Nora Shourd and Iran Mothers of Prisoners of Conscience

Nora Shourd and Iran Mothers of Prisoners of Conscience

Tehran – Outside the prison walls of ward 350, in the IRI – Islamic Republic of Iran’s Evin Prison, a group of brave demonstrators hold placards and pictures of their loved ones who are part of a hunger strike. The demonstrators are mostly women – Iranian mothers, family and friends who have chosen to publicaly defend the rights and dignity of those incarcerated. As the days of the hunger strike continue, some of the prisoners have chosen to go without water. This is a dangerous proposition, but the stakes are critical. The treatment of prisoners in the IRI desperately needs greater humanity and reform.

The strongest human advocates many prisoners of conscience in the IRI have is the silent presence of the women who sit outside the solid doors of the prison for hours on their daily vigil. Many are mothers. Others are wives or sisters. Some are fathers, uncles, cousins and supportive friends. But one common goal is shared among them all. To gain the release of their loved ones.

“We requested a visit with the prosecutor some time ago, but have received no response,” said, Shahrzad Kariman, in an interview with Change for Equality, about prison conditions for her daughter, legal rights defender Shiva Nazar Ahari. “We have also requested an in person visit with our daughter in prison, on three occasions, but those requests have had no response either,” continued Shiva’s mother. “Currently we are able to visit with Shiva once a week but from behind a glass cabinet. It has been a long time since we had an in person visit with Shiva. I don’t know why the prosecutor does not allow us to have an in person visit with our loved one.”

Mothers of activists who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained or have suffered enforced disappearance are often left with immense grief and an unending sense of loss and desperation. Daring to speak out against government officials and leaders in their regions, they often suffer themselves from legal backlash and arbitrary arrests as threats to their imprisoned adult children and/or their families increase.

“Every minute I grieve for my daughter. I yearn to have her with me,” said Nora Shourd, mother of imprisoned U.S. hiker Sarah Shourd, in a recent one-on-one interview with U.S. based Iranian peace activist and journalist, Elahe Amani, for Women News Network (WNN).

During the interview Elahe and Nora talked about both their daughters who share the same age. Both are thirty-one years old. One is of Iranian descent, the other American. Both are graduates of the University of California Berkeley. Both are defenders of human rights.

Mothers of the U.S. Hikers

The July 31, 2009 arrest by IRI – Islamic Republic of Iran authorities (now over one year ago) of U.S. hikers Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer brought three mothers together – Nora Shourd, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey. After a year of full-time work campaigning for the release of their adult children, the mothers are feeling more frustrated than ever. Months of efforts have not changed the fact that their children have not come home. Answers to lift them from their imprisonment seem elusive.

After seven months of waiting, on May 10, 2010, the U.S. hiker mothers were finally given permission to see their children for first time since their imprisonment. Before this, the only communications with their adult children that was allowed by IRI officials was only one five minute phone call.

“We are no different than one another,” said Nora in her interview with Elahe Amani of WNN as she shared her deep convictions. It is the same worry that all mothers of prisoners in the IRI share. Nora’s daughter, Sarah, has been in solitary confinement now for over one year. Nora worries about the health effects of solitary incarceration on her daughter.

The IRI must, “abolish the use of prolonged solitary confinement,” said Human Rights Watch in a detailed 2008 report called, “You Can Detain Anyone for Anything.” The inhumane practice of solitary confinement, “gravely subjects detainees to lasting psychological damage,” emphasized the report.

The answers to the problems are not simple. The solutions are not easy. Nora, along with the other U.S. hiker mothers – Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, worry pensively as current relations and tensions between the U.S. government and the IRI leadership volley back and forth. They fear their children may only be political pawns in a daily shifting international situation.

“As a young woman, Sarah began her activist career by going to Chiapas, Mexico to do peace work,” shared Nora about her daughter in her interview with Women News Network. “She worked through the Chiapas Support Committee to support much needed projects, such as water rights and improvement of the health care clinic. Sarah was also part of a woman’s collective that brought several of the mothers of murdered young women of Juarez, Mexico to California (U.S) to speak about their daughters (and) “Femicides.” Sarah went to New Orleans to also help after the Katrina hurricane disaster. She wrote extensively about human rights and women in Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria,” Nora added.

Faced with unofficial charges of espionage, Sarah, Josh and Shane have now reached a critical stage in their incarceration. They have been incarcerated for more than the one year. In December 2009, Manouchehr Mottaki, IRI Foreign Minister said, “They have entered Iran with suspicious aims. They will be tried by Iran’s judiciary and verdicts will be issued.” But to date no official court hearing or date has been legally filed in the court.

“When I saw Sarah (last May, 2010) I could see she was changed,” Nora told Elahe in her interview. “She is calm despite all the external pressure, but very very sad, lonely and depressed. Sarah, Josh and Shane have written us many letters, but we never get them, any of them. The last we heard they had their pens and papers taken away from them as a punishment.”

In a solitary cell Sarah composes songs and memorizes them on the endless days. When she saw her mother for the first time in months, in May 2010, she sang to her mother two of her original songs. “It was so moving to hear her beautiful, proud voice singing!” said Nora to Elahe.

The IRI mandate on prison terms and conditions states that solitary confinement comes under special IRI legal provisions. Although Sarah Shourd has been in solitary now for more than one year, the IRI State Prisons, Security and Corrective Measures Organization states that, “The laws governing the Prison Authority allow for disciplinary punishment of a maximum of 20 days (only) in solitary confinement.” Sarah is also suffering from a health condition that is not currently being treated while she is in prison.

“International penal standards dictate that solitary confinement should be imposed only for short periods, in an individualized fashion, under strict supervision (including by a physician) and only for legitimate penal reasons of discipline or preventive security,” said a 2008 Human Rights Watch report. “Prolonged solitary confinement of the detained or imprisoned person may amount to acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said The UN OHCHR – UN Office Of The High Commissioner For Human Rights in 1992.

Burma’s Famous Mother

“Now I am numb,” said Burmese author and rights advocate, Sayamagyi Kyi Oo, after her son had been arrested four times for public acts in protest, statements and making critical social-satire jokes about Myanmar’s leading generals during his famed comedy performances. “What my son did was for the sake of the country. I don’t mind how many cases they charged my son with,” said Kyi Oo.

“I feel the same way as other mothers whose sons also face the same fate,” added Kyi Oo as she shared her experience of being a mother of a political prisoner – a prisoner of conscience. All mothers of prisoners of conscience worldwide experience the same fate, the same frustrations, the same depressions.

Kyi Oo’s son, Maung Thura, rose to acclaim as the talented Burmese comedian and filmmaker who is known in public by the name Zarganar. In December 2008, after going in and out of detention for his outspoken activism, Zarganar was sentenced to thirty-five additional years of incarceration at the Myitkyina Prison. Today Zarganar’s is suffering from very poor health.

Struggling with her own serious condition with advanced gall bladder cancer, on March 20, 2009, Zarganar’s admired 83 year old mother, Kyi Oo, died. Before her death, even after concerted efforts, she was unable to get permission from Myanmar prison officials to see her son again for, “the last time.”

As witnesses to traumatic events in the political arrests of their children, many mothers of prisoners of conscience experience critical states of worry, prolonged lack of sleep, suicidal tendencies and anxiety – all symptoms of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. These conditions constantly haunt them and severely affect their health and well being.

Is It Possible Not to Be Worried?

“Is it possible not to be worried?,” said Shahrzad Kariman, the mother of Iranian imprisoned human rights activist advocate Ms. Shiva Nazar Ahari, in a recent interview with International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

On the night of her daughter’s arrest Ahari’s mother describes the emotional torture of a mother who was also dealing with family health issues when she was told of the arrest of her child. “Her father and I were in very bad shape that night,” says Kariman describing the arrest of her daughter. “Her father had open heart surgery and was ordered to remain in a stable mental state. I was undergoing chemotherapy. They took our child from the day of her arrest on 14 June, 2009,” she continued.

“We were unable to have any news on her for 25 days,” added Shahrzad Kariman. “We went everywhere we could think of, the Revolutionary Courts and the Prosecutor’s Office. Many people had been detained and wherever I went there was a flood of people, just like myself, who didn’t know where their children were.”

“I went to Evin prison every week,” continued Shiva’s mother. “But each time they told me that Shiva was not allowed to have any visitors. She called me (from Evin Prison) 25 days after her arrest saying: ‘I’m well, Mom. Don’t worry about me. I am in solitary confinement in Ward 209.’”

On June 12, 2010, Shiva celebrated her birthday behind bars. “She is celebrating her 26th birthday in Evin Prison today – a name synonymous with the system of injustice that prevails in Iran. Colleagues and I will be remembering Shiva on her special day with a cake and birthday wishes,” said Ann Harrison, East Gulf researcher for Amnesty International. Shiva’s mother is still waiting for her release.

The Mothers of Tiananmen

After over 20 years of surveillance, phone tapping and filtered mail, 73 year old, retired university professor, Ms. Ding Zilin has not backed down in her attempts to find the truth in the events that lead to her son’s death. The Chinese mother of the 1989 slain high school student, Jiang Jielian, who was the first to die at the Beijing Tiananmen Square protests massacre, still hopes to find peace.

In the 1990s, after facing the grief and ongoing trauma from the loss of her son, Ding Zilin got together with one other mother who had also lost an adult child in the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Mothers began then to grow to 150 mothers, and their families, banding together to provide support to each other as they urge Chinese officials to provide information in the unsolved investigations of their children’s arrest, death and/or disappearance.

According to The Tiananmen Mothers, sixty-four people, most of them young students, were killed during the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Others disappeared without a trace. Others were arrested and are still under penal custody. To date, the government of the PRC – People’s Republic of China in Beijing has not provided any transparent investigation into the allegations. In opposition to the request of the Mothers of Tiananmen, cases have been left unsolved with large and looming questions left unanswered.

In 2003, Ding Zilin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroism and bravery. In 2005, she was arrested by PRC security forces and summarily released, along with two other Tiananmen Mothers, Ms. Huang Jinping and Ms. Zhang Xianling, as the government warned them not to attempt to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.

“Our group of ailing mothers know that time is running short,” said Ding Zilin in a very recent June 4, 2010 newsletter released by the Tiananmen Mothers. “But even on the edge of death we continue to move forward.”

“We believe that China today is at a critical point in time,” added Zilin recently during a plea to open public access in China to open and public freedom of information via the internet. “Is it (PRC – People’s Republic of China) striding forward or stepping back?,” asked Ding in her newsletter. “The decision must be, in accord with international practice in following the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that (the PRC) not hesitate to defend its citizens’ freedom of speech… Freedom of speech is found in open media and access to information,” she stated with conviction.

Does Truth Matter?

“Families of disappeared persons (in Iran) seeking information from the authorities have been shown albums of photographs of the dead reportedly containing hundreds of photographs,” said a September 2009 Campaign Report on Human Rights by the International Campaign for Human Rights Iran. “Some have reported seeing “hundreds” of corpses in makeshift morgues,” continues the report. “Many bodies were reportedly buried in anonymous graves in Behesht Zahra cemetery overnight.” Does truth matter to the leadership in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

“Truth matters. Responsibility matters,” said Time Magazine in a November, 2006, news campaign highlighting, 60 Years of Asian Heroes when Beijing hero, Ding Zilin, was placed on the cover of Time. Her face was placed on the cover series with the likes of 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known to the world as Mahatma Ghandi.

Truth is something Sara Shourd’s mother, Nora, wants to share with the world. “When Sarah, Shane and Josh were arrested it was not friendly,” continued Nora in her interview with Elahe Amani. “The border guards gestured for them to come over,” she continued, “fired shots and then came across and arrested them. Not friendly at all, (those) men with guns.”

Mothers and family members are often the only public voice of advocacy a political prisoner has left when legal representation is cut off and communication with prisoners is limited. The voice of a family member often takes the place of a prisoner who needs to report health conditions, or share unknown facts in their case.

On a recent campaign by the Mourning Mothers of Iran, a “truth-seeking commission” was suggested to be made up of “Iranian citizens and human-rights activists” to bring public transparency to investigations in the IRI cases of torture, death and cover-up of three Iranian students who were arrested and sent to their deaths in the notorious Kahrizak Detention Center in Tehran.

This is not the first time claims of crimes against humanity have surfaced connected to events at Kahrizak. Amid many rumors of torture and death at Kahrizak Detention Center, Ramin Pourandarjani, a 26 year old Iranian physician working once a week at Kahrizak Detention Center to complete his military service, was discovered dead, under “mysterious circumstances,” by his father after being called to Tehran police headquarters, November 10, 2009.

“Dr. Pourandarjani had been interviewed by a special parliamentary committee charged with investigating allegations of abuses during the post-election unrest. Before his death he reportedly received threats to prevent him from revealing the abuses he had witnessed at Kahrizak,” said a joint November 25, 2009, letter to the IRI Office of the Tehran Prosecutor, by Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “He (Dr. Pourandarjani) had also reportedly been forced to certify that one detainee had died of meningitis,” continued the letter.

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on torture & other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment mentioned the ethical responsibility of doctors and health workers in a formal statement to the United Nations in 2006. “I take this opportunity to call upon medical doctors and other health professionals to fulfill their legal and ethical obligations towards torture survivors, including the obligation to document and report instances of torture and political violence,” he said.

“I have to say that I am really concerned about the situation (in Iran),” said Special Rapporteur Nowak, in a March 11, 2010 statement to Radio Free Europe. Nowak is also in favor of the closure of the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo. In July 2010, IRI Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the Kahrizak detention center to be permanently closed down.

A Mother’s Bravery on Human Rights

When the Mourning Mothers of Iran (Mothers of Laleh) went to protest the deaths of their adult children in public at Laleh Park in Tehran on a Saturday afternoon, January 10, 2010, they were arrested immediately and taken to Vozara Detention Center. In all, thirty-three mothers were placed in detention. Reports of harsh handling by the police was confirmed when nine of the Mothers were taken to two separate hospitals. Later, the Mothers were released, but the message by IRI security authorities was clear. Speaking out, marching and/or grieving in public and/or holding pictures of a loved one in public with a lit candle could create dangerous repercussions for the Mothers.

“No culture permits such violence to be unleashed against mothers,” said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

When Parvin (Ameneh Khatoon) Fahimi’s 19 year old son, Sohrab Arabi, went missing during the Iranian post-election street protests in June 2009, Parvin began an earnest search to find him. She didn’t know her search would last for 25 grueling days. The search ended, when Fahimi identified the body of her dead son in Tehran’s Prophet Hospital morgue. He had been shot dead before the many days of unanswered anguished questions.

After her son’s death, Parvin Fahimi, sent her voice out into the public with cries of injustice and calls for investigations. “I won’t remain silent,” said Arabi’s mother, Parvin.

“The Iranian government is determined to silence all dissenting voices,” said Claudio Cordone, Interim Secretary General for Amnesty International. Even though Parvin Fahimi was cautioned by Tehran police not to “memorialize” her son in public, she has recently released an important public statement, “I would forgive the murderers of my son on the unconditional release of political prisoners.”

Nora Shourd is still waiting to find out more about the charges in her daughter’s incarceration. “Two male interrogators control every minute, everyday of Sarah’s life,” explains Nora Shourd in her interview with Elahe Amani for WNN. “Sarah is anxious about the unknowns. Even with this, she dances alone in her cell. Sometimes, other women prisoners will walk by Sarah’s cell and try to talk to her. They whisper, ‘Sarah we love you, we love your mother, stay strong.’ I am sure this puts them in danger,” Nora continued.

“I lost Sohrab for the crime of freedom, love, and peace (in Iran),” said Fahimi. “Let remain and live the rest of the children of this land.”

In this recent interview with Amnesty International, Cindy Hickey – mother of U.S. hiker, Shane Bauer and Nora Shourd – mother of U.S. hiker, Sarah Shourd share updates on conditions in the detainment of their adult children. Since May 2010, the mothers have received no communications from Iranian officials or from Evin prison where their children have been incarcerated. Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer have been kept in one prison cell together since December 2009. Sarah Shourd has been kept in solitary confinement for over one year since her arrest July 31, 2009. This 2:01 min video is a July 30, 2010, AmnestyUSA YouTube release.