Going after the family of your enemies is a sign of desperation. An action taken out of panic in response to the fears that the walls you have constructed around your reality are closing in. That is the state of modern-day Iran and the case of Seyvan Ebrahimi.
On December 2nd, Seyvan Ebrahimi, a Kurdish language teacher and a board member of the Nozhin socio-cultural association in Sine (Sanandaj), was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison for the crime of cultural activism. While thousands of other Kurdish men and women are currently in arbitrary detention, Seyvan stands out as he is the husband of the renowned Kurdish human rights activist Zahra Mohammadi. The case of Seyvan Ebrahimi demonstrates three key points about the situation of the Kurds in Iran: Firstly, being a Kurd is a crime; secondly, having a politically active family member is grounds for one’s arrest; and thirdly, the arbitrary nature of the regime’s treatment of minorities such as the Kurds is such that despite legal documents allowing one to conduct humanitarian and cultural work, they can still, nevertheless, be arrested at will and without due legal process.
Seyvan’s wife, Zahra is the director and a founding member of the Nozhin Socio-Cultural Association, established in 2011. The association was legally certified by the Iranian Ministry of Interior in 2013. The association engages in several cultural activities, including education and environmental awareness, providing aid to victims of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes and those affected by the Covid pandemic, and raising awareness about the legal and cultural rights of minorities.
Back in May 2019, Zahra was arrested and sentenced to five years in Sine (Sanandaj) prison, located in the Kurdistan province of Iran. She faced allegations relating to national security transgressions in connection with her civil society activism, largely aimed at empowering the people of Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan), notably through teaching the Kurdish language. Zahra has since been released from prison following the mass “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” uprisings in Iran. Like most decisions made by the Iranian security forces, Zahra was released suddenly and without notice on the 10th of February 2023. Earlier, as the uprisings were in full force, she was named one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women in the world, adding to her renown.
Allegedly, Zahra was released as part of a general amnesty by the Iranian judiciary as part of the celebration of the 44th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, as hundreds of prisoners were being released by the regime as part of this amnesty, thousands of others were being detained for participating in anti-governmental protests. It appears that as she was being released, her husband was being detained roughly around the same time.
Even though Iran is a signatory to various international human rights laws, which require that the regime ensure that all detainees are provided with their legal rights, access to due process, and treated with humanity and dignity, the reality of many political prisoners is starkly different.
Consequently, Seyvan was arrested first on the 18th of January of 2023, while following up on his wife’s case at the revolutionary court of Sine. He was then released on the 5th of January into custody. On the 18th, he was arrested again by the security forces and remained in detention until his sentencing on the 2nd of December. This musical chair game of arrests and releases is a typical policy applied by the regime in order to engage in psychological warfare with minorities and dissidents.
Like most political prisoners, Seyvan’s arrest includes several domestic and international human rights violations, including being detained before sentencing, failure by the security forces to present a legal warrant, family visits or telephone calls denied, being subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, and having his access to a lawyer denied.
A Dystopian Nightmare
After almost a year of arbitrary detention, Seyvan was sentenced on the 2nd of December, with the verdict being a devastating additional 11 years in prison. His charges included 10 years for the crime of “forming groups and factions with the aim of undermining national security” and one additional year for the crime of “propaganda against the state.” The one-year additional sentence includes 40 lashes by the Court of Appeals of Kurdistan Province.
The illogical, barbaric, and illegal treatment of Seyvan is unfortunately the tale of many other Kurdish political prisoners as well as other minorities such as Baloch, Lor, and Ahwazis. Iran’s prisons are also infamous for their sophisticated methods of torture. In addition, extended and undefined periods of solitary confinement, underground and illegal prisons, and plain-clothed ‘undercover’ intelligence security officers roaming the streets contribute to an intense, bleak atmosphere of fear and terror in the country, especially in heavily militarized zones such as the Kurdish and Baloch provinces.
Indeed, according to the Human Rights Watch:
“Iranians use the term “nahad-eh movazi” literally “parallel institutions” to refer to the various extralegal agents of state coercion that have grown in formality, organization, and capacity. Iranian newspapers regularly use the term “parallel institutions” and “plainclothes ones” to refer to the networks of Basiji [militia], Ansar-e Hizbollah [partisans of the party of God], various intelligence services outside of the Ministry of Intelligence, and the secret prisons and interrogation centers at their disposal.”
Earlier this year, a report by Amnesty International highlighted that child detainees were subjected to floggings, electrical shocks, and brutal acts of sexual violence following mass crackdowns during the protests. Children as young as 12 were reported to have been subjected to horrific and unmentionable acts of physical and sexual violence. Such reports barely scratch the surface of the avalanche of horrors that occur at the hands of the various branches of the regime’s security and intelligence forces daily in Iran’s prisons.
Of course, we need to note the gendered nature of state oppression and systemic violence too, where there are cases of Kurdish women such as Jîna Amini’s murder while in custody that sparked a global uprising, or Zeynab Jalalian arrested since 2008 and sentenced to death (commuted to life in prison) following a trial that lasted mere minutes, and without the right to access medical services due to extensive and prolonged torture in prison. According to Hengaw Organization for Human Rights: “The case of Zeynab Jalalian, a Kurdish political prisoner from Mako, is enough for the entire judicial system of the Islamic Republic of Iran to be invalid.” Only the brave should read about the history of Zeynab’s repeated torture while in prison.
More recently, other cases, such as the disappearance of Werîşe Muradî (known as Juana Sine) on the 1st of August, abducted in broad daylight by plain-clothed agents, point to the deliberate targeting of women and of course, children as a systemic approach to instill an atmosphere of fear, terror, and uncertainty. Those arrested know that a grim future awaits them in Iran’s infamous prisons. The numerous catacomb systems of prisons and detention centers in Iran are run by a range of forces, including the Revolutionary Guards, the Public Security Police, the Ministry of Intelligence, the investigation unit of Iran’s police (Agahi) or the Basij paramilitary force. Consequently, when political or human rights activists disappear, it is almost impossible to locate them or know their whereabouts unless the regime itself acts magnanimously.
Part of the reason for Seyvan’s arrest was linked to his work with the Nozhin Association, involving his work teaching Kurdish. However, the Nozhin Association has received an explicit permit from the Ministry of Interior with the right to teach Kurdish in various cities across the Kurdistan province. The fact that Seyvan was arrested suddenly while attending court to inquire as to the fate of his wife indicates not only the indiscriminate nature of the security forces but also the illegality of a lack of an arrest warrant. The total impunity with which Iranian security forces arrest citizens highlights the total disregard the regime has for basic human rights, let alone international human rights laws and ethics. His detention for close to 12 months without a verdict, his lack of access to a lawyer, and the denial of his right to visitation from family and relatives all point to a farcical judicial and security system that has completely discarded even a semblance of compliance with basic legal norms and judicial practices.
Of course, considering the government certification of the Nozhin Association, Seyvan’s arrest for teaching Kurdish or engaging in cultural activities for which the association has sought and received government consent can only mean that he was really arrested for the crime of being a Kurd. A Kurd who comes from a prominent, politically active, and known family. Considering the Iranian government’s promotion of exceedingly patriarchal and oppressive gender laws and relations in the country, there would be a semblance of logic if it had charged Seyvan with the unacceptable crime of ‘permitting’ his wife the freedom to be politically active and teach Kurdish to children.
Another key lesson the Iranian regime wishes to impart through cases such as Seyvan Ebrahimi and his even more politically active and renowned wife is that despite punishment by the Mullahs in Tehran, despite serving one’s sentence, despite being even released, a political activist’s family, friends, and acquaintances are not safe and can also be arbitrarily punished at the will and whim of the government.
Regime of Terror
The case of Seyvan, Zahra, Zeynab, Werîşe and many, many others like them demonstrate that whenever a Kurd is arrested by decree of authoritarian clerical rulers and consequently executed, sentenced to lashes, subject to torture, disappearance, and solitary confinement, along with a range of other human rights violations, their most immediate crime is first and foremost that of being a Kurd who dares to be active, who dares to speak against the regimes occupying Kurdistan, and who dares to participate in the civic sphere for the betterment of their oppressed people.
The Iranian regime has ruled “over four decades of gender discrimination, repression, fundamentalist rule and inequality,” and it appears that despite the valiant efforts of the “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” uprising and the thousands who were injured, maimed, arrested, and murdered, the puritanical Mullahs are here to stay for now. But as long as they do, no minority – especially the Kurds – will be safe. This is why every single case of an illegal arrest, an execution, a disappearance, and other acts of oppression against courageous citizens must be named, must take center stage in the media, and must be honored with the appropriate outrage it truly deserves. There are many reasons why this theocratic regime has survived despite repeated and periodic uprisings by its people; however, taking a soft or humane approach is not one of them.