Middle East

Striking Iranian Bus Drivers Jailed


Buses and other traffic in Tehran (Photo: Iran Daily)

Human Rights Watch condemned the recent incarceration of hundreds of bus drivers in Tehran and called on the Iranian government to release them immediately.

Approximately 500 drivers, bus organization workers and union organizers were arrested by the Iranian police on Jan. 28, and remain in detention.

The detainees were arrested after organizing a strike to protest the imprisoning of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company's director, Mansour Ossanlu, and to demand recognition of union activities by the Iranian authorities.

This was the second time in less than two months that the bus drivers decided to strike. The first strike occurred in early Dec. 2005, organized by Ossanlu. On Dec. 22, shortly after the strike, he was arrested at his home.

The reason for the first strike was the Iranian government's refusal to recognize the bus union's rights. The regime has refused to recognize the legitimacy of such unions.

More than 40 days have passed since Ossanlu's arrest and he remains in the highly notorious Evin prison in Tehran without any official charges being leveled against him or permission to meet with his advocate.

The unhealthy conditions under which Ossanlu is being held, particularly given a serious eye condition that requires immediate medical care, added to the demands of the bus union and resulted in another strike across the city of Tehran during the past week. This strike, however, was crushed by the police through mass arrests.

Trampling on workers' rights

"Iran's new government boasts of representing the interests of working men and women. Their violent crack down on the bus workers' union makes these words ring hollow," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

Gholamreza Mirzaii, the union's spokesman, stated that their requests are plain and simple:

1. Freedom for all the detainees
2. Freedom for union activities
3. The signing of an authentic agreement between union representatives and the ministry of labor

According to Article 26 of the Iranian constitution, the government is obligated to guarantee freedom of association, "including the right to form and join trade unions."

The most shocking of the violent actions by the Iranian authorities came when the police arrested the wives and children of some union activists, using them as bait to capture the strike organizers. Many of the wives were subject to physical violence during this time, as reported in many media outlets outside of Iran.

"Although we have firmly stated and clarified that our demands and actions are not political, we have suffered from political labels directed at us by the regime. We have been tolerant of all the injustice applied to us, but beating our children and their mothers, and intimidating them is one thing we will no longer stand," Mirzaii said.

The union announced a one-day strike last Friday to protest the detentions.

Mirzaii, who has already been called by the Revolutionary Court of Iran, is in danger of being arrested has said he will start a hunger strike as soon as he is captured.

"I will neither eat nor drink, until the release of all my colleagues," he declared.

Hunger strikes

Iranian prisons have witnessed a large number of hunger strikes, the most well-known being that of Akbar Ganji, the Iranian journalist who revealed details about a series of murders victimizing journalists and political reformists, directed by Iran's intelligence services about seven years ago. Ganji suffered through a serious health crisis after a long, 80-day hunger strike while imprisoned in Tehran, but his condition has not engendered any flexibility from the judicial system.

Eight other prisoners in Karaj's Rajaee Shahr prison, all jailed on political charges, have also undertaken long hunger strikes, in addition to being subjected to the dreadful conditions inside the prison, according to their spokesman in Amsterdam, Sadgh Naghashkar.

Hadi Ghaemi, the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch says that there is special concern about Iran in international circles. "There are a lot of worries concerning the possibility that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran might want to take advantage of the situation which has been created by the atomic energy crisis in order to intensify the pressures inside the country towards activists. The case of the bus drivers could be counted as an example of this," Ghaemi said.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Iranian government to stop its persecution of the bus union workers and their families, not to retaliate against the workers, and to guarantee their safe return.

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