Aung San Suu Kyi Speaks to Amnesty International Activists

There is an antidote to the weariness, cynicism and paralysis perpetuated by the heartless churn of our 24-hour news cycle: Just listen to the voices of those who walk the razor’s edge each day as they fight to change the world. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed Amnesty activists by phone at the end of Day 2 of our 50th anniversary conference, graciously acknowledging the role of grassroots activism in her release after 15 years of detention by the military junta and encouraging us not to forget the 2,000-plus political prisoners who remain locked up in Burma.

Her brief address was followed by a riveting speech by Jenni Williams, co-founder of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a group of women who have been jailed, tortured and persecuted for their non-violent demonstrations to demand social justice. Williams recalled one August night when police abducted seven WOZA members. “The phone calls started at 3 a.m. We heard our members had been arrested in suburbs, so we called Amnesty International. By 12 noon, all seven members were delivered back to their homes by the same police officers who had abducted them,” said Williams.

Earlier in the day, I spotted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listening to similarly harrowing tales at the well-attended panel discussion, “Muzzling the Watchdogs,” featuring Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam and Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi. All three had been arrested, imprisoned and persecuted for their work to expose injustice, and each was the subject of Amnesty International urgent actions and/or international letter campaigns demanding their freedom.

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Hollywood Greats Join Amnesty to Express Outrage Over Panahi Sentence

Jafar Panahi

One week after the astonishing news that Iranian cinematic giant Jafar Panahi had been handed a harsh prison sentence and an unprecedented twenty-year total ban on his artistic activities, Mr. Panahi’s colleagues and admirers around the world have spearheaded a concerted effort to overturn the travesty of justice that has been inflicted on him. Academy Award winners Paul Haggis and Sean Penn, along with film producer and movie studio chairman Harvey Weinstein, have joined forces with actress and Amnesty International USA spokesperson Nazanin Boniadi to condemn the shocking sentence imposed on Mr. Panahi. Mr. Haggis is also encouraging members of the film community to wear white ribbons prominently during upcoming awards ceremonies and other public events as a symbol of protest. So far their effort has been supported by renowned film directors Martin Scorsese, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Lina Wertmuller, Iranian pop singer Googoosh, by Iranian-American journalist and former prisoner of conscience Roxana Saberi, and by Amnesty International’s distinguished human rights movement colleagues Hadi Ghaemi and Rudi Bakhtiar of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Paul Haggis, who is the founder of Artists for Peace and Justice, stated, “If this happened to me, I would hope my colleagues would speak out in my name, as we are compelled to speak out in Jafar’s.  I urge the Iranian authorities to overturn Mr. Panahi’s inhumane and unjust sentence. I ask that people across the world join Sean Penn, Harvey Weinstein and myself in signing the Amnesty International petition calling for the immediate reversal of the sentence against Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof [Mr. Panahi’s artistic collaborator, also sentenced to six years in prison].”

Our goal is to encourage thousands of people to add their own names to the growing list of petition signers. Please show your support for Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and the right to freedom of expression by taking this easy action.  Another great way to generate interest would be hold viewings of one of Jafar Panahi’s great films –“Badkonak-e Sefid (White Balloon), “Dayareh” (Circle), for which he won the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, “Talayeh Sorkh” (Crimson Gold), or “Offside”—at your school, university, Amnesty International group meeting, or just a gathering for friends. Please take pictures of the gathering and send it to Amnesty International and also please use the opportunity to gather signatures for the Panahi/Rasoulof petition. And Amnesty International is always excited to hear about creative activism—if you have an ideas, please contact kscott@aiusa.org.

Jafar Panahi’s films are banned in his own country—a tragedy as Mr. Panahi has repeatedly expressed his love for his country and his desire to stay in Iran to make his films there. We are looking forward to many more of this great artist’s beautiful films in the future. Let’s do what we can to make sure he can make them.

Powerful New Book Describes Iranian-American's Ordeal in Iran

Roxana SOn January 31, 2009 Roxana Saberi suddenly found herself  in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, unable to contact her family and friends and accused of espionage and threatening Iran’s national security. Ms Saberi, a 31-year-old U.S. citizen (and holding an Iranian passport because her father was born in Iran), had been living in Iran for six years, working as a journalist and writing a book about modern Iran based on interviews with a broad cross-section of society, when her nightmare began.  The international outcry that ensued may well have contributed to her release that May, just weeks before the contested June 12 presidential election. Her four-month ordeal is vividly described in her powerful new book, Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran.

Even though we know the ultimate happy outcome, Between Two Worlds is suspenseful and riveting throughout. The author masterfully conveys the fear, confusion and uncertainty experienced by an innocent person trapped in a repressive system where human rights norms have no meaning. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Ms Saberi’s account of her frequent interactions with her main interrogator, a young man whose name she never learns and whom she has dubbed “Javan” because he affected the clothing and coiffure of the youth of affluent North Tehran; he is maddeningly focused on extracting a confession that Ms Saberi was a spy for the U.S. government and the interrogation sessions become a battle of wills. At the core of the dilemma she faced were the impossibly difficult calculations and decisions she had to make about whether to provide her interrogators with the information they appeared to be seeking, which would have entailed falsely confessing to espionage. She had to make these difficult decisions in a complete vacuum, not knowing whether a false confession would guarantee her release, as her interrogators promised her, or whether stubbornly insisting on the truth could result in a long prison sentence, or something even worse.

Thankfully, Ms Saberi was not tortured or physically abused, but she had no way of knowing whether, at any moment, the verbal and psychological abuse would escalate into violence or sexual assault.  The well-known fate of Zahra Kazemi was never far from her mind. Ms Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian journalist, was arrested in 2003 while taking photographs outside of Evin Prison. She was raped, brutally tortured, and died of blunt trauma to the head while in custody. Ms Saberi was naturally afraid that she could be subjected to similar treatment, especially since she was being held incommunicado with her family and friends unaware of her location.

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Roxana Saberi Freed!

Journalist Roxana Saberi filming footage in Tehran. (c) BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Journalist Roxana Saberi filming footage in Tehran. (c) BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

We’re happy to report that American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from prison in Iran!

Roxana had been given an eight-year prison sentence on trumped up charges of “espionage” following a brief closed door trial in Tehran last month.  Amnesty International had issued an urgent action calling for her release.  Over 26,000 messages were sent by Amnesty activists to the Iranian government demanding her release.

Thanks to all who took action with us.  While Roxana may be free, there are still countless other prisoners of conscience languishing in prison cells around the world.  Please take a moment to take action on their behalf so they can join Roxana in freedom.

Journalists Risking their Lives

This Sunday, May 3rd, is World Press Freedom Day and you can help push back against governments worldwide who violate fundamental rights to free speech and expression.  Some of the journalists currently languishing in detention include:

  • Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was sentenced last week to eight years in prison on charges of espionage after a flawed trial.
  • Gambian journalist Ebrima Manneh who continues to be detained despite a court’s ruling in June 2008 that his rights had been violated by the Gambian government and should be released.
  • Sri Lankan writer J.S. Tissainayagam who was imprisoned in 2008 for writing two articles that criticized the government’s military offensive against the opposition group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Here in the U.S. we often take for granted our ability to speak out against the policies of our government.  The type of content on this blog alone would surely be censored in some countries and could even land writers in prison.  We hope you’ll join us this weekend in taking action to protect journalists worldwide!

On Hunger Strikes and Roxana Saberi

A few months ago I saw “Hunger,” a disturbing movie about the hunger strike of IRA member Bobbie Sands in Maze Prison in Northern Ireland — a hunger strike that ended in his death.  When hunger strikes started being used as a means of protest or to call attention to a cause — I believe it was in the 1970s — they were considered quite extraordinary and powerful.

A picture taken on Septmber 17, 2003 shows US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi filming footage in Tehran. (c) BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

A picture taken on Septmber 17, 2003 shows US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi filming footage in Tehran. (c) BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Now after so many hunger strikes by so many different people who have sought to draw attention to causes both weighty and trivial, many of us barely notice when someone goes on a hunger strike.  But we have been forced to rethink hunger strikes lately as imprisoned journalist Roxana Saberi decided to initiate a higher strike shortly before her 32nd birthday to protest the eight-year prison sentence she was given after her conviction for espionage by a Revolutionary Court in Iran. She has been on a hunger strike for more than a week now, and her father Reza Saberi reports that his small-framed daughter has become very frail.  She has announced that she will continue her hunger strike until she is released.

Roxana Saberi’s situation, her picture and her hunger strike, have been widely publicized in the news media.  Many of us feel a personal connection to Roxana Saberi, especially after reading the impassioned letter written by her fiance, the great Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi.  Yesterday, Reporters Without Borders announced their own solidarity hunger strike; several journalists have pledged to substitute their own hunger strikes so that Roxana Saberi does not have to carry this burden herself.

When we read about Roxana Saberi’s determination, we become alarmed, we admire her and wonder if she would really go through with it to the end, and if the Iranian authorities will finally do the right thing and release her from the horrible Evin Prison where so many Iranians have endured torture and miserable conditions; many have died there.  We also might wonder what we ourselves would be willing to do — and how far we would be willing to go — to protest an injustice.  Maybe some of us will be inspired to carry out our own solidarity hunger strike; many thousands have already responded to Amnesty International’s action by sending letters to the Iranian government.  If any of you have ideas about creative actions we can take to support his courageous woman, please share them on this blog.  Thank you.

By Elise Auerbach, Amnesty International USA Iran country specialist

Free Roxana Saberi

In a press statement released today, Amnesty International condemned the eight-year eight-year prison sentence imposed by an Iranian Revolutionary Court on Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi who was convicted of “espionage” following a brief closed door trial in Tehran.

Saberi had been arrested on January 31 and held in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison since then. Legal proceedings in Iran’s Revolutionary Courts are severely flawed and fail to meet international standards for fair trials. The evidence against Saberi has not been made public.

The American born, 31-year-old Saberi is the daughter of an Iranian father and Japanese mother and worked for NPR and other news outlets. An interview on NPR with her father can be found here

Amnesty International issued an urgent action on March 16 when Saberi was first detained, mobilizing activists worldwide to send letters to Iranian officials calling on the authorities to release her unless she is to be charged with a recognizable criminal offense. AIUSA recently issued a second urgent action on Friday, April 17, after news that she had been tried in a closed courtroom.

Several dual-national Iranians have been detained in Iran in recent years since the U.S. Congress announced an extra U.S. $75 million funding for “supporting democracy” in Iran, including Dr Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, Parnaz Azima and Ali Shakeri. Most have been accused of acting against national security, particularly with relation to participation in an alleged “soft revolution” in Iran. The United States also holds five Iranian diplomats arrested in Iraq in 2007. In a meeting with the Swiss President on April 19, President Ahmadinejad called for their release. Some commentators have also suggested that Roxana Saberi’s arrest and trial may also be in part due to internal rivalries in the Iranian system in regard to the election of President Obama in the United States and his recent overtures towards Iran.