For 49 days, jailed Iranian human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh went on a life-threatening hunger strike. Her goal: to force Iranian authorities to stop harassing her family and remove a travel ban on her 12-year-old daughter. Drinking nothing but water mixed with sugar and salts, Sotoudeh’s limbs grew weak. Her weight reportedly fell to under 100 pounds.
On Tuesday, her hunger strike ended, in what human-rights activists called a major victory. The news came at a time when Iran has ramped up pressure on family members of dissidents and activists—both inside Iran’s prisons and living in exile.
“I would like to congratulate Nasrin and all Iranian political prisoners and prisoners of conscience for this triumph,” said Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian attorney and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has lived in exile in Europe since 2009.
This year, several human-rights defenders reported arrests and interrogations of prisoners’ family members in Iran, according to Ahmad Shaheed, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Some families have been “threatened, insulted, and tortured,” to discourage them from publicly talking about the plights of their loved ones and to place pressure on the prisoners, according to Shaheed.
Sotoudeh’s husband told The Daily Beast that Iranian authorities warned him to stop speaking out for his wife, who was arrested in 2010. She is serving a six-year prison sentence and has been barred from practicing law for a decade.
“They once detained me for 24 hours and handed me to my wife’s interrogators to pressure me to keep silent,” said Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, who is prohibited from leaving Iran. “Another time, they detained me, our two children, and my wife’s sister during a prison visit … for five-and-a-half hours, without giving the children anything to eat.”
Such tactics are becoming the norm in Iran, according to Ebadi and other activists. “The Iranian government has been using different means to bring political and civil activists to their knees, like exploiting their feelings toward their family members,” said Ebadi. “Activists’ family members are now routinely put under pressure to force the activists into passivity.”
The pressure placed on families of political prisoners takes different forms, according to Ebadi. Mir-Hossein Mousavi has been under house arrest with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, since early last year. In the meantime, his daughter—also named Zahra—a lecturer at the Al-Zahra University in Tehran, was dismissed from her job without any reason. She has also been prevented from publishing her books.
Ebadi’s own family has been harassed, too. After she left Iran in 2009, the regime warned her to stop her human-rights activities. When she refused, it arrested her sister and husband in Iran. Under “severe psychological and physical pressure,” Ebadi’s husband made disparaging comments against her on videotape. Iranian state-run television broadcast the video twice. Ebadi’s sister and her husband were eventually released, but they are forbidden from leaving the country, and Ebadi said she continues to get death threats from Iranian agents.
Like Ebadi, several Iranian dissidents and outspoken journalists living abroad have seen their family members back home persecuted and detained. In several cases documented by the U.S-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the intimidation and arrests of these family members have been aimed at pressuring activists and journalists outside Iran to quit their professional activities.
On Nov. 4, plainclothes agents arrested Behrouz Ghobadi, the younger brother of exiled Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi, in western Iran. Since then, Behrouz has had no contact with his family and has not been able to see an attorney. His family has asked the Iranian judiciary for information, but no one has told them where or why he is being held.
Amnesty International said it fears that Behrouz’s arrest may be related to the work of his brother, Bahman, who has spoken out against censorship in Iran. His latest movie, Rhino Season, tells the story of an Iranian family torn apart by an unjust imprisonment in Iran.
“If they arrested my brother because of me, it shows their own weakness,” Bahman said. “Can they be so afraid of people living or working outside Iran that they bother their families? Our family members are living their own lives. My brother doesn’t necessarily share my views.”
Behrouz, too, is a filmmaker, and he has served as a production manager in five of Bahman’s movies. Several prominent filmmakers and actors, including directors Martin Scorsese, Paul Haggis, and Guillermo Arriaga, as well as actors James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Liam Neeson, have joined the Ghobadi family and Amnesty International in signing a petition calling for Behrouz’s release (PDF).
Families of some Iranian journalists working at London-based BBC Persian have also been targeted by the Iranian regime. One journalist there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily Beast that security forces have been harassing the reporter’s family members in Iran for almost two-and-a-half years.
“During this period, they have been repeatedly interrogated, had their passports confiscated for some time, and even been banned from foreign travel,” the journalist said, adding that a family member of another BBC Persian staffer was detained, interrogated, and beaten. “All my family members were instructed during their interrogations to tell me to quit working for the BBC Persian Service and to return to Iran.”
The journalist has defied these demands and continued working. “I have told my family that my job and life have nothing to do with them,” the journalist said. “But … they … remain under constant psychological pressure.”