Iran: harsh crackdown on dissidents

“With the world’s eyes on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the deteriorating human rights situation in the country is being forgotten,” writes Robert Tait for the UK’s Guardian, Aug. 23 (emphasis added):

Seven years ago, he was the symbol of a brave new dawn of student protest in Iran. Famously featured on the cover of The Economist waving the bloodied T-shirt of a fellow demonstrator beaten by security forces, Ahmad Batebi seemed emblematic of the raw courage of the country’s pro-reform student movement in its clamour for greater freedoms from a repressive Islamist government.

His subsequent death sentence on charges of endangering the security of the state – later commuted to 10 years in prison – bestowed on him a halo of martyrdom, while bearing eloquent testimony to the demise of his quixotic cause.

Today, Batebi is still a symbol – though, in contrast to those intoxicating 1999 student protests, very much a hidden one. And the martyr’s mantle which he never sought is in danger of becoming his epitaph.

Still only 28, Batebi, a former film studies student, is in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, the authorities’ holding pen of choice for their most troublesome political critics. He was reimprisoned last month after 18 months out on medical leave, and is apparently being held in closed secret wing run by the widely feared intelligence ministry.

His re-arrest came as he was about to undergo surgery for serious back injuries sustained through torture while under interrogation. Though his family cannot be sure, having been denied access to him since his reimprisonment, he is now believed to be have been on hunger strike for more than three weeks. His doctor has warned that, with the multiple illnesses Batebi has suffered through torture and the privations of prison, his life is now in grave danger.

What Batebi represents today is not the hope of seven years ago, but growing despair. With international attention focused almost exclusively on Iran’s nuclear activities, the country’s small and beleaguered human rights community fear its cause is becoming more forlorn than ever. Under the cloak of national security, a fierce crackdown is underway, and Batebi’s case is just the tip of the iceberg.

Activists long becalmed since the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year are being arrested and given jail sentences for offences committed during the term of the former reformist president, Mohammed Khatami.

In an ominous move, the Centre for Defence of Human Rights – an advocates’ group headed by the Nobel peace prize-winning human rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi – has been outlawed on the flimsy pretext of failing to apply for a proper permit. The group has provided free legal defence for academics, journalists and political advocates.

This is no mere administrative detail. The Ahmadinejad government has made clear that it will not brook criticism. Just this week, its official spokesman, Gholamhossein Elham, wrote to Tehran’s public prosecutor, Said Mortazavi, exhorting him to legally pursue journalists and news outlets responsible for printing “lies” about the government. He was referring to the chorus of media criticism over Mr Ahmadinejad’s economic policy, which many experts believe is failing to deliver his pre-election promises, while producing a witch’s brew of high inflation and rising unemployment.

The threat is clear. The government is prepared to embark on the same wave of newspaper closures and mass arrests of journalists that followed the brief Tehran spring of free expression of the late 1990s, when hundreds of new publications opened, only to be forcibly closed.

A pattern has already been set. Ramin Jahanbegloo, a philosopher and activist arrested in May after having addressed the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, remains in Evin prison, suspected of trying to foment a “velvet revolution”. Rumours abound that a taped “confession”, in which Jahanbegloo admits to establishing an internet spy network, is to be televised soon to a nationwide audience.

Another high-profile dissident, Mansour Osanloo, a trade unionist, was released from jail this month on £100,000 bail after seven months in detention on charges of organising an illegal bus drivers’ strike.

The outlook for Osanloo appears bleak, but he may be one of the lucky ones. More drastic has been the fate of Akbar Mohammadi, another iconic figure of the 1999 student protests, who died in his prison cell on July 30 after a nine-day hunger strike. Like Batebi, Mohammadi – whose imprisoned brother Manouchehr is also believed to be fasting – had been reincarcerated after having been freed for medical reasons.

The tragedy of this trend is that, with all eyes on the Islamic republic’s supposed yearning for the bomb, few in the outside world are watching. It is an oversight that has not escaped Amnesty International, which has written to the Iranian authorities about Batebi. “At a time when the world is paying so much attention to Iran’s nuclear programme, we are concerned that individual governments and the wider international community are not making enough of the appalling human rights situation inside the country,” said an Amnesty spokeswoman, Sarah Green.

Conventional wisdom amongst diplomats and analysts in Tehran has it that Iran’s chief decision-makers are loathe to reach a deal on the nuclear dispute because they fear the US will simply shift the ground to human rights in its quest for regime change. They might consider that one way of forestalling that would be to release men like Ahmad Batebi, who hardly constitutes a threat.

Even if Ramin Jahanbegloo is “tainted” by his association with the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, thia cannot be said of Mansour Osanloo and his fellow imprisoned trade unionists. Why as we recently had occassion to ask, does the American left continue to cultivate illusions about Iran?

See our last posts on Iran and labor struggles in the Islamic Republic.