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Profiles | Journalist & Blogger: Two Who Fight for Iranians' Human Rights

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

13 Jun 2012 23:33Comments

The lives, careers, and prison sentences of Mohammad Seddigh Kaboudvand and Hossein Ronaghi Maleki.

k1.jpg[ comment ] In the struggle for the fundamental rights of the Iranian people and the establishment of a democracy and the rule of law, independent journalists and bloggers, often doubling as human rights advocates, have played a crucial role -- even as Iran has become a veritable hell for members of the press. There are three main reasons that they have filled this role.

First, Iran has had virtually no experience with a traditional free press in the 21st century.

Although a relatively free press was allowed to bloom in the early years of former president Mohammad Khatami's first administration (1997-2001), yielding many shocking revelations about the depth of the corruption, nepotism, and political crimes in the Islamic Republic, the hardliners moved against the press beginning in April 2000. They closed down hundreds of newspapers and magazines, passed a draconian press law in the waning days of the right-wing-controlled Fifth Majles that made both editor and author legally culpable for any article deemed offensive, and imprisoned many journalists.

Second, political parties and groups are not free to explain to the public their positions on the important issues faced by the nation. Once again, although the first Khatami administration created an environment in which many political parties were formed, there was a harsh crackdown on those new parties by the security/intelligence/military forces during his second term. The political environment became even more repressive after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in June 2005. Moreover, the opposition political parties that have managed to survive are no longer allowed to publish their own newspapers. Independent journalists and bloggers thus constitute one of the few sources of information of a political nature outside the regime's control.

Third, the Internet has made it possible for Iranian bloggers to some extent fill the vacuum created by the crackdown on the press and for human rights advocates to set up websites to inform the public about the gross rights violations that are perpetrated on a daily basis in Iran. It is estimated that there are more than 60,000 Iranian bloggers, perhaps as many as 100,000 -- more than in Spain, Germany, Italy, China, or Russia. Over 40 percent of Iran's population regularly accesses the Internet, one of the top rates in the world. In the absence of a free press, the Internet has become a vital tool for Iranian journalists and human rights advocates.

This article represents a continuation of a series that I began in 2009 on the plight of Iranian journalists and human rights advocates. The series began with the profiles of two distinguished journalists, Isa Saharkhiz and Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, and has continued with those of others -- see here, here, here, here, here, and here (see also two related articles on the Chain Murders and the execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in the 1980s). The present article aims to highlight the lives of two other human rights advocates, one a journalist, the other a blogger.

Mohammad Seddigh Kaboudvand

Sedigh-Kaboudvand.jpgKaboudvand is an Iranian Kurd, a journalist and a leading human rights advocate. His friends and family call him Seddigh. He was born on March 22, 1963, in Divandarreh in Kurdistan province. One of six children, his parents were Mohammad Saeed Kaboudvand and Saa'dat Saheb. His father, known as Saeedbeg, belonged to a major Kurdish tribe, and his mother's family was prominent in the town of Bijar. The elder Kaboudvand grew up in Iraqi Kurdistan before he moved to Iran. In 1946, Kurdish groups set up the independent Republic of Mahabad, but it lasted less than a year until it was crushed by the central government in Tehran. The elder Kaboudvand was arrested and sent into internal exile in central Iran. During the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, he was repeatedly jailed for "insulting" him. His political activities, which eventually forced him to leave Iran, also meant the family had to relocate frequently around Kurdistan -- among the places they lived were Bijar; Sanandaj, the provincial capital; Divandarreh; and a village near the Iraqi border.

Kaboudvand attended elementary school in Divandarreh. He went to middle and high schools in Sanandaj, where his family settled when he was 14, after his father passed away. In 1980, the central government launched the so-called Cultural Revolution, whose main goal was to expel from the universities all the seculars, leftists, and anyone else who was opposed to the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The universities were closed for years, gradually reopening beginning in 1983. This delayed Kaboudvand's college studies. He was finally admitted to a university in Tehran in 1985 where he received a B.A. in business and an M.A. in accounting.

Kaboudvand married Parinaz Baghban Hassani in 1983. They have two sons and a daughter. Their son Pejman has been ill and hospitalized for several months.

Political activities

Kaboudvand participated in the anti-Shah demonstrations in the fall of 1978 and supported the 1979 Revolution. He also reportedly took part in the efforts to organize peasants against large land owners in Kurdistan. In April 1979, only two months after the Revolution's victory, there was armed rebellion in Iran's Kurdish areas. The government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan dispatched the Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to crush the rebellion. After the Iran-Iraq War erupted in September 1980, the rebellion ended. During this period, Kaboudvand and his comrades were involved in civic actions that aimed at ending the military confrontation between the Kurds and the central government.

During his years in college, Kaboudvand was active in politics and participated in gatherings that were held in Tehran in support of the Kurdish people's rights. He and his comrades wrote letters to the officials of the United Nations, staged sit-ins in front of the U.N. offices in Tehran, and demanded that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees take action to address the problem of Kurdish refugees.

Together with a group of civic and political activists, Kaboudvand founded Ettehad baraaye Demokrasi (United for Democracy). The group began operating in 1996, though its formation was not officially announced until the following year. It published an internal underground bulletin called Baang-e Azadi (Cry of Freedom). Kaboudvand reported extensively on the plight of Kurdish refugees in Europe, publicizing the names of activists that had been executed by the central government and revealing the locations of their graves.

In addition to his human rights and political activities, Kaboudvand also authored three books, all of which have been barred from publication: Nimeh Digar (The Other Half), about women's rights; Demokrasi dar Barzakh (Democracy in Isthmus); and Jonbesh-e Ejtemaei (Social Movement). A year after Khatami was first elected president, Kaboudvand asked the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for a permit to publish a weekly magazine. The permit was finally awarded in 2002, and Kaboudvand launched Payaam-e Mardom (People's Message) as publisher and editor-in-chief. Published in both Persian and Kurdish, it contained analyses of social, cultural, political, and economic issues. After just 20 issues, the magazine was banned and Kaboudvand was arrested. After he was freed a short time later, he sent a statement to all the Iranian news agencies in which he asked the government to recognize the rights of the Kurdish people.

On April 9, 2005, Kaboudvand and a group of other Kurdish activists founded Saazmaan-e Defaa az Hoghoogh-e Basher-e Kordestan (Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan, or HROK). Serving as the group's secretary-general and spokesman, he delivered more than 250 public speeches on the suffering of the Kurdish people. The HROK in turn created two more organizations: Human Rights Reporters of Kurdistan and Human Rights Watch of Kurdistan, which were very successful in documenting the violations of Kurds' human rights. Kaboudvand posted articles on human rights issues on the website Ensaniat (Humanity) and wrote a letter to then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which was used against him later by the courts (see below).

Arrest and imprisonment

In September 2006, the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit filed a complaint against Kaboudvand for his articles on Ensaniat. Kaboudvad was arrested on July 1, 2007, and has been incarcerated ever since. He was held for 135 days in Evin Prison's Ward 209, which is controlled by the Ministry of Intelligence. Altogether, he spent seven months in solitary confinement. In April 2008 he suffered a minor stroke, and he has reportedly had two heart attacks. During his solitary confinement, he also developed lung, kidney, and skin illnesses. After a year, he was prosecuted in a show trial, charged with founding the HROK, propaganda against the government, and disturbing the public. He was represented by prominent attorneys Shirin Ebadi, Giti Pourfazel, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Nemat Ahmadi, who rejected all the charges. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 years of incarceration, later reduced to 11 years.

Aside from a few short visits to the hospital where his ill son was being treated, Kaboudvand has never been granted a single furlough during the entire time that he has been incarcerated. The hospital visits themselves were granted only after he went on a hunger strike last February, and he was accompanied by a large group of security agents each time he saw his son. He went on another hunger strike in early May, which he stopped after he was promised that his request for a furlough would be seriously considered, but it was not. On May 26, he went on a third hunger strike that appears to be ongoing. His condition has been described as critical. Prison officials have reportedly granted him a medical furlough, but the Guards' intelligence unit opposed it and he has not been allowed to leave the prison. His plight has attracted wide attention, both inside and outside Iran.

In January 2009, Human Rights Watch named Kaboudvand the winner of its Hellman/Hammett grant, given annually to a persecuted writer. The same year, he was the recipient of the International Journalist of the Year Award by the Press Gazette British Press Awards. Amnesty International has designated Kaboudvand a prisoner of conscience.

Hossein Ronaghi Maleki


hossein.jpgSeyyed Hossein Ronaghi Maleki was born on July 5, 1985, in Malekan, a town in East Azerbaijan province known as the "grape angel" for its celebrated grapes. Ronaghi Maleki is a blogger, human rights advocate, and the head of a committee that supporters of the Green Movement formed nearly three years ago to fight Internet censorship. He is also a computer science student at the Arak campus of the Islamic Azad University.

Political activities

Ronaghi Maleki began his public writing career by blogging under the pen name Babak Khorramdin. Khorramdin was a renowned ninth-century Persian freedom fighter from Azerbaijan. Ronaghi Maleki has made it clear that he is an ardent supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, as well as Mehdi Karroubi, the trio who are recognized as the leaders of the Green Movement.

Using his computer expertise, Ronaghi Maleki and his comrades formed a group to make publicly available online proxies that can be used to circumvent the intensive Internet censorship imposed by the security and intelligence forces in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election. The proxies were released under the name of Babak Khorramdin. To pay for them, Ronaghi Maleki worked as a day laborer on building sites to be able to pay for the necessary computer server, which he set up at home. When the Guards and Basij militia cracked down violently on the peaceful protests against the rigged election, they tried to prevent the outside world from learn about their brutality; much of the footage of the demonstrations and the security forces' violence that made it out of Iran would never have come through if not for Ronaghi Maleki's anti-filter proxies. The efforts to disseminate information were the lifeline of the Green Movement before it was harshly suppressed, and Ronaghi Maleki played a leading role in those efforts.

Arrest and imprisonment

Ronaghi Maleki was arrested on December 13, 2009, at his father's home in Malekan. His brother Hassan Ronaghi Maleki was arrested, as well, presumably to exert added pressure on Hossein and force him to "confess" to the bogus charges against him. Reports by human rights sources within Iran indicate that the two brothers were subjected to severe physical and psychological torture. Family members have reported that Hassan Ronaghi Maleki was beaten so severely that he suffered lasting damage to his spine and neck. He was released from jail after a month, on bail of about $80,000. Never charged with any offense, he made a formal complaint regarding his mistreatment in jail, but the judiciary ignored it.

Hossein Ronaghi Maleki was initially held in solitary confinement in Evin's Ward 2A, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards threatened Ronaghi Maleki's family members, warning them to refrain from publicizing the two brothers' situation. His plight became gloomier when on March 15, 2010, the hardline newspaper Kayhan, which has close ties with the security and intelligence forces, published an article that accused him of acting against national security, having links with foreign intelligence agencies, and accepting money from them. After the Kayhan article appeared, Ronaghi Maleki endured even more intimidation and abuse. The security forces continually tried to coerce him to agree to appear in a televised interview and "confess" his "sins." On May 24, 2010, Ronaghi Maleki went on a hunger strike to protest his mistreatment and was subsequently transferred back to solitary confinement. Because the Tehran prosecutor's office refused to allow Ronaghi Maleki's family to see their son, his mother, Zoleikha Mousavi, also went on a hunger strike that she maintained for two weeks, until promises of improved treatment were made to the family.

Ronaghi Maleki's health began deteriorating. Despite repeated warnings about his health problems due to his long detention, solitary confinement, and torture, his case had been sent on June 29, 2009, for further review to Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court, presided over by the notorious Judge Pir Abassi. Both the judge and prison officials denied him access to any medical care outside prison. In July 2010, Ronaghi Maleki was again subjected to tremendous pressure and abuse in order to force him to take part in a televised "confession." He responded by again going on hunger strike again, this time for ten days. The interrogators retaliated by not allowing him to communicate with his family by phone, an elementary right of any imprisoned person. During the entire time, Ronaghi Maleki had been detained "temporarily." On August 29, almost ten months after his arrest, Hossein's "temporary" detention warrant was extended yet again. Despite the fact that Abassi had set a bail of $200,000 for him, the Guards, and in particular their "cyberspace warfare division," prevented his release.

On October 4, 2010, the Revolutionary Court handed Ronaghi Maleki a sentence of 15 years in prison. He was asked by the judge to sign his verdict. When he refused, he was first threatened and then beaten savagely in the court. On October 7, Ronaghi Maleki went on his third hunger strike to protest the brutal assault. On November 20, his case was sent to an appeals court, which upheld the sentence on December 1. The charges of which he had been convicted included "Iran proxy network membership" and "insulting the Supreme Leader and the president." Ronaghi Maleki was then transferred to Evin's Ward 350, which is reserved for political prisoners who are not allowed to communicate with their families by phone. To prevent him from getting any furlough, the court demanded a bail of $1 million, which his family could not post. Three hundred and twenty political prisoners issued a joint statement that praised Ronaghi Maleki for his bravery and steadfastness.

Ronaghi Maleki has been suffering from critical kidney ailments. In July and August of 2011, he wrote two letters to Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, asking for medical furlough. In his second letter, he reminded Dolatabadi that the prosecutor had told him he could not be released because the Guards' intelligence unit is opposed to it. In retaliation, he was beaten badly on August 15 and taken to a hospital, but was returned to prison almost immediately. Altogether, he has been operated on five times; each time, the Guards have returned him to prison almost immediately after the surgery, preventing a proper recovery period. His left kidney failed on October 27, and his right kidney is in bad condition. The doctors have told him and his family that he requires surgery and intensive care in a medical facility outside prison, but the judiciary and prison officials have opposed granting him temporary medical furlough.

Last week, on June 5, Ronaghi Maleki began yet another hunger strike to protest the Guards' intervention in judicial affairs, his own mistreatment, and the fact that he has not been granted a medical furlough. Journalist and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad has offered to donate one of his kidneys to Ronaghi Maleki. Another political prisoner, Kourosh (Mehdi) Koohkan, has also offered a kidney. One hundred and seventeen political prisoners in Ward 350 wrote a letter to the ward's head, warning him about Ronaghi Maleki's deteriorating health. Nine hundred political and social activists issued a joint statement supporting him in his struggle. On Monday, he ended the hunger strike, after he was taken to a hospital and his medical treatment began.

On May 25, Ronaghi Maleki wrote a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reminding him of what Khomeini had said once: "It is [religiously] forbidden if someone knows something [important], understands something [important], but does not talk about it [publicly], regardless of who may or may not be opposed to it." He was saying that talking about what has happened to him and the nation is a religious duty that was taught to him by the Islamic Republic's founder. He reminded Khamenei of the Guards' repeated intervention in the affairs of the judiciary, how they have put human rights and pro-democracy activists under tremendous pressure, and have beaten people -- even to death -- in violation of Islamic teachings. "They injured hundreds; killed dozens of young people; arrested thousands; imposed naked censorship on the press, and using the radio and television presented an untrue image of what had happened" in the aftermath of the 2009 election, Ronaghi Maleki wrote in his letter to Khamenei. "We must admit that the society is on the verge of a huge explosion." He evoked Khomeini's warning that the Revolutionary Guards may act illegally and intervene in affairs where they have no proper business, and that if such things occur, the government must strongly confront them.

Ronaghi Maleki ended his letter to Khamenei by quoting the Prophet Muhammad: "Kings and governments can last in blasphemy, but will not last with injustice." Indeed.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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