100 days imprisoned in Iran: Homa Hoodfar must be freed

By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada English Branch. Originally published in the Globe and Mail

When Dr. Homa Hoodfar was arrested in Iran 100 days ago, the circumstances and motivation behind her unfounded and illegal imprisonment were far from clear. While much of that uncertainty remains, what is clear is that she has endured more than three months of grave human rights violations.  Her plight resonates with wider concerns Amnesty International has recently documented in Iran, including a broad crackdown against perceived feminists and routine attacks on prisoners’ health.

It all adds up a grim human rights reality for Dr. Hoodfar.  One hundred days into her nightmare, efforts to secure her immediate and unconditional release must be escalated even further.  

Dr. Hoodfar was arrested by Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guard on June 6 while she was in the country to visit family and conduct academic research on women’s historical role in Iranian electoral politics. But the 65-year-old Concordia University professor’s ordeal began before that, on March 10, when Revolutionary Guards invaded her family’s house, took her away for questioning and seized her passport, phone, and computer. Dr. Hoodfar, a triple citizen of Canada, Ireland and Iran who has called Montreal home for more than 30 years, was prevented from leaving the country from that point forward and was repeatedly summoned for prolonged interrogations.

The harassment and then imprisonment of Dr. Hoodfar coincides with a much wider campaign against women’s rights activists and researchers in Iran. In the first half of 2016, Amnesty International documented a steep increase of more than a dozen women who were summoned for repeated interrogations in which they faced unfounded accusations, threats and verbal assaults. Most women appear to have been targeted based on their association either with a feminist website or a campaign advocating for greater female representation in Iran’s parliamentary elections. None were permitted access to a lawyer.

Dr. Hoodfar’s case is a particularly egregious example. She is internationally recognised as a renowned, apolitical academic.  But she was thrown into the notorious Evin prison without charge and without access to her family or lawyer. Only after more than a month did her family learn of her charges, on state-run Iranian TV.  The prosecutor announced she was being criminally charged for “her entry into fields concerning feminism and national security offences.”

Homa Hoodfar is a prisoner of conscience. Yet Iranian media outlets affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards make groundless claims that her work was aimed at “disrupting public order” and “prompting social-cultural changes that can ultimately pave the ground … for a soft overthrow” of the Iranian regime.  She faces baseless accusations and has no real opportunity to mount a defence; she is denied access to a lawyer and has not been presented with any of the evidence against her.

The injustice is even deeper due to Dr. Hoodfar’s increasingly dire medical situation. Two weeks ago, her family was informed she had been hospitalized due to rapid deterioration of her health.  She struggles with a rare neurological condition which requires regular access to specialized care. However, her family says prison officials have denied her access to independent medical examiners and have only reluctantly allowed medication to be delivered to the prison.  There has been no verification the medicine has reached her.

Grave concerns for her health are backed up by another Amnesty International report, documenting cases where officials, including the Revolutionary Guards, have denied medical care to prisoners as a form of torture in order to elicit coerced “confessions”.  We don’t know if that is the case here.  But the track record of Iranian authorities certainly suggests it is a very real and chilling likelihood.

As Dr. Hoodfar marks her 100th day behind bars in Iran, the call for her freedom must intensify.  The Canadian government has pressed her case frequently, but lacks diplomatic relations with Iran and faces constraints in how to pressure Iranian authorities.  Her Irish citizenship draws in European governments into those advocacy efforts as well.  The international community cannot relent. 

More than 40,000 people have called on Ayatollah Khamenei to release Homa Hoodfar immediately. That number continues to grow.  It is time for Iranian authorities to heed the call.