Iranian students cry out for freedom
Activists live in fear of torture and death under the eyes of government spies, says Anuj Chopra
Babak Zamanian, a lanky 23-year-old student of mining engineering, vividly remembers the last time he bellowed slogans denouncing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On a bitterly cold winter's day in December 2006, he led a crowd of students in chanting 'Death to the dictator!' as the Iranian leader delivered a speech at Amirkabir University of Technology, a hotbed of student protest in Tehran.
A few weeks later, Zamanian was blindfolded by authorities and tossed into Section 209, the notorious solitary confinement block in Evin Prison run by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. That began a four-month ordeal of physical and psychological abuse by interrogators determined to have him confess on camera to collaborating with the CIA. When he refused, he says, they tied his hands behind his back and beat him black and blue.
'They harbour a 'teach them a lesson' vindictiveness,' he says. 'They are very, very brutal.'
Zamanian is among thousands of political activists and journalists freed on bail but banned from leaving the country. Yet, he can count himself lucky; a young man and woman were recently reported to have died in custody, though the authorities announced the deaths as suicides.
A visibly nervous Zamanian recounts the litany of abuse and torture at a rendezvous in a downtown Tehran cafe, all the while fearing that he might have been followed.
He lives with the uncertainty of being tossed back into prison at any time. His life is in limbo. He faces a never-ending series of court dates and interrogations.
His phone is tapped, his movements probably watched. During the course of this interview, he removed his mobile phone battery, worried his location might be tracked or conversation overheard by intelligence ministry spies.
In the period since that December 2006 protest, student movements in some Iranian universities have been gathering steam. Last December 7, Students Day in Iran, hundreds of leftist university students marched at campuses carrying portraits of Che Guevara. Smaller groups of Marxist students held similar protests in other cities. Other groups soon joined, including students from Islamic schools.
About 50 students have been arrested since then, according to estimates by defence lawyers. Security officials have labelled them 'rebel students' and family members have been told that their children have 'acted against national security'.
It is not just students. In the past year the authorities have hit out at groups like the labour movement and women's rights organisations, labelling them centres of conspiracy.
The universities themselves have similarly been targeted, with nonconformist lecturers dismissed, student associations closed, publications banned and a range of other actions taken to muzzle dissent.
According to the Office for Fostering Unity, a leading reformist student organisation, 43 student groups critical of the government have been closed down, at least 130 student publications banned and hundreds of students detained since Mr Ahmadinejad came to power.
During this time, they say, about 550 students have been summoned to disciplinary hearings and more than 100 prominent lecturers have been dismissed or forced to retire.
Last year, the minister for intelligence, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, reiterated the official view that Iran's enemies were planning to use the students' and women's movements as the vehicle for a 'soft coup'.
Iranian dissident students and human rights observers expressed shock at the news last month of the death in detention of two young Iranians, Ebrahim Lotfallahi, 27, a prominent student activist from Sanandaj, and Zahra Bani-Ameri, a 27-year-old female physician.
While the authorities are eager to dismiss these deaths as suicides, human rights observers blame the intelligence ministry, which reportedly conducts interrogations of political detainees and is said to use violence to obtain confessions.
'The sudden death in detention of two apparently healthy young people is extremely alarming,' says Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. 'The government only heightens our concern by quickly passing them off as suicides.'
Local student and human rights activists are concerned about the safety of many other young Iranian students in prison, recently arrested for anti-government protests.
A leading dissident, a former professor in the University of Tehran who requested anonymity, actively supports the student movement. Often, at great personal risk, he shelters politically active students on the run from the Basij - the state-sponsored militia - in his Tehran apartment.
He is deeply concerned about one of his students, Saeed Habibi, the former head of a student group called the Union of Islamic Associations. Habibi was arrested two months ago on Students Day and is reported to have attempted suicide in prison. Details about his condition have been sketchy, and the former professor is concerned Habibi might meet the same fate as Lotfallahi and Bani-Ameri. Habibi was arrested with others on students' day last year.
'We're not fighting to make a country where there's freedom of speech,' the ageing professor says, sipping from a cup of green tea in his apartment, 'but, in fact, a country where there's freedom after speech.'
Since 70 per cent of the population is under 32 and society is strongly influenced by the young, he says, muzzling student voices will backfire on the government.
Most of the students are being kept in Evin Prison's notorious Section 209, where detainees are held in solitary confinement. Section 209 is solely controlled by the Intelligence Ministry, and even Evin authorities don't have access to this section. Some others are being detained in tiny lock-ups of the intelligence agency in central Tehran called the Tracking Office.
Clashes between student groups and the authorities came to a head at the beginning of May last year during anti-Ahmedinejad protests. Three fellow students of Zamanian's - Ahmad Ghasaban, Majid Tavakkoli and Ehsan Mansouri - are in prison, accused of writing incendiary articles insulting Islam and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Amirkabir University student publications last year.
'That's absolutely false,' Zamanian says. 'My friends were tortured to make false confessions.'
He's convinced the recent crackdown on students is to muzzle any defiance in the run-up to Friday's presidential election, in which Mr Ahmadinejad is seeking a second term in office.