#Call4Soheil: A Call to Save the Life of Iranian Blogger & Political Prisoner Soheil Arabi

For over 40 days, Arabi has been on a hunger strike, including more than 10 days of a dry hunger strike, as he protests the IRGC’s (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) harassment of his family. As the condition of his health rapidly deteriorates, human rights activists and agencies are demanding Arabi’s unconditional release.

In November 2013, the 32-year-old Iranian blogger and Facebook activist was arrested by the IRGC’s Sarallah Headquarters agents for the contents of his Facebook posts and sentenced to hang for “insulting the prophet.” He was then tortured in the prison’s solitary confinement ward.

Arabi posted content, including photos of the 2009 uprising and a cartoon of Khameini, under different names on eight different Facebook pages, one titled “the generation that no longer wants to be the burnt generation.”

In September 2014, combined with seven and a half years of prison, Arabi received additional charges for “insulting the Supreme Leader and “propaganda against the state,” which carried three years of prison and a fine of 30 lashes. A year later, after he conceded to writing the posts in “a poor psychological condition,” his death sentence was commuted to “reading 13 religious books and studying theology for two years.”

According to the Guardian, the state-owned Jamejam newspaper said Arabi is required to prepare a 5-10-page summary of each of the 13 religious books he is mandated to read and then write an article about religion and reference at least five to ten of those books. He is required to report to the authorities every three months on the progress of his “theological studies.”

As Arabi commenced his hunger strike, he wrote in a letter: “Today is the third year that my daughter goes to school and I am not with her. I have gone on dry and liquid hunger strike since I do not want her to see me behind bars, anymore.”

He also wrote: “I have forgiven all the injustices against myself, but I can never stay silent in the face of your [the Iranian government’s] constant and unjust harassment against my family.”

“The expression of truth is forbidden here,” Arabi penned. “We were convicted to prison-term by the judges who are the most corrupt human beings in the world,” he added.

Arabi has a young 7-year-old daughter. His wife, Nastaran Naimi, was arrested by plainclothes officers in July 2017, held for eight days, and questioned about her social media posts and international interviews in support of her husband. She was also fired from her job and now faces constant harassment and death threats.

According to the NCRI Women’s Committee, in an audio file circulating the Internet, Mrs. Farangis Mazloum, Soheil Arabi’s mother, calls out:

I am reaching out for your support. Soheil’s only crime was expressing his beliefs on his personal page (in the social networks). It has been four years that he is being tried, tortured and issued death sentences. His family were not made exception.  I have had three heart attacks and a heart surgery. My only dream is to be able to hug my son once more… I am going to the Parliament on Monday to seek justice. I urge you not to leave your brother alone.

Referring to other political prisoners, she urges: “All of those who are detained there innocently must be freed.”

Soheil Arabi is one of the countless innocent Iranian citizens who has had to pay the ultimate price simply for exercising their basic human right to freedom of speech and expression. In January 2016, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi posited that more than 800 Iranians are behind bars, “imprisoned for their political beliefs, their journalism or their human rights work.”

In the RSF’s (Reporters Without Borders) 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Iran is ranked 165th out of 180 countries.

Human rights activist and international journalist Kaveh Taheri, once a political prisoner who was subjected to solitary confinement, psychological torture, and worse in the Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, knows the reality Arabi faces all too well.

When we spoke with him, Taheri told us:”I have not seen many who can survive a long-term hunger strike, especially those who start a dry hunger strike (refusing to consume both food and water) after a while, and under the critical conditions which the imprisoned blogger Soheil Arabi has undergone since his arrest.” 

Arabi’s state is critical. In his “taped will,” he speaks of his deteriorating physical condition as he suffers from gastric bleeding and extremely low blood pressure.

“A hunger strike is the final stand prisoners take to try and come out against all harassment they have endured, and bring the international community’s attention to their situations,” Taheri added.

Taheri, along with independent netizens and activists, has initiated an urgent global call to action with the #Call4Soheil campaign to raise awareness for Arabi’s case and demand his unconditional release.

“The cost of freedom is always high. It’s exactly what Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi has paid for, and that’s why we came out in support of him through #Call4Soheil,” Taheri says.

How can we get involved in the fight for Arabi’s release and justice for all Iranian political prisoners?

“Just spend five minutes a day promoting human rights and join the Iranian Stormers Movement (@IranianStormers) to help Iranians to Make Iran Great Again. But particularly for Soheil, please tweet out #Call4Soheil and help us make the call as viral and widespread as they can. We really appreciate all global villagers’ support.”

Would you like to join us in the fight for freedom of online expression? Get involved with the cause at Unblock The Web.

 

Human Rights Activist Evdokia Romanova Facing Charges in Russia for Pro-LGBTQ Posts on Social Media

In countries around the world, summer is known as the time to celebrate Pride and shine the spotlight on LGBTQ equality and rights. Pride is not only celebrated outside, but also online, particularly across social media. People share posts with their experiences taking part in Pride marches and events, voice their support for the LGBTQ community, and update their profile photos with colourful Pride-themed frames.

Although it has come with years of struggle, today, many of us can support the LGBTQ civil rights movement, freely and without government interference. And yet, many around the world still cannot.

On July 26, human rights activist Evdokia Romanova, a staff member at the Samara Regional Public LGBT Movement and a member of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, was summoned by the Russian government and notified that she was under police investigation for an administrative penalty of $1,750. This so-called “administrative penalty” was for “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships in front of minors.”

Her actual crime? Sharing pro-LGBTQ links on Facebook.

Since then, Evdokia’s identity has gone public and she faces daily harassment — even death threats — all for supporting a cause she believes in, and exercising her right to freedom of expression online.

We caught up with her to learn more about what happened, how she’s doing now, and what her hopes are for the future.

Evdokia, can you describe to us the nature of what you shared on Facebook and the events that unfolded?

I believe that the main accusation is based on web content from the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a human rights organization that advocates for the sexual and reproductive rights of young people worldwide. 

Let me start from the beginning. On July 26th, I was invited to submit witness testimony (at least that’s what I was told on the phone by the police officer) by the local police station. When I arrived, they charged me with Propaganda of Nontraditional Sexual relationships in front of minors (Administrative penalty Part 2 Code 6.21).

This accusation was a total shock. I declined giving the government authorities a testimony, aware that due to the nature of my human rights work, it would not be wise for me to talk to them without a lawyer.

While they were writing down the protocol, I called my lawyer on the phone and she told me to be very careful about signing any documents. She also asked me to take pictures of the case materials. However, the police officer refused to provide me with any access to the case materials, and only after they spoke with my lawyer, was I able to take a look.

The case materials contained some of my Facebook posts from the 2015-2016, when I was doing reposts from the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights’ Facebook page. For example, one of the posts was a repost from the Guardian, with an article that focused on the legalization of gay marriage.

Unfortunately, I was unable to take a closer look at the case materials, because an unidentified person in the police department took them away and started yelling at the police officer who gave them to me. Then, this same person started asking me about an Austrian man in Samara residing in my apartment. They mentioned that perhaps they would check his documents and see if there were any problems with his visa. I was in complete shock because this person is my partner, and I have no idea how the authorities received such personal information regarding my private life.

After I signed the protocol, I was able to leave the station. Since then, although my lawyer has tried repeatedly, I’ve not received any case materials, only a letter stating the date of my court hearing on September 18th.

You are well-known for your sexual and SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) activism. When did you begin to fight for this cause and what inspired you to get involved?

It started at a local NGO in my home city Samara. We were doing a theater project to educate young people on the topic of healthy sexual behavior, in an effort to promote HIV prevention. Later, I became a staff member of that NGO.

At first, I was more inspired by the theater component of the project, but later, I was drawn to the human rights aspect of sexuality education and promoting the rights of people living with HIV. Today, I conduct my activism on a global scale, and I’m inspired by the stories of the people who are struggling in my country and beyond.

Russia has a long history with online censorship, and even recently banned VPNs. What are your thoughts on the importance of online expression, and what do you believe the government’s actions mean for Russian society?

Online expression is extremely important, especially in a country like Russia, where it is so difficult to organize street protests to express our opposition to the authorities’ actions. I am very sad to see that many human rights activists are forced to leave the country, and most NGO’s get shut down or labeled as “international agents”.

Online platforms remain one of the few means of speaking our mind and voicing our disagreement with the human rights violations.

If the government’s policies continue this way, civil society will eventually be totally silent. There will be no human rights violations – because there will be no one talking about them. This deeply saddens me as I think about the fact that every government in this world violates human rights in one way or another, and we need to bring these issues to light.

What can people around the world do to support your case, your cause, and brave activists, like yourself?

How can people support me? It’s a difficult question. Perhaps sharing this information and talking about this case with others can help…

Truthfully, I don’t feel brave. I feel very scared and frustrated, and very, very tired.

I have to wonder why it’s not permissible for me to repost an article from the Guardian, but why people are allowed to post comments on social networks, under my picture, describing the ways I should be murdered?

I really hope I can win this case in the court. If so, I hope it will serve as an exemplary case for others in this situation. Most of all, I hope that our government will rethink Administrative Penalty Part 2 6.2, and ultimately cancel this discriminatory legislation.

 

If you would like to support Evdokia Romanova, please send an e-mail to the Police Department in the Samara Region (gumvd63@mvd.ru) to tell them that you disagree with the accusations against her, based on Part 2 6.21 Code of Administrative Penalty (rus. ?. 2 ??. 6.21 ??????? ?? ???????????????? ???????????????). You can also participate in Amnesty International’s call for Urgent Action.

Want to join us in the fight for freedom of online expression? Get involved with the cause at Unblock The Web.