Fairfax, Virginia -- Abolfazl Jahandar is back to being a student: He's improving his English in the United States. But on a cold December night at a university near Washington, he was telling American students what happened to him when he was a student activist in his native Iran.
"On Monday, August 21st, 2006, I was arrested. I was told that I needed to get in the car to give them some explanations. And of course these explanations lasted two and a half years," he said.
Abolfazl Jahandar, left, and Roya Boroumand told American students how they could help improve the situation of Iranian students who face persecution and imprisonment.
Jahandar spoke at Virginia's George Mason University on December 7, which Iran marks as Students Day - the anniversary of the slaying of three student demonstrators by Iranian police in 1953. Iran in recent years has seen clashes between students and security forces of the Islamic republic. The George Mason event was one of 18 staged around the world in support of Iranian students who have been punished for expressing their views.
Jahandar offered the American students a straightforward account of his activism and punishment, and noted, "I know people who experienced much harsher conditions than I did." He said he was focused on student issues until a deadly 1999 assault by plainclothes militias on university dorms in Tehran; then he focused on broader human rights concerns as well. By the time of his arrest, he was a blogger with ambitions: "I was hoping to train people who were interested in blogging so that we could develop citizen journalism, and that's when I was arrested," he said.
Jahandar said he was blindfolded and put into solitary confinement, then interrogated and told, "If you don't confess yourself, we will force you to confess." When he asked his interrogator about laws that protect the rights of prisoners, he said he was told: "Here, there is no such thing as law. We are the law. We are in charge, and we can issue any sentence we want. The last word is ours."
He had no contact with his parents for weeks; prison officials told them that he was not being held and suggested they check hospitals and the morgue. He was interrogated for a year before trial; he was beaten - a kick in the back injured a vertebra, an injury that still causes him pain - and was refused proper medical care. Like other inmates, he suffered from inadequate food: "One of the good memories for prisoners is the last time they had chicken," he said. And he was tried without having the chance to meet with his lawyer beforehand.
"In my trial, I said that every confession that I have made has been under pressure and torture," he said. "But the judge didn't accept the fact that I was retracting my confessions and issued a sentence" of 33 months and 20 days in prison. Jahandar was released a few months early for treatment of his injured back.
"Today, at least 80 students are in prison, and there are many more political prisoners who are in prison for their views," Jahandar said. "Prisoners bear with all these difficulties with the hope that human rights groups won't forget them. Our support to these prisoners affects the behavior of prison guards, and it does diminish the oppression and torture of prisoners."
The George Mason University event was one in a series for students sponsored by the Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.
"We will keep doing this because, slowly but surely, we will get their attention," said Roya Boroumand, the foundation's executive director. "I think the student movement is the hope for the future, and young people in Iran are 70 percent of the population. We have a stake in them being safe, but American students also have a stake, because these are going to be their interlocutors of tomorrow, and if they perish in prison or demobilize, they will not be effective in their country and they could not help our two countries come together and live peacefully."
The foundation has put together a traveling exhibit about students persecuted in Iran, along with a video, Interrupted Lives. "Wherever we are invited, we will go, as long as we can, so we can give visibility to this important issue - and to get these people out of jail," Boroumand said.
The student-to-student connection is important, she added: "Young people have time, and they empathize. Events like this in Iran are impossible."
After Jahandar's talk, students signed letters of support to imprisoned student activists and sometimes added their own messages, which Boroumand said would be translated into Persian. She said the letters would be sent to prisoners in Iran, with copies to their families, and that the letter-writing campaign can bring the prisoners more respect and better treatment from authorities.
The university's chapter of Amnesty International also sponsored the event. Senior Sarah Faragalla, one of the chapter's leaders, said it was another in a series of efforts to get students mobilized and active. "I think students are particularly interested in anything that concerns students around the world," she said. "I think that people are increasingly relating to other students no matter where they are."
Ali Afshari, another former Iranian student activist and political prisoner now living in Washington, said the Students Day events around the world, coordinated by a network of groups called Students4Iran, focused on issues beyond the imprisonment of student activists. Students4Iran also is highlighting gender, religious and ideological discrimination in the admission of students and in the hiring of professors at Iranian universities, as well as growing attacks on intellectual freedom on campuses. The Iranian government announced in October that it will revamp the teaching of sociology, psychology, economics, law and other social sciences "because the content is not consistent with Islamic values," Afshari said.
He said supporting Iranian students' rights is crucial because students have been at the heart of Iranian reform efforts for more than a century. He called the Students Day events "a relative success" in the early stages of the effort to build worldwide support for Iranian students.
Ultimately, Afshari said, the network should allow student groups around the world to exchange materials and approaches that work in support of efforts in Iran and other countries "that are struggling for democracy, for democratic transition, like North Korea, like Zimbabwe, like Venezuela, like China."
Afshari said he spent three years in prison, including 400 days in solitary confinement. "That encouraged me, because I understand the difficulty and the hard situation of those who are in prison now," he said.
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