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Iran Arrests Prominent Charity Founder, Alleging 'Anti-Iranian' Activities

Iran security forces arrested Sharmin Meymandinejad, the Imam Ali Society (Society of Students Against Poverty NGO) on June 21, 2020. Undated photo.

Iranian security forces on Sunday arrested Sharmin Meymandinejad, founder and director of the biggest anti-poverty NGO in the country and shut down its head office.

No official announcement has yet been made but it appears that the Revolutionary Guard has targeted the charity, Imam Ali Society, and its founder with serious security-related allegations.

The Society of Students Against Poverty -- also known as Imam Ali's Popular Students Relief Society and usually referred to as Imam Ali Society -- was founded in 1999 as the first non-political student NGO at Tehran's Sharif Industrial University. It now has a large network of thousands of volunteers even in the remotest areas of the country. The Society's volunteers are also usually among the first responders at times of natural disasters such as earthquakes.

The Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Tasnim News Agency on Monday quoted "an informed source" about Meymandinejad's arrest who claimed he had been "creating networks for infiltration at various levels of the society under the guise of public work". Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei very frequently refers to "infiltration" when he talks about western influences. It is one of the charges brought against individuals when the regime wants to accuse a person or entity of espionage or collaboration with "enemies".

Security forces often make unofficial announcements about the arrests they make and the charges they want to bring against the detainees through news agencies controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, namely, Tasnim and Fars.

Using the characteristic style of security forces and prosecutors in high-profile political cases, the "informed source" also claimed that Meymandinejad and "his agents distorted sacred [Islamic] principles" to promote Western ideas. The source also accused Meymandinejad of using the charity to conduct "extensive actions against Iranian society" as well as "insults against sanctities", "promotion of deviant religious ideas" and "working with hostile foreign-based [Persian-language] media".

Authorities have always treated independent, non-religious NGOs, irrespective of their field of activity with a high degree of suspicion. They called them "agents of the enemies" and put their leaders and activists behind bars. The Imam Ali Society, however, was quite well tolerated for many years.

The Society always insisted that it was non-partisan and very often chose religious themes related to Imam Ali, the first of the 12 Shiite Imams, for its campaigns. Many alleged that it was well-tolerated because it was working behind the scenes with the establishment to prevent secular anti-poverty and children's charities from growing big.

However, in the past few years and as its influence and networks grew among students and the general population, and despite its marked religious nature, authorities began seeing the Imam Ali Society as a threat. Suspicions arose because it expanded its activities and campaigns from alms-giving to more serious areas such as campaigning against execution of minors and child marriage. During the November 2019 protests in the country, the Society also criticized the government for "calling the poverty-stricken demonstrators rioters and agents of the enemy".

Social media users and journalists have strongly reacted to the news of Meymandinejad's arrest and speculated about the reasons behind it.

Neda Sanji, journalist, has pointed out in a tweet that the regime does not tolerate reporting on the misery of child and street workers and considers it "presenting a gloomy image" of the situation in the country.

Emad Bahavar, a political activist, in a tweet on Monday has said that the Society was under surveillance for several years for a good pretext to be shut down. Bahavar points out that the regime does not tolerate any large network that wants to be independent and is successful in their work.

Mohammad-Javad Akbarin, Iranian theologian and writer, in a tweet on Sunday said the reason for the arrests and shutting down the NGO is to help an alternative society, the Imam Reza Society which is controlled by an associate of the hardliner Chief Justice Ebrahim Raeesi to replace it.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.