Friday, February 25, 2005

Dissident Watch: Ahmad Batebi

Suzanne Gershowitz, Middle East Quarterly:
On July 7, 1999, the Iranian government banned the popular reformist daily Salam. The next evening, students at Tehran University staged a peaceful demonstration against regime censorship. In the early morning hours of July 9, hard-line vigilantes, backed by Iranian police, attacked the students’ dormitory, beating many and killing at least one. In the days that followed, students across the country poured into the streets, demonstrating for freedom and rule-of-law.

The international press descended on Tehran. “Student Protests Shake Iran’s Government,” the New York Times headlined.[1] “Iranians Oppose Hard-Liners; Thousands of Students Demand Resignation of Ayatollah,” the Washington Post declared.[2] The most famous image of the protests came from the Economist.[3] Its cover featured a photo of 21-year-old Ahmad Batebi, waving the bloody shirt of a brutalized peer.

In the ensuing crackdown, Iranian authorities targeted Batebi, whom The Economist had transformed into a potent symbol of the Iranian freedom movement. Thrown in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, Batebi was condemned to death for soiling the Islamic Republic’s image.[4] His sentence was later reduced to fifteen years in prison.

Batebi is an unlikely hero, thrust into the spotlight by chance rather than design. “Whether I want it or not, I am in prison as a representative of the student movement, and I will have to carry this burden as honorably as I can,” he told a reporter during a brief furlough. “There is not a second that I don’t wish I was a free man.”[5] Batebi’s furlough did not last long. Iranian security returned him to prison after he spoke with a United Nations human rights envoy.[6]

Batebi has suffered in prison. His lungs have deteriorated, and he has lost some eyesight and hearing as a result of prison beatings. In an open 1999 letter, he complained that, “They beat my head and abdominal area with soldiers’ shoes … [They] held me under [a drain full of excrement] for so long I was unable to breathe and the excrement was inhaled through my nose and seeped into my mouth.”[7] After suffering abuse and torture at the hands of the Islamic Republic, the once-religious Batebi has begun to question his faith. “I learned that I have to depend on myself and no other power to survive.”[8]

President George W. Bush has given rhetorical support to Iranian reformers. ...

A gap exists between rhetoric and policy, though. Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador who between 1999 and 2004 represented U.S. interests in Tehran, has said he did not meet a single dissident during his tenure. Nor have State Department officials publicly called for Batebi’s release. ...