By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Well-known Iranian human rights activist Kouhyar Goudarzi -- who had been banned from his studies, jailed a number of times, and sentenced to five years in prison -- recently fled Iran.
Goudarzi, a member and former head of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, was honored while behind bars with the National Press Club's 2010 John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award. The award is given each year to individuals who have contributed to the cause of press freedom and open government. Goudarzi was also among those arrested in the aftermath of Iran's 2009 postelection crackdown.
As Goudarzi tells RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari in an exclusive interview from Turkey, all of these pressures contributed to his decision to finally leave his homeland.
RFE/RL: Why did you decide to leave Iran?
Kouhyar Goudarzi: I faced many problems and limitations. I was jailed, my friends and family were pressured because of me, I was banned from studying at Sharif University.
In addition, I had two more reasons why I decided to leave. I needed to be able to work in an academic environment, and it was difficult for me to see that I was caught in the monotony that we are all facing in Iran.
RFE/RL: How did you leave the country?
Goudarzi: I left the country with the help of human smugglers. It took me about eight days to reach Turkey from northwestern Iran. It was a very difficult time.
RFE/RL: To what extent do you think the Iranian government has been successful in its campaign to silence dissenting voices? A number of activists remain in prison, some have been released on high bail, and others such as yourself have been forced to leave the country.
Goudarzi: To some extent, I think that's true. But [the establishment] has not managed to silence all voices because being affected by certain conditions doesn't necessarily mean defeat. In some period of time you might see ups and downs, but what is important is the continuation of a process and that it moves toward improvement.
But one must acknowledge that, for a number of reasons, civil society is in a state of desperation and that the establishment has managed to instill fear and silence dissent through measures it has taken...by inducing into the public consciousness that dissent and civil disobedience have a heavy price.
RFE/RL: You paid a high price for your activities. You were expelled from university, you faced prison and beatings, and as you mentioned earlier your family also faced pressure -- namely your mother, who was sent to prison for several months.
Goudarzi: Yes, my mother was arrested last year to increase pressure on me. Also because [the authorities] wanted to increase the price of informing [the public ] about the plight of political prisoners.
When I was in prison previously, my mother gave many interviews about the conditions I faced and my hunger strike. She had, in a way, become a model for the families of other political prisoners on how to inform others about their [loved ones] and not allow their rights to be violated.
My mother was jailed for eight months in Kerman [in southeastern Iran] and before that in the Information Ministry's detention center. A court sentenced her to 23 months in prison for the interviews she gave, which were described as propaganda against the state, and also for insulting Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in her [diary]. They had taken her private [diary], read it, and based on that charged her with insulting the supreme leader.
RFE/RL: Where is your mother now? Is she still in Iran?
Goudarzi: My mother is in Kerman. Her prison sentence was changed to a financial penalty by the appeals court and she was released.
RFE/RL: I'd like to ask you a question about the international sanctions against Iran. You were in Iran until very recently and you experienced the impact of the sanctions and of inflation on daily life. To what extent are people blaming the government for the difficult situation they're facing and to what extent are they blaming the United States and other countries that have imposed crippling sanctions against Iran over its sensitive nuclear work?
Goudarzi: The effects of the sanctions are, indeed, visible in the daily life of Iranians. You see how the quality of life of Iranian families is worsening sharply. Families are forced to give up some of their basic needs to secure some of the other more important needs they have. The conditions are getting worse day by day because of inflation. It's getting increasingly difficult for people to pay for food, housing, transportation, and health services.
I haven't heard people talking about foreign pressure in relation to the current situation. Most people complain about the inability of the government to control prices. Some believe the source of the problem is the nuclear issue. What I find interesting is that with the increase of the economic pressure, people are becoming more focused on finding ways to make a living, instead of becoming more interested and concerned about politics and expressing discontent.
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