Middle East


Leading Iranian Scholar Remains in Detention

Leading Iranian intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo speaking at a university in Tehran. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Iranian authorities should immediately release…

This is a familiar phrase, repeated over and over again in the media, with each instance ending in a different name — Akbar Ganji, Abdolfattah Soltani, and Zahra Kazemi are among the most well known. Add to that list approximately 500 Iranian bus organization workers arrested in January for striking to demand recognition of union activities. Now it is the turn of one of Iran's most prominent scholars, Ramin Jahanbegloo.

Since his arrest, Jahanbegloo has been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison where Human Rights Watch, and many other press and human rights organizations indicate he is at risk of being tortured.

An Iranian-Canadian scholar, who was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and Harvard University, and has written extensively on cultural and philosophical topics, Jahanbegloo is the director of Contemporary Studies at the Cultural Research Bureau, a private institution in Tehran. His academic writings include more than 20 books in English, French and Persian. He has also written for newspapers and magazines in Iran and abroad.

Arrest Not Initially Acknowledged

Jahanbegloo, arrested by Iranian police on April 27 in Tehran's Mehrabad airport, was at the time on his way to India. Authorities in Iran initially refused to acknowledge the arrest until May 3, when Tehran's deputy prosecutor general, Mahmoud Salarkia, confirmed Jahanbegloo's detention. On the same day, the chief of prisons in Tehran Province, Sohrab Soleimani, stated that the scholar was being held in Evin prison.

The charge aimed at this renowned philosopher, writer and university professor is espionage, an accusation that regardless of its authenticity is among the easiest for any journalist or elite figure in Iran to be labeled with.

Jahanbegloo has been denied the right to retain a lawyer since his detention, a refusal familiar to activists who have been arrested in Iran.

The details concerning the official charges against Jahanbegloo have not yet been revealed by Iranian judiciary and intelligence authorities, but the May 4 edition of Canada's Ottawa Citizen newspaper linked Jahanbegloo's detention to an article he wrote for Spanish daily El Pais in January in which he challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's assertion that the Holocaust was a myth.

However, Iran's culture minister denied any connection between Jahanbegloo's articles and his detention.

"In the Islamic Republic, no one is arrested for expressing their views," Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi said in a May 4 news conference. He added that he would do his best "to release Jahanbegloo from detention," a rather odd statement coming from the culture minister of the same regime that has detained the philosopher.

Canadian Officials Decline Public Comment

Canada, whose relations with Iran were badly damaged over the case of Zahra Kazemi — an Iranian-Canadian photographer who died in custody in 2003 after being arrested and tortured in Tehran — has said little about the arrest.

"We made contact with Iranian officials in Tehran … For reasons of personal safety and our concern for this individual, we do not feel that public commentary at this time would be helpful. We do not want to endanger his life," Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay told reporters on May 4.

Three years after the mysterious death of Zahra Kazemi in Evin prison, when worldwide concerns and human rights calls did nothing to alter his fate, shadows still hang over the case.

Canadian legislator and former Harvard academic Michael Ignatieff, who said Jahanbegloo was a close friend, dismissed as "fanciful" the idea that the academic had been spying.

Concerns have grown deeper since reports were released indicating that Jahanbegloo was hospitalized in the health care section of the prison not long after his detention.

The scholar's mother has also been hospitalized as a result of the pressures brought about by her son's detention. Since Jahanbegloo's arrest, his family in Tehran has been under intense scrutiny by Iranian authorities in order to prevent them from sharing any information regarding his custody with the media.

Letters Request Immediate Release

Since the arrest of this renowned figure, human rights organizations and various activists inside Iran and abroad have repeatedly lambasted the Iranian authorities. Among the numerous protests articulated within Iran is a letter dated May 14 which was signed by 621 Iranian university professors and students, asking for his release. The letter was followed by a similar petition, this time with 132 signatures of well known press and political activists. They too, have asked the authorities to allow Jahanbegloo the right to legal counsel, and to release him until the date of his hearing.

"The arbitrary arrest of Ramin Jahanbegloo shows the perilous state of academic freedom and free speech in Iran today," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This prominent scholar should be celebrated for his academic achievements, not interrogated in one of Iran's most infamous prisons."

"Iran's Judiciary is notorious for coercing confessions by means of torture and ill-treatment," Stork said. "We hold the Iranian government entirely responsible for Jahanbegloo's well-being."

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