By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer, America.gov
Groups created after disputed election will mark anniversary worldwide
Washington - This year, American supporters of democracy in Iran say they will be ready for June 12.
One year after the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election and the violent suppression of protests over the results, about 70 marches and vigils are planned in cities around the world to call for human and civil rights in Iran. Politicians, activists and celebrities will speak; rolling billboards and signs will proclaim the cause; and groups will try to generate attention to the cases of individual prisoners of conscience.
The day means more than a somber anniversary; it also marks a coming of age for the groups that are organizing the events - groups that in many cases did not exist a year ago and that are led by a new generation of activists.
One of them is United4Iran, which is coordinating most of the demonstrations. Firuzeh Mahmoudi of Berkeley, California, had a background in building international coalitions as administrator of a United Nations fund for environmental health. In the wake of the 2009 election, she recognized the need for building a grassroots coalition in support of Iranians' rights, a group that would have nothing to do with Iranians' political, religious and ethnic divisions. She said she "randomly" started calling people who might be able to help and soon was speaking with Hadi Ghaemi, the longtime human rights activist who leads the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. On July 1, 2009, they founded United4Iran with an immediate goal of putting on a Global Day of Action for July 25, 2009. "I was a little nervous that it was going to be a one-hit wonder, but it's kept going," Mahmoudi said of her group, of which she is international coordinator. It also organized concerts for human rights on December 12, 2009.
Mahmoudi said United4Iran has attracted a broad coalition in part by keeping its principles straightforward: It is nonpolitical, it opposes military action or broad sanctions against Iran, and it supports full human rights and civil rights. She said many groups that have other concerns are comfortable joining under the United4Iran banner.
Among them is the Solidarity Committee to Protect the Iranian People's Will, one of the sponsors - along with the group Iranian-American Youth - of an event in Washington on June 12. They will protest outside the office that represents the Iranian government, then march to the United Nations Information Center and to Freedom Plaza for a rally with speakers and music.
Mehdi Amini of the Solidarity Committee said his group has been learning how to organize events in its nearly 12 months of activity. It has secured permits for June 12 from the U.S. National Park Service and the District of Columbia police, which had to make sure that the march route would not conflict with any other event on a busy spring Saturday in the nation's capital. He said speakers will include journalist Roxana Saberi, who was imprisoned in Iran for 14 weeks in 2009, and possibly Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
One challenge will be to draw attention to the situation in Iran, and to draw attendance at the event, a full year after the drama of the June 2009 elections. The group's previous events have attracted as many as 2,000 people, Amini said. "We have to get the word out."
He added that some people who support the goals of the group cannot participate because they are afraid of retaliation from the Iranian government against themselves or family members. "We expect these events to be shown on Voice of America or BBC or other networks in Iran, so we understand that people will be sensitive about that," he said.
Amini said that, like United4Iran, the Solidarity Committee stays away from politics. "People in our group, as far as their political stance, they vary. But we are not a political group per se. ... We decided to just be a reflection of the Iranian people's voice."
An event scheduled for Boston is the work of the Free Iran Coalition, another young group with conspicuously young supporters. Arya Shams, who turns 25 a week before the election anniversary, is one of the organizers and scheduled speakers; he also made the promotional video for the June 12 vigil.
"I do have a personal connection to Iran, but this election brought out the activist in me," Shams said, calling himself just "a big talker" before. He added that the cause has linked many people, including some with no personal ties to Iran. "The Iranian issue is human rights and civil rights, and that resonates with everyone," he said, pointing out that other organizers of the Boston event are from Sri Lanka and Vietnam. "We are a very diverse group of young people who are spearheading this."
Shams said the Free Iran Coalition will be sharing the streets June 12 with the annual celebration for Boston's gay community. "We're hoping to speak to the folks who are running the Gay Pride Parade to have them join us," he said.
"This is obviously about helping Iran, but ultimately, this is more about world recognition of human rights," Shams said.
Mahmoudi of United4Iran said that people outside Iran who hoped for a quick change there last summer have come to understand that the process might take years. She is making plans for her group accordingly. "I think I'm going to spend a lot of the summer doing fundraising," she said. The goal is a large enough budget to support three staff members - one in Europe, herself and another in the United States - and a schedule of one or two global events each year. United4Iran would offer coordination, know-how and materials.
For June 12, for instance, it has worked with Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran as well as student and women's rights activists to identify 50 representative prisoners of conscience in Iran and suggests that each city's event advocate for one prisoner's release. Photos of each prisoner are available for download from United4Iran for protesters to wear as masks, and postcards can be downloaded so supporters can send them on behalf of the prisoner to Iranian diplomats all over the world.
Not every group will participate in every United4Iran activity, Mahmoudi said: "We built a house, and the door is always open. If you have to leave, come back soon." But she said she has been working with all sorts of groups that have been formed in all sorts of places. "There are 200 Bahá'i Iranians in Brazil, and they have a national organization, and they rock," she said.
International pressure will help, Mahmoudi said, in part because it will encourage people in Iran to keep pushing for civil rights despite the risks.
"I'm not putting my life on the line. To be honest, I don't know what I would do, with a 3-year-old, if I were in that position. This is the least we can do to support them," Mahmoudi said. "They're risking their jobs, they're risking their educations, they're risking their lives."
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