Sunday, December 16, 2007


Upsurge in Dissident Arrests

Hamid Khosravi Tehran 12 December 2007

Human rights organisations in Iran say dissidents are being targeted in an unprecedented wave of arrests and harassment. It looks very much like all-out war on anyone critical of the regime.Iranian government officials, meanwhile, insist that everything is fine and that attacks on their human rights record are merely a diplomatic weapon deployed by the West as part of the broader nuclear dispute.

In September, for instance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told students at Columbia University in the United States that Iran was one of the most free countries in the world. Other officials have expanded on the theme, arguing the merits of "religious democracy" as an ideal political model and decrying external criticism as a form of psychological warfare.

When the European Union produced a tough report about the state of human rights in Iran, a foreign ministry spokesman responded, "These political statements are aimed at pressurising Tehran over the nuclear issue."

A member of the judiciary official, who did not want to be identified, told Mianeh that "everyone in the world knows that concerns about the state of human rights are a political instrument for exerting pressure on governments opposed to the west".

Domestically, the authorities have dealt with the troublesome question of human rights by stifling the news sources that report on it. The ILNA news agency, which carried critical reporting on political detentions despite having official status, has been closed down. The Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA, which focused on the detention of students, has undergone management changes which have radically changed its editorial policy.

For the last few years, both news agencies have been under fire from the conservatives, who viewed them as the voice of counter-revolution and hostile human rights groups. With their elimination as critical voices, the official media carry little news about the treatment of government critics.

Even so, news sources – radio and internet sites based abroad – continue to report on the issue, and the picture they paint is an alarming one, indicative of a wave of arrests and harassment of critics of the Ahmadinejad administration in the last few months.

The groups targeted in this offensive can be divided into six main groups - students, political activists, trade unionists, journalists, women's rights defenders and ethnic minority activists.
Most of the detentions appear to involve student activists, judging from the reports that have been published. The high-profile arrest in May of Ehsan Mansouri, Ahmad Ghassaban and Majid Tavakkoli from Tehran's Amir Kabir University, and especially the open letters they wrote alleging physical mistreatment in detention, led to protests from students at other institutions, who in turn were subject to arrest.

Mansouri, Ghassaban and Tavakkoli were sentenced in October to prison terms ranging from two to three years for the offence of insulting Islam and clerics.

The arrest in early November of Ali Azizi, Arman Sedaghati, Pedram Rafati, Behnam Sepehrmand and Maziar Samii was only the latest in a series of detentions of students who complained vocally about the incarceration of their three colleagues. The bulk of those arrested have been from the University of Tehran, Allameh Tabatabai University and Amir Kabir University.

In addition, dozens of members of the Office for Fostering Unity – the main student association - have been detained within the last few months, the most prominent being Mahdi Arabshahi, Ali Nikunesbati, Bahareh Hedayat, Hanif Yazdani, Mohammad Hashemi and Ali Vefqi. The Iranian Graduates' Organisation has also had its office closed and leading members detained, including Abdollah Momeni, Mojtaba Bayat, Bahram Fayyazi, Masoud Habibi, Morteza Eslahchi, Ezzat Qalandari, Ashkan Qiyasvand, Arash Khandel, Habib Haji Heydari and Saeed Hosseiniya.
Despite the tensions building up ahead of the March 2008 parliamentary election, political activists have enjoyed a period of respite from judicial detention. However, three reformist figures - Emadoddin Baqi, Javad Akbarein and Hadi Qabel – have recently been arrested, and others have received summons, particularly Qom, Esfahan, Qazvin and Tabriz.

The third category – labour activists – includes the high-profile case of Mansour Osanlu, the leader of the Tehran bus drivers' union, who was detained in July. Some of Osanlu's union colleagues have also been arrested, and there have been other detentions following labour protests in various provinces, including at the Haft Tappeh sugar factory.

Journalists detained in recent months include Masoud Bastani, Soheil Asefi and Farshad Qorbanpour, while others have received summons. In many cases, though, journalists prefer not to publicise their own problems for fear of making things worse.

Women's rights activists have also suffered harassment. Many of the news reports carried on websites and foreign radio stations have focused on the detention of activists involved in the Campaign for One Million Signatures, pressing for changes to discriminatory laws against women. Among the best-known figures detained are Delaram Ali – sentenced to 30 months in jail - Nahid Keshavarz, Sara Imanian, Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh, Saeedeh Amin, Amir Yaqoub-Ali, Hana Abdi, Sepideh Pouraghai and Ronak Saffarzadeh. Meetings of women activists around the country have also been raided, the latest example of this involving the beating and temporary detention of 25 participants in a legal rights training workshop in Khorram Abad in September.

Finally, we come to the sixth of the categories we listed. Recent months has seen a lot of news published on the detention of ethnic community activists in places such as Kurdistan, Azerbaijan and Khuzestan. The most notable case was that of Adnan Hassanpour and Hiva Boutimar, two journalists from the Kurdish minority who were sentenced to death in July for subversion.

Many Iranians, including opposition members, are unsympathetic towards people they regard as armed separatists. For example, there was little reaction to a statement issued at the beginning of November by an Arab separatist group concerning the execution of Abdolreza Navaseri, Mohammad Ali Savari and Jafar Savari, apparently for bombings in Ahvaz, the provincial capital of Khuzestan, which were ascribed to Sunni extremists.

Reformers and human rights activists are concerned that the pattern of widespread detentions outlined above amount to a security clampdown ahead of the March election. Yet the wider public appears unmoved by the issue, in part because so little information seeps out in the mass media to which they mostly have access, such as the state broadcaster IRIB.

"Society exists in a total news blackout, and those sections of the public who are informed have been completely passive since [Mohammad] Khatami began his second term in the presidency [2001-05]," student activist Mohammad Hossein Nemati told Mianeh.

However, when high-profile human rights cases receive wide-scale domestic coverage, they can in fact receive a lot of attention and heated debate among wider Iranian society. Two good examples of this are opposition leader Akbar Ganji, who served a prison sentence from 2001 to 2006, and Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who died in custody in 2003
But awareness of an issue does not automatically evince a strong public reaction. As Nemati points out, "Even when Akbar Ganji was incarcerated, and most people in society were informed about it, barely 1,500 people took part when events were staged in support of him."

In a country that is still in transition from tradition to modernity, it is understandable that the way the intellectual elite frames the concept of human rights is not going to be received in the same manner by the bulk of the population. That is not to say that Iranian society is antipathetic to human rights, but rather that other, more pressing priorities prevent the general public from thinking about and identifying with complicated ideals like freedom of speech or faith.

The apathetic majority – perhaps 60 per cent of the population - have their own reasons for being circumspect. Many feel it is best to mind one's own business whatever one thinks of the system. As one young man called Hossein, who works at Tehran's bazaar, told Mianeh, "You need to behave with discretion if you want to avoid being singled out".

The other 40 per cent, the urban educated class who follow political developments plus of course the student population, can be assumed to subscribe to the analysis that human rights groups have made of the way dissidents have been treated in recent months. This analysis runs as follows – those who want a single-party ruling establishment are trying to exploit international crises to guarantee victory for the current administration in the March legislative election. As part of this strategy, they are also seeking to make their critics and opponents completely passive.

Hamid Khosravi is a political reporter in Tehran.

This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


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