Nora Shourd and Iran Mothers of Prisoners of Conscience

Elahe Amani with Lys Anzia –WNN Features

Iran protest movement poster
Iran protest movement poster. Image: via Payvand


“We are no different than one another.”

TEHRAN: Outside the prison walls of ward 350, in the IRI – Islamic Republic of Iran’s Evin Prison, a group of brave demonstrators hold placards and pictures of their loved ones who are part of a hunger strike. The demonstrators are mostly women – Iranian mothers, family and friends who have chosen to publicaly defend the rights and dignity of those incarcerated. As the days of the hunger strike continue, some of the prisoners have chosen to go without water. This is a dangerous proposition, but the stakes are critical. The treatment of prisoners in the IRI desperately needs greater humanity and reform.

The strongest human advocates many prisoners of conscience in the IRI have is the silent presence of the women who sit outside the solid doors of the prison for hours on their daily vigil. Many are mothers. Others are wives or sisters. Some are fathers, uncles, cousins and supportive friends. But one common goal is shared among them all. To gain the release of their loved ones.

“We requested a visit with the prosecutor some time ago, but have received no response,” said, Shahrzad Kariman, in an interview with Change for Equality, about prison conditions for her daughter, legal rights defender Shiva Nazar Ahari. “We have also requested an in person visit with our daughter in prison, on three occasions, but those requests have had no response either,” continued Shiva’s mother. “Currently we are able to visit with Shiva once a week but from behind a glass cabinet. It has been a long time since we had an in person visit with Shiva. I don’t know why the prosecutor does not allow us to have an in person visit with our loved one.”

Mothers of activists who have been arbitrarily arrested, detained or have suffered enforced disappearance are often left with immense grief and an unending sense of loss and desperation. Daring to speak out against government officials and leaders in their regions, they often suffer themselves from legal backlash and arbitrary arrests as threats to their imprisoned adult children and/or their families increase.

“Every minute I grieve for my daughter. I yearn to have her with me,” said Nora Shourd, mother of imprisoned U.S. hiker Sarah Shourd, in a recent one-on-one interview with U.S. based Iranian peace activist and journalist, Elahe Amani, for Women News Network (WNN).

During the interview Elahe and Nora talked about both their daughters who share the same age. Both are thirty-one years old. One is of Iranian descent, the other American. Both are graduates of the University of California Berkeley. Both are defenders of human rights.

Mothers of the U.S. Hikers

The July 31, 2009 arrest by IRI – Islamic Republic of Iran authorities (now over one year ago) of U.S. hikers Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer brought three mothers together – Nora Shourd, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey. After a year of full-time work campaigning for the release of their adult children, the mothers are feeling more frustrated than ever. Months of efforts have not changed the fact that their children have not come home. Answers to lift them from their imprisonment seem elusive.

Nora Shourd and three year old daughter, Sarah
Nora Shourd and three year old daughter, Sarah. Image:

After seven months of waiting, on May 10, 2010, the U.S. hiker mothers were finally given permission to see their children for first time since their imprisonment. Before this, the only communications with their adult children that was allowed by IRI officials was only one five minute phone call.

“We are no different than one another,” said Nora in her interview with Elahe Amani of WNN as she shared her deep convictions. It is the same worry that all mothers of prisoners in the IRI share. Nora’s daughter, Sarah, has been in solitary confinement now for over one year. Nora worries about the health effects of solitary incarceration on her daughter.

The IRI must, “abolish the use of prolonged solitary confinement,” said Human Rights Watch in a detailed 2008 report called, “You Can Detain Anyone for Anything.” The inhumane practice of solitary confinement, “gravely subjects detainees to lasting psychological damage,” emphasized the report.

The answers to the problems are not simple. The solutions are not easy. Nora, along with the other U.S. hiker mothers – Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, worry pensively as current relations and tensions between the U.S. government and the IRI leadership volley back and forth. They fear their children may only be political pawns in a daily shifting international situation.

“As a young woman, Sarah began her activist career by going to Chiapas, Mexico to do peace work,” shared Nora about her daughter in her interview with Women News Network. “She worked through the Chiapas Support Committee to support much needed projects, such as water rights and improvement of the health care clinic. Sarah was also part of a woman’s collective that brought several of the mothers of murdered young women of Juarez, Mexico to California (U.S) to speak about their daughters (and) “Femicides.” Sarah went to New Orleans to also help after the Katrina hurricane disaster. She wrote extensively about human rights and women in Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria,” Nora added.

Faced with unofficial charges of espionage, Sarah, Josh and Shane have now reached a critical stage in their incarceration. They have been incarcerated for more than the one year. In December 2009, Manouchehr Mottaki, IRI Foreign Minister said, “They have entered Iran with suspicious aims. They will be tried by Iran’s judiciary and verdicts will be issued.” But to date no official court hearing or date has been legally filed in the court.

“When I saw Sarah (last May, 2010) I could see she was changed,” Nora told Elahe in her interview. “She is calm despite all the external pressure, but very very sad, lonely and depressed. Sarah, Josh and Shane have written us many letters, but we never get them, any of them.  The last we heard they had their pens and papers taken away from them as a punishment.”

In a solitary cell Sarah composes songs and memorizes them on the endless days. When she saw her mother for the first time in months, in May 2010, she sang to her mother two of her original songs. “It was so moving to hear her beautiful, proud voice singing!” said Nora to Elahe.

The IRI mandate on prison terms and conditions states that solitary confinement comes under special IRI legal provisions. Although Sarah Shourd has been in solitary now for more than one year, the IRI State Prisons, Security and Corrective Measures Organization states that, “The laws governing the Prison Authority allow for disciplinary punishment of a maximum of 20 days (only) in solitary confinement.” Sarah is also suffering from a health condition that is not currently being treated while she is in prison.

“International penal standards dictate that solitary confinement should be imposed only for short periods, in an individualized fashion, under strict supervision (including by a physician) and only for legitimate penal reasons of discipline or preventive security,” said a 2008 Human Rights Watch report. “Prolonged solitary confinement of the detained or imprisoned person may amount to acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said The UN OHCHR – UN Office Of The High Commissioner For Human Rights in 1992.

Burma’s Famous Mother

“Now I am numb,” said Burmese author and rights advocate, Sayamagyi Kyi Oo, after her son had been arrested four times for public acts in protest, statements and making critical social-satire jokes about Myanmar’s leading generals during his famed comedy performances. “What my son did was for the sake of the country. I don’t mind how many cases they charged my son with,” said Kyi Oo.

photo of Sayamagyi Kyi Oo Kyi Oo
Author, activist, mother Sayamagyi Kyi Oo

“I feel the same way as other mothers whose sons also face the same fate,” added Kyi Oo as she shared her experience of being a mother of a political prisoner – a prisoner of conscience. All mothers of prisoners of conscience worldwide experience the same fate, the same frustrations, the same depressions.

Kyi Oo’s son, Maung Thura, rose to acclaim as the talented Burmese comedian and filmmaker who is known in public by the name Zarganar. In December 2008, after going in and out of detention for his outspoken activism, Zarganar was sentenced to thirty-five additional years of incarceration at the Myitkyina Prison. Today Zarganar’s is suffering from very poor health.

Struggling with her own serious condition with advanced gall bladder cancer, on March 20, 2009, Zarganar’s admired 83 year old mother, Kyi Oo, died. Before her death, even after concerted efforts, she was unable to get permission from Myanmar prison officials to see her son again for, “the last time.”

As witnesses to traumatic events in the political arrests of their children, many mothers of prisoners of conscience experience critical states of worry, prolonged lack of sleep, suicidal tendencies and anxiety – all symptoms of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. These conditions constantly haunt them and severely affect their health and well being.

Is It Possible Not to Be Worried?

“Is it possible not to be worried?,” said Shahrzad Kariman, the mother of Iranian imprisoned human rights activist advocate Ms. Shiva Nazar Ahari, in a recent interview with International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

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