THE BLOG

My Sister Was Jailed for Attending a Protest - Without the 777,000 Supporters of My Petition, She Would Still Be There

18/11/2015 09:52 GMT | Updated 17/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I was in London at the time, I think it was late evening, when my dad called and said that security forces had taken my sister. That was the first time I knew anything about her protest. My parents, who live in Tehran, were in shock. My sister had first been arrested outside the national stadium for protesting against an old rule that banned women from attending sporting events alongside men "for their own safety".

The details are still sketchy, but Ghoncheh was briefly held alongside 40 other women at the stadium. They were all then released, and shortly afterwards my dad took my sister to a police station to collect her belongings. When they arrived she was re-arrested without explanation and taken to the notorious Evin Prison. She was the only one of the protestors to be held. That was when my father called me.

The news came totally out of the blue and felt unreal: one minute everything is fine and then all of a sudden your sister is in prison. I had no idea that she was even going to the stadium, let alone planning any sort of protest. Of course, I knew all about the issue of sport segregation in Iran - there have been arrests before - and it's a major human rights issue within the women's community there. But nobody fully foresaw the consequences of my sister going to the stadium that day.

I haven't been able to confirm this, but I'm pretty sure my sister's dual nationality - half British, half Iranian - was the reason she was the only one of the women imprisoned. Ghoncheh was interrogated every day and accused of being a British spy, being part of a conspiracy, coming to Iran to do damage...that kind of stuff. She was a dual national in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My sister spent her first 40 days in solitary confinement. Small room, no bed - you have to sleep on the floor. You don't have anything really. There were constant interrogations, with phone calls allowed maybe once a week. After that she was moved to a cramped cellblock with murderers and people on death row. The conditions were horrific.

What's more, the Iranian authorities kept lying to her about her court date and taking away her visiting rights. She responded by going on hunger strike twice - firstly for 14 days, and then for six days until they gave in. For my sister, the experience and the memories of this time will never go away. They're etched on her mind for eternity.

Some people are surprised that it was two months after Ghoncheh was arrested that we as a family spoke out publicly for the first time. This is because every time my parents went to see the Iranian authorities they promised that she would be released soon, and that speaking to the media or British government would threaten my sister's safety. This happened time and time again.

Finally I decided that going public in the UK was our only option. I have a friend who works at ITV and he set up an interview that ran on the news that night in which I talked about my sister's imprisonment, the conditions she faced and the reason she had been arrested. I also started the petition on Change.org too and the whole thing took off very quickly - spreading first to European countries then as far as America, China and Russia.

A big moment came when my campaign ran on BBC Farsi, which is officially illegal to watch in Iran but which lots of people view anyway. That was the point when it got really big in Iran and I think the authorities there knew something had to change. This media coverage was everything for us. But it went hand in hand with the petition. People read the news and then signed the petition, which meant more journalists became interested in the story as the petition grew, so they called us and we did interviews. It was like a never-ending circle that one goes from one to another then another!

By September we had also built political support, with the Foreign Secretary issuing a statement calling for my sister's release and the Prime Minister talking about it when he met the Iranian President. Of course the campaign was a really small spark in the big picture of international relations - especially the nuclear talks - and we know this made what we had to say more interesting to politicians like David Cameron and John Kerry. But this only happened because of the public support in the first place. The public was the driving force.

They were the ones always putting pressure on the government. Eventually our hard work paid off and my sister was released in November 2014. When she came out my parents told me she was shell shocked to see how big the campaign was and surprised to see her face all over the news. We certainly made her stadium protest bigger than she could ever have imagined!

But the struggle is not over. My sister is still not allowed to leave Iran and we're trying to overturn her travel ban. Similarly, the situation in Iran hasn't really changed that much.

Women are still not allowed to attend national sporting competitions alongside men. For the moment the important thing is that my sister is no longer in prison. Looking back, the whole thing was amazing to be part of and I'm just so thankful to everyone who signed the petition. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have had a campaign, and I think my sister would still be in prison.

This article was originally published by The Brewery at freuds, in partnership with Change.org. Read the full publication here.