One Year After Disputed Elections Many Languish in Iran's Prisons

June 14, 2010

Imprisoned Student Leader Majid Tavakkoli

The one year anniversary of the disputed June 12, 2009 presidential election in Iran has been greeted by a cornucopia of thoughtful analyses of the momentous event and its aftermath. Many commentators have focused on the more political issues—of whether the Islamic Republic will survive and in what form, and whether or not the Green Movement has lost its momentum. While these interesting debates are occurring, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations continue to fulfill their own important role of standing back from the political arena and aiming their spotlight solely on the human rights violations that continue to be perpetrated against the people of Iran.

As Amnesty International’s comprehensive new report From Protest to Prison – Iran One Year After the Election shows, large numbers of people are suffering in Iran’s prisons—those arrested in the wake of the June 12 election and those who have been languishing there before that date. These violations continue in an atmosphere of impunity for those who viciously beat or killed innocent protesters in the street such as Neda Agha-Soltan, or who tortured and sexually assaulted detainees in Kahrizak and other facilities.

The machinery of repression that has trapped so many innocent people in Iran is cloaked as the administration of justice; the system is rife with persistent and pervasive abuses from beginning to end. Those arrested are held in incommunicado detention where they face torture. They are deprived of access to their lawyers and family. They are charged with vague pseudo-crimes such as “propaganda against the system.” They are coerced into making confessions which can be used against them in court and are often aired on television. They are tried before Revolutionary Courts that fail to adhere to international standards for fair trial; the defendants and their lawyers often can’t see the charges or evidence against them and are prevented from presenting an adequate, or even any, defense. Many prisoners of conscience have been given harsh sentences. As the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has pointed out, a large number of these harsh sentences have been handed down by only three judges who can in no way be considered independent. One judge alone, Abolghassem Salvati, has sentenced more than one hundred people charged with participating in or inciting the post-election unrest to lengthy prison sentences or, in the case of nine people, to death.

The human rights defenders, journalists, student leaders, women’s rights activists and labor activists suffering in Iran’s prisons desperately need the help of concerned citizens around the world to put pressure on the Iranian government. These include Shiva Nazar Ahari, a young journalist who is facing charges that could lead to the imposition of the death penalty; Emadeddin Baghi, a fearless human rights defender who has spent considerable time in prison due to his to, among other things, efforts to abolish the death penalty, who has been held in detention without charge since late December, and who suffers from severe health problems; Hengameh Shahidi, a journalist and adviser to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi who is serving a six-year prison sentence; and Majid Tavakkoli, a student leader who was arrested in December 2009 for making a speech to commemorate Students Day and who has been sentenced to an eight and a half year prison sentence. Amnesty International is urging its activists to participate in a one-year campaign to free these prisoners.

Last year’s massive crowds in the streets have vanished as Iranians have been terrorized into resorting to small acts of silent protest; the Iranian government reportedly mobilized more than two million Basij paramilitaries to Tehran to make sure there was no recurrence of  last summer’s demonstrations for June 12, 2010. It is now more important than ever to remember those who the Iranian government would love for us to forget. The Iranian authorities thrive on the silence and indifference of the international community. They have urged their prisoners such as Roxana Saberi to keep the stories of their unjust detentions from being made public, lest it hurt their cases. As Ms Saberi found out however, exactly the opposite was true. The barrage of outrage that resulted from the widespread dissemination of her story almost certainly contributed to her release, as it doubtless did to the release on bail of acclaimed film director Jafar Panahi after more than two months in detention without charge.

It is simply not true that the Iranian government does not care about what people in the rest of the world think or say about them. If that were indeed the case, the authorities would make no attempt to jam cell phone, email and Facebook to prevent those in Iran from telling other people what is happening; they would make no effort to expel foreign journalists, or prevent them from covering news of street protests; they would not spend so much on their own news agencies including English language news agencies, to spread their own viewpoint to the world; nor would they have sent such a high level delegation led by Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary-general of the Iranian High Council for Human Rights to Geneva to defend Iran’s human rights record at its Universal Period Review before the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The time is now to commit ourselves to always be a thorn in the side of the Iranian authorities, never letting them off the hook until they finally release our friends Shiva Nazar Ahari, Majid Tavakkoli, Hengameh Shahidi, Emadeddin Baghi and so many others.