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The Death of a photojournalist: A Spark for the Democratic Movement in Iran

By Massoud Behnoud
Translated by Roya Monajem

When in April 1995, Saiid Emami, the deputy of the Ministry of Information of the Islamic Republic sat in the meeting of the executives in Hamedan Province and with an air of pride and vanity described how he had killed Saiidi Sirjani, the dissident writer, in prison, he was so sure of the power of Hashemi Rafsanjani's cabinet in hushing the opposition that he did not really care that his speech had been recorded. In the same meeting he proudly confessed to his close ties with the secret services of the European countries and assured the audience that the opposition outside the country will be killed too. At that time the cause of the death of Saiidi Sirjani was announced as heart attack, the same cause announced for the death of many other political activists and intellectuals killed in prisons, and nobody inside the country could dare to doubt the verity of these announcements. The Islamic Republic did not allow the inspectors of UN and of other organizations to visit Iran and called them US servants and their annual reports received only a few cold lines from the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic.

Four months after Saiid Emami's speech, the Ministry of Information moved to enact the plot of murdering 21 Iranian intellectual writers who intended to travel to Armenia. This plot only failed because the tire of the bus got stuck to a large rock! I was in that bus and we all were taken to a prison in Aastaara - a border city in the north of Iran- where one of the deputies of Saiid Emami threatened us that if any news of this story got around, they would do to us what they did to Saiidi Sirjani.

However, two years later, Hashemi Rafsanjani was replaced by President Khatami who had joined the election with the intention of carrying out the process of democratization and had managed to defeat his conservative rival overwhelmingly. It was after this election that Saiid Emami, who led a network that had mutilated the corpse of four dissidents and intellectuals, was arrested. The Ministry of Information issued an announcement confessing the participation of its employees in the above murders, and soon it was announced that Saiid Emami had committed suicide in jail by taking some poisonous hair removing substance.

It is now over six years that Mr. Khatami has been seating in the seat of Presidency. The extremist and traditionalist clergies have done their best to prevent the process of democratization and reformation, though this time outside the framework of the government and the supervision of the laws and through intimidation and kidnapping of the journalists and intellectuals; and as the juridical power is in the hand of the leader of the Islamic Republic, they freely set up a network and by issuing verdicts continue to arrest, imprison and torture the dissidents in order to force them to confess to their alleged sins; a procedure similar to that carried out by Stalin's courts.

The most recent attempt of these extremist groups is the story of the death of Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian photojournalist now a citizen of Canada who was arrested on Friday, May 22nd while taking photographs of the students' protests, and three days later while there was little sign of life in her, she was taken to the Sepah Pasdaran's (Revolution Army) Hospital. Then, as usual an announcement was broadcast proclaiming the cause of the death of this 52 years old lady as cerebral infarction. This time, however, the public opinion and the speeches of the reformist MPs in the Parliament forced Mohammad Khatami to appoint a group to investigate the case further, an attempt similar to what he had done in relation to the chain murders of the autumn 1998 that led to Saiid Emami's suicide.

On July 20th the four members of the investigation group revealed that Zahra Kazemi had died due to the head injury inflected on her in prison. With this report the finger of accusation pointed to the group that were expelled from the Ministry of Information by the Reformists six years ago and who subsequently organized themselves around the juridical power and by arresting the journalists and political activists and by the means of persecution and torture they have been forcing them to make the alleged confessions such as spying for the west and committing of certain immoral and illegal acts. All this is being done in the hope of restraining the reformist and democratic movement as much as possible in these last years of Mr. Khatami's Presidency.

The death of Zahra Kazemi in the prison that the outside world knows nothing about has given the reformists the new means of getting help from the world's public opinion to force the clergy to realize that they can no longer continue their rule by means of the establishment of secret intimidating organizations and exertion of violence intended to prevent the dissemination of the news, and that they have no other choice than to surrender to the rules of democracy. At the same time, the above incidence once more reveals the tragedy of the vocation of news dissemination under the despotic regimes and has revived the pain and suffering that the Iranian intellectuals and journalist have endured in the past quarter of the century.

The extremist security group that the public opinion considers responsible for the death of Zahra Kazemi has been very active in the past three years in controlling the press and in the suppression of the students' unrests since their recent protests. The known figure of this group is Saiid Mortazavi who is among the extremist revolutionary youth working as the judge of the press court and now as the chief prosecutor of the city of Tehran. But Saiid Mortazavi can not boast publicly as Saiid Emami did about his killings inside the prison. The presence of the reformists in the government and the cabinet and the open atmosphere of the circulation of news are making the air increasingly difficult for these extremist illegal groups.

The attempt to control the press and the internet sites inside the country and the weblogs that Iranian youth have created for the purpose of the dissemination of the news are among the activities that are now within the range of the responsibilities of the juridical power, while at the same time the police forces are actively confiscating the satellite dishes that make it possible for the people to watch TV programs broadcast by the exiled Iranian opposition in America. Such a breath-taking struggle to prevent the free circulation of information has escalated to the point that the extremist groups have been doing their best to prevent the broadcast of the above satellite programs by spending lots of efforts and money to produce interfering waves on these channels despite the announcement made by the medical doctors that these waves can be really dangerous and capable of threatening the general health of the people and can be carcinogenic.

Actually, I was one of the journalists who escaped twice the conspiracy plots of the extremist groups and spent six months in jail until finally I was forced to escape abroad. Two days before the death of Zahra Kazemi, in a letter to President Khatami, I wrote that I am ready to act as a witness in a just court to explain what this group did to me and other intellectuals of our country. A letter that was published in the press media and news sites, but could not be published in any way inside the country. However, about the same time Mohammad Reza Khatami, the leader of the reformist front, in a letter to his brother, President Khatami, revealed that the old colleagues of Saiid Emami have organized themselves once again and are planning new violent plots and the proof of it arrived through the tragic death of Zahra Kazemi.

During the recent years that the public protests against suppression and limitations imposed on the students have escalated, referring to the Persian satellite programs, the government keeps suggesting that these protests are mainly the result of the attempts made by US to overthrow the Islamic Republic. They use every opportunity to prove this view.

The pressure that led to the death of Zahra Kazemi was the result of the persecutors who wanted her to confess that she was a spy working for the western secret services - US in particular - and her main intention had been to encourage the students to protest in the streets. The same old plot that Zahra Kazemi refused to yield to and evaded answering the misleading questions of her persecutors. They wanted to broadcast her confessions from the national TV, before July 9th when there was going to be a country-wide students' protest.

Since two months ago when the pressure on the dissident youth and students started to intensify, a group of the reformists, dissatisfied with the slow movement of the country toward democracy, wrote a letter to the President in which they asked Mr. Khatami and the reformist members of his cabinet as well as the reformist MPs to resign because it is now obvious that they have failed to carry out their reform plans due to the pressure exerted by the leader of the Islamic Republic and other extremist clergies.

Those who suggest that the President should resign together with his reformist ministers and MPs, believe that these resignations would make the extremist clergy who have hidden their iron fists in the velvet gloves of the reformists to be known to the world and as the result, the pressures for the establishment of democracy in Iran will increase.

The most well-know advocator of Mr. Khatami's resignation is Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian philosopher who was forced to leave Iran and teach in American universities since three years ago. On July 11th, Dr. Soroush who is quite popular among the youth and the urban middle class, wrote a letter to the reformist President in which he said that Iranian people are ready for a collective rebellion and it would be better if he does not endure the conservatives anymore and resigns.

However, not everybody agrees with the resignation of the reformists, including the author who in a letter to Mr. Soroush, asked him about the sort of path he sees before the Iranian people whose primary demand is democracy, and who does he see as the leader of their democratic movement, once the President and other reformists leave the government?

During the US and British invasion of Iraq, many opposition groups outside and inside the country hoped that with the besieging of the Islamic Republic by US forces, their problem in failing to force the ecclesiastic rulers of Iran to accept democracy would be solved by US intervention. This hope, that a considerable portion of the Iranian middle class were holding, is gradually fading. As a result of the events that occurred in Iraq in the past four months and the protest that the European and American people showed against the military attacks upon other countries, this hope is now being replaced by a deep worry that lest the European countries and even America would make a deal with the clerics that would encourage the latter to act even more brutally in their attempts to increase and intensify the pressure on the Iranian freedom seekers due to the influence that Iran has in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The death of Zahra Kazemi, while the extremist groups try to lessen its dimensions and put an end to it as soon as possible without the resignation of the judge Saiid Mortazavi, is the kind of the spark that the reformist and democratic movement always await. For the former spark appeared when Saiid Emami by having the permission of an extremist clergy killed four members of the opposition ferociously and was later forced to commit suicide or as certain people believe was killed by his co-thinkers in order to save their superiors. Can this also be the fate waiting for Saiid Mortazavi who has sat on Saiid Emami's seat?

In any case, whether the conservatives survive the crisis produced as the result of the death of Zahra Kazemi, or Mr. Khatami and other reformist resign, whether in the US military plans Iran would be dealt with after Afghanistan and Iraq, what nearly everybody in Iran is ready to bet now is that soon democracy would knock at the doors of Iranians. This is what we have been seeking since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Since the tragic death of Zahra Kazemi, the photojournalist, that has intensified the cry of the Iranian people for freedom, we are seeing the following sentence in the weblogs and secret announcements of the students increasingly more: "We should bring democracy to our country on our own."

... Payvand News - 8/1/03 ... --

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