The Iranian authorities have a problem. Iranian artists and human rights activists are just too courageous. They continue to speak out even if they are in prison or forced into exile. They are willing to endure the consequences of taking a stand for what they believe. So what are embarrassed Iranian officials to do?
The answer, increasingly, is to go after their family members, in an effort to punish dissenters or pressure them into submission.
Internationally acclaimed Iranian Kurdish film director Bahman Ghobadi is a sharp critic of the Iranian government who has been living in exile due to the repression of Iran’s film industry. Some of Bahman Ghobadi’s films recount the harsh lives led by Iran’s ethnic Kurds. One of his recent films, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), chronicles the struggles of young Iranian musicians attempting to evade censorship, while his most recent film, Rhino Season (2012), tells the story of a poet who spent 27 years in prison in Iran.
His films are clearly a source of consternation to the Iranian authorities who went after his brother Behrouz, who has been held in incommunicado detention since his arrest on November 4. Behrouz Ghobadi is believed to be held in the Ministry of Intelligence detention center in Sanandaj on suspicion of national security-related “offenses” although the exact charges brought against him remain unclear and according to his family, he is not affiliated with any political group. His family and lawyer have not been able to visit him, despite their repeated requests. Not only does he have a new-born son, but he is the sole support of his elderly mother in Iran.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, the noted human rights attorney who was recently awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize and who was the lawyer for Iran’s Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, has most decidedly not been a model prisoner. She was sentenced to six years in prison and a ten-year ban on her professional activities (reduced from eleven years in prison and a 20-year ban on appeal) on unsubstantiated charges of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security.” She has repeatedly protested the conditions of her confinement. Not allowed a piece of paper to write on, she was caught writing out legal arguments for an upcoming court hearing on some tissue paper.
In order to punish Ms. Sotoudeh, the Iranian authorities have been harassing her family members—including her husband Reza Khandan, her daughter Mehraveh, aged 13 and son Nima, aged 5. When authorities announced a travel ban on Mehraveh, possibly signaling that charges were being prepared against her (girls are considered to have reached majority at age 9 in Iran) Ms. Sotoudeh decided she had enough. She embarked on a seven-week hunger strike in protest, during which time the indefatigable woman’s weight went down to 95 pounds and her blood pressure dropped to dangerously low levels.
Ms. Sotoudeh’s bravery and fortitude, coupled with an international outcry from human rights activists and prominent leaders such as the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, won out. On December 4, the Iranian government announced they had lifted the travel restrictions on Mehraveh. Ms. Sotoudeh ended her hunger strike. For the first time in many months, Ms. Sotoudeh’s children were allowed to hug their mom.
The Iranian authorities could not ignore the outrage expressed by the international community against the persecution of one of the country’s bravest human rights defenders. They also found out that professionals in the film industry will not remain silent when one of their own faces intimidation and harassment. Several dozen actors, directors and other members of the film community—including directors Martin Scorsese and Paul Haggis, and actors Mila Kunis, James Franco, Liam Neeson and Nazanin Boniadi—signed a petition protesting the arrest and incommunicado detention of Behrouz Ghobadi.
On December 4, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, expressed her concern that family members of human rights activists and lawyers are often targeted by the Iranian authorities. Ahmed Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in his September 2012 report, expressed concerns about receiving accounts of independent journalists and employees of BBC Persian and Radio Farda (Voice of America’s Persian language radio service) whose family members in Iran have been subjected to arrest, detention, interrogation and intimidation by the security forces in attempts to place pressure on them to cease their reporting activities.
Going after family members as a means of punishing dissidents is clearly a violation of international law. It is a deplorable practice and the Iranian authorities must learn that the international human rights community will not let them get away with it.