By Damon Golriz
A combination of three powerful elements led to widespread support for Arash Sadeghi. Firstly, this hunger strike was felt as a re-enactment of the Persian mythology “to sacrifice yourself for love until your last breath” in the modern era.
This element has generated a strong power of solidarity amongst even political rivals, due to the significance of poetry in the Iranian culture. Secondly, social media and the internet are now the prime weapon against the Iranian regime. Public opinion is triggered by social media which put pressure on rulers. And finally, in this time where suicide attacks globally sow hatred and suspicion, sacrificing one’s life for the freedom of one’s beloved has become the redefinition of heroism.
All of these elements led to #SaveArash which started trending on Twitter and compelled the regime to grant his requests.
The story of Arash and Golrokh
“The first day I started my hunger strike, I promised myself to claim the freedom of the only beloved in my life, my wife Golrokh. What made the past few days bearable for me was the conviction that she has been subject to injustice,” wrote a severely weakened Arash Sadeghi from prison on the sixtieth day of his hunger strike.
Arash, a dissident and a masters student of Philosophy, began a hunger strike in October to protest the detention of his wife, Golrokh. She was sentenced to six years in prison for “undesired publications” on Facebook and an unpublished story she wrote (found after a house search), which described the inhumane punishment of stoning for adultery. (The story described the emotional response of a young woman who is watching the movie The Stoning of Soraya M.)
For these “crimes,” Golrokh was found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctity” and was detained on October 24, 2016, according to Amnesty International. That very same day Arash started his hunger strike in prison. He had been convicted a few months earlier, sentenced to 15 years imprisonment and jailed in the notorious Evin prison in northwest of Tehran in May.
Arash was arrested for condemning Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on his social media profile. He cursed the admirers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp commander General Qasem Soleimani in Syria to “perpetual perdition.”
The Islamic judges found him guilty of “spreading propaganda against the regime,” “conspiracy against national safety,” and “insulting Ayatollah Khomeini,” the instigator of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The charges against Arash mainly consisted of Facebook messages and what the intelligence services were further able to find against him on the internet.
Solidarity, Persian Mythology and Political Protest
Persian mythology consists of many poetic love stories. One of the first, and perhaps the oldest love story in the world, is that of Vis and Ramin.
Vis was the daughter of the king in West Persia that ruled over many kingdoms. Ramin was the brother of the king in the East. The eastern king imprisoned Vis because she rejected him in order to choose Ramin. Fuelled with jealousy, the King sent Ramin to fight against the Roman invasion.
Ramin, full of love for Vis, left the battlefield, risked his life, climbed the walls of the palace and remained in prison with Vis. For many, Arash’s willingness to sacrifice his life for his beloved became a contemporary narrative of the Vis and Ramin myth.
And perhaps unintentionally, that narrative established an unprecedented solidarity for Arash amongst political rivals who had drifted far apart since the popular uprising of 2009.
Arash wrote in his letter: “My request for Golrokh’s unrestricted freedom is connected to my love for the freedom of all political detainees.” With this statement, Arash universalized his cause.
Suddenly a Twitter-storm arose with hashtag #SaveArash. With over half a million tweets within a short space of time, the hashtag was trending globally. Congressmen in Washington, politicians in Europe and the Western media showed their solidarity with Arash and increased the pressure until the Iranian State was hounded into complying with the call of #SaveArash on day 72 of his hunger strike. His wife Golrokh was released and he was intubated.
The same social media which was initially used against Golrokh, now became a tool to force her freedom.
This positive unwinding demonstrated the regime’s apprehensiveness of the possible political consequences attached to their treatment of Arash. The Iranian regime is definitely not insensitive to the negative drawbacks it may face when letting activists die in prison.
This sensitivity has led to a peaceful way to seek justice for those Iranians who have devoted themselves to fight for human rights.
In our era, where Islamism is claiming many innocent lives through religious terror, the heroic story of #SaveArash is not only peaceful but also an inspiration for others. After Arash, the next campaign focussed on #SOSAli, an activist who protested against religious acid attacks against women. And #FreeSaeed, for a man who actively fought against child labor, will be next.
And with them, many others will follow.
Six months prior to the presidential elections in Iran, this chain of protests could be considered a success formula for the release of prisoners of conscience. As Arash ended his letter, “I would rather die with pride than to bow before tyranny. Perhaps my death will be the beginning of the end of the injustice and violence in my country.”
Golrokh was released on the January 3, 2017. However, that first apparent victory soon came to an end. She was offered a furlough for only four days and her request for prison leave extension was rejected. She should have been released until her case was reviewed, as the judiciary had agreed as to the wrongfulness of her sentence. In addition, the sudden death of one of the most deplorable rulers of the Islamic Republic (Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) cast a shadow over the public attention to the protests of political prisoners.
On January 25, Arash started his hunger strike again to protest his wife being sent back to prison. His life is now more at risk than ever before.
Damon Golriz is a research fellow at the research group International Peace, Justice & Security of The Hague University.