5 Years without You…for Akbar Mohammadi

Posted: July 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

The following was originally published by Iranian.com in 2009. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the passing of Akbar Mohammadi.

by Reza Mohajerinejad
29-Jul-2009

Tomorrow will mark the three year anniversary of the death of my friend and fellow student movement activist, Akbar Mohammadi. He died in Evin Prison.

For several days now I have tried to think about how to write these words. Some pain is just too hard to write, so I will start with facts, and perhaps the words will come. Akbar Mohammadi was part of the July 1999 student movement in Iran. He believed passionately in freedom for the people of Iran. He had a love of country that was remarkable. At the protests our group organized both before and after 18 Tir, Akbar was never far from me, and was outspoken in his passion for the movement. During one of the protests following the dormitory attacks a member of Ansar-e Hesbollah lunged at me with a knife. I was completely blindsided, and it was Akbar who pulled me out of reach and in all likelihood saved my life that day.

When Akbar believed in an idea he followed it to the ends of the earth. During the Iran/Iraq war at the young age of 13 years old Akbar was so disturbed by the Iraqi attacks on our country that he tried to enlist in the army. At that time he was denied entry into the war because of his age, but he persisted until a year or so later, when they finally let him in.Akbar survived the war and went on to be one of our most active members. The simple truth about him is that he wasn’t particularly interested in making strategic decisions. But once a decision was made, he was someone who executed on plans. He was our best foot soldier in the student movement. He was there to implement what we decided, and he was extremely loyal.

Akbar’s strength was what set him apart from most anyone I’ve ever known. He was fiercely strong against the Islamic Republic, and it was that strength that they would ultimately be put to the test in his final days in Evin Prison.

On the day that I was captured after the protests of 18 Tir, Akbar was also arrested at Tehran University. At that time there was a secret jail reserved specifically for political prisoners that we later learned was called Tohid. It was later closed, and became a museum signifying what the Islamic Republic would have people believe was the remnants of the Shah’s rule, however, the regime took it to new heights of cruelty before closing its doors.Tohid prison was the darkest place imaginable. It was the place they took us upon our arrest, and it was where they tried to break us. At times they would bring Akbar in to watch my torture sessions, or those of his brother. They did the same for me during Akbar’s sessions, though I have tried over the years to put these memories away. What I will say is that Akbar could not be broken.

I also saw Akbar when we finally were given a court hearing and they put us in the back seat of a car, blindfolded and lying on our sides, our feet and legs touching. When we both realized we rode together, there was great joy for an instant.

After months of torture in Tohid prison, we got the word that they were moving us to Evin Prison. For us, this was very good news. Akbar and I believed we were going to the same area within the prison, that the hard times were over for both of us, and that we would be sent to the student section of Evin to wait out the remainder of our sentences. We shook hands in the car on the way over, locking our fingers together for a short embrace before we reached our destination. We were happy at that moment, and in his usual way, he reassured me that everything was going to be okay. When we reached Evin Prison, the unexpected happened. The guards separated us. They took Akbar to Section 209 of the prison.

While the extreme torture of Tohid had ended for me, Akbar’s would continue at Evin Prison. Eventually he was moved with the other student prisoners, but the toll his body had taken was simply too high. He suffered more than any of us for his beliefs. Akbar’s legacy in the student movement was that he came to signify torture by the Islamic Republic.

On July 30, 2006, Akbar Mohammadi died in Evin Prison. Subjected to years of torture that went far beyond what I endured, his physical health was already fragile, and after more than a week of a hunger strike, his body gave out. Whether his death was of natural causes as the Islamic Republic would have us think, or whether the torturers themselves stopped his heart from beating, at the end of the day Akbar died at the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran. What there is to say about Akbar is that there has never been a better fighter for any cause. He was strength personified. His courage in the face of such tyranny is beyond what most of us mere mortals can conceive of. By the time he died, his body was no longer that of a thirty-seven year old man. He suffered from a loss of hearing in one of his ears, and he had major kidney problems, and internal bleeding.

Before his last days at Evin Prison he had a couple of years outside of prison walls. He was released because of his physical ailments so he could seek medical attention. During that time a book was published in the U.S. in Akbar’s name. Not long after that the Islamic authorities picked Akbar up and took him back to Evin Prison. I have often wondered why he didn’t leave Iran during one of his temporary visits home. I believe Akbar must have thought he could endure for the movement.

The circumstances of Akbar’s death have always been questionable. He was taken to the infirmary shortly before he died. He was continually beaten, even during the fast he was undertaking to protest his return to prison. It is believed that he was injected with a substance while in the infirmary, and shortly after that he died.

The events that followed were no less heartbreaking than the last several years of Akbar’s life had been. The government wouldn’t allow his family to bury him in Tehran, and neither would they agree to bury him in his home town of Amol in the Mazandaran Province. He was later buried in a small village cemetery in Changemian. His body was badly beaten, and he was almost unrecognizable according to those who witnessed his remains before he was buried.

And so to my friend, Akbar Mohammadi, I say, this year and every year, I will remember how you fought. I will remember your bravery, and just as we promised one another all those years ago, I will continue to fight in your name, and in the names of all those who have suffered at the hands of the oppressors of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I will not give up, just as you never gave up.

18 Tir: The Passing of Another Year

Posted: July 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

 Student of July 1999 - 18 TirIn July of every year I take pause and remember three events with anniversaries in this month.

The first is, of course, Independence Day in the country in which I have lived for more than a decade. As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July every year, I think of a day when Iranians will celebrate the anniversary of the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I imagine our joy at living in our own country without fear that a mere thought could land us in jail, tortured at the hands of government agents who love nothing more than drawing blood from its citizens.

Toward the end of the month, I remember the anniversary of the death of my dear friend and freedom fighter, Akbar Mohammadi. This year marks the fifth anniversary of his murder inside Evin Prison. He was brave to the very end, and every year I miss him more. I miss his courage, his spirit, and his undying loyalty to our student movement.

And last, I remember 18 Tir.

To stand up to a vicious government, one that does not subscribe to the idea of human rights, takes immense courage. What we have seen in the last seven months of protests from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and Syria, shows bravery and determination that is familiar to Persians. We have faced an ugly regime, and though we haven’t yet succeeded in ousting them, we are no less present, when we see other countries use what we have learned, to challenge their own dictatorships.

What I mean by this is that, as we remember the event that happened twelve years ago this week, what we refer to by the Persian calendar as 18 Tir, we remember a moment in time that started cracking the door to freedom open for the very first time. I was there. It happened. The student protests of 1999 started with the closing of a reformist newspaper, grew into more than 50,000 young people coming out into the streets of Tehran, and countless others who protested in cities all over the country. The protests ended with the imprisonment of thousands of those of us who participated. Back then, we were for the first time vocal in our questioning of our government. Before 18 Tir, people in our country wouldn’t dare come out in protest with slogans like “down with the dictator” or “down with Khameini.” We were the first, and the cost was great.

This happened during a Reformist President’s rule. The Reformist students under Khatami called us anarchists. We were not anarchists, but we wanted basic human rights and a government that not only had a constitution that was voted upon but the citizens of Iran, but that was also followed. We wanted democracy. We wanted freedom.

Today, those outside of Iran wait. Two years ago following the elections of 2009 in Iran, we saw the formation of what would be called The Green Movement. It started as another Reformist movement, but escalated over the next few months to represent more than reform. There is little doubt that the movement of 2009 got its start in 1999. Similarly, the movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, to name a few, used the 2009 demonstrations as a model for their own protests. The opposition in Iran in 2009 saw some 4 million people come out in Tehran alone, to protest the regime. They Tweeted, posted on Facebook and You Tube, and got the news out to the world so that their voices were heard. Now, in what is being lauded The Arab Spring, demonstrators demand freedom and the world is watching. I believe Iranians inside the country are watching too, yet there has remained silence from within the opposition movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For all of us outside our country, we scratch our heads, wondering how our Arab neighbors are finding their voice while our opposition hasn’t yet joined in. Mousavi and Karroubi remain under house arrest, yet the streets seem to go on with business as usual. In my mind, there are several reasons that the movement hasn’t rebounded.

First of all, as I have said repeatedly, I believe that we as Iranians need to unify. We are so splintered, from Monarchists to Mujahedin to Leftists, that we sabotage one another with looking more at our differences than the single most unifying concept that we share, which is removing the Islamic regime.

Next, in my opinion, the idea of reform instead of a complete overhaul of the current regime is the most counterproductive concept we could possibly pursue. I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe that reform would be enough, that a democratic Islamic government is possible. In Syria, Asad proposed reform, and the opposition flatly refused. The time for reform in Iran is past.

In 1997 Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in Iran. This was an important win in Iran for many reasons, but mostly because Khatami was proposing a government that was less run by conservative ideology and more open to true democracy. Khatami promised a change from the hardliner conservative approach that has been the order of the day for the Islamic Republic’s government since the 1979 Revolution.

At the end of the day, Khatami didn’t deliver.

The reasons that reform will not work in Iran are many, and the current Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at the top of the list. It is rife with contradictions and inconsistencies. All branches of government ultimately point to the divine power of the Supreme Leader who has god-like jurisdiction over an entire country—and beyond, if you believe the government there.

So we are left to wait. We come out from Los Angeles to London to show our support. There are reformists today who also believe that a secular government is a better choice for our country. When we unite with a singular voice for Iran, we will be unstoppable against the criminals who have been in power for more than 30 years. It isn’t a simple task, and in reality, it is a very complex challenge if we are ever to celebrate our own Independence Day.

AUTHOR
Reza Mohajerinejad is an activist for the student movement in Iran, and was one of the organizers of the Iranian student uprisings in July of 1999 (18 Tir). His book, Live Generation, is about the events of 18 Tir and how the student movement back then was foundational to the current day protests in Iran.

 

Iran Freedom Rally in San Francisco, 20 February 2011 4-6

Posted: February 18, 2011 in Uncategorized
Iran Freedom Rally 20 Feb 2011

Join IAIS, Amnesty International, Norcal4Iran, and Persian Studies of SFSU

Download the Flyer

Please join IAIS, Amnesty International, Norcal4Iran, and Persian Studies of SFSU in the rally in San Francisco, February 20, 2011.

25 Bahman

Posted: February 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

I’d like to personally ask any of you close to the San Francisco Bay Area to come out this evening in support of democracy in Iran. Brings signs and candles if you can. And bring your strong belief in freedom.

Today in Iran there is one death among protesters that has been reported, but as we all know, there are probably more. The movement in Egypt that was cheered on by members of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s leaders, is an example of the hypocrisy that is typical of that government.

When Iran’s own citizens come out in protest, they are sprayed with tear gas, hit with batons, and shot in cold blood.
The chants in the streets of Iran are comparing Khamanei with Mubarak. People there are done with living under a dictatorship. Yet, unlike Egypt, we have a government that thinks nothing of shedding Iranian blood on the streets of our cities.

Please join us as we stand in San Francisco’s Union Square and remember the protesters in Iran. As my brother said earlier today, “It’s raining in the Bay Area today, but being hit with a little water is a small price to pay when our sisters and brothers in Iran are being hit with Batons.”

Peace,
Reza

Alireza, We Hardly Knew You

Posted: January 18, 2011 in Uncategorized
Alireza Pahlavi

Alireza Pahlavi

What is there left to say about Alireza Pahlavi? The pundits have weighed in, and opinions have been flying from Iranian ex-patriots to American journalists and heads of state from all over the world. The sad news that the man who was once the youngest prince of the Pahlavi family, took his own life on January 4, 2011, touched those of us outside of our homeland deeply. We could not help but react with sadness.

Sadness is nothing new to Iranians. When we see our youths being jailed for their beliefs, lawyers being tortured for the clients they accept, and far too many hunger strikes by prisoners who have no other voice outside the walls of places like Evin, Rajai Shahr, and 59 Sepa, how can we not feel sadness?

Then we hear about the Shah’s youngest son’s suicide. To understand the reaction many of us had to Alireza’s death, you need only look as far back as our history over the last century. I am not a monarchist. I am also not religious. I was still a child when the Shah of Iran packed his bags and left, replaced by the Islamic regime that has been in power since the revolution in 1979. Had I been an adult at that time, I believe I would have been in support of opposition to the throne, but only in so much as to support secular democracy in my country.

The Pahlavi family represents a past that is bittersweet at best. For those of us who have spent our lives battling the oppression of the Islamic Republic of Iran the last three decades, a certain nostalgia for the monarchy might be tempting. However, as hard as we might try, we cannot change history.

What is perhaps unique and without a doubt necessary in understanding Iranian people, is that for us, our culture runs deep. Alireza Pahlavi lived the biggest part of his 44 years of adult life outside of Iran, yet what I’ve read about him is that he was deeply rooted in its history and culture and disturbed by its current political climate. This isn’t uncommon for Iranian people. For those of us who left our homeland, our ancient Persian past runs deep, and we tend to live half our consciousness wherever our escape took us, and the other half in Tehran, Mashad, Shiraz, Esfahan, Tabriz, Sanandaj, Zahedan, Rasht, Abadan, or wherever else we may have grown up, in our beloved Iran.

When we think of Alireza Pahlavi, we remember him as the youngest son of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. There are photos all over the Internet of Alireza as a child in Iran, later as an awkward teen in the U.S., and more recently looking, as his American neighbor referred to him in one article I read, “dapper.” What the world really knows about him is very little. We know that he was well-educated. He completed his undergraduate work at Princeton and he went on to Columbia where he studied ancient Iranian studies and earned a Masters degree. At the time he died he was working on his PhD at Harvard. We know that he mourned the suicide of his younger sister, Leila, who took her own live in 2001. We also know that he lived in Boston, that he appeared to be physically fit and from the outside seemed to have every reason to live.

As a people, Iranian ex-patriots don’t necessarily mourn Alireza Pahlavi, the man. How could we? We barely knew him. The closest comparison I can think of would be the way Americans felt when John F. Kennedy, Jr., fell from the skies in a plane crash in 1999. Americans remember the “John John” of 1963, just over three years old, saluting his father’s casket. Yet even this isn’t the right comparison because there was far more to know about John F. Kennedy, Jr., as he grew into manhood, even if it was cut short too soon.

But similarly, maybe we prefer to remember Alireza Pahlavi, the child, standing next to his parents and sisters and brother. How could that boy have come to the end that he did. Was it a sense of helplessness? Did he look at the current situation in Iran, at the executions of political prisoners and the human rights violations that are eating away at the citizens of our country and feel, as many of us do, that he could never do enough? Was he lonely? Did he feel inadequate? Perhaps he succumbed to the enormous pressure of being a Pahlavi. He was born a prince—a fate one might not necessarily choose.

In the end, we’ll never know what prompted Alireza to end his life. For me, I look at how much work there is left for us to do if we are to free our country from the clutches of the Islamic government that abuses its power and rapes and pillages our country. From where I sit, I can only hope to do some good for those still inside the country. That is why I go out in protest. It is why I read news sources about political prisoners in Iran every day. It is why I write. Yet, I can’t help thinking that Alireza might have done something more than all this with his name, his family connection, his history. I wonder if he ever thought of what he might have done. I wonder if he felt his hands were tied. I’m sorry that he didn’t live to tell us.

AUTHOR
Reza Mohajerinejad
is one of the student activists and organizers of the 1999 Student Movement in Iran known as 18 Tir. His book, Live Generation, is available on Amazon.com.

Reza Mohajerinejad Gives Speech on Political Prisoners at Amnesty Int'l

Amnesty International Speech in Novemenber 2011

On November 6, 2010, I was a panelist and gave a speech at Amnesty International’s 2010 Western Regional Conference in San Francisco. I was asked to focus on the plight of the political prisoner, with a special focus on Majid Tavakoli. I was touched to hear so many make mention of Majid even before I began my talk.

Before I begin, I’d like to dedicate this speech to political prisoners all over the world, and I’d like to remember, especially, Majid Tavakoli, one of Amnesty International’s Special Focus Cases, as he sits in an Iranian jail at this moment.

Anyone who has ever lived in a dictatorship knows what happens if you question the leader. If you question the leader of a dictatorship, whether it is by taking some action or simply having a thought that contradicts the leader’s doctrine, and if they capture you, you will face treatment that is unimaginable. If you question the leader of a dictatorship, you will be imprisoned. If you question the leader of a dictatorship, you will become a political prisoner.

As a political prisoner, you will likely face day after day of interrogation and torture. You will spend many hours in solitary confinement—so much so that you will lose all track of time and your mind will begin to play tricks on you. As a political prisoner, you will have whatever rights you believed you had, taken from you. As a political prisoner, you may find your only forms of protest are hunger strikes and whatever word you are able to get outside the prison walls to let the world know you are there. And as a political prisoner, you may spend many years behind prison walls…simply because of your belief.

According to Amnesty International’s 2009 report on the world’s Human Rights, at least 55 countries are holding political prisoners. There are at least 111 countries that practice some form of physical or psychological torture. I was born in one such country, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In 1999 I spent 137 days in Tohid, what was then a secret prison reserved for anyone who was suspected of questioning the Supreme Leader. Tohid was a violent place that practiced the worst kinds of torture. I was one of the organizers to the 1999 student uprisings in response to the attacks on the dorms of Tehran University. Once captured, I became a political prisoner.

Later, when I was released from Evin Prison, I escaped Iran and came to the U.S.

Now, if you will, fast forward 9 years to the Islamic Regime’s presidential elections of 2009.

When a second term was handed over to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, activists came out in numbers never before seen in the last 31 years of theocratic rule in my country. Unlike 1999, this time we saw not just students coming out in protest, but we saw young, old, men, women, laborers, students, bazarris, and business people.

The government’s response has been very harsh. In the weeks following the elections, Islamic Republic of Iran’s prisons were filled with protesters—so much so that government offices and schools became filled with political prisoners as well. Technology allowed protesters to send images and video via cell phones across the Internet. These images came into our homes in the West within hours, sometimes within minutes. We saw students being beaten in the streets, and a young woman named Neda being shot in cold blood as those around her helplessly tried to save her life.

The student movement in Iran has evolved over the past decade. There is a new generation, what I like to refer to as The Live Generation. These are the students who have shown unbelievable bravery. They are the youth of Iran who night after night shouted chants from the rooftops. They sent Tweets, posted video clips, wrote blogs, and posted on Facebook to bring awareness to the world about what was happening to them. Their courage got the attention of the Western media, and for a moment in time in 2009, the world saw a side of Iran they had never quite seen before.

Tavakoli is a student leader in Iran who has become one of Amnesty International’s Special Focus Cases. He is a student of Tehran’s Amirkabir University of Technology, and he is truly one of the voices of the Live Generation of Iran’s student movement. When he was captured last December, after a speech in remembrance of Student Day in Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran attempted to marginalize Majid by posting photos of him in women’s compulsory Islamic dress, or hijab. The government’s attempt at humiliation, however, backfired. Male supporters of Majid all over the world began posting photos of themselves wearing the Islamic scarf in protest to the treatment of Tavakoli by the government of the Islamic regime. This sparked a movement of solidarity with not only Tavakoli, but with the women of Iran—sending a message that, “until Iranian women are free, Iran will not be free.”

Tavakoli is 24 years old, and he is serving an 8 ½ year sentence in Iran as a political prisoner. From Tavakoli’s writing and from his it is obvious that he believes in freedom for Iran, and that he believes in secular democracy.

A few weeks ago I telephoned Majid’s mother to let her know that we would be talking about her son at an Amnesty International conference in San Francisco. I wanted to ask her if there was anything she wanted to let the world know about her son. I wanted to give his mother a voice at this conference. I heard Tavakoli’s mother’s voice tremble when she tried to speak to me about her son, and I cut the call short. While it may have helped her to know that we were supporting Majid from California, I wished I could instead tell her that her son was free.

Majid is only one of many political prisoners in Iran and all over the world. In the Islamic Republic of Iran prisoners like Heshmat Tabarzadi and his attorney Nasrin Satoudeh continue the fight for justice and human rights from behind prison walls. Bahareh Hedayat, another student activist is serving a nine year sentence, and Shiva Nazar Ahari has been sentenced to six years.

Today I ask you to remember these prisoners and many others in Burma, Sri Lanka, China, Tunisia, Thailand, and at least 50 other countries in the world. We can only dream of a day when there will be no need to speak about political prisoners. We can dream of a world where countries don’t imprison based on belief and opposition to a government. Until that day, I ask you to join me in remembering and giving voice to political prisoners all over the world.

Heshmat Tabarzadi

Heshmat Tabarzadi sits in a cell tonight. I imagine the circumstances of the prison in which he sleeps. There is likely a single light bulb above his head that burns 24 hours a day. His days of interrogation are probably sporadic now. They may not occur daily as they would have in the beginning, but it is the not knowing when he may be called in, forced to write page after page of the same answers to the same questions, only to be tortured between sessions, that will hang over him as a bitter, unpredictable possibility. What is worse, I imagine, is that Tabarzadi as a family man, must spend many hours alone, wondering about his wife and children, how they are and when and if he will see their faces again.

This morning I woke to read the news that my friend and fellow activist, Heshmat Tabarzadi, had been sentenced to nine years in prison and 74 lashes by the Revolutionary Court of the Islamic Republic of Iran. On December 17, 2009, Tabarzadi wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, entitled “What I see on the Frontline in Iran…Regime change is now our movement’s rallying cry.” He wrote the article after the Student Day protests of December 7, and it was this article that likely prompted the Islamic Regime to drag him from his home on December 28, his family watching as government agents took him to prison. Not knowing where he had been taken or for what crime he was being charged, the family waited.

The situation is far from decided at this point. His latest attorney, Nasrin Sotoudeh, was arrested last month. Yet jail for Tabarzadi isn’t new. He spent eight years of his life in Evin Prison as a political prisoner—two of which were in solitary confinement.

I have often referred to Tabarzadi as a lion in the way he approaches his belief in freedom. He believes in secular democracy, and he is unapologetic. He stands up for what is right and he is unafraid in his protest. Yet, he is also a human being, with human flesh and blood. He is the father of six children, and I recently learned that he is also a grandfather. He is loved by his wife and children—so much so that they have lived out their lives under constant threat by their government that at any time the head of the family, the lion, could be taken away again to face torture and imprisonment for months or years, and that he may not ever come back home to them. This is the truest sacrifice for a belief.

Tabarzadi and I go back to the years before 18 Tir—the student uprising of 1999 in response to the attacks by the government on Tehran University dormitories–when we were both working on building our student organizations. I remember walking into his office in early 1996, and how we clicked right away. Our friendship was very easy and natural. He comes from a perspective of having great love for his country and his people, and I have always respected his opinion.

I try to call Tabarzadi’s family every few weeks. There is so little that can be done outside of Iran to help his case. However, what I have realized through this last imprisonment, is that very little is known about him in the English-speaking media. In Iran he has a large following. He is known for his work before and after 18 Tir. This morning when I spoke with his son, Hossein, I asked him what we could do, and he said, let people outside of Iran know about my father.

So once again I am left with that feeling I often have when fellow freedom fighters are imprisoned. I’m left wondering if I should be there in prison with my friend. I wonder if the work we do here, outside of Iran, can make a difference. Then I hear the words of my friend, Heshmat Tabarzadi, when he wrote, “If the government continues to opt for violence, there very well may be another revolution in Iran. One side has to step down. And that side is the government—not the people.” These words remind me that it doesn’t matter from which continent we fight, so long as we never step down.

Reza Mohajerinejad is one of the student activists and organizers of the 1999 Student Movement in Iran known as 18 Tir. His book, Live Generation, is available on Amazon.com.