A woman who traveled to Iran to help facilitate a maternal and child health education program is the latest victim of wrongful imprisonment in Iran, say her family and supporters in the U.S.
Now, in a rare but not unprecedented step, the U.S. State Department is calling on Iran to release Silva Harotonian, 34, saying the charge that she was "promoting a Velvet Revolution in Iran" is "baseless" and that she is reportedly in "poor and deteriorating health as a direct consequence of her confinement."
Harotonian, an Iranian citizen of Armenian descent, arrived in Iran from her home in Armenia on June 19, 2008 to work as an administrator with a healthcare exchange program with International Research & Exchanges Board, a not-for-profit organization based out of Washington, DC. The program was supposed to bring Iranian and American public health professionals together to share and discuss health issues and practices.
Seven days later, Harotonian was reportedly arrested and charged with participating in efforts to overthrow the Iranian government, and on Jan. 19, she was sentenced to three years in prison. She has an appeal pending.
"An innocent person is rotting in jail," said Harotonian's cousin Klara Moradkhan, who lives in the U.S. and has heard reports that Harotonian is "going to go on a hunger strike and basically kill herself."
"She has given up hope," said Moradkhan, adding that her cousin, a former church secretary, was not politically motivated in the least. "We never thought that an American charity would be an alarm for Iran," she added.
Moradkhan said that days after her cousin was arrested, Iranian officials told universities and hospitals participating in the exchange program that it would not be permitted.
Iranian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
IREX Vice President Paige Alexander told ABCNews.com that the organization has been involved in these types of "apolitical programs" in various countries for 40 years, without any other detainments.
"Our team is heartbroken over this situation," said Alexander.
"The concept of her ever being accused of something like this, we thought it would just be a momentary detainment and something to scare the exchange program," Alexander added. The organization has sent letters to Iranian judiciary officials, but has not had any response.
Jailed in Iran
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently delivered a letter to Iranian officials at an international meeting in The Hague, concerning three U.S. citizens who have not returned from Iran. Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson is still missing, Roxana Saberi is currently imprisoned for working in Iran with expired press credentials, and California graduate student Esha Momeni is still forbidden from leaving the country after being arrested there while working on her master's thesis.
Iran has recently been in the international spotlight for other alleged wrongful imprisonments. On Jan. 30, three women's rights advocates were arrested in Tehran, one of whom remains in detention, according to Iran Human Rights Voice, an online group that monitors human rights violations in Iran. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that another activist, Alieh Eghdamdoust, was arrested on Jan. 31 to begin serving a three-year sentence for participating in a 2006 protest in Haft Tir, Square, Tehran.
U.N. human rights investigators recently urged Iran to stop a "crackdown" on women's rights activists in what they described as a "serious repression."
"Over the past two years, women's rights defenders have faced an increasingly difficult situation and harassment in the course of their non-violent activities," said a statement by Margaret Sekaggya, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur on violence against women.
Iran has previously said that women in the country do not face discrimination.