UN rapporteur condemns Iran’s treatment of PS752 protesters like Mary Mohammadi

UN rapporteur condemns Iran’s treatment of PS752 protesters like Mary Mohammadi

Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (Photo: UN/Mark Garten)

The UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has condemned Iran for “multiple human rights violations” in the downing last year of Ukrainian passenger plane PS752 and response to subsequent protests.

Agnes Callamard, in a letter sent to the Iranian government on 24 December 2020 but only made public last week after Iran failed to respond within the 60-day deadline, noted that “hundreds of individuals were arrested and subjected to physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment … for the purpose of extracting confessions, with families denied information about the individual’s fate and whereabouts in some cases”.

Among those arrested in Tehran on 12 January 2020 was Christian convert and activist Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, who was held incommunicado for a month and subjected to shocking abuse, including having to remove her clothes and perform naked sit-ups as prison officers watched.

The 22-year-old recently described her arrest and subsequent mistreatment in an interview with London-based website Kayhan Life:

“It was around 10pm and the riot police had scattered people, but they were still present in small groups. I was standing alone and doing nothing when I was attacked from behind without warning. I was then badly beaten by the officers while they made sexual threats.

“I was then brought in for questioning, but the police were unable to find any evidence with which to press charges, until an officer was made aware of my conversion to Christianity. Then they contacted the prosecutor’s office and shared this information. After that, the prosecutor’s office decided to open a case.”

Mary said she was given no food or water for 24 hours, despite sustaining injuries because of her violent arrest and exposure to tear and pepper gas, before she was made to endure her most traumatic and degrading abuse.

“The guards threatened to rip all my clothes off and do other things with my body if I refused to undress myself,” Mary explained. “I was also forced to sit outside in the detention yard for a long time, in extremely cold weather. They kept harassing me late into the night until I could not stand on my feet or keep my eyes open anymore.”

Mary was eventually released on bail after 46 days, then sentenced to three months in prison and 10 lashes, suspended for one year, dependent on her future conduct.

Mary Mohammadi has already spent six months in prison because of her membership of a house-church.

During the trial, the judge questioned her about her religious views, even though the charges – of “disturbing public order by participating in an illegal rally” – were entirely unrelated to her faith.

Such questioning is also a clear breach of Iran’s constitution, which states: “The investigation of individuals’ beliefs is forbidden, and no-one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.” 

Mary has already served six months in prison – when she was aged just 19 – because of her membership of a house-church, for which she was convicted of “actions against national security” and “propaganda against the system”.

She was then expelled from university, without explanation, on the eve of her English-language exams in December 2019.

And just last month Mary revealed that she has not been allowed back to her work as a gymnastics instructor since her arrest last year, saying it was “very clear” her employer had been pressured by intelligence agents to prevent her from returning to work.

Mary was also recently forced to return to the Vozara Detention Centre where her humiliating abuse had taken place – this time because her headscarf “wasn’t correctly adjusted”, her trousers were “too tight”, and her coat “too short” and not buttoned up.

“When I go out, I’m not really sure that I’ll be able to return to my house,” she told US-based writer Lela Gilbert following this latest detention.

“Please imagine wearing your normal clothes while you’re walking along the street, and suddenly you are arrested for it. How do you feel?” she added.

Yet despite her continued mistreatment, Mary continues to bravely speak out against rights abuses, whether of herself or others. 

In 2019, Mary launched a campaign for Christian converts like herself to be given the right to worship in a church. She titled the campaign “KHMA”, an acronym in Persian for “Church is Christians’ Right”.

Although Christians are a recognised religious minority in Iran, converts to Christianity are not recognised, and churches are closely monitored to ensure converts don’t attend, while most Persian-language services have been forcibly closed down over the past decade to further decrease the chance of converts attending.

In the wake of these restrictions and the closure of Persian-language services, underground house-churches have sprung up across the country, but though the converts who attend these gatherings engage in nothing more than ordinary Christian worship, attendees are regularly arrested and charged with “actions against national security” through membership or organisation of “hostile” groups. 

There are currently at least 20 Christian converts in Iranian prisons as a result of such charges, and two more in internal exile.