Saturday, June 03, 2006

Iran: Authorities Detain Student Activists

Bill Samii, Radio Free Europe:
As unrest among ethnic Azeris in Iran settles down, disturbances involving university students are picking up. In the past week several student leaders have been detained by plainclothes security personnel and are being held at unknown locations. Such incidents follow protests triggered by the Iranian government's increasing interference in campus affairs. There are roughly 2.4 million university students in Iran, and student affairs will therefore have an impact on national politics for some time. READ MORE

Plainclothes And Disappearances

The Iranian government's involvement in university affairs includes dismissing popular professors, appointing unqualified individuals to administrative positions, and manipulating student elections. The most recent incidents involve the detention of student activists by security forces. Much is made of these forces being in plainclothes -- rather than in uniform -- because this makes it difficult to determine the security institution with which they are affiliated. Similarly, the detainees are frequently held incommunicado at unknown locations.

Student activists told Radio Farda that on the morning of May 31 plainclothes security forces detained Abdullah Momeni, spokesman of the majority wing of the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat, DTV). Reza Delbari, another DTV member, told Radio Farda that the security forces have been after the organization's members for some time. The security forces, he continued, see no need to operate within a legal framework because any action on the part of the students prompts a disproportionate reaction.

On the same day, students at the Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran held a lunchtime rally to protest the detention of two classmates, ISNA reported. Yashar Qajar, the head of the Islamic Students Union at Amir Kabir University, and blogger Abed Tavancheh, who wrote about recent campus protests on his weblog, were detained the previous week.

Student Abbas Hakimzadeh told Radio Farda on May 30 that there is no news of Qajar's whereabouts and no one answers calls to his mobile telephone. The authorities told Tavancheh's family that he would be released after answering a few questions, Hakimzadeh said, but that was days ago. Hakimzadeh claims that the University Basij wants to bring the hard-line pressure group Ansar-i Hizbullah onto the campus. Hakimzadeh predicted that the situation will quiet down with the approach of exams and the summer holiday.

A Week Of Unrest

The detentions in Tehran follow violent demonstrations at Tehran University and Amir Kabir University on May 22-23.

Demonstrating students at Tehran University objected to "the prevalence of a police atmosphere at the university," "Mardom Salari" reported on May 23. This has been a concern for some time. Last November there were accusations of universities becoming "garrisons" if the personnel responsible for physical security of the facilities were given more extensive powers that might relate to intelligence-gathering. More recently, students objected to plans to bury veterans of the Iran-Iraq war on campuses.

Tehran police chief Morteza Talai said on May 24 that some 20-30 people were behind the previous night's unrest at Tehran University, and he estimated that some of these people were not students, IRNA reported. Eyewitnesses reported some injuries and damage to parked vehicles, and Talai said 40 police were hurt. Students told Radio Farda that some students are missing and others were injured when police and paramilitaries attacked them.

Tehran police spokesman Mohammad Turang said on May 26 that eight people were arrested for damaging dormitories. Turang referred to "thugs" who make trouble, and added that foreigners are involved: "Investigations show that a current from outside the university was involved in the recent turmoil in the Tehran University dormitory. It seems that these people are related to foreign sources."

Tehran was not the only place where disturbances involving university students occurred during the last week in May. Students at Chamran University in Ahvaz and at Kermanshah University complained of interference in campus elections. The ones in Ahvaz also complained that university authorities would not allow outside speakers who were critical of the government, ISNA reported on May 23. Kermanshah University students also complained that the university authorities refused to permit a seminar at which pro-reform politicians would discuss the economic situation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 23.

In other incidents, students in Kerman reported cases of harassment, students in Zanjan and other places demonstrated over the publication of the "cockroach" cartoon deemed insulting to Azeris, and those in Shiraz reported restrictions on their activities.

The protests continued in the last days of the month. Students at the Iran University of Medical Sciences staged a sit-in on May 29 to protest against the refusal of the chancellor's office to permit elections for the Islamic Students Union. Students Union head Mustafa Vafai said efforts to hold the election began seven months ago. He added that on May 28 the union was advised that it cannot hold elections until its activities conform with "the regulations regarding Islamic organizations." Vafai said the union was told at an earlier meeting that its Student Day rallies, its statements on the 2005 presidential election, and its publications are objectionable.

Anger Over Election Interference

The main concern at Amir Kabir University related to elections in the DTV, which now has two wings -- the more radical majority in the Neshast-i Allameh and the more traditional minority in the Neshast-i Shiraz (on student politics in Iran, see "Youth Movement Has Untapped Potential").

Members of the two DTV wings got in a brawl at Amir Kabir University on May 22, state television reported. The next day, the conservative "Kayhan" newspaper reported that the Allameh wing was trying to hold an illegal election and its members attacked another student group.

The Shiraz wing of the DTV at Amir Kabir University submitted a letter to the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology in which it claimed that the other wing is trying to dominate the student organization, "Kayhan" reported on May 23. It accused the rival group of "denying the Islamic nature of Islamic associations and questioning the principles of the Islamic Revolution and the religion of Islam." It added that the Allameh wing has "been taking positions in conflict with the Iranian nation's national interests and in accordance with the country's foreign enemies at different junctures and during the country's political crises." The letter added, "they invite foreigners to interfere and meddle in Iran's internal affairs."

Two University of Tehran students who were members of the DTV central council explained in a letter to university Chancellor Ayatollah Abbas Ali Amid-Zanjani that because neither wing of the DTV could gain a majority in campus elections in spring 2005, they signed an agreement in which five of the traditionalists and four of the reformers would serve on the student council. Since that time, however, the traditionalists have squeezed out the reformers, "Sharq" reported on May 30.