THE ROVING EYE Iran jails its conscience By Pepe Escobar
A man is being kept in solitary confinement in cell number 209 of sinister Evin
prison in Tehran. His crime: he's Iran's top human rights activist.
On the same day Russian President Vladimir Putin met Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad to discuss Caspian Sea energy wealth and Iran's civilian nuclear
program, Emadeddin Baghi
finally received a visit by his lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.
All Baghi's books have been confiscated. In his bare cell, there is only a copy
of the Koran. According to his lawyer, Baghi is in good condition: "When I saw
him, he was reading the Koran." Baghi's house, family and home telephone are
under close surveillance.
Baghi was sent to prison last Sunday by Branch 14 of Iran's Revolutionary
Court. The judge accused him of disclosing "secret" information through his
highly respected NGO, the Association for the Defense of Prisoners Rights. He
was about to be released on bail equivalent to US$53,000 when the judge told
him that even if his family collected the funds he would be sent to jail.
According to his lawyer, this was because of a previous 2003 one-year suspended
sentence, which was changed into imprisonment.
Baghi also has to face a July 2007, three-year sentence on charges of acting
against the national security of the Islamic Republic. To these were added
charges of publishing "secret government documents of information gathered from
prisoners of security prisons".
This Tuesday, Amnesty International has publicly condemned the "continued
repression of human rights defenders" in Iran. On the three-year sentence,
Amnesty International refers to Baghi's lawyer, who said that "the evidence
against him included media interviews and letters to the authorities regarding
Ahwazi Arabs sentenced to death in connection with lethal bomb explosions in
Khuzestan province". Amnesty International considers the charges against Baghi
to be "politically motivated" and terms him "a prisoner of conscience".
It's no wonder that under the ultra-sensitive, current political juncture in
Iran Baghi is considered such a dangerous enemy of the state. For a few months
now a violent new wave of internal repression in the country has victimized
human rights campaigners, students, trade union leaders and reformists in
general. Arbitrary arrests target university students who publish campus
journals "insulting the sacred character of Islam", and girls accused of being
"walking billboards for Western sexual deviation".
Be they conducted by the Ministry of Intelligence or by the sometimes Orwellian
Ministry of the Interior, not to mention the rigid Ministry of Culture and
Islamic Guidance, it all relates to the Ahmadinejad presidency's tightening of
the screws, a repressive policy which ultimately has to be condoned by the
Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Before he was sent to prison Baghi wrote a letter to the head of the Iranian
judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, detailing at length how he has been
harassed by the system even before the rise of Iran's reformists, starting in
He was interrogated endlessly; prohibited from teaching; forced to resign from
a research institute; sentenced to seven and a half years in prison (commuted
to three years, with none of the accusations proved); prohibited from giving
interviews to foreign Persian-language radio stations; prohibited from
publishing the Jomhouriyat Daily newspaper. Tehran's public prosecutor, Saeed
Mortazavi, threatened to ban the highly respected Sharqh daily paper, of which
Baghi's son-in-law is editor in chief; the paper was told not to carry a single
editorial by Baghi, otherwise it would be shut down.
His house is under surveillance. Four and a half years after being released
from prison he's had to go to court no less than 23 times. He's prohibited from
traveling abroad - for instance to receive France's National Commission Human
Rights Award, or to speak at the Global Congress against the Death Penalty in
At the end of his letter he asks the head of the judiciary what kind of rights
protection the Islamic Republic is offering its citizens. That's the key point
of his political position: if human rights violations are essentially
government violations, only the government system can prevent them.
Baghi's immensely politeness masks an iron will. Asia Times Online interviewed
him in Tehran in the summer of 2005 (see
The humanist reformer). He has published
21 books, collections of articles and translations (seven either banned before
publication or confiscated later). His NGO - which relies on the volunteer work
of the best Iranian human rights lawyers - is not only concerned with improving
dismal prison conditions in Iran but protecting the rights of all prisoners,
not only political prisoners.
That Baghi's work can so irk the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic speaks
volumes about a system that thrives on internal fear. It also spells out how
much the Iran is in dire need of a new public relations strategy. Just when it
may soon be on the receiving end of a devastating, preemptive war, and badly in
need of international support, sending your best-known human rights activist to
jail is not exactly a brilliant move.