Imprisoned Rights Defender Narges Mohammadi Gives Message of Hope and Strength in Accepting 2018 Andrei Sakharov Prize
April 15, 2018 — Prisoner of conscience Narges Mohammadi was unable to accept the 2018 Andrei Sakharov Prize in person in Columbus, Ohio where the American Physical Society (APS) awarded it to her but she sent a message of hope and strength in a powerful speech.
“The path to democracy in Iran lies not through violence, war, or military action by a foreign government, but through organizing and strengthening civil society institutions. The government knows this only too well,” said Mohammadi in a speech obtained by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that will be read on April 16, 2018, by Iranian American academic Nayereh Tohidi, who accepted the award on Mohammadi’s behalf.
“Sitting here in the prison, I am humbled by the honor you have bestowed on me and I will continue my efforts until we achieve peace, tolerance for a plurality of views, and human rights,” added Mohammadi, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Mohammadi, 45, has a physics degree from Iran’s Imam Khomeini University. In 2009, she was dismissed from her job as an engineer with the Iran Engineering Inspection Corporation and imprisoned due to her public advocacy of women’s and human rights.
Her husband, political activist Taghi Rahmani, lives with their two children Ali and Kiana in France. In July 2016, Mohammadi had to go on hunger strike to force the authorities to allow her to speak to them on the phone.
The last time Mohammadi’s children were able to visit her was June 2015.
“Even the walls of Evin Prison have not been able to stop Narges Mohammadi from being a leading defender of women’s and human rights in Iran,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of CHRI, a physicist who attended the award ceremony in Columbus.
Mohammadi was first arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for the charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center,” and “propaganda against the state.”
Upon appeal, her sentence was reduced to six years and she was released from Zanjan Prison in 2013 on medical grounds.
She was arrested again on May 5, 2015, two months after meeting with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief at the time, at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran to discuss the situation of human rights in Iran.
In September 2016, Branch 26 of the Tehran Appeals Court upheld a 16-year prison sentence for Mohammadi, again for the charges of “membership in the [now banned] Defenders of Human Rights Center,” “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state.”
She will be eligible for release after serving 10 years in prison.
Named after Russian scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, the Sakharov Prize was launched by the APS in 2006 to honor outstanding leadership and the achievements of scientists in upholding human rights. In 2018 it was also awarded to Indian researcher Ravi Kuchimanchi and in 2014 to Iranian experimental laser physicist Omid Kokabee.
“Narges Mohammadi has paid a heavy price for her peaceful activism and yet she has persisted as a courageous role model for generations of younger activists,” said Ghaemi.
Following is the full text of Narges Mohammadi’s acceptance speech that will be read on April 16, 2018, by Professor Nayereh Tohidi of California State University at the APS’ April Meeting in Columbus, Ohio.
Letter by Prisoner of Conscience Narges Mohammadi From Evin Prison
For me, as a civil rights and human rights activist, it is a great honor to be recognized by esteemed scientists like you in my field of physics and to be awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize at the same time that another physicist Mr. Ravi Kuchimanchi is being awarded as well. His advocacy for human development, and specifically for the poor and disadvantaged in India has inspired many people world-wide.
I was filled with joy when studying quantum physics at the university as a means to understand the universe. But at the same time, I was preoccupied with the oppressive conditions in my country and the tyranny suffered by our universities, intellectuals, and the media. Like many others in our universities, I felt compelled to join the struggle for freedom. What we experience is a decades-old tyranny, that cannot tolerate freedom of speech and thought. In the name of religion, it restricts and punishes science, intellect, and even love. It labels as a threat to national security and toxic to society whatever is not compatible with its political and economic interests. It considers punishing unwelcome ideas as a positive thing.
It does not tolerate differences of opinion; it responds to logic not by logic, discussion or dialog, but by suppression. By tyranny I mean a ruling power that tries to make only one voice—the voice of a ruling minority in Iran—dominant, with no regard for pluralism in the society.
By tyranny I mean a judiciary that disregards even the Islamic Republic’s own constitution, and sentences intellectuals, writers, journalists, and political and civil activists to long prison terms, without due process and trial in a court of law. Examples abound, including keeping under house arrest a nationally-respected religious figure such as Ayatollah Montazeri, as well as the leaders of the Green Movement, Ms. Zahra Rahnavard, Mr. Mehdi Karroubi and Mr. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, for over nine years now with no chance to be tried in the court of law.
By tyranny I mean power-holders who believe they stand above the law and who disregard justice and the urgent demands of the human conscience. They use “white torture” on political prisoners: keeping suspects in solitary confinement is a routine and prevalent procedure. They confine a human being, alone, to a tiny cell for an unlimited and indefinite period of time: in a small space without light or proper air, where there is no sound, smell or movement. Now, add to that the pressure of persecution, derision, threats, shouting, beatings, force-feeding of medicines that carry no labels, sexual insults, sleep deprivation, and inducement of fear and stress–all in order to extract a false confession.
These solitary cells remain at the disposal of the security organs, and military and judiciary departments. Do you know who is exposed to these conditions? Those who defy the will of the ruling power by their words or non-violent actions. We do not know the exact number of people who have survived these cells after suffering severe illnesses, and the number who have lost their lives. As a civil activist, I am one of the thousands of the victims of such horrible tortures. I have come to this conclusion: the aim of solitary confinement is brain-washing, so that prisoners, deprived of normal living conditions, lose their unique human characteristics, their train of thought and ideas, and their physical and psychological health.
Tyranny does not impose itself only in the political sphere. This tyranny uses every possible leverage at the disposal of the state to institutionalize discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and ideological orientation, particularly against women. By sustaining patriarchal dominance, drafting and enforcing misogynistic laws, and even by fabricating a false culture in contradiction with the norms of the society, it deprives women of their human and civil rights and seeks to prevent them from social engagement. Therefore, when a woman like me decides to break their dictated norms, she must suffer prison and separation from her children, as an intimidating lesson for other women.
Tyranny plays its role in the realm of economy as well. Iran is an oil and gas-rich country, but millions of Iranians are deprived of decent living standards. Mismanagement and the corruption of government-related individuals and institutions result in high rates of unemployment, widespread poverty and suffering and deny people their economic rights.
I am aware that the American Physical Association that has granted me this award, counts many world-rank scientists and physicists among its members, and I cannot thank you enough for your kindness. I revere science and great thinkers like you. Contemplating such questions as the dialectical relations between being and becoming has inspired and strengthened my beliefs. You are not hearing here some random ideas of a passionate student or a distressed prisoner, but reflections rooted in the experience of a woman physicist who happens to have also advocated for equal rights and human rights, and who as a result was subjected to threats, deprivation, arrests, continuous prosecutions, and finally sentenced to a total of 23 years of imprisonment, 16 years of which has to be served based on the ruling laws in Iran. The harsh treatment and excessive sentence to which I have been subjected were not due to any underground violent or terrorist activity on my part, but– as admitted by the judges of this very system–because of my insistence on the rights of civil society and of human rights. My case, then, clearly portrays the unjust, brutal and illegal practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
You are members of an independent scientific organization, and you enjoy the blessed freedom to establish independent civil society organizations. Therefore, I would like to speak to you about two of the demands and necessities of Iranian society:
First, the independence of universities
Without universities independent of government control, the natural process of acquiring knowledge and developing thought will be thwarted, if not rendered impossible. The dominion by the government and religion over science and intellectual endeavor in Iran recalls the Middle Ages in Europe. In Iran, scientific institutions (the universities and the educational system) are under the control of the security organs, and religious and governmental agencies. The intolerance and monopolistic mindset of the clerical government has resulted in the decline, and restriction of free enquiry, in the universities. In addition to scientific qualifications, graduate and postgraduate students must undergo ideological screening. Expulsion of professors and students on religious and ideological grounds is a routine practice. Members of the Baha’i faith cannot study at Iranian universities.
The additional tragedy is that many students are not able to find appropriate jobs after graduation. Ironically, unemployment rates are higher among highly educated Iranians, especially female graduates, than among the less educated ones. This has resulted in a rising brain drain. According to UNESCO, Iran is experiencing a serious brain drain, high compared to all other countries. This trend does irreparable damage to my country.
Second, there is the need to build and achieve true civil society
In the last 25 years, I have been active in eleven civil society organizations, either as a member or as a founding member. Now, with great regret, I see the doors of these organization being closed and sealed by the government. Yet I am not hopeless nor have I lost my motivation. We cannot stop trying. I still hope and deeply believe that the tireless efforts of our civil society activists will eventually bear fruit. I am awaiting the moment I can rejoin my colleagues in these activities once I am released. The path to democracy in Iran lies not through violence, war, or military action by a foreign government, but through organizing and strengthening civil society institutions. The government knows this only too well. It is fearful of non-governmental civil society organizations precisely because of its undemocratic nature. It cannot even tolerate unions such as Association of Iranian Journalists, or human rights organizations such as the Center for Defenders of Human Rights, or charity bodies like the Association in Support of Working Children.
As a human rights defender, like millions of Iranians, I hate the death penalty; I despise discrimination and injustice against women; I protest against the imprisonment and torture of political and civil rights activists in solitary confinement; and I will not be silent in the face of human rights violations. In order to institutionalize human rights and achieve peace between the people and the state, I shall endure my deprivation of freedom and rights, even though separation from my children is nothing less than death for me. I am a woman and a mother, and with all my feminine and maternal sensibilities, I seek a world free from violence and injustice, even if I have suffered injustice and violence tens of times.
Thoughts and dreams don’t die. Belief in freedom and justice does not perish with imprisonment, torture or even death and tyranny do not prevail over freedom, even when they rely on the power of the state. Sitting here in the prison, I am deeply humbled by the honor you have bestowed on me and I will continue my efforts until we achieve peace, tolerance for a plurality of views, and human rights.