By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
When Narges Mohammadi’s activist husband resolved in 2012 to leave Iran to escape yet another jail sentence connected to his political activities, she stayed behind with their two children.
“She believed she could be more effective inside the country,” Taghi Rahmani, a political activist who had been in and out of Iranian prisons for two decades and had a conviction hanging over his head, said of his wife recently from Paris, where he has since been joined by their 9-year-old twins.
Mohammadi, a leading rights defender who had also spent time in jail, knew she might be targeted again.
Four years later, the 44-year-old Mohammadi is languishing in Tehran’s Evin prison, where she is serving a combined 16 years for a range of crimes that include allegedly "acting against national security," membership in a banned organization that campaigns against the death penalty, and "spreading propaganda" against the establishment.
The latest of the sentences were upheld in late September by the country's powerful and frequently opaque judiciary.
The fresh sentences appear aimed at sending a clear signal to Iranian human rights defenders, particularly death-penalty opponents like Mohammadi, who were already under immense state pressure in recent years despite hopes that the election of relative moderate Hassan Rohani to the presidency in 2013 might reverse a trend of increasing repression.
Iranian political activist and Mohammadi's husband, Taghi Rahmani:
"She’s only called for a change in laws to respect human rights."
The European Union and the United States have condemned Mohammadi's imprisonment as a "worrying signal" and "particularly harsh and unjustified."
Many real or perceived opponents of Iran's clerically dominated leadership have been imprisoned or forced to emigrate since the crackdown following a fiercely disputed presidential election in 2009, and many of those that remain are watched closely or harassed.
“[The persecution of] Mohammadi is [being] used to instill fear among activists and also to demonstrate [Iran's] disdain for human rights principles,” Rahmani said.
He insisted that his wife, the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), which has continued to issue reports on Iran's rights situation since it was raided and banned in 2008, is a law-abiding activist who regularly voted in the country’s elections and never crossed the regime's vaunted "red lines."
“[Mohammadi] has never called for the overthrow of the establishment. She’s never spoken against [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei," Rahmani said in a reference to the cleric who holds ultimate political and religious power under Iran's constitution. "She’s only called for a change in laws to respect human rights."
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who co-founded the Defenders of Human Rights Center, told RFE/RL that Mohammadi's only crime is being a human rights defender in a country that “proudly” violates such rights.
“It is natural for an establishment that violates human rights and is proudly saying that it is enforcing Islamic laws by executing so many people -- based on an incorrect interpretation of Islam -- and an establishment whose human rights representative defends stoning not to tolerate human rights defenders,” Ebadi said.
Women’s rights activist Mansoureh Shojaee suggested that Iran sees Mohammadi as a threat, at least in part because she educates the public.
“In a country where the establishment would rather have uninformed citizens, her abilities, including her [leadership skills], made the Islamic republic fear her," Shojaee said.
Shojaee recalled her last meeting, in 2012, with Mohammadi, who had been released from prison due to her health problems.
“She looked dead," she said, "Her body was numb. She was just lying there.”
“She told me something that I would never forget. She said, 'I was unprincipled. I wasn’t a good mother. [My daughter] had surgery, she needed me, but I was sent to prison,'" Shojaee told RFE/RL.
Shojaee said the comments hinted at the adversity Mohammadi had endured in prison, where she said her interrogators had tried to make her believe she was a bad mother for engaging in activism.
Despite the pressure, Mohammadi refused to abandon her work.
“Those of us who left, including myself, knew that our forced departure would mean one less human rights voice in the country. But Narges stayed to strengthen Iran’s rights movement,” Shojaee said.
Mohammadi continued to speak out against perceived injustice and defend those in need, including victims of a wave of acid attacks and the mother of a blogger who died in prison after being tortured at the hands of Iranian police tasked with rooting out cybercrime.
She also lent support to the families of prisoners sentenced to death. Ebadi recalled how Mohammadi would stay up all night in front of Evin Prison to comfort families whose loved ones were about to be hanged.
“I told her a few times not to do it because of her illness," Ebadi said. "'I can’t leave people alone in their pain and suffering,' she would respond.”
Shojaee speculated that despite her prison sentence -- made more complicated by a medical condition that causes paralysis -- Mohammadi is unlikely to regret her work.
“It’s not right for me to speak on behalf of Narges, who was the voice of so many people," Shojaee said. "But because I know her, I can say there’s zero regret in her.”
Rahmani said he hopes Mohammadi is able to serve her jail term without becoming embittered.
“Once she said that the first time she was held in solitary confinement, she met a woman who was very strong but served her prison sentence with a grudge," Rahmani said. "She said, 'I want to serve my prison term with love and affection.' I hope she stays the same."
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