Courtesy Ghavami Family

Family of detained UK citizen in Iran plea for her release

Desperate to secure her release, Ghoncheh Ghavami’s family head to New York to lobby the United Nations General Assembly

Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old United Kingdom-Iranian citizen, has been in prison in Tehran since June 29 after being arrested for trying to enter a stadium to view a men’s volleyball game. Now her brother has gone to New York in the hope of bringing her case to the attention of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, in town for the United Nations General Assembly.

Iman Ghavami, a 28-year-old genetic researcher, hopes to meet with Rouhani — although he knows that’s unlikely — or, at least, to draw attention to his sister’s plight.

Iman said on Tuesday the family had just been informed by Iranian authorities that his sister is being charged with promoting “propaganda against the regime.”

He said Ghoncheh believed she would be able to attend the game at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Stadium. Last year, women were allowed into some games, but the ban on mixing of genders has been reintroduced as Iranian officials consider it improper, and, “not yet in the public interest.”

The Ghavami’s ordeal started on June 20, when Ghoncheh was first detained, then released after a few hours, then detained again the next day when she went to retrieve her personal effects from the police station where she’d first been held.

Authorities released her again, but then on June 29 they raided the family home, confiscating laptops, phones and books.

Her parents, who live in Iran, did not hear from Ghoncheh for over a week. They are “devastated,” said Iman, and his father, a surgeon, has not been able to operate since.

“For 11 days, it was as though she’d vanished into thin air,” said Iman.

“She told them that she was in Evin prison and that she was in solitary confinement,” said Iman, who said she sounded “confused and a little scared.”

She’s been allowed sporadic phone calls to the family since mid-July. But, said Iman, “she’s not allowed to speak freely.”

Although Ghoncheh has not been allowed any legal or consular services, Iman remains hopeful – the U.K. Foreign Office said Tuesday in a statement that her case has been raised during a meeting on a range of issues between Britain’s foreign secretary and Iran’s foreign minister in New York this week.

Her brother hopes that Wednesday’s meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Rouhani will help his sister’s case, and that the Iranian president will notice the online petition and social media campaign he has launched to free his sister.

The poor state of diplomatic relations between the two countries does not faze Iman. “Her case has nothing to do with politics. Her case is a sad human story. It’s separate, and they should be able to resolve it very simply,” he said.

Despite the lack of access to legal mechanisms, Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says that the family is doing the right thing by going public.

“It definitely cannot hurt and it’s the minimum the family can do. I think they’re obligated to reveal the truth of what they know about the detention so that the officials who are detaining them know that there is a light being shined on their actions,” he said.

“The more the operate in a vacuum, the more impunity they have to build a case on a false pretense,” he said.

A mysterious judicial system

Iran rights watchers have come to expect arrests of journalists, such as Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenships and was detained along with his wife, journalist Yeganeh Salehi, along with an unnamed American photographer on July 22.

While it’s not unusual for Iranians to be arrested for minor infractions — improper hijab or listening to pop music, for example — most are not kept in solitary confinement for over a month. The standard procedure is to sign a confession, which will be kept on file, and win release with a warning.

Having been kept in solitary confinement for at least 41 days, Ghavami’s case indicates a toughening of rules by hardliners pushing back against Rouhani’s efforts to reach a nuclear compromise with the West. Rouhani said Tuesday he left it up to Iran’s judiciary to decide the fate of Rezaian and Salehi, but he did not comment on Ghavami’s arrest.

Iran does not recognize dual citizenships, dealing with Iranian multinationals solely as Iranians.

Ghaemi told Al Jazeera that there is no official tally for how many dual nationals remain in Iran, adding that arrests such as Gahvami’s emphasize the air of paranoia in Iran.

“I’m coming more and more to the belief that Iran’s intelligence services are extremely nervous about Iranians who have come back from either the U.S. or U.K., particularly, and are showing interest in social and political affairs of the country,” said Ghaemi.

“They work backwards to try to figure out how they could fit them into a crime or charge to do with endangering national security, because they have an outside connection,” he said. 

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