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A once-imprisoned writer on Iran’s smoldering resistance

By Heather Duthie

Roxana Seberi

A year ago, as Iranians took to the streets to protest a disputed presidential election, the world watched — hopefully. But in the eyes of formerly imprisoned journalist Roxana Saberi, the country has a long way to go before real reforms can take hold.

Saberi, author of “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran,” spent the 100 days leading up those elections behind bars in Iran’s notorious Evin prison after the Ahmadinejad regime accused her of acting as a spy for the United States.

Those charges were eventually dropped and now she’s speaking out on behalf of the hundreds of Iranian citizens who have been jailed in what became the country’s largest protest movement since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

We asked Saberi about the regime’s response to what is now a political movement called the “Green Path of Hope,” and what we can expect to see moving forward.

Heather Duthie: It has been reported that over 500 people have been imprisoned as a result of last year’s protests. What do people in the West need to know about their situation?

Roxana Saberi: Many of them are prisoners of conscience who are being punished for simply peacefully standing up for basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly. It is common for detainees in Iran to be held without due process of law, without contact with their families or access to an attorney. Even when these prisoners are allowed to see an attorney, they might be threatened or barred from having the attorneys of their choice, and the attorneys themselves are often under the pressure of judiciary and security officials.

Iran’s prisoners of conscience and political prisoners usually face severe psychological pressures, and some detainees have shared horrific accounts of physical torture and sexual abuse. Prisoners are often pressured to make false confessions implicating themselves or others in a variety of crimes against the state.

Many prisoners have been given lengthy prison sentences; several have been sentenced to death. In early May, Iran executed five political prisoners. Human rights advocates said the prisoners denied the charges against them, were subjected to torture, and convicted in unfair trials.

Duthie: Outside the prisons, how have members of the opposition been treated since last year’s elections?

Saberi: Some opposition supporters who have taken part in peaceful demonstrations have been beaten or even killed. The authorities have also banned political parties, closed newspapers, and blocked many websites, and they have severely restricted the communications and activities of the Green Movement’s leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

While such methods have scared many opposition supporters into silence, this does not mean that the opposition’s demands have disappeared. Instead, resentment has bred among a large part of the population. Many Iranians have said their situation is like âtash zire khâk, or “fire under the dirt.” One day, the wind will blow the dirt aside, and the flames could arise again.

I saw the same emotions among many Iranians when I lived in Iran, including during my imprisonment in 2009. When you punish a person for what he or she considers a basic human right, whether it is for example, for taking part in a peaceful protest or for calling for women’s or minorities’ equal rights, perhaps only the most courageous will continue to speak out, but the wishes of even those who are silenced become intensified.

Duthie: What has been the international community’s response?

Saberi: In regards to Iran’s human rights’ violations, there has been some international condemnation, although the human rights’ issue has been somewhat pushed to the side because of the attention focused on Iran’s nuclear dispute. Bigger efforts should be made to send a U.N. special envoy on human rights to Iran, to pressure Iran to accept visits by U.N. Special Rapporteurs, and to aid Iranians such as the many journalists forced to flee their country out of fear of persecution.

Duthie: Are reforms proposed by opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the “Green Path of Hope” movement gaining any traction within Iran?

Saberi: Different supporters of Iran’s opposition movement have different wishes, such as political freedoms, freedom of expression, economic welfare, social freedoms, and freedom from fear.

While many Iranians still want reforms within the framework of the Islamic Republic, as Mir-Hossein Mousavi has proposed, others want an entirely new system.

Mousavi’s basic demands such as free elections and the rule of law are supported by many Iranians, but some say these do not go far enough, especially if they are going to risk their safety and lives in pursuit of change.

What they appear to be united by is what they don’t want: the status quo.

Duthie: Will we see protests to mark the anniversary of Iran’s disputed presidential election?

Saberi: The regime has made clear in past demonstrations and in the run-up to the anniversary that any protesters will be dealt with harshly. Moreover, two main opposition leaders have called off plans for a rally to mark the anniversary of Iran’s disputed presidential election in order “to preserve people’s lives and property,” after failing to receive a government permit.

Given these factors, there probably will not be widespread demonstrations, although there might be scattered groups of protesters. However, Iran is a very difficult country to predict.

Duthie: The U.N. Security Council voted today for a new round of sanctions against Iran. Do you think sanctions can change anything?

Saberi: It is doubtful that these new sanctions will put enough pressure on Iran’s regime to agree to any significant compromise over its nuclear program, although some advocates of these sanctions have said the aim is not to stop Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities but to slow them down and also to show that the world’s powers have taken a united stance on Iran’s nuclear program.

These sanctions might make the regime’s work in certain areas more complicated, but the Iranian authorities will also likely try their best to find ways around them.