In July 2003, Canadian journalist Zara Kazemi was beaten to death in an Iranian prison for attempting to report a story that Iran's hard-line, theocratic government didn't want told.
In this edition of FRONTLINE/World, Canadian journalist Jane Kokan goes undercover in Iran to pick up the trail where Kazemi left off.
"The story I am after is the story Zara Kazemi died trying to tell," Kokan says, "the underground student movement that's taking on the mullahs."
In "Forbidden Iran" --one of three segments in this edition of PBS's international newsmagazine--Kokan risks her own safety to piece together evidence of a government-sponsored reign of terror against students calling for democratic reform. Traveling undercover as an archaeologist interested in ancient Iranian ruins, Kokan escapes the constant surveillance of the Iranian authorities to record exclusive interviews with students and activists who have been victims of the regime's repression.
"Iran is a country violently split in two," Kokan says. "It's a harsh fundamentalist Islamic republic, but it's also a young country: 70 percent of Iranians are under age 30. And they've had enough of the mullahs."
Kokan takes viewers inside Iran, where she secretly makes contact with students opposed to the repressive regime. Dodging the watchful eyes of her Iranian minder--and fearing that her hotel room is bugged--Kokan slips away at night to send coded emails from local Internet cafés.
Kokan's secret planning leads to several meetings with student leaders who share their personal tales of imprisonment and torture at the hands of Iran's government.
"When you are first arrested, you are put in solitary for months, in these solitary cells which are 1 meter by 2 meters," says an Iranian student, who tells Kokan that he has been arrested four times, the first time when he was seventeen. "One is left alone for months, and there they force you to make false confessions."
Another student, identified as "Ismael," also reports being arrested numerous times.
"To tell you the truth, we don't live as such here--we just pretend we live," he says. "Even the ordinary people who are not political and go about their daily business are not really living. Everyone just lives from day to day."
"Forbidden Iran" reveals how the Iranian authorities ruthlessly responded to June 2003 demonstrations by disillusioned students calling for governmental reform. Viewers see photographs taken of a raid on a student dormitory, in which Islamic militants controlled by the mullahs attacked the sleeping students with machetes, butcher knives and chains. The exact death toll is unknown.
Viewers also witness videotaped footage of a July 2003 student demonstration. The footage, shot by the wife of a student protestor before she fled the country, shows police and bearded, black-clad, bicycle-riding Islamic vigilantes known as "basiji" attacking the students.
"The guards were riding on the pavement and beating up people with batons," the woman says. "They were all over the place, so if anything happened they could put the protestors down."
Correspondent Kokan's underground contacts also help her gain access to Amir Fakhravar. Considered to be one of the student movement's key leaders, Fakhravar is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for writing a book that advocated democracy and free speech. He is also credited with smuggling a letter out of his jail cell in which he exhorted Iranians to boycott the nation's March 2003 elections, which he claimed were a sham. Voter turnout in the election plummeted to just 12 percent.
Speaking on a cell phone smuggled into his prison cell, Fakhravar tells Kokan that he witnessed the deaths of 19 students "with his own eyes" and claims that thousands of other students have been imprisoned in secret, unofficial prisons throughout Iran.
His statements are later corroborated by a former leader of Ansar-e-Hizbollah, an extreme fundamentalist group tied to the mullahs.
"There are many who are kept in the unofficial prisons, with names such as 59, Tohid, and 66," says "Ibrahimi," who later was imprisoned himself and subsequently fled Iran. "There are many. Autonomous forces associated with the conservatives treat prisoners there most savagely."
Ibrahimi claims that his vigilante gang took their orders from Iran's Supreme Leader himself, the Ayatollah Khameini.
"Mr. Khameini had ordered me to somehow silence the student movement in Iran," he says.
Kokan's interviews with student demonstrators reveal a group that is eager for help from the West--provided that help does not come in the form of an Iraq-style invasion.
"The free world including America can put pressure on the ruling clerics so that they accept holding a referendum to decide the future democratic structure of Iran," an Iranian student says, "But they cannot interfere militarily. We are not after their military intervention."
Also featured in this edition of FRONTLINE/World: a report from Spain on the Prestige oil tanker disaster and a world music feature from Belize.
For additional information about this FRONTLINE/World report, including extended interviews, maps, suggested readings, and much more, visit the Web site at www.pbs.org/frontlineworld.
Stephen Talbot is series editor for FRONTLINE/World. KQED Executive in Charge for FRONTLINE/World is Sue Ellen McCann. WGBH Executive in Charge for FRONTLINE/World is Sharon Tiller.
FRONTLINE/World is co-produced by KQED San Francisco and WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Major funding for FRONTLINE/World is provided by ABB Ltd., The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Tides Foundation.
FRONTLINE/World is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
FRONTLINE/World January 2004