December 8, 2023

Steadfast in Struggle: Mehdi Mahmoudian’s Enduring Fight for Human Rights in Iran

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Mehdi Mahmoudian, an ardent human rights advocate in Iran, has been steadfast in his campaign against human rights violations and in line with international law. His two decades of work encompass roles as a journalist, political and civil activist, and a defender of human rights, often at significant personal risk.

Born on September 11, 1977, in a traditional, religious family in Tehran’s Shahpour neighborhood, Mahmoudian’s early life was spent in a community deeply connected to the bazaar’s culture. His first direct encounter with Iran’s oppressive machinery occurred during the 1999 Tehran University student protests, which interrupted his studies in computer software and propelled him towards human rights advocacy.

In 2000, Mahmoudian established an advertising agency, married, and started a family. But his deep involvement in human rights activities began with the “Association for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights,” which was established on December 10, 2003 and which he played an influential role in as one of its founders. The group focused on various activities, including reporting on prison conditions, advocating for human rights, providing legal aid to prisoners’ families, and organizing educational initiatives. Mahmoudian was pivotal in these efforts. 

His uncle’s connection with Emad Baghi, a notable journalist and human rights activist, further expanded Mahmoudian’s network and influence in human rights circles. With Baghi, he formed the “Right to Life Society,” which aimed to curb and prevent death penalty executions in Iran.

Mahmoudian’s political engagement deepened in 2005 when he joined the Islamic Iran Participation Front party, contributing significantly through its Information Committee. In 2007, he was among the first to expose the existence of the Kahrizak detention center, where countless prisoners were tortured in Tehran. The detention center gained national attention and notoriety during the 2009 post-election protests. His efforts brought to light the center’s appalling conditions and the maltreatment of detainees.

His human rights advocacy efforts continued to be marked by personal sacrifices. Following his arrest in September 2009 amid Green Movement protests, Mahmoudian faced harsh conditions in detention, including a severe lung infection and the development of epilepsy. Despite these challenges, he remained a vocal critic of human rights violations in Iran, notably through open letters to influential figures, including Ayatollah Khamenei. In his letter to the Supreme Leader, Mahmoudian outlined the abnormal living and housing conditions of criminal prisoners in Rajai prison as well as the prevalence of sexual assault among the inmates of the Rajai Shahr Prison.

Released from prison in 2014, Mahmoudian’s commitment to human rights remained undeterred. In 2020, his participation in a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Ukrainian passenger plane shot down by the IRGC amid heightened tensions with the United States led to his re-arrest. A leaked audio file later that year highlighted the intimidation tactics used against him by security officials.

Mahmoudian’s activism also included involvement in Navid Afkari’s case, a wrestler sentenced to death who he worked hard to save. Despite his work to raise a global outcry about the case, Afkari was ultimately executed on September 12, 2020. Shamefully, Mahmoudian was also sentenced to seven months and fifteen days in prison for his activities in support of Afkari and for publishing news related to his case.

Mahmoudian also tried to support prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, he began a new phase of human rights activities. First, Mahmoudian collected public donations to provide and distribute masks, disinfectants, and sanitary supplies to prisons nationwide. Following the development of COVID-19 vaccines and the Supreme Leader’s prohibition on importing American and British vaccines, he and four other lawyers were arrested during a meeting on August 14, 2021. They intended to file a complaint regarding the mishandling of COVID-19 in Iran. After spending a month in solitary confinement, he and two other detainees were transferred to Ward Four of Evin Prison at the end of September of that year.

Despite facing additional legal challenges, including a four-year prison sentence and a two-year media ban for organizing the candlelight vigil, Mahmoudian’s advocacy for human rights persists.

Mahmoudian was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2022, combining several of the security charges against him. He is currently serving his sentence in Evin prison. The National Iranian American Council, while condemning the violation of Mehdi Mahmoudian’s freedom and those of other Human Right activists and journalists, reiterates its call for the Islamic Republic’s authorities to unconditionally release all individuals detained for political, social, and cultural activities, including Mahmoudian. It is the right of every individual to exercise their internationally protected rights, including freedom of expression, assembly, lifestyle, and other personal freedoms.

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