Union leader Esmail Bakhshi, student and civil rights activist, Sepideh Gholian, and four activist journalists were sentenced to long prison sentences by the Iranian regime on September 7.
The activists were arrested amidst a long-running campaign by workers at the Haft Tappeh sugar mill to demand payment of unpaid wages and basic employment rights.
Bakhshi was sentenced to 14 year's imprisonment and 74 lashes for “collaboration with hostile organisations”, “publishing fake news” and “conspiracy against national security”.
Gholian was sentenced to 18 years for “gatherings and collusion against national security”, “propaganda against the state”, “publishing fake news” and her alleged involvement in Gam (Step), a social media news channel about labour issues.
Gam editorial team members, activist journalists Amir Amirgholi, Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Fard, Sanaz Allahyari and Asal Mohamadi were each sentenced to 18 years.
According to activists, the charges against Bakhshi and Gholiyan were based on forced confessions extracted through torture.
The formerly state-owned Haft-Tappeh sugar mill employs more than 5500 workers. It was privatised in 2015, which led to between 5000–7000 jobs being cut.
Haft-Tappeh workers have been struggling for several years over unpaid wages and benefits, corrupt and incompetent management and insecure work. They have been calling for the formation of independent workers’ councils and re-nationalisation of the company.
Their union is not recognised by the company or the government.
The recent strikes at Haft-Tappeh started last November and brought production to a standstill. Bakhshi emerged as a prominent workers’ rights activist, and led several general strikes and mass rallies, which put the workers' struggle at the centre of national debate.
Two weeks into a general strike last November, Bakhshi, Gholian and union activist Mohsen Armand were arrested. Days later, reports emerged that Bakhshi was beaten and tortured in prison.
A few weeks after their release on bail in 2018, Bakhshi and Gholian were framed by the Iranian regime. A nationally televised propaganda film, entitled The Exposed Plot, alleged Bakhshi, Gholian and the Haft-Tappeh movement represented a “foreign plot against the state”.
But the state's propaganda efforts backfired: it generated a rise in support for the arrested workers and a media campaign against forced confessions.
Responding to the sentences, Haft-Tappeh workers wrote: “Creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, lashes and imprisonment against workers who are deprived of their daily bread is not going to work. Those who are playing with fire must know these lashes are against the wretched bodies of all workers.”
Supporters in Australia protested outside the Iranian embassy in Canberra on September 18.