CHRI – Women who have devoted their lives to aiding underprivileged and at-risk youth in Iran have come under increasing attack by the Iranian government in its violent campaign aimed at crushing the country’s women and youth-led movement for social and political change.
“Islamic Republic authorities are deeply threatened by any independent organization or individual that provides support and hope for Iranian youth, so it’s no surprise that they’re now detaining children’s rights activists,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The state has gone particularly hard after these activists, who are primarily women, because the authorities want to keep Iranian women controlled and isolated,” he added.
“Public solidarity and support from international children’s rights organizations, particularly UNICEF, including demands that the authorities immediately free all detained children’s rights activists, is urgently needed right now,” said Ghaemi.
Since the killing of Jina Mahsa Amini, 22, in Iranian state custody and the resulting eruption of anti-state protests across the country, advocates for the rights of women and children have come under increased persecution by the Iranian government, with at least a dozen children’s rights activists, mainly women, detained around the country.
Among the more than 527 people who’ve been killed by state security forces targeting street protesters, at least 71 are children, according to the Human Rights Activists New Agency. Children have also been detained and beaten in custody.
Mahya Vahedi, Samaneh Asghari, Mahsa Gholamalizadeh, Sarvenaz Ahmadi, Mona Jandaghi, Ameneh Zamani, Atefeh Chaharmahalian, Sepideh Sarlarvand, Saeid Shirzad, Jina Modarres Gorji, and Saba Abdollahi are a few of the activists detained during these past few months, some of whom remain in custody.
Despite the Iranian authorities’ widespread intimidation campaign aimed at blocking people in Iran who are facing political persecution from speaking publicly about their cases, CHRI was able to obtain detailed information about some of these cases.
“She hasn’t for a moment stopped thinking about the poor kids and how to send them back to school.”
Children’s rights activist Sarvenaz Ahmadi, who is also a labor rights activist and translator, was arrested by Islamic Republic agents on November 6, 2022, along with her husband, Kamyar Fakoor, a composer and journalist. She was released on bail on December 6, but her husband remained in detention as of the time of this writing.
On January 4, 2023, the couple was tried by a kangaroo court on the sham charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state” at Branch 15 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, which was presided over by Judge Abolqassem Salavati, who is notorious for issuing politically motivated sentences after trials completely lacking in internationally recognized standards of due process.
Sarvenaz was sentenced to six years in prison and Kamyar was sentenced to a year in prison.
“It was worth it,” Ahmadi said in an Instagram post after being sentenced. “It’s worth the feeling of belonging to a large, powerful group of people who are trying to take control of their own destiny… I’m still young and in love, and I still laugh like when I was a child. I can’t be any different and I still believe that honoring life is the essence of resistance.”
A children’s rights activist in Iran who requested anonymity for security purposes told CHRI: “I was with Sarvenaz when she organized several events to help children in need. When children are involved, she puts everything aside to solve their problems.”
“I saw her collect donations for children from Afghanistan [refugees in Iran] who had quit school because of economic difficulties,” added the source.
“Her best attribute is her love for life and people,” said the source. “She played soccer with the kids in Darvazeh Ghar [an underprivileged neighborhood in Tehran] like she was a kid. She hasn’t for a moment stopped thinking about the poor kids and how to send them back to school.”
“Tell Ms. Mahya that I kept my promise about not hanging around bad people. She promised she wouldn’t leave me.”
Mahya Vahedi is a board member of the recently-shuttered Imam Ali Popular Student Relief Society, which was Iran’s largest independent NGO before the state shut it down, and the only one in the country holding consultative status with the United Nations.
Vahedi joined the independent charity in 2009 to aid the NGO in providing support for underprivileged children, mostly refugees from Afghanistan; she worked in Tehran’s Khak Sefid neighborhood. Later she established Iranian Houses, an organization dedicated to helping children and women in impoverished towns.
Vahedi was arrested at her office in Tehran on January 15, 2023, and taken to her home where Islamic Republic intelligence agents raided the premises and confiscated her mobile phone, flash memory cards, and handwritten notes.
She was released on bail on February 1 and is currently awaiting trial. The charges she is facing are unknown.
“During the past two years, Imam Ali Society employees have been under a great deal of pressure from the state security agencies, especially after the arrest of several of the NGO’s senior officials, including [its founder] Sharmin Meymandinejad and Zahra Rahimi,” said a children’s rights activist who spoke to CHRI on the condition of anonymity to protect their security.
The source continued, “Even when the organization was disbanded by a court order [in March 2021], all the activists focused on improving the conditions of the children in need.”
“Mahya’s arrest was truly painful. She’s just a social activist without any blemishes on her record. She has done everything in her power to help deprived children struggling with addiction. She put together sports teams in poor neighborhoods and established social services to help kids get off drugs.”
In a note praising Ahmadi, who has been called “the teacher of love and truth,” an anonymous teenager in Darvazeh Ghar wrote on January 23, 2023:
“When these alleys and its parks were forgotten in a cloud of smog and narcotics, you found us. Instead of drugs and syringes, you gave us soccer balls. These parks were filled with drugs and drug dealers but you turned them into soccer fields. You said girls should go to school and study instead of getting married at an early age. It’s a shame that a savior like you is in a place she doesn’t belong.”
Ahmadi has since continued to receive praise from the children she has helped. In a video published by the Imam Ali Society on Twitter on January 24, a boy in Darvazeh Ghar says:
“Tell Ms. Mahya that I kept my promise about not hanging around bad people. She promised me she won’t leave me. Tell her I promise I will study a lot so that I can go to university, but she has to be here to see it.”
“Ameneh was reborn every time she was in the classroom with noisy, colorful children.”
On November 24, 2022, the offices of the Society for Vulnerable Children, an NGO based in Tehran, were raided by Islamic Republic intelligence agents during a gathering by members of several children’s rights organizations.
Those at the meeting were ordered to hand over their mobile phones and their passwords. Ameneh Zamani, an artist and children’s rights advocate, refused to protect the privacy of the families she was working with and was arrested.
She was taken to Evin Prison’s Ward 2-A, notorious for its tight security controls, which is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization.
Three weeks later, Ameneh’s mother, Alieh Emamzadeh, tweeted: “She calls me once a week, usually for a minute. This time it was three minutes! Her conversations are closely monitored. It’s all because they want to intimidate the prisoners. In their eyes, Ameneh was insubordinate because she didn’t give the password for her mobile. We don’t know why they’re holding her. The IRGC intelligence officials are not answering questions and refuse to follow the law.”
Ameneh’s sister, Masoumeh Zamani, wrote, “Ameneh was reborn every time she was in the classroom with noisy, colorful children. In this gray world, people like Ameneh don’t belong in prison.”
Released on bail on December 19, Zamani is awaiting trial on the sham charge of “assembly and collusion against national security.”
Many More Arrested, Families Pressured to Remain Silent
CHRI has confirmed the detention of the following children’s rights activists. The actual number is believed to be much higher but many people are keeping their cases secret due to threats and intimidation by Iranian authorities.
- Vira Akbarzadeh, in Bushehr
- Sarvenaz Ahmadi, Tehran
- Mahia Vahedi, Tehran
- Saeid Shirzad, Tehran
- Laleh Mohammadi, Rasht
- Mina Jandaghi, Tehran
- Azad Khanchehzar, Marivan
- Fariba Kamali, Tehran
- Samaneh Asghari, Tehran
The following children’s educational instructors at the Reform and Training Center, a juvenile detention center in the Kurdish-populated city of Sanandaj, have also been arrested and remain in detention for allegedly trying to support children’s rights:
- Masoumeh Rashidi
- Pariya Ebadi
- Sara Samavati
Services for vulnerable children and legal protections against child abuse are inadequate in Iran, which is why activists including the women listed here have been trying to fill the vacuum.
“Amid a child protection crisis in Iran, the authorities are detaining children’s rights activists in their panic to silence any independent voices, instead of helping them reach more children in need,” said Ghaemi. “It is incumbent upon the international children’s rights community to publicly and vigorously support these persecuted activists.”