Safe activism: How to protect yourself while defending civil liberties in Iran

An Iranian NGO has published a guide for political activists who fear for their rights and freedoms.
By [protected] from Tehran, IRAN (Iran election Uploaded by mangostar) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

United for Iran is an NGO that aims to defend human rights in Iran by increasing the awareness of civil society and engaging citizens through technology. Their project Safe Activism: Reducing the Risks and Impact of Arrest is an innovative attempt to secure the rights of political prisoners through a guide based on the experiences of former activists who were once arrested. The project manager Mahdieh Javid explained to WIB how they were able to develop this idea and why it matters.

Why a guide?

The unrest created by mass protests of Iranian civil society in 2009, which earned the name “the Green Movement,” resulted in mass arrests of political activists. United For Iran documented how these prisoners were treated in an attempt to measure whether human rights were being respected or not. Once the momentum was over, United For Iran decided to expand its actions and actively engage in the defense of human rights.

They soon detected a problem faced by many Iranian activists who challenged the lack of freedom of expression and speech in Iran: “…[there was] no cohesive source for Iranian activists who are committed but don’t know the safest ways to protest. We thought it was best to talk to activists who had been imprisoned within the last five years or so, who had the most recent experience of imprisonment,’ says Javid.

United For Iran decided to gather information from these activists and develop a guide about how to reduce the risk of arrest and, if arrested, how to navigate the interrogation process and to mitigate incarceration. Thirty activists were interviewed for the development of this booklet and a two-day workshop was created in order to review and verify all the material collected.

What’s in it for an activist?

Once the guide was finished in 2015, it was distributed in Iran through their network of activists, through promotional strategies, such as an original video, and through Persian media outlets based outside of Iran.

United For Iran generally advises activists relying on the guide, available in Persian and in English, to “read it but don’t keep it,” to avoid further complications.

The guide takes its reader from the prevention stage of avoiding arrest through to the whole process of incarceration, including the roles family or the media might play. Digital security, common interrogation tactics, protest in prison and legal rights are some of the topics covered. The point is to make sure activists and political prisoners minimize their risks, which sometimes means doing the exact opposite of what they are told by authorities.

As an example, prisoners in Iran and their families are usually advised by authorities not to contact the media and are threatened with reprisals such as a heavier sentence or abuse in prison. In reality, the opposite happens. Most activists interviewed by United For Iran recounted being treated better once their case was made public and under more scrutiny when it was kept secret.

‘Many people in Iran have no concrete idea of how bad the situation is’

According to Javid, the Iranian government does not always feel obligated to follow its own laws, especially the judiciary and intelligence system. The already limited protections are often ignored. Human rights are violated repeatedly, such as freedom of speech, expression, religion and assembly. This also leads to people who would not otherwise identify as activists being arrested for a Facebook joke, for example, and inadvertently becoming political prisoners, she says.

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Based on their interviews, these arrests usually happen in secrecy and many people panic when confronted with the possibility of incarceration. By preparing activists for how the whole process may unfold, it can help to decrease psychological pressure and fear.

The importance of a prisoner’s case being made public is related in particular to the mental health of the prisoner, adds Javid. Once a prisoner feels others have not forgotten about the case, she explains, it gives the prisoner strength to endure the incarceration. United For Iran thus aims to recount the stories of as many political prisoners as possible and engage civil society in the defense of human rights.

The majority of people in Iran are not aware of the scale of the problem of political prisoners because of the secrecy surrounding the arrests. Yet there is no hostility towards activists of prisoners by the general population. Rather there is a lack of trust between the Iranian people and the government. Once confronted with the reality of incarceration, the people are horrified but not necessarily surprised, explains Javid.

Reform versus uprising

Javid suggests that there is a certain reluctance from Iranians to engage in revolution since they ‘see the high costs of swift action,’ as in Syria for example. In general, Iranians are more interested in reform than uprising. But despite the symbolic initiatives of Iranian President Rouhani ⎼ to develop a Charter on Citizens’ Rights for example ⎼ United For Iran has not seen any major changes in the conditions of political prisoners. The continued house arrest (since 2011) of the Green Movement figureheads is an example of that unwillingness for effectual action.

In fact, since the Green Movement the government crackdown on protesters has increased the risk of activism. It is no wonder why activists are looking for ways to avoid being targeted by the authorities while exercising basic rights. And so, the Iranian diaspora might be an important key in safeguarding civil liberties from afar.

“We are here to serve the Iranian people and we take our cues from them”

The Iranian diaspora in the Western world is often considered to be one of the most well-integrated and educated. But United For Iran, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, does not want to speak only for a Western audience on behalf of Iranians still living in the country, but rather allow the activists to be protagonists of their own stories of survival and share what they have learned from challenging the regime.

Some diasporic Iranians such as Javid are well aware of the privileges they have in terms of free communication, which can be considered a position of strategic advantage that could be put to the service of the Iranian people. The diaspora can provide Iranians with better resources because they are not in imminent danger. The sincere admiration for Iranian activists (described by Javid as ‘the bravest people the country has to offer’) is the basis for what leads politically active diasporic Iranians. As Javid points out, ‘We feel obligated to listen to the people we are trying to save and they are the ones who know the best strategies to deal with their situation’.

What can the world learn from this?

Javid does not think their project is the first of its kind. Nevertheless, it provides future activists with a replicable guide on how to lawfully protect their rights within the political framework of their own countries. It encourages people to advocate for change while taking into account their safety. The guide could be considered a peaceful tool that can be used by others under authoritarian regimes who want to advocate for change and who are afraid for their lives in the process.

If you also want to contribute and help defend political prisoners in Iran, visit the campaign page of United For Iran and makes sure their stories are heard. Little by little, we can all contribute to improve the conditions of Iranian civil rights defenders.

Human RightsTopics
Margarida Teixeira

Margarida Teixeira works for a women's rights organization in Lisbon, Portugal, that advocates for gender mainstreaming in Portuguese society and works on a variety of topics. She has previously worked for human rights and humanitarian NGOs in France and Croatia.
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