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Women leaders in Iran courageously resisted the tyranny that followed their country’s revolution in 1979. In the 40 years since, Iran’s theocrats have been vindictive toward women who dare to challenge their authority. Female artists, novelists, journalists, academics, and political activists — including Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Mehrangiz Kar , recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award — have been forced into exile. They were the lucky ones. Those still in Iran have been imprisoned, tortured, and even executed.

As the United States weighs its response to Iran for attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and more, President Trump has said that he wants to “avoid” war, yet he has failed even to mention the dissidents, journalists, and human rights defenders imprisoned for speaking truth to power, and neither he nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded that these prisoners of conscience be released as a condition of any negotiations with Iran.

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In the four decades prior to Trump’s presidency, human rights was a pillar of US foreign policy. While not always consistent in addressing human rights, the issue was always on the table with friend and foe alike. That diplomatic table has now been overturned, and foreign policy is conducted via threats and flattery on Twitter. Dictators carry out their thuggery with no reason to believe they will be penalized or shamed by the world’s leading democracy.

So it falls to us, citizens who believe in rights, equality, and justice, to stand up for those who are silenced, and isolated behind barbed wire and prison walls. Our power lies in naming both those being tortured and their torturers.

Today, we are shining a light on the women human rights defenders who are imprisoned in Iran, a regime that is operating a modern-day gulag. The Islamic Republic of Iran not only rebuffs any criticism, it also uses it as ammunition against the accused, twisting it into proof that they are foreign spies. This cruel tactic has discouraged foreign diplomats from raising concerns, yet networks of freedom fighters who are in touch with those prisoners tell us that we must not be intimidated.

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We have seen the power of focusing a bright light on human rights atrocities. We know the impact of sending the message to courageous human rights defenders that we care and we remember them. We are sending a message to the women human rights defenders in Iran that their fight for liberty and equality is neither invisible nor in vain.

We stand with:

Nasrin Sotoudeh, Nargess Mohammadi, Sepideh Gholyan, Atena Daemi, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Fariba Adelkhah, Aras Amiri, and the hundreds of others who have been falsely accused and imprisoned.

We stand with their lawyers, who are themselves often charged and arrested for defending the accused.

And we call on President Trump to stand with Iran’s women activists or go down in history as a collaborator. President Trump must demand the release of these women and other prisoners of conscience before agreeing to any negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

One of the tragic consequences of the current rise of populism in the United States and globally has been the loss of moral authority. We can regain that authority by defeating indifference and by advancing the very values that the world community embraced after the scourge resulting from the rise of populism in the last century.

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The courage to stand with human rights defenders is what makes us a great nation.

It is also the best assurance we have that others will stand up for us.


Kerry Kennedy is a human rights activist, author, and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Gloria Steinem is a writer, feminist organizer, and author of “My Life on the Road.”