Iran human rights success stories have sadly been quite rare lately but in just the past three weeks, human rights activists have had several reasons to celebrate.
Amnesty International welcomes the release on medical furlough of labor leader Mansour Ossanlu and journalist Hengameh Shahidi, the unconditional release of eminent author and human rights defender Emadeddin Baghi, and the news of recently released physician and HIV/AIDS researcher Kamiar Alaei’s receipt of a prestigious award.
All of these four individuals had been prominent cases on which activists from Amnesty International and our partner organizations had been tirelessly campaigning. They had all been featured in our most recent Nowruz (Iranian New Year) action from this spring.
We suspect that the Iranian authorities are not generally compelled to release prominent human rights defenders because of an access of pangs of conscience gnawing at them. Rather, it is more likely that the constant pressure placed on authorities by human rights activists over a period of time has at last yielded results.
One might ask why the authorities would have released Mansour Ossanlu, Hengameh Shahidi and Emadeddin Baghi all within the last few weeks. All three had been suffering from medical problems—in the case of Mr. Ossanlu and Mr. Baghi they were extremely grave medical problems—and were not receiving necessary medical treatment in prison.
It is certainly possible that the authorities feared they would suffer deep embarrassment and a storm of criticism if a prominent prisoner of conscience were to die in prison—especially after two recent highly publicized deaths: one a death in prison of hunger striking Hoda Saber and the other of Haleh Sahabi who suffered a heart attack and died after the funeral ceremony for her father was attacked by government agents.
Furthermore, according to numerous media reports, the conflicts within the ruling establishment in Iran—notably a face-off between the supporters of President Ahmadinejad and those of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have recently come to a head. Also, even though the Iranian government has blustered about how it will not cooperate with the newly named U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, the appointment of the Rapporteur has surely deeply chagrined Iran’s government as it is a sharp rebuke by the world community—a move that was not at all congenial to the negative publicity-fearing leadership.
Death penalty opponent and Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender award recipient Emadeddin Baghi was imprisoned for conducting a televised interview with a dissident cleric. He had been given two sentences: one for six years and another for one year. However, in a rather surprising move, an appeals court acquitted him of the charge of “gathering and colluding to act against national security” which carried five years of his six-year sentence, and he was released on June 20 as he had already served the one year sentence for “propaganda against the regime.”
Mansour Ossanlu, a labor rights activist and head of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Drivers Union, was imprisoned for his advocacy of workers and trade union’s right to organize and collective action. He had been serving a five-year prison sentence for “acts against national security” in poor conditions in Reja’i Shahr Prison, in Karaj. He was tried on fresh charges in August 2010 and received another year’s prison sentence, to be added to the five years he was already serving. He had been severely beaten on previous occasions and suffered retinal damage as well as a severe heart condition and arterial blockage. He was released on a medical furlough on June 2.
Hengameh Shahidi, a journalist and women’s rights activist, began serving a six-year prison sentence in Evin Prison in Tehran on 25 February 2010 after an appeal court upheld her conviction and sentence for “gathering and colluding with intent to harm state security” and “propaganda against the system.” She was an advisor on women’s issues to presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi who ran in the disputed 12 June 2009 elections. She is a member of his E’temad-e Melli (National Trust) Party. The party’s newspaper, E’temad was shut down by authorities on 1 March 2010. She was given a temporary medical release on June 20.
Brothers Arash Alaei and Kamiar Alaei, doctors specializing in the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS, were convicted on charges including plotting to overthrow the Iranian government in proceedings that did not meet international standards for fair trial. Kamiar Alaei was been sentenced to three years in prison while Arash Alaei had been sentenced to six years. Their attendance of international conferences on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment was used as “evidence” against them. Dr. Kamiar Alaei, along with his brother Arash who is still in prison, received the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights at a ceremony in Washington, DC on June 16. The news of Kamiar Alaei’s release from prison was made public after the ceremony.
Those of us working on Iran do not often have occasion to celebrate even one success, let alone four. The welcome news of the release of these four courageous activists underscores once again the vital importance of persistence and a long-term commitment to pursuing our goals–even when it may appear that the Iranian authorities are intransigent and unreceptive.
The countless letters sent to the authorities, Nowruz greetings sent to prisoners of conscience, and all the public Azadi Square actions carried out in multiple cities are most definitely making an impact on the authorities—showing them the world community will not remain silent in the face of their egregious human rights violations.