24 of Iran’s constitution, which states: “Publications and the press have the right to freedom of expression, except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” Article 23 of the constitution also provides for free expression: “The investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” In addition to these articles, the right to criticism has been specifically recognized in Article 3 of Iran’s press code. According to Article 19 of the constitution, “All Iranian people, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.” Article 20 states: “All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.” Particularly relevant in the case of Farghadani is Article 107, which emphasize that the “The Leader is equal to the rest of the people of the country in the eyes of the law.” No one (including MPs and the Leader) is excluded from the scope of this Article, or from the scope of Article 3 of the press code, which guarantees the right to criticism.

Atena Farghadani and Atena Daemi are just two brave individuals among thousands, part of a younger generation that refuses to keep silent when it encounters injustice in society. For them, it is vital to tell the world they do not side with the regime – whether it is through drawing a caricature, speaking out about the mistreatment of prisoners, protesting against the death penalty, or spreading news about the work of other human rights defenders.


Related Articles:

Atena Farghadani, Crime: Journalism

Art Under Attack: Iran's Weekly Wire 17

Mana Neyestani’s Yearbook


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