Monday, December 18, 2006
Iranian students hide in fear for lives after venting fury at Ahmadinejad• President's supporters vow revenge on protesters
• Activists forecast harsher crackdown on dissent
Robert Tait in Tehran
Monday December 18, 2006
Iranian student activists who staged an angry protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week have gone into hiding in fear for their lives after his supporters threatened them with revenge.
One student fled after being photographed holding a banner reading, "Fascist president, the polytechnic is not for you", during Mr Ahmadinejad's visit to Tehran's Amir Kabir university. At least three others have gone underground after being seen burning his picture. Vigilantes from the militant Ansar-e Hezbollah group have been searching for them.
In a startling contrast to the acclaim Mr Ahmadinejad has received in numerous recent appearances around Iran, he faced chants of "Death to the dictator" as he addressed a gathering in the university's sports hall last week. Several hundred students forced their way in to voice anger over a clampdown on universities since he became president last year.
While his aides played down the incident, the Guardian has learned details of the violent and chaotic events.
The disclosures came yesterday as early returns from Friday's council elections indicated that Mr Ahmadinejad's hardline supporters had failed in their attempt to take control of several key local authorities. Turnout was estimated at about 60% after reformers urged liberal-minded electors to vote in large numbers to protest against the government's policies.
Last Monday's university demonstration triggered violent clashes between student activists and crowds of Basij militia, who were there to support the president. A shoe was thrown at Mr Ahmadinejad while a student had his nose broken by an aide to a cabinet minister.
Protesters later surrounded the president's car, prompting a security guard to fire a stun grenade to warn them off. Four cars in the presidential convoy collided in their haste to leave. Mr Ahmadinejad's staff later insisted he had remained calm and ordered that the students should go unpunished. But some of those present say he accused them of being paid United States agents who would be confronted.
"He threatened us directly, saying that what we were doing was against the wishes of the nation," said Babak Zamanian, a spokesman for Amir Kabir university's Islamic students' committee. "After that, the students protested even more sharply, calling him a lying religious dictator and shouting, 'Forget America and start thinking about us!'
"We were chanting, 'Get lost Ahmadinejad!' and 'Ahmadinejad - element of discrimination and corruption.' You could see from his face that he was really shocked. He wasn't flashing his usual smile, and at one stage I thought he was going to cry. He told his supporters to respond with a religious chant hailing Ahmadinejad, but he was so shaken he was actually chanting it himself."
Another student said: "He was trying to keep control of himself, but you could see he was angry and upset."
Witnesses say Mr Ahmadinejad also tried to ridicule the students by referring to the university disciplinary code, under which those with three penalty points are suspended from studies. "He joked that he was going to issue a presidential order for those with three stars to be enlisted as sergeants in the army. That made the students really angry," said Mr Zamanian.
The university authorities' contentious use of the disciplinary code was said to be a trigger for last week's protest. About 70 students have been suspended and threatened with expulsion for various political activities, including writing articles critical of the government.
Last month, the authorities demolished two building belonging to the Islamic students' committee - a moderate grouping representing diverse opinions. An elected student body was also disbanded. Women students have been told to wear conservative dress and remove any makeup.
In this atmosphere, activists at Amir Kabir university - a traditional hotbed of political activism - regarded Mr Ahmadinejad's visit as a deliberate provocation and decided to protest. While many chanted, a hard core waved banners and burned his portrait, some ignoring instructions to cover their faces.
The 21-year-old student holding the "fascist president" banner was among those threatened with expulsion. He is said to be in grave danger after foreign news outlets, including the Guardian, published a picture of his gesture. Friends say he went into hiding after being confronted by two vigilantes.
"They said they would pull his father out of the grave [an ancient Persian threat]," said one student. "He is in real danger. Vigilantes have been standing at the dormitory doors asking for him."
Students now fear an even fiercer crackdown. "We believe [the authorities] will react much worse than before," said Armin Salmasi, 26, a leading activist. "We are already under constant surveillance. The student movement in Iran is going to be driven underground - just like it was before the revolution."