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A Long March to Human Rights in Iran

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Protesters on Washington streets expect a tough road but aren't discouraged

Negar, an Iranian graduate student who guards her identity to protect her family in Iran, peeks out from behind a protest sign.


Washington - Negar says that when she and her friends poured onto the streets of Tehran in June 2009 to protest the official results of the Iranian presidential election, they were sure that they had altered Iran's future.

"Everything changed in one night. Unbelievable," she said.

Well, not quite everything: Despite the protests, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in office with the support of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. But Negar, who asked that her full name not be used to protect her and her family from retribution by the Iranian government, said she thinks the events of June 2009 have made change a certainty. And so on the anniversary of the election, Negar - now a graduate student in the United States - was on the streets again June 12, this time in Washington with hundreds of Iranian Americans, fellow Iranian students and others demanding human rights in Iran.

This isn't what she and other students expected a year ago, she said.

"We chatted on Facebook, with our professors even. I can remember our professor talked to us and said, 'Be calm, be calm. It's just the beginning of the change.' ... It takes a whole year? We didn't expect it."

Protesters interviewed on the streets of Washington during the anniversary offered different views on how long the campaign for human rights in Iran will take, but none admitted to being discouraged. They did complain a bit about the heat - the day reached a sticky 93 degrees Fahrenheit (34 Celsius) - and about missing World Cup matches on television. They also grew hoarse from chanting, first outside the office that represents Iranian interests in the United States and then through the streets of Washington to Freedom Plaza in the center of the city.

"At this time, we should be at home and watch soccer," said a 54-year-old Iranian American who, like many others, asked that his name not be used to protect relatives in Iran. "You can realize how important this issue is for us, so everybody came out in the hot weather to send a message to all the world: 'Hey, we have a problem. Help us to fix this problem.' And hopefully send a message to our leader [President Obama] to stop this nonsense. Don't make it worse, just stop it right now."

Ken Nooshi had driven more than three hours from Norfolk, Virginia, with his wife, two sons and some friends. Like the others, he wore a mask in the colors of the Iranian flag with "democracy" written above the eyes and "freedom" below them.

"This is the second year that I'm doing this - after this lady was killed," Nooshi said, gesturing to a picture of Neda Salehi Agha Soltan, who was fatally shot during a street protest in Tehran in June 2009. In his many years in the United States before that, Nooshi said, he paid some attention to what was happening in his native Iran, but did nothing.

Marchers stopped near the White House, lifted photos of slain protester Neda Salehi Agha Soltan and chanted, "We are all Neda."

Although a few protesters carried signs with photos of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the opposition candidate who they said would have defeated Ahmadinejad in a fair vote, their calls were for democracy, not Moussavi.

"I'm not here for any political position. I'm just here for basic human rights," said a woman who marched alongside her two young daughters.

The woman said that, as an Iranian Kurd, she has an extra reason for opposing a government that has treated her people harshly. "Every family has lost one or two, or they have been in prison," including herself, she said, jailed for two years for reading forbidden material - at age 14.

Reza Azimi, 23, a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, led the chanting for a while with his booming voice - no need for a megaphone. Afterward, he said this protest movement is different from the ones that came before it. "Thirty years after the revolution, this is the first time that people don't stop. They really don't want to stop," he said. What's more, he added, this movement is subjecting the supreme leader to unprecedented criticism. "This time, everything has changed. People know who is on the top, who is on the top of the dictatorship, and they want him down. ... They're never going to stop."

Azimi said he will keep protesting too. "I know that my parents, my brothers, my sisters and all our families in Iran, they are doing that. They're going on the streets, really not scared of anything. We just have to show them that we are supporting them. We are not in Iran, we cannot fight [with] them directly, but at least we can tell them that spiritually we are supporting them."

Not all the protesters had a family connection to Iran. David and Claire Carr of the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, said they had studied Persian briefly in college and become interested in the culture and politics of Iran. They marched in the heat - their first political protest in the United States, they said - even though she is more than eight months pregnant.

An 18-year-old from another suburb of Washington who asked that his name not be used said he was inspired by the 2009 protests in the streets of Tehran. "I was so excited to see all these Iranian citizens turn out and say 'no' to their government for manipulating election results and in general just misgoverning the people and taking their rights away," he said. "And even though people have less rights than they did a year ago, I think it's very encouraging to see that a lot of people in Iran have shown their opposition to a bad government and that people abroad have shown their opposition to a government that doesn't respect its own people."

Iranian-American Art Light, 31, noted that many in the crowd in Washington, like the protesters in Tehran, are young. "A lot of the youth that are out here, they're not tied to any previous politics," he said. "They weren't part of the revolution; they weren't a part of the shah's regime. So all they want is democracy and freedom, and they want to be able to do the same thing that people do in the U.S.: go to movies, hold their girlfriend's hand, listen to music, go to a concert, be able to go to a university - those are the basic things they want."

Although he called the changes in Iran in the past year "baby steps," he added: "I don't think anybody's going to be discouraged. Suppression and brutal force can only hold a regime in for so long. History has proven that."

An Iranian graduate student who has been in the United States for two years and didn't want his name used called the past year's protests in Iran "just the start."

"Maybe 10 or 20 years" will be needed to change Iran's government, he said, "but I think that we are on the right track."

"No way we will win in the short term," he said. "But maybe our funerals will be free."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

... Payvand News - 06/17/10 ... --

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