Recently, WITNESS corresponded via email with Firuzeh Mahmoudi, the founder and executive director of United for Iran, about their new resource “Safe Activism,” which provides guidance for activists working in Iran on how to avoid or minimize the impact of an arrest.
WITNESS: What is United for Iran? What issues do you work on and what are your goals?
Firuzeh Mahmoudi: In 2009, heavy-hearted by the violence in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed presidential elections, I quit my job at the U.N. and began organizing a global rally. What began as an idea turned into the biggest day of support for Iranian citizens and their quest for human rights in history. On July 25, 2009, in 110 cities across the world, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in support. That day of global solidarity evolved into United for Iran.
United for Iran is now an independent nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay Area working to improve civil liberties in Iran by improving human rights conditions, increasing the capacity of civil society, and engaging citizens through technology.
We began the Political Prisoners Database in late 2011; we tally the number and conditions of every political prisoner in Iran. We support Iran’s civil society through projects like Safe Activism. We encourage citizen engagement through technology: we are building mobile applications that allow people to organize and communicate securely and hold the government accountable.
Can you tell us about your newest guide and why you felt it was necessary to create this resource?
Through creating and maintaining the Political Prisoners Database, we have been in touch with a wide network of Iranian activists. From early on we realized that despite the diverse background, area and mode of activism of many actors, there are many similarities in the circumstances that often lead to an activist’s arrest. We also realized that following some basic guidelines learned from those who have the arrest experience could dramatically reduce the risk and impact of arrest.
That’s when Safe Activism was born. We decided to make the most practical written guide that we could with the goal of reducing the cost and impact of arrest for activists. We focused on preventing and mitigating measures for before, during, and after arrest including physical and digital security; what to expect when arrested; common interrogation tactics by officials and effective strategies to deal with these tactics; what to expect after release; and easy to understand description of defendants legal rights.
To a great extent, the anxiety activists experience after arrest stems from not knowing what will happen to them. We saw that activists who were more strategic anticipated many of hurdles and were able to reduce both the risk and cost of arrest.
Can you share a couple of quick tips with us from the guide about things that Iranian activists can do to better protect themselves?
We talked to over 30 activists who have all been arrested in Iran in the last few years. Documenting their experiences and advice about on the ground strategies was inspiring. They generously shared some of the most difficult lessons they learned. The activists told us about government tactics that were used against them and how it took them a long time to learn how to neutralize some of them.
Some of the most effective safety tips are also the easiest to follow:
- You can prevent physical harm by inviting well-known figures to public events, by staying in a large group when you are faced with direct an immediate danger in public, and by staying out of sight when you suspect you are at risk of arrest.
- Reckless cyber activity equals actual harm. The are dozens of Iranians, activists and non-activists alike, who have been sentenced to prison for their online activities, including average Facebook users.
- Take interrogation seriously but do not panic: In an overwhelming number of cases in Iran the sole evidence against activists in court is their confession; take the process seriously and become familiar with the most common tactics
- Ask your family to notify the media: It is almost ALWAYS in an activist’s interest for the public to know she has been arrested. Tell your family and friends to talk to the media no matter what the authorities claim.
- Commonly Iranian authorities seize passports during an arrest of activists. After release, activists are forced to spend months visiting various offices to recover their documents. The simple act of keeping key documents at a trusted friend or a family member’s house will save them months of hassle.
How and why are you using video as part of this project?
We decided to make a video to reach a broader audience than self-identified activists. Like citizens in other oppressive countries, even “ordinary” citizens are at risk of arrest in Iran for simply exercising basic rights. Unfortunately, there are many people behind bars in Iran who do not identify as political activists.
For example, Mehdi Mousavi and Fatemeh Ekhtesari, two Iranian poets, have been sentenced to 9 and 11 years in prison and 99 lashes each simply because they have expressed themselves through their poems. Atena Farghadani, a-28 year-old artist, has been sentenced to over 12 years in prison. She drew a cartoon of Iranian lawmakers over their vote to restrict contraception and ban certain birth-control method; for this, she was found guilty of “insulting members of parliament through paintings.” And Rassoul Bodaghi a member of the Teachers Guild has been imprisoned for the past 6 years for wanting a better life for himself and his fellow teachers.
Therefore, the population of individuals who would benefit from Safe Activism is much wider than political activists. We decided to make a video to encourage even non-activists to review the guide.
What are your goals for the resource?
Our first goal is to make sure it gets to the hands of the people who need it the most. Our second goal is to encourage and support a culture of communication where activists feel safe to share their experiences and others can benefit from them.
Can you comment on what the climate is like for activists in Iran and do you anticipate that might change with the passage of a deal with the United States?
The climate of activism in Iran has changed considerably in the last few years. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, activism was much more confrontational. In recent years, especially since Mr. Rohani has taken office, activism has been more focused on demanding civil liberties. For example one of the more interesting chants after the nuclear agreement was, “Our next deal will be about our civil rights!”
However, I have serious concerns that in the post-deal era there is going be a push back against Iranian activists. I supported the nuclear deal because it enhances the possibility of improving Iran’s relations with the world powers, which in turn will benefit the Iranian people. We expect that after the deal hardliners in Iran would feel at a disadvantage and want to show dominance by putting additional pressure on activists.
Iranians activists are the country’s greatest assets. These fearless figures are working on the frontlines to pave the road for a more just Iran. In the post-deal era, Iranian activists more than any other group will determine what kind society Iran will have in the near future.
Firuzeh Mahmoudi is the executive director of United for Iran.
Featured image via Move4Iran.