WASHINGTON - Two female Iranian dissidents have responded defiantly to being summoned to start prison terms in Iran, saying they have no regrets for signing the 2019 letter that called for the nation’s Islamist ruler to quit and triggered their arrest.
In exclusive Thursday interviews with VOA Persian from Iran, Shahla Entesari and Shahla Jahanbin said they had received phone calls the previous day from Tehran’s Evin prison, notifying them that they must report to the jail within 10 days. Iran’s judiciary has ordered the two women to serve 27-month prison terms for signing the Aug. 9, 2019, open letter that demanded the resignation of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Entesari and Jahanbin were among 14 Iranian women who signed the letter and who were later charged by Iranian authorities with spreading anti-government propaganda and “gathering and conspiring against national security.”
The signatories wrote, “We rise against this anti-woman regime that has wiped out our human values and demand a complete departure from the Islamic Republic and drafting of a new constitution for the establishment of a state in which women’s dignity, identity and equal rights are recognized in all areas.”
Iran has been led by Shiite clerics since they seized power in a 1979 Islamist Revolution.
'Don't regret' signing
Iranian security agents arrested Entesari and Jahanbin in connection with the August 2019 letter later that month before releasing both on bail in November.
The two women told VOA they “don’t regret” signing the letter, even though they face the prospect of imminent imprisonment that could exacerbate their existing medical problems and put them at risk of coronavirus exposure. International rights activists have documented multiple coronavirus outbreaks in Iran’s unsanitary and overcrowded prison system.
Jahanbin suffers from osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease affecting both her neck and shoulders, while Entesari has heart disease and tremors in her arm and leg.
Jahanbin said she had received an initial prison summons in May but asked authorities to delay her incarceration so that she could undergo a needed back surgery and have time to recover from the procedure. She said the authorities granted her a two-month recovery period, but she was unable to schedule the surgery because of the pandemic.
Iranians who resist an initial prison summons can receive several follow-up notices over a period of weeks or months, but also risk being arrested and sent to jail at any time.
“We stand by our words,” Jahanbin said in reference to the letter demanding Khamenei resign. She said she remains concerned about the increasing problems facing Iran as its Islamist rulers struggle with the Middle East’s worst coronavirus outbreak and a two-year economic recession fueled by escalating U.S. sanctions and government mismanagement.
'We only made a request'
Jahanbin also said she and the other signatories of the letter did nothing wrong. “We did not gather or foment any violent movement. We only made a request (of Khamenei) based on our constitutional rights,” she said.
Speaking separately to VOA, Entesari said the more time that has passed since signing the letter, the more she believes it was the right thing to do.
“Iran’s worsening situation, whose main cause is the incompetence of its Islamist rulers, shows how correct our statements were,” Entesari said. “It is because of their weakness that they want to imprison anyone who seeks freedom and makes the slightest criticism against them,” she added.
Iranian state media have been silent on the cases of the two women in recent weeks.
The letter signed by Entesari and Jahanbin was inspired in part by an earlier June 2019 open letter in which another 14 dissidents, mostly men, issued similar demands for Khamenei to quit and for Iran’s Islamist constitution to be changed.
Most of the signatories of the first letter also were arrested and charged with national security offenses. One of those detained in August 2019 was Jahanbin’s husband, Abbas Vahedian Shahroudi. He was granted a temporary release from a prison in Mashhad in July.