Thursday, August 10, 2006

Iran's Regime Attempts to Snuff Out the Stars

Bridget Johnson, World Politics Watch:
When The Economist ran a cover photo of student protester Ahmad Batebi in 1999, holding a friend's bloodied T-shirt over his head in an iconic revolutionary image that was like a Che for the righteous and freedom-loving, a star was unwittingly born.

And so was a political prisoner. After the image ran, Batebi was arrested by humiliated Iranian authorities and was given a death sentence that was then commuted to prison time as a result of international pressure. Having been on furlough for a year, Batebi was rearrested July 29 outside his home. READ MORE

And there's not great cause for optimism.

Ask an Iranian exile why opposition forces haven't been able to topple the mullahs, and you'll get a laundry list of reasons: lack of organization, focus, means. They're not just lacking a figurehead to rally behind, but a power strong enough to replace the mullahs and provide democracy to the country, lead the masses out of tyranny, upstage madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and leave the regime wilting in the dust.

Not that there haven't been strong players in the opposition drama, ones whose sagas unfold most often with scant attention from major media outlets. And it's just these people the Ahmadinejad regime has renewed its focus on eliminating.

Three weeks ago, in his Friday sermon, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati advanced an idea that has since been repeated by heads of the judiciary: that the Iranian regime should promise to execute every political prisoner, whether in jail or on furlough, should the U.N. Security Council vote later this month for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

The regime has already shown that the prisoners are nothing to them but a liability. Another demonstrator arrested in the 1999 student uprising, Akbar Mohammadi, also was sentenced to death, had that sentence commuted to a prison term and was re-arrested June 11, after being released on medical furlough in 2004. He died July 31after years of torture at the hands of Iranian authorities, and Amnesty International reports that Mohammadi was administered a drug for tranquilization shortly before his death. (Some prison sources have said Tehran chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who represented Iran at the new U.N. Human Rights Council, participated in the forceful administration of this mystery drug.) At the time, Mohammadi was also a week into a hunger strike to protest his re-arrest.

And clearly the government fears this champion of democracy being celebrated as a martyr for the opposition cause.

"They didn't allow my parents to bury him, they did it themselves," Mohammadi's sister, Nasrin, told Radio Farda on Aug. 1 from Turkey. "Even now the Intelligence Ministry and security forces are watching his grave so that people cannot go there. They dug his grave in one of the villages around [his hometown of] Amol [in northern Iran], which they had chosen, [and] they buried him there. Only after that could my parents visit his grave; before that my family had been able to see him only at the mortuary. The regime had conducted an autopsy on him. His hands, legs, and his body were bruised; there were the markings of chains on his hands and feet."

Amnesty International said they have serious concern for the safety of Batebi and other imprisoned student demonstrators after Mohammadi's death.

"Those people are living symbols and reminders of what can happen if people really put their minds to it -- and are heroes," said New York-based Iranian activist Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi.

Batebi, snatched by authorities without word of his whereabouts given to his family, has since been seen in the notorious Evin prison's Ward 209 -- a dank, dark, filthy, dungeon-like realm where prisoners deemed the worst of the worst are thrown. Having vowed to go on a hunger strike if ever he was re-arrested, sources within the jail have reported seeing Batebi in the infirmary a couple of times already. The physician who saw Batebi while he was on furlough says the number of beatings suffered by the activist in his first five years of prison left him with health issues that make this latest incarceration particularly life-threatening, including a high risk of internal bleeding and heart failure.

The Ahmadinejad regime surely feels it is particularly key to silence dissidents at this sensitive juncture: namely, at a time when the regime is trying to convert nonbelievers into supporting their right to nukes, and when they're winning fans among the far left and Muslim world for stepped-up verbal aggression toward Israel.

Continuing the crackdown trend, it was reported over the weekend that the human rights group of Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has been declared "illegal" by the Iranian government because it did not have proper permitting from the interior ministry. Ebadi said her Defenders of Human Rights Center did not need a permit under the constitution, but had nevertheless applied for one when prodded and been turned down without comment.

Ebadi represented Akbar Ganji, the last great human-rights embarrassment for the Islamic Republic, a journalist who gained international attention for undertaking hunger strikes while imprisoned for "collecting confidential information harmful to national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic system." That's mullah code for a writer's exposing the crimes and repression of their regime.

While Iranians may lack many elements needed for a successful revolution, they don't lack popular will. And that desire for democracy becomes more crucial with every passing day, as Ahmadinejad presses forward unabated on his anti-Zionist, anti-Western, pro-nuclear power quest. If the ruthless president and mad mullahs go much further, there may not be much of a homeland for Iranian exiles to return to.

Pictures of Mohammadi's memorial service show his brother Manouchehr, who was also thrown in Tehran's Evin prison after the 1999 student demonstrations, holding up a sign that says "Stars will never be turned off." Out on furlough, Manouchehr was re-arrested by Iranian authorities right after his brother's funeral.

The Mohammadi brothers, Batebi and others from the student demonstrations were stars of the youthful internal opposition, fervent believers in a secular and democratic future for the country. The Islamic Republic is determined to snuff their voices out, and quash any group offering a beacon of hope for establishing a democratic government that is focused on its people rather than hellbent on self-destruction.

Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at GOP Vixen.