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Jailed Iranian Journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi Wins World Press Freedom Prize

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI and DAN GEIST

07 Apr 2011 22:30Comments
ZeidabadiTrialFars.jpg[ profile ] The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has announced that Iranian journalist Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, currently serving a six-year prison sentence and banned for life from practicing his profession, is the recipient of the 2011 Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. A jury of 12 media professionals from around the world selected Zeidabadi to receive the award. Created in 1997 to recognize a person or organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the defense and/or promotion of press freedom, especially in the face of danger, the prize is named in honor of assassinated Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano Isaza.

Former editor-in-chief of the daily Azad newspaper, published in 1999-2000, Zeidabadi has also worked as a contributor to the dailies Etela'at and Hamshahri, the weekly Shahrvand-e Emrooz, the monthly Iran-e Farda, and the Persian/English news website Rooz. He is a member of the board of directors of the Society of Iranian Journalists and a former president of the Organization of Iranian University Graduates, which endorsed Mehdi Karroubi in the 2009 presidential elections. A professor of political science, he received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Tehran.

Zeidabadi was arrested in August 2000 and again in March 2001, serving a total of 20 months in prison for such crimes as "disturbing public opinion." In the wake of the disputed 2009 vote, Zeidabadi was arrested again and charged with various anti-state crimes. Among his offenses: attempting to persuade Abdollah Nouri, former interior minister in the Khatami administration, to run for president and criticizing the conservative newspapers that, as he put it, "bow to and praise the power" of the hardliners in the Iranian regime. He was convicted after a show trial and sentence was handed down on November 23, 2009. The vocational ban specifies "lifetime deprivation of any political activity" including "interviews, speech, and analysis of events, whether in written or oral form." The sentence was upheld by an appeals court the following January. In February 2010, Zeidabadi and fellow journalist Massoud Bastani were transferred to Rajaei Shahr Prison in Karaj, 30 miles west of Tehran, a facility that has become widely known for the poor conditions in which prisoners are held. They are among the dozens of journalists currently incarcerated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last year, Zeidabadi was honored by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) with the Golden Pen of Freedom Award, recognizing outstanding action in the cause of press freedom.

Our columnist Muhammad Sahimi wrote extensively about Ahmad Zeidabadi in November 2009. Following is an excerpted, edited version of that piece. -- Dan Geist

***

Ahmad Zeidabadi was born in 1965 in Sirjan in the province of Kerman, in south-central Iran. The title of his University of Tehran doctoral thesis, later published as a book, was Religion and Government in Israel. Through the research he conducted for his thesis, Zeidabadi became an expert on Israel and the Middle East. His views on Israel and its place and role in the region have always stood in sharp contrast to those of Iran's hardliners and the official position of the Islamic Republic.

Zeidabadi's career as a journalist began in 1989 right after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He joined Etela'at (Information), the oldest daily in Iran. Since the 1979 Revolution, it has been led by managing editor Mahmoud Doa'ei, a member of the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics.

After his 1989 appointment as Tehran's mayor, the reformist Gholam Hossein Karbaschi started publishing Hamshahri (Fellow Citizen), the first full-color newspaper in Iran. Zeidabadi left Etela'at to join the new paper, whose daily circulation grew to a half million. He became well-known and respected for his deep, thorough analysis of political issues.

While working with Hamshahri, Zeidabadi also wrote for the monthly Iran-e Farda. Politically, Zeidabadi has always been close to the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (NRC), and it was a natural progression for him to write for Iran-e Farda, published by NRC leader Ezzatollah Sahabi. Zeidabadi was also the editor of the reformist daily Azad (Free), published for several months between 1999 and 2000.

On August 7, 2000, Zeidabadi was arrested by security forces. Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious hardline Tehran prosecutor, said at the time that Zeidabadi was arrested because he had refused to appear in court after being summoned. Just the day before, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ordered the Sixth Majles, dominated by the reformists, to set aside a piece of legislation that would have overturned the draconian press law approved by the conservative Fifth Majles in May 2000.

Zeidabadi was jailed for seven months in Evin Prison, which included two months in solitary confinement; after solitary, he was transferred to the "Quarantine" section of the prison where drug smugglers and thieves are held. These are tactic used by the hardliners to humiliate political prisoners. He was then transferred to the "Amuzeshgah" (reeducation) section of the prison, again to humiliate him. He was also jailed for a while in the notorious "Prison 59," a detention center controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, where detainees are beaten and savagely tortured. Zeidabadi went on a hunger strike for 12 days to protest the conditions of his incarceration. He was finally freed on February 28, 2001.

ZeidabadiSpeaking.jpgOn March 13, 2001, Zeidabadi was arrested again, along with 20 members of the NRC. Ali Mobasheri, head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, said that those who were arrested wanted to "topple the government" -- with their pens, apparently. The arrests took place just as then President Mohammad Khatami was departing for Russia, and the move was widely seen as an effort to embarrass him. After Mehdi Karroubi, then Speaker of the Majles, intervened, Zeidabadi was released on $70,000 bail.

In 2002, Zeidabadi was put on trial, in a proceeding overseen by Mortazavi. He was given a jail sentence of 23 months for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic, disturbing public opinion, and acting against national security." Zeidabadi was also deprived of his "social rights" for five years, a vague term that can be interpreted in many ways. His sentence was reduced to 13 months on appeal, and he was jailed in Evin on April 13, 2003. He served the full term.

According to Masoud Behnoud, a reformist journalist who now lives in London and was in jail at the time, Zeidabadi told his interrogator, "We are in the opposition. The law says that we can criticize [the regime], and perhaps we are willing to insult the Leader [Khamenei] in our criticism [as well] and are prepared to be punished for it."

In June 2003, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was appointed Tehran's mayor by the now hardline-controlled city council. As the new managing editor of Hamshahri, he appointed Mansoor Sheikh Attar, a chemical engineer, who turned it into the mouthpiece of the hardliners around the mayor. Sheikh Attar promptly forced Zeidabadi out of the paper.

In April 2007, Zeidabadi wrote an open letter to Khamenei. He said that he had wanted to write the letter while in jail, but refrained because he did not want it to be misinterpreted. He asked why criticism of the ayatollah's decisions and actions was banned and why the Iranian people were obliged to hold the same views on Iran's nuclear program as the ayatollah. He said that the people were concerned about the issue and its implications for the country's future and that, due to the importance and sensitivity of the issue, people within the political establishment should be allowed to hold different views and express them freely. The letter deeply angered the hardliners.

In 2007-8, Zeidabadi worked with the weekly Shahrvand-e Emrooz (Today's Citizen), which was later banned by the hardliners. He also began writing regularly for the European-based Persian- and English-language website Rooz (Day). Many of his columns were devoted to the Middle East and Israel, his areas of expertise.

He was a member for years of the policy committee of the Organization of Iranian University Graduates (Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, or ATV). The group of former university student activists has been an outspoken critic of the hardliners. Many of its leading members have been repeatedly arrested. In January 2008, Zeidabadi was elected president of the ATV.

In one of his first articles about the June 2009 presidential election, published two months earlier, Zeidabadi wrote, "I believe that the failure of the reformists in recent elections has been due to two factors. One is that every reformist party selects a candidate internally, without consulting other reformist groups, and then asks other groups to support that candidate. The second reason is that the reformists have been unable to convince influential groups [to support their candidates] or even participate in the election."

When it appeared that Khatami might run for the presidency again, Zeidabadi urged him not to. He wrote that Khatami was a cultural figure, not a political one, and that he was unable to lead a complex country like Iran. He said that running for office again might hurt his credibility with the people. In my opinion, Zeidabadi was wrong on the issue; it was Khatami who most terrified the hardliners -- indeed, Khamenei forced him out of the election. But Zeidabadi's honesty in expressing such an unpopular view was truly admirable.

Zeidabadi and the ATV then tried to convince former Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri to run. Nouri, a confidant of Khomeini's, was an outspoken critic of the hardliners and had been jailed for more than three years. Nouri was willing to run, provided that there was a consensus among the reformists in support of his candidacy. But the most important reformist parties -- the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, and Executives of Reconstruction -- were not willing to back him; they were afraid that the Guardian Council, the constitutional body that vets candidates for most elections, would reject his candidacy. The National Trust Party, another reformist group, had already nominated Karroubi as its candidate.

The ATV, led by Zeidabadi, tried to hold discussions with the two leading reformist candidates, Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi. It presented the two with a list of demands, and asked the candidates to address them. Mousavi never responded to the list. After extensive discussions between the ATV and the Karroubi camp, the group formally endorsed his candidacy and was very active in his campaign.

Almost immediately after the rigged election, Zeidabadi was arrested. For 17 days he was held in a cell no larger than 1 by 1.5 meters. He went on a hunger strike for another 18 days in solitary confinement. For 35 days, he was held alone in absolute silence in a completely silent part of Evin Prison, cut off from any communication with the outside world. The absolute silence affected him so much that, according to his wife, Mahdiyeh Mohammadi, he wanted to commit suicide.

ZeidabadiTrail2.jpgIn jail, Zeidabadi was savagely beaten to force an apology out of him to Khamenei for his open letter and for referring to the ayatollah as the "leader," as opposed to the "Supreme Leader." Mohammadi has said that her husband's interrogator told him, "We will crush you here. We will not allow you to leave the prison as a hero." Although bail was set for him, and the prosecutor-general ordered his release on three separate occasions, he remained in prison until his trial.

As the ATV said in 2009, "The unforgivable 'offense' of Zeidabadi is that, although oppressed, he is willing to sacrifice his life for his ideals of freedom and respect for human rights. His 'offense' is that he has called on those centers of power that have most of the power to exhibit a bit of responsibility."

Zeidabadi and his wife have three children, Parham, Parsa, and Pouya. His wife's parents were active against the Shah and imprisoned by his government. As she told Saeed Mortazavi, "I was in jail even when I was a three-month-old baby, when my parents had been imprisoned. You cannot scare us with jail." Many of Zeidabadi's articles can be found here.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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