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UPDATED: On Supporting Iranian Political Prisoners on Hunger Strike

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

27 Jun 2011 12:09Comments

How to help out those who have put their lives on the line.

bobby_sands_street.jpg1003.1981_Hunger-Strike-pos.jpg[ opinion ] Ever since Iran's rigged presidential election in 2009, the hardliners have been cracking down on political dissent. Some of the best-known Iranian human rights, women's rights, university and labor activists, reformists, journalists, and even some clerics have been arrested, put on show trials, and sentenced to long jail terms. [See bottom of page for update.] The press has been hit particularly hard. For example, the distinguished journalist Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, has not only been sentenced to six years of imprisonment, but also to five years of internal exile and a permanent ban on any journalistic, political, and social activism. Zeidabadi won the World Association of Newspapers' Golden Pen of Freedom Award in 2010 and UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2011. Another internationally renowned journalist, Jila Baniyaghoob, has been barred for 30 years from her profession. Editor-in-chief of Kanoon Zanan Irani, she was awarded the 2009 IWMF (International Women's Media Foundation) Courage in Journalism Award for fearlessly reporting on government and social oppression, particularly as they affect women. Her husband, distinguished journalist Bahman Ahmad Amouei, has been sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

On May 31, the head of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition, Ezatollah Sahabi, long a popular political figure, passed away at the age of 81. He spent a total of 15 years in prison before and after the 1979 Revolution. He was tortured in the Islamic Republic's jails and forced to make false confessions in a nationally broadcast television program, even though he was a member of the first postrevolutionary government, a deputy in the first Majles, and a member of the assembly that drafted the Constitution. During his funeral procession his daughter Haleh Sahabi, 51, an activist in her own right, who had been sentenced to two years of imprisonment, was attacked by security forces and died, probably as a result of a heart attack and/or internal bleeding. The security forces forced her family to bury her late at night, which is against Islamic teachings.

To protest the circumstances that had led to the death of Haleh Sahabi, two political prisoners, journalist Reza Hoda Saber and Amir Khosrow Dalirsani, went on hunger strike on June 2. Both are nationalist-religious activists. Saber had been imprisoned illegally since July 2010. Dalirsani, a member of the nationalist-religious Movement of Militant Muslims led by Dr. Habibollah Peyman, was arrested on January 2, 2010. After a show trial, he was sentenced to four years in prison. On June 10, Saber had a heart attack in Evin Prison. Instead of tending to him, the security forces beat him in the jail's medical center. Eight hours after he first complained of chest pain, he was finally taken to a hospital, but passed away. The doctors attributed his heart attack to the hunger strike he had been on for nine days. His family was not informed of his death until two days later.

Twelve prominent political prisoners went on hunger strikes to protest the deaths of Haleh Sahabi and Saber: Dalirsani plus Dr. Ghorban Behzadian Nejad (Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign manager in 2009), Hassan Ahmadi Zeidabadi (university activist), Ahmadi Amouei, Emad Bahavar (head of the youth division of the Liberation Movement of Iran, a nationalist-religious group), Mohammad Davari (editor-in-chief of Saham News, the website that reflects Mehdi Karroubi's views), Feyzollah Arabsorkhi (senior member of the outlawed Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin, a leading reformist group), Abolfazl Ghadiani (another senior member of the OIRM, and currently the oldest political prisoner at 66), Mohammad Javad Mozafar (author), Mohammad Reza Moghiseh (political activist and member of a committee that investigates the violent attacks on those who participated in the postelection demonstrations in 2009), Abdollah Momeni (university activist and teacher), and Emadeddin Baghi (human rights activist and investigative journalist). They were later joined by six additional political prisoners: Isa Saharkhiz, Keyvan Samimi, Masoud Bastani (all journalists), Ali Ajami (university student and a secular leftist activist), Jafar Eghdami (human rights activist), and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi (political activist). Baghi was released from prison after serving his full sentence, but has continued his hunger strike. Two other political prisoners, Dr. Mohsen Aminzadeh (deputy foreign minister in the Khatami administration) and Mehdi Karimian Eghbal (member of the outlawed Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist group), have also joined the hunger strike. Aminzadeh has been transferred to the critical care unit of a hospital in Tehran, but has declared that he will not break his strike.

Separately, three other political prisoners -- Kurdish political activists Anvar Khezri, Kamran Sheikhi, and Seyyed Ebrahim Sayyedi -- have also been on hunger strike since June 1. They are protesting the fact that they are being held in a ward with murderers, rapists, and narcotic traffickers.

The political prisoners are being held in the notorious Evin and Rajaei Shahr prisons. Those in Evin are mostly held in Ward 350, normally a place for common criminals. The situation is similar in Rajaei Shahr; to learn more about the conditions there, read the letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by Mehdi Mahmoudian, another imprisoned journalist.

The arrest, trial, and imprisonment of all the political prisoners have been against the laws of the Islamic Republic. Article 168 of the Constitution stipulates that criminal trials must be held in the presence of an independent jury and the prisoners' attorneys. None of the trials had juries, in most cases there was inadequate legal representation for the defendants or none at all, and all the sentences -- each issued by one of three notorious judges -- were reportedly dictated by the security forces.

As I have previously reported, many prominent figures have asked the hunger strikers to end their action, but they have refused to do so until their goals are achieved. Many prominent figures, activists, journalists, and families of the political prisoners have also written to Ahmed Shaheed, the newly appointed United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, urging him to try to travel to Iran and investigate the plight of the political prisoners, especially those on hunger strike who need urgent attention. Almost all of them have been taken to hospitals or prison medical centers, and their lives are in danger.

These courageous political prisoners who have put on the line the most precious thing that they have -- their lives -- need support. First and foremost, they need voices so that the world can hear about them, their goals, and the circumstances of their arrests, convictions, and incarceration. Write to Shaheed, to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and to the European Commission on Human Rights. Second, they need to know that people, particularly Iranian people, are supportive of their bravery. Any symbolic action -- such as fasting in their support by large groups of people and announcing it so that their families can perhaps let them know -- will also be very helpful.

Third, Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, Khamenei -- who appoints the head of the judiciary -- and the prison's wardens must be held responsible for the health and well-being of these and other political prisoners.

On May 5, 1981, Robert Gerald Sands, universally known as Bobby Sands, a 27-year-old Irish political prisoner, died in Northern Ireland after spending a little over two months on hunger strike. A member of the Irish Republican Army, he was protesting the fact that the British government was no longer willing to recognize him and his comrades as political prisoners. The Islamic Republic of Iran honored Sands by naming a street in Tehran after him. I know personally at least one Iranian who was so influenced by Sands's bravery that he named his restaurant after him.

The Iranian hunger strikers and Bobby Sands are two different types of political prisoners. Sands was a warrior, an Irish guerrilla fighting the British army, whereas his Iranian counterparts have been peaceful activists. They share, however, one goal: to recover their human rights and their rights as political prisoners. The least the world should do is to call attention to the plight of the hunger strikers, recall Bobby Sands, and the fact that the Islamic Republic honored him after he lost his life.

In my writings I have made it clear that I am against any intervention in Iran's internal affairs by any foreign government. I continue to insist on that principle. Asking credible international organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Physicians without Borders, Physicians for Human Rights, the U.N. Human Rights Council -- though not the U.N. Security Council -- labor unions and federations, and progressive political parties in Western European countries, such as the Greens, to protest what is going on in Iran and to become a voice for Iran's oppressed political prisoners is not a violation of this principle. In fact, it is completely consistent with the principle, because it takes away the excuse from those governments that have designs on Iran's territorial integrity and wish to exploit the violations of human rights in the Islamic Republic to advance their agenda.


UPDATE: The political prisoners who were on hunger strike in Evin Prison have ended their strike. They issued a statement, which reads in part,

The noble Iranian nation,

The chagrin of the unbelievable death of Hoda Saber was extremely difficult and intolerable for his cellmates. Going on a hunger strike was the minimum course of action that came to our mind as a reaction to that sad catastrophe. This was the same course of action that Saber himself took to protest the death of Mrs. Haleh Sahabi.

Our hunger strike was, on the one hand, a response to our conscience's call and doing our moral duty as cellmates of Hoda Saber and, on the other hand, represented our shouts of protest and anger against the injustice that was done to Saber and, before him, to Haleh Sahabi. The two responsible citizens lost their lives for their ideals. Our hunger strike was a collective protest against the incompetence, arrogance, and lies that have been institutionalized in parts of the state.

We, twelve political prisoners in Ward 350 of Evin Prison, began our hunger strike on Saturday, June 18, with a public announcement, hoping that our voice of protest would be heard by everyone and become an impediment to the rulers trying to violate the rights of the incarcerated people. Over the course of our strike, many of our cellmates expressed their desire to join the strike, and many fasted or did not eat their meals to support us. The support of our dear cellmates was encouragement to us, and we would like to express our infinite gratitude to them.

The behavior of the officials during this period and when they summoned us before the judiciary is but one sign of their irresponsibility and nonresponsiveness and, of course, the incompetence and weakness of the judiciary. What has happened was once again a test to demonstrate that human life and and the life of an imprisoned person is worthless and unimportant to the judiciary and security officials.

The strikers then thanked all those who supported them, both in Iran and abroad. In particular, they thanked the Sahabi and Saber families, the grand ayatollahs and Marjas, other religious, political, and cultural figures, political parties and groups, human rights activists, the press, journalists, physicians, and attorneys that sent them messages of support. They also thanked their six comrades incarcerated in Rajaei Shahr Prison who joined them in the hunger strike, as well as Baghi, who was released, and Mozafar, who was granted a furlough to attend his mother's funeral. They ended their statement by declaring,

Undoubtedly, this will not be the end of our civil protests against violation of human rights and the injustice done. The Green protest of the Iranian people will continue until their human rights and personal and social freedoms are recovered.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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