Iran Increases Pressure On Critics Ahead Of June's Presidential Election
By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The arrest of internationally
renowned AIDS specialists, brothers Arash and Kamyar Alaei, in June and the
prison sentences against them for allegedly plotting a U.S.-backed soft
revolution in Iran have generated concern among rights activists and the
country's scientific community.
The Physicians for Human Rights group's Ali Khan and others call
for the Alaeis' release in September
Their lawyer has said that they have been sentenced to six and three years in
prison, respectively. Their family has said they are innocent, and have warned
that they may be under pressure to make false statements.
The two men, who ran HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs in Iran, have
been celebrated internationally for their work.
The Alaeis participated in international AIDS conferences to learn from other
experts and to share their own experiences. Kamyar Alaei was pursuing a
doctorate at the University at Albany's School of Public Health in the U.S.
state of New York.
Their conviction is seen as a fresh example in an increasing state crackdown on
activists in Iran and a warning particularly to those with connections with the
Critics note the timing of the alleged effort, with just six months to go before
Iran's presidential election.
Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS and human rights program at Human Rights
Watch, has said the case is another example of how, "under President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad's administration, Iran's human rights record has reached new lows."
Abdolfatah Soltani a prominent human rights lawyer and cofounder of the Center
of Human Rights Defenders believe the government is trying to create fear in the
society ahead of the June 12 presidential election.
"By using these terms that have no legal basis in Iranian laws" -- Soltani says,
highlighting the "soft revolution" tag that officials have used -- "they are
trying to deceive public opinion so that they have an excuse and justification
for cracking down on civil society."
In recent years, Iranian authorities have charged intellectuals, critics,
students, and rights activists with threatening national security and have
accused them of being used by the United States to instigate a "soft revolution"
In 2007, two prominent Iranian-American academics were jailed in Iran and
accused of being involved in efforts to topple the Iranian establishment. They
denied the charges.
A year earlier, in 2006, a leading Canadian Iranian author and intellectual
spent several months in jail on similar charges.
The prison sentence against the Alaei brothers is for many a reminder of those
Morteza Semyari, a member of Iran's largest pro-reform student group, the Office
To Foster Unity (Daftar Tahkim Vahdat), tells RFE/RL that the crackdown on
activists in Iran is a sign of the establishment's fear of dissent. "The
pressure with the [Alaei brothers], students, women -- and all of it is being
done under the banner of a 'velvet revolution' or 'soft revolution' -- all of
these should awaken civil [society activists] and prevent them from becoming
[passive]," Semyari says. "In fact, with these attitudes the officials are only
showing their weakness in running the state."
Soltani also believes that the current case shows distress among hard-liners.
"[The hard-line faction in the Iranian establishment] is of the view that it has
to sow fear to prevent civil-society institutions from doing their work and to
prevent NGOs, political parties, and human rights defenders from talking to
people freely," he says. "In this way it tries to win the presidential election
and announce [incumbent President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad as the winner."
String Of Problems
The conviction of the Alaei brothers comes amid growing human rights violations
On December 21 the office of Nobel Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi's Center of Human
Rights Defenders was shut down in Tehran. The center issued regular reports
about the violations of human rights in Iran.
A few days later, the moderate daily "Kargozaran" was shut down.
Around the same time, two men were stoned to death in Mashhad.
There has been growing pressure on the Sufi minority, and last week at least six
members of the Gonabadi dervishes were detained in Kish. More arrests were
reported in December.
Baha'is have been also targeted, with five members of the Baha'i faith detained
in Tehran last week. A rights group in Iran also reported that a Baha'i cemetery
was desecrated in Ghaemshahr.
There are reports that parts of southeastern Tehran's Khavaran cemetery, which
contains the graves of hundreds of political prisoners executed in the 1980s,
have been destroyed.
Amnesty International has said that numerous ad hoc grave markings made by the
families of some of those executed were destroyed by bulldozer between January 9
and January 16.
There is also growing pressure on students at Shiraz University, with at least
two of them remaining in jail and over 10 being summoned to the university's
disciplinary committee. The students were detained and summoned after they took
part in events celebrating National Student Day last month. Many of them have
been charged with disseminating anti-state propaganda.
More students have been summoned at other universities in Iran.
The Office to Foster Unity warned on January 20 against the increased pressure
on student activists and accused the Iranian government of seeking to eliminate
all critical activities from the country's universities.
Hadi Ghaemi from the International Human Rights Campaign In Iran believes
Iranian authorities have used the Gaza crisis to increase pressure on those
deemed threatening to the Islamic establishment.
He adds that the crackdown is an affront and an act of defiance by hard-liners
in Iran in the face of the December UN resolution that expressed "deep concern"
about the country's human rights conditions.
"Unfortunately Iran's government, instead of trying to minimize these kind of
condemnations, has given full power to radicals so that they can make more moves
than before," Ghaemi says.
Many observers believe as the June election gets closer, the crackdown on
critics in Iran is likely to intensify.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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