The 26-year-old Iranian human rights campaigner Shiva Nazar Ahari was sentenced last Saturday by Iran’s Revolutionary Court to six years in prison after being convicted on all charges made against her by the state, including that of moharebeh (“rebellion against God”), conspiracy to commit a crime against “national security,” and anti-state propaganda. She was additionally sentenced to receive 74 lashes or pay a fine of $400, an option that makes this punishment especially gratuitous and sadistic.
I wrote about Ahari’s plight in late August for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, citing her first arrest at age seventeen for the ‘crime’ of attending a vigil for the victims of 9/11. Since then she’s been in and out of trouble with the theocratic law for fighting on behalf of political prisoners in Iran. She was incarcerated again in June 2009, exactly a day after Iran’s fraudulent presidential election, and was released three months later following payment of $20,000 in bail. While traveling with two associates to Qom to attend the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a man now considered to have been the guiding religious light behind the Green Revolution, Ahari was rounded up yet again.
But perhaps sensing that attending a revered cleric’s funeral was insufficient grounds on which to haul her before the draconian Branch 26 of Iran’s Revolutionary Court, the prosecution cooked up an additional offense: Ahari, it alleged, was also affiliated with the Islamo-Marxist group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK), which has carried out terrorist attacks against the Iranian regime.
On September 12, after many deferred court dates, Ahari was released on bail – $500,000 – after spending 266 days in Evin prison – the Lubyanka of Tehran – 100 of which were in a type of solitary confinement cell commonly referred to as a “human coffin.” Her trial, when it occurred, was speedy; Ahari was handcuffed throughout and as part of the prosecution’s case for the MeK affiliation, they cited email exchanges she had with other advocates for political prisoners who had once defended MeK members. “It was so tenuous it wouldn’t even wash on a blog,” one insider told me recently.
Ahari’s defenders in the West, from Amnesty International to Freedom House, have only mild cause to welcome a 6-year prison sentence since it was broadly expected that she would receive the death penalty. It’s the punishment Branch 26 specializes in Not that her having to serve out her actual sentence in Izeh prison in Khuzestan, in southwestern Iran, will be especially easy. It’s unbearably hot in that part of the country. There’s no air conditioning in the prison and most of its general population are common criminals – almost all men. Furthermore, Khuzestan is a ten-hour drive from Tehran, where Ahari’s mother lives.
The family is appealing the court’s ruling, which can take as much time as it likes to respond to her case if, indeed, it chooses to at all.
“One reason to hand her a suspended sentence,” a Washington-based human rights activist who has been monitoring Ahari’s case told me, “would be to force her to shut up for six years,” whereas the regime’s previous policy would have been to let her go – even to let her emigrate – confident that no one abroad would listen to her. But things have clearly changed now that democratic Iranian activists have become international symbols, greatly embarrassing a sclerotic regime that, by its own president’s estimation, still very much wants to “talk” to the United States. Ahari is young, principled, and beautiful. And her Facebook solidarity page has over 15,000 followers worldwide.
The exorbitantly high level of bail imposed upon Ahari, my source says, indicates that the new mode of political repression is to keep native dissidents in Iran but under a gag order. “They’ve realized that exporting these people isn’t a great idea. They go abroad, they get organized. Better to keep her in the country but quiet.”
Even still, it’s no guarantee she’ll be that lucky.
Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East.