Courageous and Principled: Shiva Nazar Ahari
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
28 Aug 2010 04:55
Human rights champion imprisoned on bogus charges.[ profile ] Women have always been at the forefront of the struggle for a democratic Iran in which the rule of law is supreme and no one is discriminated against based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or social class. This was true both before the 1979 Revolution, and, as I will explain in a forthcoming article, after it, as well. In the 1980s, hundreds of young women who were members of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) or belonged to leftist secular groups were killed in clashes with the security forces or executed. I make no judgment as to whether what they were doing was right or wrong, but it certainly takes deep conviction and courage to be willing to sacrifice one's life in the struggle for one's ideals.
Even after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the execution of over 4,500 political prisoners, including many women, during the spring and summer of 1988, their struggle never ceased. The infamous Chain Murders that claimed the lives of a large number of political dissidents and intellectuals took at least nine female victims. The most prominent was Parvaneh Majd Eskandari, widely known as Parvaneh Forouhar. She was the wife of Dariush Forouhar, the nationalist political dissident who was active against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and served in the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, but turned against the Islamic Republic. The couple were murdered on the evening of November 21, 1998.
After the war with Iraq ended, a generation of women activists emerged and began a struggle against all the types of discrimination imposed on women by the Islamic reactionaries. Some, such as Shirin Ebadi, concentrated their efforts on defending the rights of women and children. Others worked more broadly in defense of human rights. Nationalist-religious women have also been active. Among their leaders have been Azam Taleghani, daughter of the progressive and immensely popular Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Taleghani who was active against the Shah, and Marzieh Mortazi Langroudi, wife of Dr. Habibollah Payman who leads the Movement of Militant Muslims and is part of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition. Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been another outspoken foe of the hardliners. Even conservative women aligned with the Iranian fundamentalists have been active against discriminatory practices, such as legislation under consideration by the Majles (parliament) that allows men, among other things, to have more than one wife.
In recent years, a new generation of female journalists has emerged that has been active against the hardliners, including Parvin Ardalan and Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, cofounders of the Campaign for One Million Signatures (COMS), which seeks to eliminate all the discriminatory laws against Iranian women. Journalists Masih Alinejad, Jila Baniya'ghoub, and Jamileh Kadivar, human rights advocate Narges Mohammadi, and attorneys Farideh Gheyrat, Nasrin Sotoodeh, and Shadi Sadr are also among those who have been at the forefront of the struggle. A forthcoming article will go into greater detail about the activities of these and many of the other courageous Iranian women who have been leaders in the fight for a better Iran. The present article focuses on just one such courageous woman, Shiva Nazar Ahari.
Who is Shiva Nazar Ahari?
Shiva Nazar Ahari was born in June 10, 1984. According to her mother, Shahrzad Kariman, she was always a very smart student, even after she suffered a severe head injury in an accident. She has a sister and a brother.
Nazar Ahari attended Islamic Azad University, graduating with a degree in civil engineering. She then tried to sign up for the national graduate school entrance examination, but was prevented from doing so. When she inquired about the reason, she was told that she had received an "asterisk" as a student and "must first solve her problems with the Ministry of Intelligence."
Since coming to power in 2005, the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been giving such "asterisks" to politically active students. One asterisk can lead to suspension from university for multiple semesters; two can result in exile to a university in a remote area or outright expulsion; three means jail. Nazar Ahari had been apparently been given at least two.
Nazar Ahari has been a fierce human rights advocate. In 2003, she was one of the founding members of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR). Formerly the group's secretary-general, she is currently its spokesperson. She is a journalist and blogger, an advocate for the rights of child laborers, and a member of the COMS. Along with Akram Eqbali, Hanieh Ne'mati, and Maryam Araei, she is a founding member of the Society of Tara Women (STW), a civil organization devoted to the lawful, nonviolent defense of the rights of women. All four of the group's founders have been repeatedly harassed by the security forces.
According to her mother, Nazar Ahari was first arrested on September 11, 2002, when she was only 18 years old. She was browsing the bookstores near the University of Tehran when she was picked up. Jailed for 23 days, she was released after her family posted a $50,000 bail. On May 27, 2004, she was arrested again, as was Ne'mati. The security agents also tried to arrest Egbali, but she was not home at the time. The goal was to prevent the university students from organizing a large-scale protest on the anniversary of the July 9, 1999, student uprising. After her release, she was once again arrested on July 9, 2004, and held for a short time.
On August 22, 2004, the University Students Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners organized a peaceful protest in front of the United Nations office in Tehran. The families of many political prisoners took part. At the time, Nazar Ahari was secretary-general of the group. Most of its efforts were geared toward the publication and distribution of information about the prisoners and the conditions of their incarceration. The security agents arrested Nazar Ahari, Eqbali, and five other student activists and took them to Evin Prison. Nazar Ahari's mother, who participated in the protest, was also arrested, but was released after one week.
While they were held in Evin's infamous ward 209, controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence, Nazar Ahari and Eqbali released an open letter protesting their arrest. They also protested the United Nations' inaction regarding their arrest and violations of the rights of political prisoners. After 20 days in jail, they were each released on $50,000 bail. Nazar Ahari was rearrested on December 7, on the 51st anniversary of the murder of three university students by the Shah's security forces. She was released but then went through a show trial the following year that resulted in a one-year suspended sentence.
On June 12, 2006, the COMS held a peaceful gathering at 7 Tir Square in Tehran to kick off the signature-gathering campaign. Security agents savagely attacked the participants. Nazar Ahari, who had taken part, later went on Radio Farda to describe what happened.
On June 14, 2009, two days after the rigged presidential election, Nazar Ahari was arrested at work by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. The arrest warrant was dated June 7, five days before the rigged vote. Her home was searched and her personal belongings removed. On July 17, the day former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was to lead the capital's Friday Prayers from the University of Tehran, Nazar Ahari's attorney, Shadi Sadr, was arrested.
Nazar Ahari spent 33 days in solitary confinement in Evin's ward 209 and was then transferred to the general ward. She had very little contact with her family, a violation of the Islamic Republic's law that stipulates that all prisoners should be able to see their families at least once a month and be able to call them once a day. On September 1, she was set a bail of $500,000, well beyond her family's means. When her mother protested the large amount, the prosecutor in charge of the case told her, "If you cannot post the bail, she will remain in jail." The figure was eventually lowered to $200,000. After it was posted, Nazar Ahari was released temporarily on September 23.
While in jail, she befriended another woman student activist, 28-year-old Atefeh Nabavi, who had been arrested during the huge postelection demonstrations of June 15. Her cousin, Zia ol-ddin Nabavi, another "asterisked" student activist and a spokesman for the Committee for the Defense of Continuing Education (which fights for the rights of such students), along with six other student activists, were also arrested. Atefeh Nabavi was held in ward 209 for 97 days. After Nazar Ahari's release, she published a memoir about her time in jail in which she described Nabavi as a victim of physical and sexual torture. Nazar Ahari and her friends began a campaign for Nabavi's release. Nabavi was eventually put through a show trial and given a four-year sentence. She was the first woman to receive a jail sentence merely for participating in a peaceful demonstration in which millions of other people also took part.
Nazar Ahari was rearrested on December 20, together with another activist, Mohboubeh Abbasgholizadeh. They were intending to go to Qom to participate in the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri but were arrested just as they were getting on the bus.
During her imprisonment, Nazar Ahari was accused of participating in the peaceful Green Movement demonstrations held on November 4, the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Under interrogation, she was asked why she and her friends had formed a committee for Atefeh Nabavi. Since then, she has spent at least 200 days in ward 209. She went on a hunger strike for a while to protest her illegal detention, as she had committed no crime. She was not allowed to see her parents until March 24. She told them that, while in solitary confinement that had lasted until February 14, she had been held in a cagelike cell that made it almost impossible for her to move.
In early March, Shadi Sadr received an award that is given annually to courageous women around the world. She did not participate in the awards ceremony (presumably because it was at the U.S. State Department), but declared that she wanted to give the award to Nazar Ahari. Sadr also criticized the State Department for not transmitting her message in which she praised Nazar Ahari.
A short while later, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi met with the family of Nazar Ahari. The fundamentalists and hardliners are terrified by the prospect of an alliance between the leaders of the Green Movement and student activists. Raja News, a website controlled by ultra-rightist Fatemeh Rajabi -- wife of Gholam-Hossein Elham, a close aide to Ahmadinejad -- has published a stream of lies and propaganda about Nazar Ahari. Much of the site's claims stems from her defense of the rights of the late political prisoner Valiallah Feiz Mahdavi, arrested in 2001 on the charge of trying to join the MKO. He was executed on April 17, 2006.
Nazar Ahari fought for him not because she had any sympathies towards the MKO, but because she always defends the rights of the defenseless regardless of a person's political views, gender, ethnicity, or religion. That is what a true defender of human rights does. The bogus accusations against her -- including the charge that she is herself associated with the MKO (Tehran's prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, has made the totally baseless claim that the "website of the CHRR is linked with the MKO") -- have been made because her advocacy on behalf of Feiz Mahdavi, as well as her refusal to go along with the Intelligence Ministry's order to stop publicizing the violations of human rights of political activists. According to her attorney Mohammad Sharif, she has been accused of moharebeh (enmity toward God), an offense punishable by execution, as well as participating in an illegal gathering to commit offense against the nezaam (political system) and spreading propaganda against it. She first went before a judge in this latest case on May 23. Her trial is set to resume on September 4 in Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court.
In a letter to his daughter, Mohammad Nazar Ahari wrote,
Years ago, 1979, was when the hopelessness of a nation turned into hope.... We all came out into the streets and created the epic event of 22 Bahman 1357 [February 11, 1979, when the Shah's regime was toppled] by the blood of the martyrs and much sacrifice.... My dear Shiva, in our thoughts, the imprisonment [of political activists] was not the promise of the Revolution.
Nazar Ahari is highly respected among her fellow inmates. In addition to the phone number for their own families, practically all political prisoners in Evin have one other number, that of Shiva Nazar Ahari. That is just one indication of the depth of their appreciation for the effort that she dedicated to the defense of other political prisoners.
In a letter to another prisoner, Nazar Ahari wrote,
When your heart trembles for the rights of another human, that is when you begin to slip; that is when the interrogations begin. When your heart trembles for another prisoner, a woman, a child laborer, that is when you become the accused. When you find faith in people and believe in humanity and nothing else, that is when you commit your first crime.
Amnesty International is spearheading an international campaign to free Shiva Nazar Ahari. Here is what one can do.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau