Narges Mohammadi, a prominent writer and human rights defender, has been repeatedly targeted and arrested since 2009 by the Iranian authorities. Released after serving eight years of a previous sentence in October 2020, less than six months later an Iranian court again convicted Mohammadi of new alleged propaganda and defamation charges, and sentenced her to 30 months in prison, 80 lashes, and a fine. She was taken into custody in November 2021 while attending a memorial ceremony. While serving out her new sentence at Qarchak Prison, enduring prolonged solitary confinement and intensive psychological torture, in January 2022 Mohammadi was handed an additional sentence of eight years in prison and 70 lashes. After a brief medical furlough to undergo heart surgery in February, she was rearrested on April 12 and sent back to prison. Since her rearrest, her husband has reported that prison authorities have deliberately withheld her medications, exacerbating her serious health issues and even resulting in a brief hospitalization in June. Despite these challenges, Mohammadi has continued to speak out and write from prison, expressing support for the protests that swept Iran in late 2022 and fearlessly highlighting the abuse of fellow prisoners behind bars.
PEN AMERICA ADVOCACY
May 18, 2023: PEN America honors Mohammadi with the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, conferred annually on a writer jailed for their expression. Mohammadi’s husband Taghi Rahmani, himself a formerly imprisoned journalist and activist, accepted the Award on her behalf at PEN’s Gala.
May 8, 2023: PEN America highlights Mohammadi’s case as part of the Freedom to Write Index 2022 launch, with a profile showcasing her words and work.
June 9, 2022: Following the news that Mohammadi is facing death threats and medical neglect in prison, PEN America again calls for her release.
July 21, 2021: PEN America—alongside a coalition of Iranian human rights and international legal non-governmental organizations—alerts the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to Narges Mohammadi’s repeated arrest and banishment to the remote Zanjan prison, as part of a joint communication on the ongoing prosecution of women’s rights defenders.
October 22, 2020: PEN America, joined by PEN International, highlights Narges Mohammadi’s life-threatening imprisonment at Evin prison in its submission to the 65th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women.
July 16, 2020: Following reports of Mohammadi’s likely contraction of COVID-19, PEN America calls on the Iranian government to immediately release Mohammadi and other unjustly detained political prisoners.
Mohammadi is a writer, former journalist, and the deputy director of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), which advocates for human rights reform and represents political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in legal proceedings. She is also involved in campaigning against the death penalty in Iran, and is the author of White Torture, a two-volume book series investigating the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Iran. In September 2008, Mohammadi was elected as President of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, a broad coalition against war and for the promotion of human rights. She is the recipient of both the Alexander Langer Award (2009), the Per Anger Prize (2011), and the 2022 Reporters without Borders Prize for Courage for her human rights work, and was one of awardees of the 2013 PEN/Oxfam Novib Free Expression Award and the Swedish Olof Palme prize for human rights (2023).
Mohammadi has long suffered from persecution at the hands of the Iranian authorities; she has been banned from traveling abroad since 2009, when the authorities confiscated her passport. The following year, in June 2010, Mohammadi was arrested from her home without a warrant and held in connection with her work with the Defenders of Human Rights Center. She was released on bail in July 2010, but was then convicted in 2011 of “acting against the national security,” “membership of the DHRC,” and “propaganda against the regime,” for her reporting on human rights violations, cooperation with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, and visiting political prisoners. She was sentenced to serve a cumulative 11 years in prison, later reduced to six years on appeal. On April 21, 2012, Mohammadi was summoned to Evin prison to serve her sentence. She was then released on bail on 30 July 30, 2012 following the severe deterioration of her health.
After a speech in 2014 criticizing Evin Prison’s horrific treatment of prisoners went viral on social media, several new charges were brought against her, including “spreading propaganda against the system,” “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” and “membership of an illegal organization whose aim is to harm national security” for her work with Legam, an organization that campaigned against the death penalty in Iran. In May 2015, Mohammadi was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison: five years for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” one year for “spreading propaganda against the system,” and 10 years for “membership of an illegal organization whose aim is to harm national security.” Under legislation adopted in 2015, a person sentenced to several jail terms is required to serve that with the most severe penalty—in this case, 10 years, added to her previous six-year sentence.
At the time of her arrest, intelligence officials are reported to have said that she was being arrested to continue serving her previous six-year sentence. Her trial was subject to several postponements without any explanation provided by the court. Evidence used against Mohammadi included media interviews she had conducted, her connections to human rights defenders, as well as her activities against the death penalty, including her work with the campaigning group, Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty. It also included her meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy Catherin Ashton in March 2014.
On September 19, 2016, Mohammadi attended Branch 36 of Tehran’s Appeal’s Court in order to appeal her sentence; however, she was informed that the court had already reached its verdict to uphold the sentence, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Mohammadi suffers from a neurological disorder that can result in seizures, temporary partial paralysis, and pulmonary embolism—a blood clot in her lung. Serious concerns for Mohammadi’s health persist following reports that she suffered several seizures in August and October 2015. According to reports, Mohammadi was taken to hospital on each occasion and on at least one instance she was returned to prison against medical advice. In a subsequent incident she was handcuffed to the bed for the first few days of her hospital stay. According to reports, Mohammadi then faced an additional charge of “insulting officers while being transferred to a hospital” after she filed a complaint with regards to the treatment she experienced at the hands of prison guards when she was transferred to hospital for examinations. Following her rearrest in 2022, her husband reported that prison authorities were deliberately exacerbating Mohammadi’s illness after a stint in the hospital in June by withholding the medication for her condition.
Mohammadi is the mother of twins (born in November 2006), and the wife of prominent journalist and activist Taghi Rahmani, who has spent a total of 17 years in prison. Rahmani left the country in May 2011 following escalating pressure from the authorities. Their children joined him in July 2015. Mohammadi is an honorary member of Danish PEN and Belgian PEN. In May 2016, she wrote a moving letter to the PEN community, calling on the PEN membership to take a stand against the use of solitary confinement as a means of torture.
April 25, 2023: Mohammadi is threatened with eight additional charges and is summoned to the prosecutor in prison. She had recently sent a message to an online conference called “Conversation to Save Iran.” The following day, authorities visit the women’s ward of Evin Prison to hand Mohammadi additional charges, but she refuses to meet with them, saying that the entire process lacks legitimacy.
March 8, 2023: Mohammadi issues a message for International Women’s Day, encouraging activists.
March 2, 2023: In a letter from prison posted on her Instagram page, Mohammadi vows to testify on the abuse of political prisoners in Iran.
December 3, 2022: Mohammadi writes a letter to the UN urging for an investigation of cases of sexual violence against female prisoners in Iran.
October 9, 2022: Mohammadi is sentenced to an additional fifteen months in prison for “propaganda against the state.” Additionally, she is sentenced to collect garbage for four hours a day in “uninhabited areas” of Iran after her prison sentence ends. For two years after her sentence, she is subject to a travel ban; a ban on joining political parties or organizations; and must report to the police.
August 2022: On August 5, Mohammadi writes about concerning conditions at Evin prison in a letter, which was later published on her Instagram page. She writes that several people in prison have tested positive for COVID-19 and others are symptomatic but have not been tested. She continues that “self-isolation is impossible,” due to the large number of people jailed. On August 22, she also signs onto a letter criticizing the poor conditions at Evin prison and high-risk of COVID-19 infections. On August 30, Mohammadi’s lawyer reports that she has been given new, additional charges. In an interview with BBC Persian, Mohammadi’s husband says he believes the new charge is motivated by her writing open letters.
June 23, 2022: Mohammadi is hospitalized for arrhythmia and shortness of breath. She is returned in less than a week to Qarchak prison, where prison authorities confiscate her medications, exacerbating her condition.
May 31, 2022: A prisoner convicted of murder in the Qarchak prison where Mohammadi is being held sent her and another prisoner death threats, saying, “I will kill you and I will become famous for this.”
April 19, 2022: Mohammadi is refused her heart medications.
April 12, 2022: Mohammadi is rearrested by Ministry of Intelligence agents at her home and transferred back to Qarchak Prison. The person who had posted her collateral bail, she told Radio Farda before her arrest, was also now expecting their home to be seized because of Mohammadi’s refusal to go back voluntarily.
April 5, 2022: Mohammadi and her husband Taghi Rahmani are the subjects of targeted Twitter attacks in response to the publication of a Washington Post article in which Mohammadi, being interviewed by former Iranian prisoner Jason Rezaian, called for international sanctions on human rights abusers in Iran.
March 16, 2022: BBC Persian publishes a top-secret memo from the Intelligence Ministry’s Director of Information and Legal Affairs to the judiciary discussing how to discredit dissenters and critics of the Islamic Republic. The leaked document contains suggestions of how to deal with Mohammadi specifically.
March 8, 2022: While on medical leave, Mohammadi receives a summons by authorities to return to prison on April 12, 2022. In response, she issues a public statement expressing her refusal to return to prison.
March 1, 2022: UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor and other UN experts release a statement condemning Mohammadi’s detention and calling for her medical furlough to be extended, saying that she should not have been imprisoned in the first place.
February 22, 2022: Mohammadi is conditionally released on a medical furlough to undergo heart surgery after posting a collateral bail set at 500 million tomans.
February 19, 2022: Despite serious health concerns, Mohammadi is transferred back to Qarchak Prison, “without recovering,” her husband says.
February 17, 2022: Mohammadi is hospitalized for shortness of breath. According to her husband, a doctor finds in a medical examination that one of Mohammadi’s coronary arteries is blocked.
January 23, 2022: Mohammadi is handed a new sentence of eight years in prison and 70 lashes. According to her husband, the sentencing occurred in a trial that lasted only five minutes. Mohammadi later confirms in a phone call to her husband that she has also been sentenced with a two-year exile in Iran, a two-year ban on “activities in institutions and parties,” and a two-year ban on “presence and activity in social networks and interviews.”
January 19, 2022: Mohammadi is transferred to Iran’s Qarchak Prison.
December 29, 2021: Security forces reportedly conduct a search of Mohammadi’s house, confiscating several books, including White Torture, Mohammadi’s two-volume investigation into the inhumane treatment of prisoners in Iran.
December 28, 2021: According to her husband, new allegations of conducting espionage for Saudi Arabia have been added to Mohammadi’s charges, as she continues to be held in solitary confinement.
November 16, 2021: Authorities arrest Mohammadi in the city of Karaj during a ceremony honoring a civilian protester who was killed by the state two years ago. Held in solitary confinement at Evin Prison, she is sentenced to 30 months in prison, 80 lashes, and a fine.
September 29, 2021: Mohammadi participates as the featured speaker at a virtual film screening and discussion with Stanford University to discuss her new documentary film, White Torture: The Infamy of Solitary Confinement in Iran, adapted from her eponymous book series about the treatment of prisoners in Iran.
September 28, 2021: Mohammadi receives notice that her May 2021 sentencing, including 30 months in prison, two fines, and 80 lashes, “has become final and enforceable.” Despite having received an official court summons to execute her sentence, Mohammadi declares she will not report to prison, and that if taken by force, she will continue to protest her sentence. Mohammadi also states that she has received official notice regarding an additional complaint filed against her by Evin prison.
July 20, 2021: Mohammadi is briefly detained for five hours alongside other activists for allegedly taking part in a rally outside the Interior Ministry in support of protesters in Khuzestan.
June 17, 2021: Mohammadi experiences a second confrontation when traveling with fellow activists to the city of Shazand to visit the family of an imprisoned human rights lawyer, Mohammadi Najafi. She is refused entry into the city by unidentified agents, who then force her into a car, drive her around for hours and “confront her with violence.”
June 12, 2021: Mohammadi is violently confronted and briefly detained by unidentified state agents in Shiraz.
June 8, 2021: The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, partnering with International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation Against Torture, together announce an urgent appeal for Mohammadi’s case.
May 27, 2021: The European Union calls upon Iran to review Mohammadi’s case under international human rights law and to take into consideration her deteriorating health, describing her case as “a worrying development.”
May 19, 2021: Only six months after her release in October, a court again convicts Mohammadi of propaganda, defamation, and “rebellion” crimes for her statements against the death penalty, her speaking up about torture and abuse during her prior prison sentence, and her organization of a sit-in in protest of the 2019 killings of protesters. Tried in absentia, Mohammadi is informed that Branch 1177 of the Tehran Criminal Court has sentenced her to 30 months in prison, two fines, and 80 lashes.
February 27, 2021: Mohammadi refuses to appear in court on charges levvied against her in February 2020 in response to her advocacy of human rights while in prison and her allegations of physical assault and sexual harassment by prison authorities. Mohammadi announces that she has filed a formal complaint regarding the abuse allegations.
October 8, 2020: Mohammadi is released after enduring eight and a half years of her ten-year prison sentence on the charge of “forming an illegal group.” Her release reportedly comes as a result of a law that “allows a prison sentence to be commutated if the related court agrees.”
September 18, 2020: Mohammadi pens another letter from Zanjan prison that calls upon “all freedom fighters in the world for help” in the fight against the death penalty, detailing the violent repression of protesters. Published on September 21, 2020 by the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the letter references the Iranian authorities’ leverage of the death penalty against protesters in the streets and in prisons.
July 22, 2020: Sixteen United Nations Human Rights experts call on the Iranian government to release Mohammadi and other arbitrarily detained individuals. In their statement, the UN experts recognize the danger of detaining individuals with symptoms of COVID-19, and urge authorities to free Mohammadi and others at risk “before it is too late.”
July 16, 2020: A news bulletin from state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting releases a video allegedly showing Mohammadi receiving medical attention in the Zanjan Prison clinic. Mohammadi later reveals in a diary entry that the broadcasted video had been heavily edited to remove footage of her coughing and the full extent of her exchange with the warden. She also says that she was given an injection and intravenous drip in preparation to stand on her feet.
July 13, 2020: Mohammadi pens a letter from Zanjan prison, writing that she and 11 other individuals detained in close quarters have been denied basic medical care despite suffering from symptoms of COVID-19.
June 2020: Mohammadi requests temporary release to seek medical treatment for her pre-existing lung disease, but is denied.
February 22, 2020: While she is still imprisoned on previous charges, judicial authorities announce the lodging of two new criminal proceeedings against Mohammadi, for making statements against the death penalty and organizing a sit-in in protest of the 2019 killings of protesters. Separate charges of “disrupting order in prison” and “defaming” prison officials are also filed for her speaking up about torture and abuse during her prior prison sentence.
February 4, 2020: In protest of the current regime, Mohammadi makes an appeal from jail, urging the public to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections in Iran.
December 2019: Mohammadi again declares a hunger strike, joining other female inmates to protest the violence with which Iranian state forces met protestors in mid-November. Within the next few days, she is lured to the office of Gholamreza Ziayi, warden of Evin Prison, supposedly to meet with her attorney. Mohammadi is instead informed of her imminent exile to a prison in Zanjan, a city 211 miles northwest of Tehran, “with shocking and extreme violence.” The statement from Evin Prison denies claims that Mohammadi was beaten.
January 2019: Mohammadi declares a three-day hunger strike in protest of the lack of adequate medical care she is receiving. According to a UN statement, Mohammadi requires follow-up treatment for a gall-bladder operation and suffers from a pulmonary embolism, related blood clots, bleeding, and repeated seizures.
FREE EXPRESSION IN IRAN
Iran is among the world’s most restrictive countries for freedom of expression. While the human rights situation in Iran has been dire for decades, the state of freedom of expression and respect for fundamental rights in the country has deteriorated even further in recent years. Iran holds the second-highest number of writers and intellectuals in prison globally, according to PEN America’s 2022 Freedom to Write Index. Dozens of journalists are currently imprisoned on politically-motivated charges in Iran alongside scores of other writers, bloggers, artists, human rights defenders, and other political prisoners. Despite promises of expanded freedoms, Hassan Rouhani’s presidency was marked by intensified repression and arbitrary political restrictions—preventing Iranians from having a voice in how they are governed. And in August 2021, Ebrahim Raisi became the country’s new president, after a June election in which all opposition candidates had been disqualified. Raisi is notorious for his past role in human rights abuses, having been accused of involvement in mass killings of political prisoners in the 1980s.
Iran remains notorious for a judicial system completely lacking in transparency, which is guilty of numerous arbitrary arrests and one of the world’s highest rates of capital punishment. Hundreds of political prisoners are languishing behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic as authorities withhold critical care and medical attention, putting their lives in great danger and sometimes leading to death. The Iranian government has also been engaged in the targeting and transnational kidnapping of dissidents, writers, and journalists outside the country, and the harassment of family members inside the country.