“Unity” is a word that Iran’s hardline elite uses a great deal these days. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s televised address on 21 March 2010 on the occasion of nowrooz (Persian new year) was typical, in its reference to “the unity and solidarity of the Iranian nation”.
The Iranian president’s rhetoric here is, in its brazen disregard of the country’s reality, at least consistent. This is the man who celebrated the fraudulent presidential election of 12 June 2010 - of which he was the chief beneficiary - as an example to “the world” (no less) of a “new humanitarian and true method of democracy”. The tumultuous protest of millions of Iranians in search of justice over the election is thus dismissed with contempt in a single phrase.
Ahmadinejad has for months been able to rely on the full, brutal force of the state to crush, harass and arrest the opposition on the streets. The pitiless tactics used have included the killing of unarmed street protestors, Stalinist-style show-trials and systematic violations of prisoners.
The targets include some of Iran’s best creative talents: writers, esteemed film-makers such as Jafar Panahi, and journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimated in March 2010 that over fifty Iranian journalists were in prison, a third of the total held worldwide. Many are, after rough interrogation and sentencing, held in the toughest conditions - being sent to Rajai-Shahr prison in Karaj (west of Tehran) where for many years Iran has imprisoned its most hardened drug-traffickers and criminals. They include Ahmad Zeidabadi, the recipient in 2010 of the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom award of the World Association of Newspapers.
You who are now reading this short article may be Indian, German, American or Japanese. Try to imagine a national writer or columnist who makes you think and ask questions, who weaves words into profound and humane meanings that illuminate your country’s reality - and is as a result widely admired, even dearly loved, as such writers are. To many Iranians, Ahmad Zeidabadi is such a man, and his harsh imprisonment has elevated him to a hero of our time.
The tough call
Bahareh Hedayat belongs to another group of Iranians that has been among the most active in the protests, most brave in its defiance, and most repressed by the state’s basij militia and other official thugs: she is a student leader, arrested (as she had been in 2007 and after the June election) on 31 December 2009 and held since in Tehran’s Evin prison. Bahareh is not alone and I write of her merely as an example of many other conscientious activists who have endured staggering hardship in these epic months.
Bahareh is an elected representative of the traditionally male-dominated Tahkim Vahdat, the national student union formed after a decree issued by Ayatollah Khomeini at the dawn of the 1979 revolution. It gradually acquired legitimacy by conducting free elections in which Iran’s entire student population voted; it thus evolved into an independent, pro-democracy organisation and one of the state’s most vocal critics.
Bahareh’s interrogation, which had kept her in isolation from her fellow-prisoners, ended in March 2010. But as further punishment she was transferred from Evin’s section 209 (for “political” detainees) to section 350 (a women’s unit); a high-security section which houses those convicted of drug-trafficking and murder among other tough crimes.
Iranian prisoners in certain categories qualify for the right to make one three-minute telephone-call per week. For Bahareh, the natural day to make contact with the outside world was 6 April: both her 29th birthday and her wedding anniversary. Her husband Ahmad Aminian, her family and friends and a group of her student-union colleagues gathered in her small flat to wait for the call. Bahareh did call that evening - and was able to talk for as long as she wanted, for her hardened fellow-inmates had turned over to her their own precious allocation.
The long walk
On the eve of the election in June 2009, a Tehran doctor called Sahar told me of her reluctant decision to vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s closest rival, the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi. Today, she embraces her choice with notable enthusiasm. “I know many others who voted for Mir-Hossein, but I have yet to meet a single person who regrets that decision. Ahmadinejad has his unbending fans too. But in our clinic I have seen too many patients who admit to having been Ahmadinejad voters first time round and who now can see through his daily lies and feel crushed by the rising prices”
Sahar adds: Moussavi has “stood up against all the pressures in a way we never expected. His close family members were imprisoned, they shot dead his nephew, and yet he goes on with great dignity and wisdom. I could never have dreamed of such a great leader. He is our Mandela”.
From such evidence Moussavi has yet to disappoint his great numbers of supporters. The true winner of the presidential election said on 8 April 2010 that the Islamic Republic was “losing its credibility and legitimacy", and that “we will stand up till our problems are solved". He added that “today we witness that our prisoners have become the people’s heroes” who are proof of [the state’s] ineffectual stand against the people’s movement and their demands”.
In these remarks, Mir-Hossein Moussavi honours Bahareh Hedayat, Ahmad Zeidabadi, and thousands like them. The prisoners are indeed the people’s heroes. Iranians’ long walk to freedom, whether they are inside or outside, continues.
First published in OpenDemocracy.
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