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.