When CBS’ 60 Minutes aired its 8 Days in Tehran program in May 2014, featuring seemingly unfettered access to Iranian officials and frank interviews with ordinary citizens, observers may have been justified in assuming that a new day was dawning for freedom of information in Iran. After all, correspondent Steve Kroft and his crew were able to wander around Tehran freely, without minders, to talk to people in the Bazaar and elsewhere.
Dear President-Elect Rouhani:
I am writing to you to ask you to stop the astounding brutalization heaped upon a young man who has had to pay a horrible price for his mere participation in peaceful political activism.
I welcome your recent statements that indicate your desire to usher in reforms that would lead to greater freedoms and rights for the Iranian people. That is why I hope that you will be able to bring Arash Sadeghi’s years-long ordeal to an end.
Arash Sadeghi is just 26-years-old. He had been studying philosophy at Allameh Tabatabai University until he was banned from continuing his education because of his political activism. A supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi who was running as a reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential elections, he had been arrested a number of times for participating in demonstrations protesting the outcome of the 2009 election.
As recently as two weeks before Iran’s June 14 presidential election, it seemed as if the issue of human rights was being swept neatly under the carpet. But then, surprisingly, the issue bubbled up; Hassan Rouhani, the man who ultimately won the election, made a number of promises relating to human rights, to address discrimination based on gender, religion and ethnicity, and to protect freedom of expression.
Rouhani’s resounding victory over a field of five other candidates could be seen as evidence that, despite the brutal repression they have experienced over the past several years, the Iranian people still maintain their aspirations for a future in which their basic human rights are respected.
In Iran, the president’s power is restricted; the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds the ultimate authority. Since last Friday’s surprising election results, commentators have been debating what this could mean – some wondering why the authorities apparently allowed a moderate to win and whether this could indicate a decision on their part to permit a loosening of the restrictions on freedoms that had been even more stringent in the lead-up to the election.
Imagine—if you can—what it is like to be a political prisoner sitting in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. You are likely hungry as the food is practically inedible. You are likely sick as the filthy conditions breed illnesses and infections among the inmates. You are likely not receiving adequate health care. You are living in a constant state of fear and apprehension; if you are one of those lucky enough not to be tortured yourself, you have to listen to the cries of others being tormented. You have not received anything that remotely resembles justice. Worst of all, you believe that you have been forgotten.
But now imagine the consolation and hope that you can bring to these prisoners by remembering them at this time of year. Nowruz is the Iranian New Year festival and begins on the first day of spring. It is supposed to be a joyous occasion when family and friends gather and share traditions such as the Haft Sin table, which literally means the seven s’s. Seven items beginning with the Persian letter sin (equivalent to the English s) and which represent spring time are set out.
Iranians often point to the fact that the first human rights charter in history came from Iran. When the Cyrus Cylinder, dating from the sixth century B.C., and owned by the British Museum, was exhibited in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the opening in Tehran. The cylinder was seen by more than one million Iranians.
The inscription on the cylinder, which has just begun its highly publicized first tour in the U.S., has been interpreted as a commemoration of Cyrus the Great’s proclamation of religious freedom and tolerance for all throughout his empire. How sad then that the current Iranian government blatantly contradicts Cyrus’ edict. Instead of honoring their ancient and noble traditions, the Iranian authorities are intensifying the pernicious and widespread persecution of Iran’s religious minorities.
Adherents of the Baha’i faith are probably the most persecuted religious community in Iran. Their faith is not recognized as a religion in Iran’s Constitution. Many Baha’is were executed in the 1980s. The seven leaders of the Baha’i community are serving 20-year prison sentences after their convictions on specious charges of “espionage for Israel,” “insulting religious sanctities” and “spreading propaganda against the system.” Baha’is are excluded from higher education and face severe discrimination in employment, their cemeteries have been desecrated, and they are not permitted to meet, to hold religious ceremonies or to practice their religion communally. Because they are excluded from universities, the community established the underground Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, but its faculty and staff have been arrested and imprisoned solely for peacefully providing instruction to their young people.
Lately, we have been hearing a lot about the extraterrestrial experiences of Iranians, both actual and desired. Iranian-American NASA engineer (and heart throb) Bobak Ferdowsi, who gained fame for his distinctive hairdo as well as his skill in guiding the Mars Rover landing, was the First Lady’s guest at President Obama’s State of the Union address, thanks to his efforts to inspire kids to pursue their education in the STEM fields.
Meanwhile, Iran successfully sent a monkey into space and back, prompting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to declare that he would like to become the nation’s very first astronaut. While the prospect of Iran’s controversial president being launched into orbit in a space ship intrigued many both inside Iran and out, Iran’s ability to advance the frontiers of science is being undermined by its government’s practice of putting some of its brightest scientists in prison.
If anyone doubts that torture is plain wrong and indefensible, I invite them to examine the cases of seven men in Iran who were severely tortured to force them to make “confessions” of their involvement in national security offenses. All have been sentenced to death by hanging and are at risk of imminent execution—that is, at any time.
Much has been written about the controversial depiction of torture in the film Zero Dark Thirty, and about the efficacy of the U.S. government’s shameful brutalizing of detainees in the so-called “war on terror”—including by my colleague, Zeke Johnson. While the debate is focused on the practices of the U.S., other governments around the world routinely use torture and also justify it on the grounds of “protecting national security,” yet these claims are always specious.
The Iranian authorities have a problem. Iranian artists and human rights activists are just too courageous. They continue to speak out even if they are in prison or forced into exile. They are willing to endure the consequences of taking a stand for what they believe. So what are embarrassed Iranian officials to do?
The answer, increasingly, is to go after their family members, in an effort to punish dissenters or pressure them into submission.
Internationally acclaimed Iranian Kurdish film director Bahman Ghobadi is a sharp critic of the Iranian government who has been living in exile due to the repression of Iran’s film industry. Some of Bahman Ghobadi’s films recount the harsh lives led by Iran’s ethnic Kurds. One of his recent films, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), chronicles the struggles of young Iranian musicians attempting to evade censorship, while his most recent film, Rhino Season (2012), tells the story of a poet who spent 27 years in prison in Iran.
Imagine you have spent nearly 30 years in prison just for writing poems—the only thing that keeps you going is the hope of someday being reunited with your wife and family. But then when the day of your release finally comes, you discover that your family has been told that you are dead and you are left to wander the earth like a ghost, caught between the horror of the past and a present where you don’t even really exist.
This is the tragic situation faced by the protagonist of a powerful new movie called Rhino Season (Fasle Kargadan) by the eminent Iranian film director Bahman Ghobadi. It can also be interpreted as a metaphor for an entire society, haunted by the human rights violations that shattered so many lives, yet unable to move forward because of the Iranian government’s stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for the crimes they perpetrated. Thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and executed in Iran in the 1980s; there has never been a reckoning, there has been no accountability and it is impossible for any of those scarred by those years to find peace and closure.
When brothers Kamiar and Arash Alaei were finally granted a brief medical furlough, they rejoiced at the prospect of spending a little time with their families as a reprieve from their grim and unjust imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.
Internationally renowned experts on the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, the two physicians were targeted by the Iranian government for having participated in international conferences and workshops in the United States. In the authorities’ twisted way of thinking, they were a part of a U.S. plot to undermine the Iranian government.
When the two brothers arrived at their family home, they received an additional and very delightful surprise—they were greeted with hundreds of Nowruz (Iranian New Year) cards sent by Amnesty International Activists around the world in response to AIUSA’s now-annual Nowruz Action.