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.