WORLD

FREEDOM FIGHTERS

Against the odds, democracy activists in Iran battle on

MICHAEL PETROU July 2 2007
WORLD

FREEDOM FIGHTERS

Against the odds, democracy activists in Iran battle on

MICHAEL PETROU July 2 2007

FREEDOM FIGHTERS

WORLD

Against the odds, democracy activists in Iran battle on

MICHAEL PETROU

I met Behrouz Javid Tehrani, an Iranian democratic activist and an exceptionally brave man, during a rare period over the last eight years when he was not in jail. It was in April 2004, in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Tehrani had just completed a four-year prison term that included 10 months of solitary confinement and extensive torture. He had first been arrested after the 1999 student riots in which thousands of Iranians demonstrated to support press freedom and democracy and fought pitched battles with police and Islamic vigilantes.

Tehrani’s mother died while he was in prison, and he was not permitted to attend the funeral. At the time of his release, Tehrani was told to keep quiet. He didn’t. A few months later, Tehrani and several other Iranian democrats—at great personal risk—agreed to secretly meet me to discuss the underground democracy movement in Iran. They insisted that I use their real names in an article I was writing on the topic, and when it was published Tehrani was immediately detained. At least four more Iranian democrats who met with me in Tehran, including Bina Darabzand, Kianoosh Sanjari, Saeed Kalanaki, and Ali Tabarzadi, were arrested in the months that followed.

Tehrani has been in jail almost continuously ever since. Periodically, he was released but immediately resumed his political activities and was rearrested. Eventually, the Iranian authorities must have grown tired of the cycle and have now locked him up for more than two straight years.

Tehrani’s crimes, in the Orwellian language of the Islamic Republic, relate to offences such as belonging to a banned organization, insulting the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or endangering national security. In reality, he is guilty only of wishing to live in a secular democracy. A couple of years ago, he smuggled a letter out of prison in which he praised the American revolutionary Thomas Paine. “I wish he was here with us,” Tehrani wrote from Evin prison, the same institution where the Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was raped and tortured to death in 2003.

Tehrani recently smuggled out another letter, this time from the Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj, # just west of the capital. He writes that he has been threatened with up to 100 lashes “so that my sins will be forgiven and so that I would not be motivated to write letters or do human rights activities while in prison.” According to second-hand reports from other prisoners at the facility, Tehrani—who is housed with violent criminals, not political activists—has been beaten up twice, once by inmates with the connivance of the prison guards, and once by the guards themselves.

Still, in his letter, Tehrani is typically defiant. “Democracy, freedom and human rights are what I believe in. Why do you have to destroy my back?” he writes, referring to the threatened lashing. “Long Live Iran.”

Tehrani is exceptional, but he is not unique. The democratic movement in Iran has suffered gready under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many activists who were emboldened during the comparatively more

open presidency of Mohammad Khatami now keep their heads down or channel their energies into arts and culture, areas where they can express subtle desires for freedom without overtly challenging the ruling religious establishment. But there are still many openly calling for fundamental political change in their country. In December, thousands of students protested against the forced retirement of liberal professors and the harassment of politically active students.

When President Ahmadinejad visited Amir Kabir University in Tehran, he was greeted by crowds of students who accused him of fascism and burned his photograph. The previous day, the students had gathered to chant “Death to the dictator!” Bina Darabzand, a middle-aged man who once campaigned to overthrow the shah, refuses to compromise his ideals despite extensive time in jail. He is a good friend of Tehrani and emailed recently to describe their last meeting. Tehrani was transferred to the same prison where Darabzand was held, and the two friends were able to speak for five minutes through a cellblock window. Sanjari, Kalanaki, and Tabarzadi are also still active.

Hassan Zarezadeh Ardeshir is another Iranian democrat. In 2005, facing a lengthy prison term, he fled over the mountains to Turkey and now lives in Toronto. “It was difficult to leave,” he said. “We have a responsibility to our society. We believe that the Islamic regime is oppressing the Iranian people. We believe that there needs to be change, that the situation of people needs to improve.”

Ardeshir is opposed to economic sanctions against Iran, arguing that they will only punish Iran’s people, not its government. But he says that Iranian democrats notice when countries like Canada take a stand in the United Nations against Iranian human rights violations, and he believes that the Islamic regime can be pressured through diplomatic channels. Ardeshir, however, is not optimistic about democracy’s prospects in Iran for the immediate future. He still believes that political freedom will eventually come to Iran, but many more students and activists will be jailed in the meantime. M

THE DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT HAS SUFFERED UNDER AHMADINEJAD