Posts Tagged ‘18 Tir’

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.

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18 Tir

Posted: July 17, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,
Student Protesters from our 1999 MovementThis time of year, every year, I remember. On the evening of July 8, 1999, I slept in the dormitories of Tehran University when it was attacked. We woke to the sounds of the Basiji as they screamed at us in the name of a god who was merciless. They beat us to a pulp. The sounds of that night have never faded from my memory. Students were battered, their bones literally broken like branches pulled from a tree. There were shots fired and the sound of breaking glass filled the night air. Students screamed in disbelief and horror as their sense of security was forever shaken.

In the days that followed, the youth of Iran did what was at that time, inconceivable. They didn’t back down. They came out in numbers the Islamic Regime would never have believed possible. Back then, questioning the government wasn’t common. But we did question it. We asked why our fellow students were beaten, why Ezzat Ebrahim Nejad was murdered. We asked how a government promising reform could attack its students with so much force. We questioned the Supreme Leader who later wept on the Islamic television station, promising to forgive us if we would only come forward—a promise we were sure would be broken just as surely as our bones had been on 18 Tir.

Our protests evolved from peaceful rallies to an all out fight for our lives. Our group was secular. We wanted a democratic government that separated religion from our government. There were those then, just as there are still some today, who believed that reform would be enough, that a democratic Islamic government was possible. Our group never subscribed to this idea.

Now, eleven years later the fight continues. Many of the names inside Iran have changed, and many remain the same. Student activist Majid Tavakkoli was arrested last December, and sits behind the prison walls of Evin. His young face reminds me of those of us who took to the streets eleven years ago. Majid is in good company as prisons all over the Islamic Republic of Iran are filled with political prisoners who have dared demand basic human rights for our country.

When I left Iran I believed I had a better chance of fighting for democracy from outside the country. I believed that those who were outside, those who loved Iran as I do, would be able to join forces with us and support a movement for peace and secular democracy in Iran. I have had moments when I questioned this move. There are times when I read about friends like Heshmat Tabarzadi and Shiva Nazar Ahari as they endure time within prison walls, and I wish I was there with them.

July 1999 opened the door and was a new voice for freedom and secular democracy in Iran. It was the first time that the children of the Islamic Revolution rose up. Today, when we talk about the Green Movement, the work that students did eleven years ago started a new generation of Iranian citizens. Because of their courage and their sacrifice, the people of Iran have come out to voice their opposition to the Islamic regime. The new generation is alive, and it is not only the youth of Iran but it is from every social class, gender, and age. Today’s opposition to the Islamic Regime is truly the Live Generation.

In the last year I have seen how, when we raise our collective voices against the Islamic regime, both inside and outside of Iran, we make the theocrats who have robbed us of our country for more than 31 years, bristle. They clamp down harder because they can feel our breath on the backs of their necks. They are watching us to see our every move, and they are afraid. To Ali Khamenei I say, we will not back down. The blood that you drew on 18 Tir eleven years ago did not flow in vain. You may continue to beat us, to break our bones and our backs, but you will never break our spirit.

Live Generation, the book I wrote last year about the student movement of 1999 in Iran, is finally out and available for purchase. The book details the events of 18 Tir, and provides historical background about the political landscape of the last 31 years of rule by the current Islamic regime and the student movement dating back to 1953. In writing about that movement, I have described the relation of our student movement to the current day situation in Iran—particularly the response to last year’s fraudulent elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran and how our protests a decade earlier were foundational to the response by protesters in 2009 and 2010.

The following is an excerpt from Live Generation.

I was only a boy in 1979, but the events that occurred during the overthrow of the Shah would shape how I was educated and would change all our lives almost overnight. When you ask those who lived through the Revolution what it was like, they often will tell you that one day the country was under the Shah’s rule, and the next day we lived under Islamic rule. All bets were off and it was a completely new game. I am often asked by people who are not from the Middle East how the Islamic regime could have taken power, and how they have stayed in power.

The answer isn’t a simple one, but one that has many factors involved. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had ruled Iran for twenty-five years following the coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeqh. In 1979, the Shah’s rule was considered a dictatorship. Ayatollah Khomeini had lived in exile for many years, and from Iraq and France he had voiced his extreme defiance against the Shah of Iran.

In those early days he never stated that he was going to turn Iran into an Islamic theocracy. He said he was against dictatorship and imperialism, and was very supportive of the poor in Iran. The other part of the equation was that Khomeini extended a hand of cooperation to other opponents of the Shah. Among them, the communists and other leftist groups, the National Front, and the Mujahadeen all had the common desire to overthrow the monarchy. What they didn’t have was a religious infrastructure to ensure that the changes they wanted for the country would stick. What Khomeini could bank on was the institution of the mosque. Then, just as it is today, every village throughout the country had a local mosque. As the mullahs blessed Khomeini’s campaign throughout the country, this would help later on when the model for a theocracy was presented. Once the Revolution happened, the Islamic clergy fought with the nationalists, the Mujahadeen, and the communists, and later completely turned on them. This is the time when Islamic enthusiasm proved not to be enough to sustain the movement. The ideology alone wasn’t reason enough for people to follow the strict rules set by Khomeini, and the Islamic Republic began its march toward violence as a means to control the masses. Thousands of those believed to be in opposition to the government were imprisoned and killed, and what was left was a theocracy that ruled with an iron fist. In November 1979, with the hostage-taking of fifty-three American diplomats, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, who were at that time new and fairly small in numbers, became visible all over the world. Still, they needed more control of the universities within the country because the secular movement was more powerful and popular among students. The students’ secular movement of that time was also better organized. The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line would become what is now the Daftar-e Takim-e Vahdat and part of the Reformist movement of students who supported former Islamic regime President Mohammad Khatami.

In 1980, Iran began what the Islamic Republic called The Cultural Revolution—a term borrowed from Mao’s People’s Republic of China. As part of this movement, in April of that year the government closed all universities for what would end up being two years. This was an effort to cleanse the institutions of Western ideology and non-Islamic influences, and part of that cleansing included the expulsion of many students and professors who were believed to be leftist or Western-leaning. Students and lecturers who tried to protest the closures faced imprisonment or worse. The fallout of Iran’s Cultural Revolution was that many intellectuals left the country following the closure of the universities. Upon the reopening of the universities, only students who could prove that they had no affiliation with any “un-Islamic” organization were allowed to return to school. The Dafter-e Takim-e Vahdat grew during this time, establishing offices at universities throughout Iran and growing in numbers.

Later, the Basiji also had a presence within universities for the first time. A secular education was all but forgotten, and the universities were taught by members of the regime since they had been purged of any professors who had Western leanings prior to the Revolution. September 1980 marked the beginning of Iran’s war with Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Although the war that lasted eight long years came with heavy casualties for Iran, with some estimates as high as one million Iranian lives, the war secured Ayatollah Khomeini’s position and the new theocracy that he had started. Just as any other country would, when attacked from an outside force, citizens rallied around the ruling government. Those who may not have supported the Islamic Republic prior to the Iran-Iraq War quickly got behind Ayatollah Khomeini after the war began. As the war continued, and as the casualties became higher, Iranians grew weary of the war with Iraq. The promises broken by the Khomeini regime came to light in time, and the youth in particular, who had been impacted by the new government’s rule, started to voice their questions. The exiled Ayatollah who was opposed to dictatorships had come home to create one of the finest.

Farzad Kamangar died today, hanged from a crane with four other political prisoners. I re-read a half dozen times the letter he wrote last month entitled, “Be Strong Comrades.” In that letter he asks, “Is it possible to carry the heavy burden of being a teacher and be responsible for spreading the seeds of knowledge and still be silent? Is it possible to see the lumps in the throats of the students and witness their thin and malnourished faces and keep quiet?”

I woke this morning to the news that five more political prisoners had been hanged by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today, as many of us celebrate Mother’s Day from the safety of our homes in the United States, in Iran five more mothers’ children have been taken by the Islamic Regime.

The political prisoners who died today were tortured for many months during their time in Evin’s Ward 209. They were not part of the protests that followed the presidential elections of 2009. These were Kurdish political prisoners who had been sentenced back in 2008. In one of the articles I read, one of the prisoners, the only woman, Shirin Elmholi, was promised only a week ago that her execution could be avoided if she would agree to go on Islamic television and admit her guilt. Ms. Elmholi refused. The odds are, they would have killed her anyway—a message from the Islamic Regime in hopes of dissuading those who are planning to come out next month in protest on the anniversary of the fraudulent elections of June 2009.

Having lived through similar treatment behind the walls of prisons in the Islamic Republic of Iran, I know these prisoners suffered greatly for their desire for freedom and equality for our homeland. Almost eleven years ago I lived through daily interrogations at the hands of the monsters who torture prisoners for a living. These beasts find great satisfaction in their jobs. They enjoy finding new ways to make their victims suffer. The physical pain is unimaginable until it becomes your reality. But the psychological torture is at least as damaging—perhaps more so because the physical brutality may have an opportunity to heal, but the mind isn’t quite as forgiving.

Night after night I was told that my execution would take place the next morning. I lived my last night on Earth thirty or forty times back then. I knew I would be hanged, and in the beginning I feared this form of death. Later, as the days went on, the constant beatings and new forms of abuse, I prayed that they would go ahead and end my life. Nothing could be worth living another day at the hands of my torturers.

Today five more political prisoners have died for freedom. They will not be the last to face a similar fate. It is only a matter of time before the next execution—particularly in these next few weeks as we near the first anniversary of the June 12 elections. The Islamic Regime does not want people in Iran to come out again in protest. They do not want those of us outside of Iran to come out in protest and support. They want our silence.

Tonight supporters of the freedom movement in Iran came out into the streets of Berkeley, California for a candlelight vigil. We are weary and tired. We are also angry and heartsick. This, we do for Farzad and Shirin and the thousands of others who have given their lives for freedom for Iran for the last 31 years. We do this in remembrance of the 5 mothers in Iran who lost their children today, and for the future students who will never benefit learning from Farzad Kamangar. We do this because we know the regime in Iran must change.