Iran: prominent human rights activist released over health concerns

By Patrick Wintour

The most prominent human rights activist imprisoned in Iran, Narges Mohammadi, has been released from jail after her sentence was reduced amid renewed fears for her health.

Iran has been hit by a third wave of coronavirus that has seen the daily numbers of new infection break records, with a new high of 4,392 on Thursday.

The news of her release at 3am in the morning from a prison north of Tehran was confirmed by her husband, Taghi Rahmani, the judiciary and Iranian news agencies.

Mohammadi, 48, a campaigner against the death penalty, acted as the spokeswoman for the Defenders of Human Rights Centre in Iran – founded by Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. She was arrested in May 2015.

The mother-of-two Mohammadi was sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison for “forming and managing an illegal group”. She has repeatedly held hunger strikes in protest at the treatment of political prisoners in Iran.

Ebadi left Iran after the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, which set off unprecedented protests and a harsh crackdown by authorities.

Mohammadi has been reportedly suffering from a neurological disease that causes muscular paralysis and a lung condition. She requested temporary release from prison in June for medical treatment.

Her release also comes days after the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, called on Iran to “immediately release” political prisoners who have been excluded from a push to empty prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic. Iranian ambassadors were also lobbied directly on human rights last month by Britain, France and Germany.

In a recent interview Mohammadi’s husband, a prominent civil rights activist himself, said “Narges is one of those activists who, instead of just protesting by herself, works to establish civil society institutions. The regime’s treatment of Narges and those like her is exceedingly harsh and aggressive. Because of her protest against the killing of demonstrators last November, she was forcibly moved from Evin prison in Tehran to Zanjan prison about 300km north-west of the capital. She and other prisoners have contracted Covid-19 there; medical care was both delayed and inadequate.”

He said she had been allowed out only for three days since 2015 and had been deprived of contact with her children.

The news comes amidst growing tensions between Iran and the US in the run-up to the American vote, including US Treasury plans expected on Thursday to impose a new wave of sanctions on 14 private Iranian banks that are seen as essential for keeping the humanitarian trade into Iran functioning.

Iranian pharmaceutical and food importers have increasingly used funds held by private sector banks and companies outside Iran as a means to make payment for goods.

These funds are often held at accounts belonging to Iranian banks at foreign financial institutions in countries such as Turkey South Korea and China.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iran specialist at Bourse and Bazaar warned: “The designation will obligate the foreign financial institutions to freeze the accounts of Iranian banks and their clients”. He suggests it will lead to a liquidity crisis and the closure of many of the European and Asian companies still selling into Iran.

He adds the banks are not involved in money laundering or connected to the Iranian government machine so their targeting undermines the claim that the US has any interest in keeping humanitarian trade alive.