An Azadi Square Campaign Success and a Chastening Reminder Why We Do This

June 13, 2011

The second anniversary of Iran’s disputed presidential elections passed on Sunday June 12 without a major public observance in Iran. After having been brutally suppressed by Iran’s security forces, Iranians have not been able to engage in the massive protests of two summers ago. Some of the most memorable of those demonstrations took place in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square.

Although the citizens of Tehran have been too terrorized to return to Azadi Square to exercise their rights, activists outside of Iran continue to demonstrate their solidarity by holding their own actions in public spaces that they have renamed “Azadi Square” for the occasion.

On Wednesday June 8 about forty Amnesty International activists very pointedly renamed the plaza right beside the Iran Mission to the United Nations in New York “Azadi Square”—hopefully to the consternation of those inside the UN Mission. A number of celebrities accompanied the Amnesty delegation and Executive Director Larry Cox, including acclaimed film director Paul Haggis, Griffin Dunne, Trudy Styler, Amnesty spokesperson Nazanin Boniadi and former Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari who was detained and tortured in prison in 2009.

One highlight of the action was the delivery of a stack of petitions with nearly 21,000 signatures, plus several hundred postcards, on behalf of persecuted Iranian film director Jafar Panahi to the Iranian Mission to the UN. At first the Mission was unwilling to take the petitions; Mr. Haggis who carried the petitions refused to back down however and after prolonged negotiations, the petitions were finally accepted by an officer at the Mission.

Pleased with the success of our action, I returned to Chicago to find something that painfully reminded me why we are carrying out this Azadi Square campaign. A video was just released of an interview with a young Iranian woman who was arrested during the unrest after the June 2009 elections. The young woman, whose name was not revealed and whose appearance was blurred to protect her identity, described in vivid detail her sickening and heartbreaking ordeal.

Detained for several weeks, she was subjected to brutal and vicious torture, including being repeatedly raped, having her head forcibly shaved, and being burned with cigarettes. I have been an Amnesty activist for about 25 years and have worked on Iran for many of those years and am ashamed to confess that I have become quite jaded after reading countless accounts of torture.

Watching the video though profoundly affected me and this nameless, faceless young woman continues to haunt me. Just a shadowy presence on the screen, her suffering is achingly obvious as she describes her personality shattering experience and the feeling of her very soul being drained from her body. I believe the video should be required viewing for everyone who works inside the Iran Mission to the UN that we just visited, so they can see what their government’s henchman do to the citizens they purport to “represent.”

The young woman wonders what she ever did to deserve the treatment she received. She was not a leader or outspoken dissident. She had been just been one of a multitude of ordinary Iranians who attended protests and at the time of her arrest was just going back to her university. But of course the seemingly random and indiscriminate sadistic treatment of casual participants in the protests was in fact a calculated strategy of the authorities to instill terror in the entire population and to prevent further “disturbances.” The message was clear: any defiant gesture—even the most innocuous—could be punished by unspeakable reprisals.

The use of rape and sexual torture is a uniquely effective means of breaking the spirit and terrorizing people into submission—it was recently used in Egypt where authorities subjected peaceful female protesters to strip searches and forcible “virginity tests”– and in Iran was widely used against ordinary demonstrators, both women and men. In the case of the nameless woman, it left behind a vast emptiness inside what was undoubtedly once a vibrant young woman.

The nameless woman showed extraordinary bravery in speaking out, knowing that it carries the real risk of further persecution by the authorities. Her story and her act of courage underscore for us the importance of undertaking acts of solidarity with the people of Iran in their struggle for justice and human rights. The Azadi Square campaign was conceived originally as a solidarity action on behalf of imprisoned student leader Majid Tavakkoli, but it is also for all the Iranians whose rights have been trampled, who cannot go freely to their own Azadi Square. That is why we have to create Azadi Squares for them.

The action is simple; even one person can do it. All it takes is a sign which can be downloaded from the web site or create your own sign saying “Azadi Square,” stand in a public place, a park or a corner in your town and have your picture taken and send it to Amnesty International and tell us where the picture was taken. It will be added to pictures of actions that have taken place or will soon take place in Washington, Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere, to create a virtual Azadi Square protest.

The nameless woman in the video was just an ordinary Iranian who should have had the expectation that she could exercise her right to peacefully walk in the street but who now finds herself so broken and ravaged she can barely put the pieces of herself back together. The ordinary citizens who participate in Amnesty International’s Azadi Square campaign are telling this young woman and the many others like her that their sacrifice is being remembered and honored. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them—in our Azadi Square, their Azadi Square.