The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that the Government of Iran violated international human rights law by imprisoning women’s rights activists Saba Kord Afshari and Raheleh Ahmadi. Responding to a legal petition filed by Freedom Now and the international law firm Dechert LLP, the UN concluded that “the detention of Ms. Kord Afshari and Ms. Ahmadi resulted from their legitimate exercise of freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly.”

“The wrongful detention of Saba Kord Afshari and Raheleh Ahmadi is just one example of Iran’s use of its vague and overly broad national security laws to silence women,” said Freedom Now’s Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat. “While we are grateful that Saba and Raheleh have been released, we call on the Government of Iran to quash their convictions and ensure they face no further harassment for exercising their fundamental rights.”

Prior to her arrest, Kord Afshari regularly joined protests known as White Wednesdays, a campaign in which women wore white to protest the compulsory-veiling laws. She often published videos on social media of herself without a hijab. Her efforts were supported by other female activists, including Ahmadi, her mother. Kord Afshari was previously arrested in August 2018 for taking part in anti-corruption protests. She was sentenced to one year and released in February 2019 as part of a mass pardon.

Kord Afshari’s most recent arrest came after she published a video in April 2019 with her mother in support of Yasaman Aryani, a fellow activist who had recently been arrested and forcibly disappeared for protesting the hijab law. In the video, Kord Afshari appears without a hijab.

Kord Afshari was arrested on June 1, 2019 during a raid on her home. She was charged with “gathering and collusion against national security” through supporting political prisoners, “propaganda against the state” through collaborating with opposition and subversive groups, and “promoting corruption and prostitution” through appearing without a headscarf in public. Following the arrested she was held in solitary confinement and incommunicado for nearly two weeks. During her detention, Kord Afshari was interrogated and asked to record videos denouncing the White Wednesday movement and confessing to her alleged crimes. She refused to do so, despite threats to her family.

Ahmadi was arrested on July 10, 2019, an act apparently calculated to coerce a confession from Kord Afshari. She was charged with “propaganda against the state,” “promoting corruption and prostitution,” and “assembly and collusion to act against the national security.” She was released on bail four days after her arrest.

Kord Afshari’s trial began on August 19, 2019. She was not given access to a lawyer prior to the proceedings and only met her legal counsel for the first time at the trial. Her lawyer was allowed access to parts of her case file only one hour before trial, and parts of her file were censored under the pretext of confidentiality. She was sentenced to 24 years in prison on August 27. After numerous appeals, her sentence was reduced to five years on April 29, 2022. She was detained in Qarchak Prison, where female political prisoners are intermingled with violent criminals. She reportedly suffered from chronic stomach disorders and ulcers, as well as anxiety attacks, which caused muscle contractions and required immediate injections and oxygen therapy. She did not receive adequate medical treatment while in prison. She also contracted COVID-19 at least twice. Moreover, she was the victim of violent attacks by both guards and inmates.

On December 16, 2019, Ahmadi was convicted on December 16, 2019 and sentenced to 2 years and 7 months in prison. In November 2021, she was given an additional charge of “propaganda activities against the state” after “publishing statements on websites hostile to the Iranian government, while in detention.” She began serving her sentence in February 2020 and was detained in Evin Prison. She was released in October 2022 at the completion of her sentence. Afshari was released in February 2023 along with several other prominent women activists as a result of a national amnesty.