Thursday, July 28, 2005

Back to the Jungle

Even a refined newspaper such as London’s Independent is displaying the pictures of four black-haired men, captured on surveillance cameras in the London underground and on the streets. Now the police and the public know who to look for as terrorist culprits out at large who tried to repeat the previous week’s bombings by carrying explosives aboard three trains and a double-decker. Their attempt failed, but unfortunately so did the police’s to catch them. As the Guardian says, these days every person in the underground looks at anybody with dark hair and bears some resemblance to a Pakistani with suspicion. Two groups seem to be happy with this state of affairs: extremist Zionists and Islamic hardliners. Under these circumstances, European governments seem busy to prevent the shifting of power into the hands of extremist right-wing politicians and groups, who advocate expelling the Muslim immigrant populations from the continent. Intellectuals and human rights advocates on the other have been weakened and fear the possible backlashes of the London and Madrid bombings. They do not see much hope in holding a successful anti-war rally. Muslim organizations have risen up and are very active to prevent or control the anti-Muslim sentiments from flowing overboard.

Today while buying my newspaper, I noticed a woman with two kids approach a man, Eastern looking, and then ask him for directions. The man, who I later learned was from Bangladesh, tried to respond to her, but on hearing his accent she began yelling that he did not know, how could he know, or words to that effect. She then rounded her kids and fearfully walked away. A passerby tried to console the man, but the Bangladeshi said that it was not her fault and that it was the general prevailing atmosphere.

He was right. This is the current atmosphere here. The normally cool English have lost their composure and are afraid. The media and even officials are disseminating news that makes remaining cool difficult. It heightens tensions. Even the words of the Prime Minister and the Police chef cannot calm things and remove the obvious concerns. Not even the Muslims who are bought forward before the TV cameras to denounce Muslim extremism make much difference.

Iran’s initial response on some of its websites and some officials to Wednesday’s events was that this was the British police itself. But soon when the details emerged, things changed. Still fear rules these days. One needs to just listen to the news: Plainclothes policemen running after a man reportedly wearing a thick belt with strings hanging from it, who eventually falls down and is then fatally shot five times by the police, only to learn the next day that the young man, even though darker in complexion, was in fact from Brazil. The police apologized to his family.

A man in a line to purchase theater tickets asked an apt question: “Now what?” He seemed to be speaking his mind, as a newspaper boy was displaying his papers for sale, papers that carried headlines of a bomb attack in Egypt that killed 36 and wounded 120 on their covers. The inside stories were not much different: bombings in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Fereydun Moshiri is well known an Iranian poet with green eyes who liked to look at the world in green. He recently passed away, but had aptly once said: “Mankind will again return to find refuge in the jungle.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Knife and its Handle

The committee investigating the rights of citizens recently produced a report that has stirred support and protest both domestically and also internationally. Parts of the report were published by Tehran Province Judiciary Alizadeh and reveal gross violations of citizen’s rights.

  1. Of the many questions that this report and others like it raise this is the most serious one: Who is really barring reforms in Iran when the public, many politicians and even many high office holders demand it?

I personally do not belong to that group which believes that no improvements have been made in the sphere of citizen’s rights. While I am aware that official murders cannot take place as easily as they did a few years ago, I still ask what real difference have these measures made in our lives? I believe perhaps nothing other than simply exposing these crimes, injustices, corruptions etc and isolating those practices can be done. The publication of Zahra Kazemi’s court proceedings – she is the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who was arrested for taking photographs outside Evin prison and then died in that same penitentiary after being subjected to torture – is by itself sufficient to initiate reforms in the sphere of human rights and due process of law. The defense presented by the Ministry of Intelligence agent involved in the case to justify and protect his acts, and the statements of the defense lawyers that expressly name Tehran’s Prosecutor as the accomplice in the death of Zahra Kazemi are all historic events that will be among the highlights of this period of our history. Probably more and new attempts will be made to cover up these criminal activities and violations. But this will only discredit them even more.

In order to prevent the repetition of crimes that have been committed, while exposing those who commit them, we must work remove such institutions from the culture of citizenry altogether. And the only way to do it is to institutionalize freedom of speech. Otherwise, we have had plenty of denouncements, reports and speeches on these topics. In the past historic humanist figures ranging from Cyrus the Great, to the poet Ferdowsi, and more recently prophets and their emissaries, were presented as models in an effort to end such inhuman and criminal activities. But to no avail. Hundreds of investigative groups were formed and presented their findings. Still nothing changed. Only freedom of expression can expose such deeds.

While investigative work is necessary, it is not sufficient. Why do these evil practices continue? One answer is that without them, governments cannot rule. The other is that, as the Persian saying goes, a knife cannot cut its own handle.

I remember when I was in prison with others, a non-political prisoner wrote a letter that was published in the prison newspaper that asked: “Why is it that all the concern and attention is focused on the few political prisoners? Do we not matter?” When we heard the stories of these prisoners, they were so shocking that we would often forget our own miseries. One of us, Emadedin Baghi even formed a group to defend the rights of the families of prisoners (non-political ones) on his release from prison and has provided much service to them. Unless one has been through this, it is not easy to comprehend the pathetic atmosphere of prisoners or the days when they have visitations. The pain and humiliation the families and the prisoners go through just to see their loved ones for a few minutes, is incomprehensible. Meetings that begin with tears and cries, and end with even more forceful ones.

I can never forget the day I was participating in a family visit when the young woman and her child sat with their prisoner. Sometime into the meeting, suddenly he got up, put his hands on the table as if getting ready to make a speech, and then hit his head with full force on the table with a thud that I had never heard before. Blood was all over. The child screamed, the woman pounded herself under her veil. He fell. “Visitation time is over.”

Monday, July 18, 2005

Akbar Ganji in the prison of Iran (Open Democracy)

The jailed Iranian journalist and dissident Akbar Ganji is defying the Tehran regime through hunger striking. Can international pressure save his life? Masoud Behnoud, Ganji’s former prison comrade and fellow journalist, reports.

The Iranian journalist and dissident, Akbar Ganji, is nearing death after thirty-four days of the latest phase of a hunger strike. Photographs taken after thirty days have at last awakened the world's conscience to his plight; today, 18 July, he has been rushed to hospital from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison where he has been incarcerated. Iran’s president (until the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in early August), Mohammad Khatami and the United States President George W Bush have each demanded his freedom. Will it be enough to save him?

Ganji, who was sentenced in January 2001 to ten years imprisonment for his investigative articles and speeches, announced his hunger strike on 20 May with the words: “No one should be imprisoned – not even for a second – for expressing an opinion”. He and other Iranian dissident intellectuals are fighting for free speech against an extreme religious ideology based on violence, dictatorship, fanaticism and terrorism.

The Islamic Republic of Iran held a presidential election in June 2005 whose procedures and results are highly questionable by international democratic standards. Now it is preparing to launch itself into a new era, using oil wealth and empowering a younger generation of their militant followers to perpetuate its authoritarian rule.

But this attempt by the ruling clergy to change the face of the regime faces strong opposition. In the decisive second round of the election, only slightly more than 20% of the Iranian people voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Akbar Ganji is one of the most prominent voices among the reformist groups and individuals who form a significant component of Iranian society. Thousands of intellectuals, university students and political activists have signed open letters and petitions for the release of this human-rights champion and appealed to the international community for solidarity, even at great risk to themselves.

Ganji sent a letter from prison that can be considered his will and testament. In it, he says that if he dies in custody the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei, will be responsible. This is because Khamenei has allowed extremists gradually to take control of the judiciary and the majlis (parliament), and once Ahmadinejad accedes to the presidency they will also have the executive branch in their hands.

This too is one reason why Akbar Ganji’s case inspires hope as well as fear among Iranian activists. So far the Iranian regime has managed to ignore pressure by international human-rights organisations; but if now it can be forced to show weakness in the face of domestic and international pressure, the reformists and human-rights campaigners will be inspired to demand more.

A time of trial

Ganji is in prison alongside students, political dissidents, members of ethnic minorities, journalists and lawyers whose only crime is defending human rights. Many of these detainees suffer unaccountable violence: the case of the Canadian-Iranian journalist, Zahra Kazemi, who was killed in prison in 2003 and whose body the Iranian authorities refused to hand over to her son in Canada, is only one of the most prominent.

Tehran's prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, who is incriminated in Kazemi's murder, is being proposed as the next minister of justice. Mortazavi and like-minded hardliners, with the direct assistance of radical clerics, have now succeeded in promoting their favoured candidate to the presidency. The atmosphere of impunity around this elite is revealed in the fact that one of Ahmadinejad's campaign managers was Saeed Asgar, who shot and gravely wounded the main theorist of the reformist camp, Saeed Hajjarian. Asgar, despite his confession, received a light sentence and was quickly released from jail.

Another companion of Ganji, the prominent Iranian lawyer and author Nasser Zarafshan, has gone on hunger strike after three years in prison. His detention resulted from his willingness to represent the families of four intellectuals murdered in autumn 1998. The same court that condemned Zarafshan convened behind closed doors to punish the murderers, but failed.

Five years ago, I was in Evin prison with Akbar Ganji for five months. We shared our condition with scores of journalists and writers. During this time we were denied all normal facilities available to “ordinary” prisoners (murderers, thieves and drug smugglers). Ganji and Zarafshan announced two months ago that their prison hardships had led them to contract diseases that required hospitalisation. But prison and judiciary officials, all belonging to the regime’s “militant” wing, ignored their pleas and responded that they would happily see the prisoners dead.

During the election campaign, Iranian authorities did allow Ganji a temporary release from prison to seek medical help. The measure, clearly a propaganda tool to seduce people to vote, backfired when Ganji spoke out in several interviews. He told me in a BBC World Service debate that he would go on indefinite hunger strike if returned to prison. A few hours later, prison officers assailed his small house in north Tehran, and seized him.

His voice still rings in my ears:
"I don't want anything but the freedom of Iranian people, even if I have to give my life. The rulers of the Islamic Republic should know that, although (people like) Ganji might be eliminated, the hope for freedom will not die away."

The 2003 Nobel peace prizewinner and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, is defending Akbar Ganji. She said in London on 13 July that all her efforts had been fruitless: Ganji had had no choice but to continue his hunger strike.

There is no doubt that Akbar Ganji is prepared to sacrifice himself. To save his life by pressure on the Tehran regime would be to light a beacon for Iranian democracy and for global human rights. While there is still time, the effort must continue.

Taken from Open Democracy