Arrest for Trying to Watch Volleyball Lands Iranian Woman in Solitary Confinement
A roaring crowd gathered outside Iran's Azadi Stadium to watch the Iranian national volleyball team play a qualifying match against Italy, an exciting day for anyone fluent in the universal language of sports, and a life-changing moment for Ghoncheh Ghavami.
The British-Iranian citizen, 25, was among 50 women arrested that June day for trying to watch the match from inside the stadium, a luxury only afforded to men in Iran.
Although the women were all released on bail, they were asked to return at a later date to pick up their belongings.
Upon her return, Ghavami was singled out among the women, detained a second time and sent to Iran's notorious Evin political prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement for more than 60 days, with no access to a lawyer or to the outside world.
"It's absolutely ridiculous," her brother, Iman Ghavami, told ABC News. "In my eyes, it's just a misunderstanding. It's such a small thing to try and get into a stadium to watch a match, and then to get arrested and ending up in solitary confinement, it's just absolutely ridiculous and horrible really."
Ghoncheh Ghavami has yet to be formally charged, her brother explaining, "We are completely kept in the dark."
There's no clear, singular reason for why she was the only protestor arrested or to explain her treatment, said Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior Middle East analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense.
It's possible, he said, that her dual citizenship may have raised a red flag within the Iranian administration.
"The Iranians talk constantly about soft war, which is the idea that the U.S. and Britain are conducting a long-term, covert war against Iran," he explained. "The Iranians fear the U.S. is conducting a war through espionage, through sabotage and cultural efforts to undermine the internal stability of the regime.
"The fact that she is British, I can't imagine that's not affecting how they're dealing with her, if they're asking, 'What is she really up to?'"
After more than 60 days in solitary confinement, Ghoncheh was moved to a shared cell and her parents were able to meet with her Tuesday.
"She is quite distressed and I think she's getting the impression that she's going to be held for a really long time," Iman Ghavami said.
"The state of uncertainty is really worrying for her," he continued, adding that even though she's under duress, "she is still herself, her spirits are still up"
The Iranian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ghoncheh Ghavami and her brother have lived continuously in England for more than seven years. She had visited Iran to work with low-income children, teaching them to read and write, before returning to the U.K. to compete her law degree at the University of London.
The ban on women attending volleyball games was introduced in 2012. Ghavami's brother said Iranian Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi's recent statements against the ban and her hope that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would ultimately strengthen women's rights prompted his sister to try and get into the game that day, despite their mother's misgivings.
Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad, who was among the first people able to communicate directly with the family before they decided to appeal to the public, said, "They let all the women go free, but they kept her. We are asking why. What's the difference between her and the other women."
"She is just full of energy and enthusiasm, her face is full of life," Alinejad told ABC News. "She just wanted to support her national team, just like any other girl."
Ghavami is one of several political journalists and activists recently imprisoned in Iran. Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi were arrested in July. Earlier this summer, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaski said they had no new information about their whereabouts or condition.
When asked about Ghavami's imprisonment, the Foreign Office representative for the United Kingdom said, "We are aware that a British national is being detained in Iran, we are in touch with family and are following up the case with Iranian authorities."
In the meantime, a social community has begun to bloom around her cause, and Amnesty International is now calling for her release, saying in a recent statement that she has been put under "severe psychological pressure" by her interrogators who have warned that she "would not walk out of prison alive."
Iman Ghavami has also started a petition on change.org for his sister's release, appealing to the public to "help end this nightmare for my family." The petition has already gotten almost 40,000 signatures.
"I just want people to speak up about this tragedy," he said. "Hopefully, I can get support and she can be released."