Female human rights activists imprisoned in Iran are facing a slew of new charges to prevent them from being temporarily released because of the Covid-19 epidemic, rights groups say.

Since Covid-19 spread rapidly through the country in early March, Iranian authorities have been under pressure to release all prisoners who pose no risk to society. Around 85,000 prisoners were temporarily released under a furlough scheme earlier this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak, half of whom were believed to be political detainees.

Yet dozens of women’s rights activists remain in prisons across the country, with groups including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) accusing authorities of deliberately rendering them ineligible for release by bringing new charges. Those considered “security prisoners” with sentences of more than five years were automatically denied furlough.

Narges Mohammadi, one of Iran’s best-known women’s rights defenders, was jailed for 16 years in 2015 after she campaigned to abolish the death penalty. Mohammadi’s family and the GCHR say that she has been denied furlough and charged with “dancing in prison during the days of mourning to commemorate the murder of the Shia Imam Hussein” – a charge the family dismissed as absurd.

It is feared that Mohammadi could face another five years in prison and 74 lashes as a result of the new charges, which include “collusion against the regime”, “propaganda against the regime” and the crime of “insult”.

Atena Daemi, 32, a women’s rights activist and anti-death penalty campaigner, was expected to be furloughed on 4 July, but is facing additional charges that make her ineligible for the scheme.

Already serving a sentence for disseminating anti-death penalty leaflets, she now faces a further 25 months in prison for writing a letter criticising the execution of political prisoners. Her family say that she is also facing additional charges for “disturbing order” at Evin prison by chanting anti-government slogans, a claim she denies.

Saba Kord Afshari, 22, who was jailed for nine years in 2019 for not wearing a headscarf, has had her sentence increased to 24 years.

“It’s no surprise that intelligence agents and judicial officials in Iran are zealously working to put women’s rights activists behind bars and keep them there for as long as possible,” said Jasmin Ramsey of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Women are on the frontlines of struggles for rights and equality in Iran, as shown by the multiple political prisoners who continue to speak out for the rights of others from inside jail cells.

“By going so far as to alter the judicial process with the hopes of muzzling these prisoners under lengthy jail sentences, Iranian judicial and intelligence officials are revealing how desperate they are to prevent women from taking on more leadership roles.”

Nassim Papayianni, Amnesty International’s Iran campaigner, said that adding fresh charges is commonly used to silence detainees, particularly when they have campaigned from behind bars.

Increasing numbers of female activists have been arrested in recent years and given lengthy sentences for criticising or challenging state policies by advocating human and civil rights.

US-based journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, who started the White Wednesdays campaign against mandatory veiling, said the increasing number of charges levelled against female activists like Afshari proved how desperate the Iranian state had become.

“For years and years, we had the fear inside us. And now women are fearless. They want to be warriors and that scares the government,” she said.

“In the Islamic Republic, we don’t have freedom of expression, we don’t have free parties or free media or free choice. They can shut down NGOs and political parties and newspapers but they can’t go after every person who becomes an activist or a movement themselves, who become their own saviours instead of waiting for someone to save them.”

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