Ahead Of Election Anniversary, Iranian Government Tightens Its Grip
By Robert Tait,
Political detainees report being stripped naked
and forced to stand outside in plunging temperatures during the night;
electricity supplies to Kurdish areas are cut to suppress a simmering rebellion
over the execution of prisoners; activists complain of blanket surveillance and
of threatening phone calls from intelligence agents.
The Iranian authorities are intent on stopping the opposition from taking to the
streets as they did for Ashura in December 2009.
Twelve months after an election campaign that
crackled with democratic promise by featuring Western-style campaigning and live
televised debates, Iran is in the grip of a relentless, Kafkaesque drive to
snuff out political dissent altogether.
Human rights campaigners and analysts say the Islamic regime has launched an
intensified crackdown aimed at killing off the opposition Green Movement and
preventing mass protests to mark the anniversary of last June's bitterly
disputed poll, won by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad amid allegations of mass
The reformist opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi -- both
defeated candidates in the election -- have urged their supporters to stage
peaceful demonstrations on the anniversary date.
But those calls may prove impossible to heed in a
climate of repression more pervasive than the brutal yet periodic clampdowns
launched to crush the unrest in the election's immediate aftermath. In the
months after the poll, government opponents were able to register limited
criticism and exploit state-sponsored public events -- such as the anti-Israel
Quds Day gathering in September -- to organize protests.
A supporter waves a portrait of Musavi at a Quds
(Jerusalem) Day rally in Tehran last year.
Now the regime is deploying a wide array of measures calculated to deter further
challenges to its authority and eliminate the scope for the mildest expressions
The authorities are determined to prevent a repeat of the deadly clashes between
protesters and state forces that marred the Shi'ite religious ceremony of Ashura
last December, an event that left at least nine dead and threatened to plunge
the Islamic republic into an existential crisis.
'Enemies Of God'
Revolutionary Guard commanders have warned that even peaceful protest will be
seen as tantamount to waging war against the regime, according to Hadi Ghaemi,
director of the International Committee for Human Rights in Iran.
"It is intensified in the sense that we've had periods during the past 11 months
where there has been some ability for people to express themselves, either in
public or in writing," Ghaemi says, "but right now the message that is being
given is that there is zero tolerance so they are saying peaceful protests are
the same as taking up arms against the state."
In a chilling display of intent, the authorities this month executed five
activists -- four of them Kurds -- in Tehran's Evin prison for alleged
involvement in terrorism, despite vigorous denials by their families and
Those executions have triggered concerns for the fate of other prisoners,
particularly six who were given death sentences after being convicted of "mohareb"
(waging war against God) for allegedly participating in the postelection
Among the condemned is Jafar Kazemi, arrested last September and accused of
acting for the banned Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). Relatives say he was
sentenced to death after refusing, despite being tortured, to sign a false
confession admitting involvement in the Ashura protests, which occurred three
months after his arrest.
Will opposition protesters be the next to be executed?
Ghaemi has warned that there may be
further executions in the run-up to the election anniversary -- with
unforeseeable consequences. "There are dozens of political prisoners,
particularly Kurdish prisoners, who are accused of terrorism charges," he says.
"So if the government goes ahead and carries out more executions in the name of
fighting terrorism, or even worse, if they carry out executions of postelection
people, particularly on those who participated in Ashura, on the one hand they
will hope it will be having a deterrent effect in intimidating the population,"
Ghaemi continues. "But based on the experience of last week's executions, I
think it will only inflame passions."
Intimidation In The Air
However, the regime has also used other less lethal -- if equally menacing --
methods to convey its uncompromising message with intimidating effectiveness.
Activists talk of tension on the streets and an atmosphere of surveillance that
suggests telephone calls, text messages, and e-mails are being monitored. Some
activists have declined to respond to e-mail inquiries from Western journalists.
Others say they have received threatening phone calls by security agents. The
widespread belief that the authorities are intercepting and monitoring
electronic communications is a major obstacle to organizing the peaceful
protests that Musavi and Karrubi have called for.
Security forces were deployed in large numbers for International Labor Day on
May 1 in a move almost certainly prefiguring similar tactics on June 12.
Human rights groups say detainees in Evin prison have complained to relatives of
torture and ill-treatment during interrogations.
The award-winning film director, Jafar Panahi -- who has been held in Evin since
March -- claimed in a letter released through his family that he and other
prisoners had been forced to strip naked and stand outside in a prison courtyard
for an hour-and-a-half in the middle of the night. Panahi also said
interrogators had threatened to arrest his family and incarcerate his daughter
in a detention center for dangerous criminals.
The wife of Mohammad Nourizadeh, a former pro-regime
filmmaker and journalist arrested after bitterly criticizing the postelection
crackdown, says he was severely beaten by five prison guards and has protested
to Tehran's chief prosecutor, Jafar Dolatabadi. Similar treatment is said to
have been meted out to less well-known figures. Detainees speak of lengthy
periods of solitary confinement.
Mohammad Nourizad (left) and Jafar Panahi have complained of abuse in
The crackdown has extended far beyond Tehran and into rural areas. The
authorities acted swiftly to quell widespread anger in Kurdish areas over this
month's executions of activists, says Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior consultant at
the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London.
"That resulted in a major strike that was adhered to in most of the major areas,
the major population areas in the province of Kurdistan and resulted in certain
retaliation on the part of state, from economic retaliation by switching off
people's electricity and that sort of behavior, to outright arrests,
intimidation, torture," Khonsari says.
The ferocity of the crackdown has rekindled speculation that the regime might
finally arrest Musavi and Karrubi. Fears for Musavi's safety have intensified
after Dolatabadi declared that he might be arrested and tried after he publicly
condemned this month's executions. The impression that the screw is being
tightened on the reformists' main talisman was further strengthened last week
when Musavi's website, "Kaleme," announced that his senior bodyguard, Ahmad
Yazdanfar -- who has protected him since he was prime minister in the 1980s --
had been arrested.
However, Khonsari says the regime has so successfully isolated Musavi and
Karrubi through detaining their aides that there is little need to arrest them.
The two have also contributed to their growing impotence, he believes, by
repeatedly professing their loyalty to the Islamic system even though it is
being used to crush their political supporters.
"By essentially taking the ground from underneath the feet of Mr. Musavi and Mr.
Karrubi they are left in limbo, where they are incapable of [inflicting] any
damage," Khonsari says. "And especially since they are very guarded also in what
they say -- as long they keep saying, 'we believe in the Islamic constitution
and we believe that we can just reform the system,' then why should the regime
feel that they need to do anything against them?"
The durability of the regime's success in stifling protest may depend on how far
discontent extends beyond last year's election result. Some Western observers
say Ahmadinejad has created a loyal constituency by improving living conditions
amongst the poor, whose electoral support he has courted.
American journalist Stephen Kinzer
reported being told by several people during a recent visit
to Iran that living standards had improved during Ahmadinejad's tenure, a
development attributed to the president's habit of traveling around the country
commissioning public-works projects.
Musavi (right) and his bodyguard Ahmad Yazdanfar -- no longer protected?
That view contradicts other accounts of widespread grumbling against a backdrop
of persistently high unemployment and raging inflation. It is also contested by
many economists. Jamshid Assadi, an Iranian economist at the ESC Groupe Business
School in Dijon in France, says Ahmadinejad's approach does not signify
long-term success, but has instead created the worst economic situation in the
Islamic republic's 31-year history.
"He has distributed some money towards some people and they are satisfied. But
he has given that money. This is not a dynamic process of economic activity,"
Assadi says. "In other words they don't have a new job but they have a new
revenue and they are satisfied. But because that was because of the oil revenue,
when the oil revenue decreases, they are not going to have that revenue any
For now, the regime's repressive policies appear to be working, but their
Achilles' heel may lie in this economic fragility and the presence of concerns
over issues beyond a bygone election.
"Some people may say that they are succeeding in the sense that you do not see
very visible signs of anger or very noisy protests as you did in the initial
several months," Khonsari says. "But I think that is really a very cosmetic
appearance because you have to bear in mind that public dissatisfaction with the
regime was not confined merely to the fact that were gross irregularities in the
course of the election process."
Copyright (c) 2010 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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