Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Iran Launches a Crackdown On Democracy Activists

Eli lake, The New York Sun:
With the Bush administration demanding 75 million dollars to encourage opposition to Iran's ruling mullahs, the Tehran regime has already started cracking down on democracy activists in the country who have received aid from the West.

On February 13, just two days before Secretary of State Rice formally requested the opposition funds, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security arrested Ali Afsahi, a former film critic and journalist who attended a human rights training seminar in Dubai last April.

The workshop was sponsored by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center at Yale University, which was granted $1 million in 2004 by a smaller American government aid program intended for Iran's opposition inside the country.

Mr. Afsahi also attended a seminar held by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, an organization that receives no funding from any government or corporation but offered a session led by some of the Serb activists who helped organize the downfall of their country's dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, in 2000.

The organizers of last year's sessions said they believed the arrest in Dubai is an effort to poison the well and scare off other dissidents in Iran from participating in international conferences and events. READ MORE

One of the organizers of the nonviolent political training workshop, Ramin Ahmadi, said he fears that the state is trying to extract a confession through torture from Mr. Afsahi to misrepresent the aims of the session in Dubai. The former journalist has already approached a reporter from an American newspaper; an odd coincidence considering that Mr. Afsahi has yet to see either his family or his lawyer.

"Televised confessions of dissidents who have been tortured have lost their credibility. The regime is now trying to plant these confessions in foreign media," Mr. Ahmadi said in an interview.

"Mr. Afsahi has a right to see his family and lawyer, and they have to charge him of crimes before taking him to prison," he said. "But even though he has not seen his lawyer or family he somehow manages to contact a foreign journalist."

The Iranian news Web site Gooya online yesterday published an open letter from Mr. Afsahi's wife saying she only received a phone call from him on Sunday and that on the phone he was crying, but that this was her first interaction with Mr. Afsahi, after he had already approached a journalist. In the letter she said her husband was "uncomfortable" with the Dubai workshop on nonviolent organizing.

Since 2000, Iranian dissidents have run the risk of arrest for attending international forums on human rights, reform, and opposition tactics. Journalist Akbar Ganji was first arrested in 2000 for his participation in a reform conference in Berlin.

State-run newspapers yesterday reported that the Ministry of Justice is not likely to release Mr. Ganji from prison on March 17, when he will have technically served out his current jail sentence for publishing articles and a book blaming senior members of the regime for a string of murders of prominent intellectuals in the 1990s.

But the case of Mr. Afsahi should be even more troubling for American policy-makers and the Iranian opposition. Dubai is emerging as nexus for the West's efforts to aid Iran's opposition. The State Department last pledged to send 10 special diplomats to Dubai to monitor activities of the regime and assist the opposition.

Also, while the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict present their materials to the public and make no effort to hide their funding or agenda, the workshops offered last April in Dubai were not disclosed publicly. Indeed, their organizers did not share the names of the participants, or the dates and addresses of the seminars, in order to protect other attendees at risk in Iran.

"If persons get in trouble for attending a workshop that merely discusses human rights or for carrying out human rights activities or documentation, then this is deeply, deeply regrettable and deplorable," the executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Mora Johnson, said yesterday. She added that the workshop last year focused largely on the aspects of international human rights law and proper techniques for documenting human rights abuses inside the country.

The president of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman, said the regime in Tehran was persecuting a man for receiving readily available information. "We are in the business of exchanging information about the nature of nonviolent conflict," he said. "We give no specific advice on what they should do or plan in their specific conflict, and we provide no resources except educational resources to opposition groups. We facilitate workshops based on requests from people suffering under oppression."

Mr. Ackerman helped produce "Bringing Down a Dictator," a documentary that featured the inside story of the Serb opposition, Otpor, and its strategy for organizing protests against Milosevic's efforts to steal the September 2000 presidential election, which led to his removal from power.

Mr. Ackerman, like Otpor, are adherents of the theory of Gene Sharp, the author of a series of books on nonviolent conflict who is generally credited with being the first person to study rigorously the techniques of mass civil disobedience and place them in the context of traditional military strategy. In 2004, Cuban dissidents were arrested in Havana for possessing video tapes of the documentary.

One of the Otpor trainers at last April's workshop in Dubai, Ivan Marovic, described his work as follows: "The content of the workshop consisted of explaining the principles of mobilizing the population in the situation where fear is high and there are tensions in the society, meaning they are facing a political crisis.

"We discussed how to overcome that crisis without destruction of property and loss of human life. These are nonviolent strategies of civic mobilization. This is a standard workshop based on the examples from Otpor, our fight against Slobodan Milosevic."

Mr. Marovic sees some similarities between the plight of Mr. Asfahi and many of his comrades from the Milosevic era. "This whole thing is nothing new. In Serbia we were accused of being terrorists and mercenaries of the west. This just shows the nervousness of the regime in Iran."
A must read.