Iran: Harsh Crackdown Extends to Leading Opposition Figures

TEHRAN – Eleven days after Iran’s disputed June 12 president election, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears determined to round up key members of the opposition, journalists, and human rights activists who could play a key role in rallying public support for opposition demands.

The streets of the Iranian capital and other provincial cities Monday witnessed more violence, as protesters clashed with government security forces. Tehran’s Haft-e Tir Square was taken over by military and plainclothes security, including Basij militiamen on motorcycles, leading to growing speculation among some analysts that a military coup is taking place inside the country.

As alleged infighting among clerics and leading political factions within Iran’s theocratic government intensifies, there now appears to be an unprecedented campaign underway to suppress opposition voices, through the arrest of leading reformist political figures as well as scores of ordinary people who have participated in the protests.

Severe restrictions on journalists have made it nearly impossible to independently verify incidents of violence and detentions. According to official government sources, 475 people have been arrested so far. The Persian-language Zamaneh Radio, an online media outlet based in the Netherlands, has put that number far higher, at more than 800.

That number, which is based on published reports in the Iranian media, indicates that among those arrested, at least 20 belong to the campaigns of the defeated presidential candidates, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

The arrests have also targeted prominent political associates of former reformist president Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), including his former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtai; Mostafa Tajzadeh, who oversaw elections for the Interior Ministry during Khatami’s tenure; and Saied Hajjarian, a top Khatami adviser. Hajjarian, who was paralyzed as a result of an assassination attempt in 2000, requires continuous medical attention.

Abdolah Ramezanzadeh, the former governor of Iran’s Kurdistan province, has also reportedly been detained.

In an indication of the extent of the crackdown, 18 members of the Participation Front, the leading reformist party, as well as 20 members of the Freedom Movement, a nationalist party, have also reportedly been arrested.

Beyond the capital, as many as 114 political activists in major cities, including Tabriz and Qazvin, have been picked up, as have some 100 student activists, according to reports here.

The list also includes the names of prominent human rights activists, including Alireza Hashemi, head of the country’s Teacher’s Union; Abdul-Fatah Soltani, a human rights lawyer; and Reza Tajik and Keyvan Samimi, both well-known independent journalists.

Soltani, Tajik, and Samimi work with the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which is headed by human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, and serve on the Committee on Arbitrary Detention, established by this human rights NGO, which monitors the arrests and detention of political and social activists.

"Soltani and Tajik have both been very significant voices in the human rights community, and their detention is certainly aimed at preventing their human rights reporting," said Hadi Ghaemi, who works with the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

"Now, with so many people in incommunicado detention, there are serious fears of torture and ill-treatment," he added.

Ebadi and her colleagues had been facing increasing pressure before the elections. Security officials raided and shut down her human rights center in December 2008.

Her group, among others, had been vocal about the need to adopt oversight mechanisms, including active participation by civil society groups, to ensure that the June 12 presidential election was free and fair.

Following the announcement of election results, the center issued a statement calling for a new vote, echoing the demands of the main opposition candidate, Mousavi.

"The government is intent on stopping the free flow of information and news about recent developments," said Reza Moini of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based international organization that monitors press freedom. "This is why they have expelled international journalists and are imprisoning Iranian journalists."

According to Moini, 26 journalists have been arrested since June 13.

In Tehran, those include Mohammad Ghoochani, the editor of the Etemad-e Melli newspaper, as well as independent journalists Ahmad Zeidabadi, Mahsa Amrabadi, Jila Baniyaghboub, and Bahman Ahmadi Amoui.

Etemad is associated with Karroubi and Rajab Ali Mazroui, who heads the country’s Association of Journalists.

The wave of arrests is not limited to the capital. Mojtaba Mohsen Pour has been detained in Rasht, Ruhollah Shahsavar in Mashad, and Mashallah Heydarzadeh and Hamideh Maahozi in Bushehr.

Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist working with Newsweek, who was in the country covering the elections, has also been arrested.

"According to reports, some of these journalists are under severe pressure in prison and their situation is worrisome," said Moini.

"Officials at the judiciary and at Evin prison are not accountable and have not provided families with information on the situation of these individuals. This trend is extremely worrisome," he added.

Many of the arrests have been made by security officials whose connections to Iran’s security agencies remain unclear. In many cases, arrest warrants are not presented. Court and prison officials are slow to provide explanations or even take responsibility for the arrests. Many people have had their homes searched and their personal property, such as computers, seized.

"The fact that there is no judicial process, access to lawyers, and no contacts with families demonstrates that an extra-judicial process is underway that can lead to disastrous human rights violations," said Ghaemi.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former reformist member of the Iranian parliament, who is currently based outside of the country, told IPS that political and human rights activists are being arrested for two main reasons.

"First, they are being arrested because they are viewed as the main organizers of these protests. With their arrests, security officials hope that the protests will die down," said Haghighatjoo.

"The other reason for their arrests is to pressure them into admitting that they have been acting as agents of foreign powers intent on overthrowing the Islamic government," she added.

Indeed, in recent days, some analysts have also speculated that those detained may be coerced into confessing – in front of a camera – that they have acted as foreign agents, working to overthrow the Iranian system.

The accusations of foreign interference were made last week by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his speech at Friday prayers at Tehran University. Similar allegations have been made by Iran’s state-run television and by officials associated with Ahmadinejad’s government.

But opposition activists and some prominent members of the clerical establishment have vehemently denied the claims, calling them an insult to the protesters on the streets.

"How unjust are those who allow their trivial goals to call the miracle of the Islamic Revolution a plot conceived and devised by foreigners and a ‘velvet revolution,’" said Mir Hossein Mousavi, in a recent statement.

Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of one of Iran’s revolutionary political figures, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was also briefly detained and released, along with four other family members.

The elder Rafsanjani, a former president who heads the country’s powerful Assembly of Experts, as well as the Expediency Council, is reportedly in Iran’s religious center, Qom, in an attempt to build support within the body to question Khamenei’s leadership, as well as his biased support for Ahmadinejad.

The 86-member clerical assembly selects Iran’s supreme leader, and in theory, has the power to remove and replace him.

According to Haghighatjoo, the arrest of Rafsanjani’s daughter was different.

"While other arrests are intent on preventing the organization of protests and dissent, this arrest was a warning to Hashemi Rafsanjani," she said.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Sara Farhang

Sara Farhang writes for Inter Press Service.