Tehran: Sympathizers scarce as Human Rights Activists toil dangerously in the dark Print E-mail

Tuesday August 29, 2006


In the Shadow of the Bomb

By Cameron Abadi in Tehran

Human rights activists in Iran face mounting challenges -- and threats -- under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration. But with the focus on the country's nuclear program, persecution of reformists proceeds apace.

Read also: Shirin Ebadi: "I Will Fight as Long as I'm Alive"

The reformist community in Iran was energized. On Sunday evening, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi was scheduled to speak at an anti-discrimination rally in downtown Tehran. Ebadi is renowned for speaking with a willful glare and staccato rhythm that gives her a presence far greater than her petite frame. Days before the event, one activist said he was excitedly looked forward to the moment when Ebadi, soon after taking the stage, would pound the podium with her fist.

But it never happened. Just hours before the scheduled start of the event, the organizers of the rally were denied the necessary permit.

The rejection two days ago was, in some ways, apt. After all, it was not the first time that the young administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had frustrated the plans of the 2003 peace prize winner. It was only just over three weeks ago that Ebadi opened the pages of an Iranian newspaper to find a press release from the Interior Ministry announcing the banning of her Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Tehran. For the past four years, through the Center, Ebadi has offered free legal aid to political prisoners, including journalists, students and dissidents who have criticized the government. Most recently, she was busy with women who claim to have been beaten by police after a June women's rights demonstration. Now, Ebadi herself faces the prospect of arrest every time she goes to work.

Sympathizers are scarce
And for Ebadi and other human rights activists in Iran, things aren't likely to improve any time soon. According to Bill Samii, an Iran specialist with Radio Free Europe, Ahmadinejad has departed radically from the reform agenda initially pursued by his predecessor Mohammad Khatami. Instead, the new, outspoken president has "focused on consolidating the power of hard-liners within the political apparatus. Once he's done that, I suspect we'll see more policies that (the hardliners) find desirable."

Already, even as the world focuses on Iran's controversial uranium enrichment program, much of the president's hard-line domestic agenda is bearing fruit. Since the election of Ahmadinejad last year, people sympathetic to Ebadi's progressive appeals have been scarce in the halls of Iranian government. Other NGOs and human rights organizations have likewise been among the early targets of the conservative turn in Iranian politics. The budget submitted by the Ahmadinejad government to parliament earlier this year showed a dramatic increase in support for religious institutions. In some cases, funding for seminaries and outreach groups doubled, while monetary support for NGOs was discontinued.

In the confines of her small office in the nation's capital earlier in the week, a weary-looking Ebadi defiantly pledged not to give in but acknowledged that, contrary to the belief of some, her having been awarded the Noble Peace Prize does not protect her from persecution. Indeed, since that time, she has been called into court three times. "My only power is my voice and my pen, with which I speak and write," she says. "I will fight as long as I am alive."

But, she knows that she faces an uphill battle. Or worse.

Mass murder, assassinations and political signals
Disturbing for many Iranian reformists was Ahmadinejad's appointment of the notorious hard-liner Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi to the head of the powerful Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the vetting of all political and social groups within Iran. Pour-Mohammadi has been identified as a central figure in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988 in Tehran. As deputy minister of the Ministry of Information in 1998, he oversaw the assassinations of several well known Iranian intellectuals. Despite being deeply implicated in both scandals, though, he has never been charged with any crime.

The nomination of Pour-Mohammadi to the Interior Ministry post, while eventually approved by Iran's parliament, the Majlis, was grounds for concern even among conservative representatives. Imad Afough, a conservative parliamentarian, said: "The interior minister must be open to seeing and listening to others. This gentleman hails from a place where they used to closing their eyes and ears and coercing others to close their eyes and ears."

Samii suggests though that the controversy wasn't lost on Ahmadinejad. "He wanted to send a signal to reformist groups that times had changed," Samii says. Evidence of a shift was not long in coming. The spontaneous banning of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights comes after the death of high profile student leader Akbar Mohammadi in a Tehran prison, and a number of dubious arrests, including that of Abdulfatah Soltani, Ebadi's legal partner and co-founder of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights.

Ebadi, for her part, insists that groups like hers are protected by the Iranian constitution. Referring to Article 26, Ebadi argues that Iranian law "guarantees that social organizations are free to conduct their activities, so long as they don't engage in disorderly conduct, or betray the laws of Islam."

Inherently contradictory
While her tone was defiant, Ebadi's nervous eyes suggested that she didn't gain much solace from her constitutional defense. Samii suggests there is good reason for her concern. "The Iranian constitution is an inherently contradictory document," he says. It leans on abstract concepts and makes mutually exclusive commitments. In practice, enforcement is subject to the interpretations of the Iranian judiciary, which is appointed directly by the Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. Ebadi might argue in court that her center conforms to "the laws of Islam," but the clerical judges presiding over her case might not agree.

Still, Ebadi promises that she will continue to run the center: "That's our responsibility -- because we, unlike the Interior Ministry, we respect the law." It's a strategy that ought to at least buy her some time. Before the Interior Ministry can shut down the office and arrest Ebadi, it is legally required to seek a court order, a process that would give Ebadi a platform to defend her work and publicly pressure the government to back off. In a similar process, Ebadi successfully shamed the government into rescinding a summons it had handed her last year.

Ebadi might not be given that opportunity this time, though. The Iranian government has been known to circumvent its own legal channels in favor of strong-arm tactics and intimidation. One Tehran political activist recounts that in the past, the Iranian government has avoided court proceedings and forcibly shut down NGOs under the pretense of health code violations. And the Iranian government routinely silences people by arresting them on dubious charges.

The 60-year-old activist doesn't think there's much the West can do directly. Indeed, Ebadi insists that hectoring from Western governments only makes reformists like herself subject to accusations of treason. Still, she does "expect people in the West to support freedom-seekers in Iran."

Successfully changed the subject
But the West, for the moment, seems most concerned with Iran's adolescent nuclear program. Reformists in Iran maintain their near-universal solidarity, but the lack of attention and moral support from the international community has left them more vulnerable to harassment from the hard-line government appointed by Ahmadinejad. As Afshin Molavi of the New American Foundation points out, "Iran's hard liners have successfully changed the subject: Few in the West now speak of human rights and democracy. Now, the talk is of centrifuges and Holocaust denial."

Indeed, Ebadi continues her organizing and plans for her own potential imprisonment. Ultimately, though, she and her fellow reformists are toiling in the dark -- and potentially dangerous -- shadow cast by their president's fervent saber-rattling.