Middle East


The Concept of Freedom

Iranian intellectual Ramin Jahanbegloo, who was accused of espionage, speaks at the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) after his release on bail in August. Jahanbegloo was released on bail from a Tehran prison after being imprisoned since May on charges of ties with foreigners. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)

The concept of freedom, an abstract social phenomenon itself, reaches the height of its definitive vagueness when discussed in relation to a complex society like Iran's.

Social freedom in the country took a major turn after the establishment of the Islamic Republic following the revolution of 1979: an Islamic dress code was firmly enforced; parties and gatherings were raided; people were interrogated; thousands of Iranians were executed, many of them only sympathizers of a political party or faction; and the Islamic police patrols and Basij militia haunted the streets, harshly confronting anyone or anything that seemed to be politically or socially "anti-Islamic" or "immoral." This harsh approach to social policy remained on course for the greater part of two decades.

After the election in 1997 and the ascension to power of the reformists, many policies involving the concept of freedom were changed, both socially and politically. The reforms shed light on many aspects of the country's social, cultural and political values, and a significantly more flexible stance was adopted. With the rise of public demands for more freedom, which could potentially endanger the supreme leadership of the country, divisions began to emerge between the then-reformist government and the powerful front of the traditional conservative leadership.

The struggle went on for almost eight years of Mohammad Khatami's presidency, claiming a number of victims — some of them critics of the clerical leadership — in its wake. By the end of the reformists' era, which was marked by the ascension of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hard-line government, the concept of freedom in Iran entered a different phase.

The country's core of power, which during the first two decades of the post-revolution era had seen that oppressing ordinary people by taking away their basic social freedoms could result in the rise of a major opposition party, like the reformists, now began to practice a simple new method — leaving ordinary citizens alone and focusing on the elite.

The fact is that the majority of the 20 million ballots which bought Khatami to power nine years ago were cast in the hope of reviving basic individual social freedoms, rather than gilded rights such as free political expression, that were demanded by so-called intellectuals. With the ascension of Ahmadinejad, despite fears over the enforcement of issues like an Islamic dress code, many of those basic social rights inherited from the reformist period remained more or less intact for the majority. Women have not been arrested in greater numbers for confronting the strict dress code, pressure has not yet notably intensified on the youth to suppress relations between the sexes, and there are no signs of the feared plainclothes hard-line militia on the streets.

Moreover, close observation indicates that the contentious issue with the U.S. involving Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology has provoked a sense of patriotism in common Iranians, causing many to view Ahmadinejad's populist policies with favor. These factors may seal another victory for the conservatives in the up-coming elections.

The Minority Elite Under the Spotlight

Having taken root before the 1979 revolution, what one might call an 'anti-intellectual' stance has been intensified under Ahmadinejad. The evidence of this can be seen in the treatment of the following groups:

Lawyers and human rights defenders: Many of the lawyers and activists who follow and defend human rights abuse cases have been oppressed or prosecuted. Some have even been put into prison such as Abdolfattah Soltani, a well-known human rights advocate.

Also evident has been an intolerant attitude toward the NGOs engaged in human rights activities; for example the activities of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) was declared illegal. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel peace prize laureate is among the founders of the organization.

University activists: During the past spring and summer more than 150 students have been prosecuted or warned by the disciplinary committee of their university, or by the court regarding political activities, and at least 54 were refused entry for a new semester. Tens of professors and lecturers were reportedly forced to retire, and in some cases imprisoned.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian-Canadian scholar was among the latest cases. He was accused of conspiracy in advocating for a 'Velvet Revolution' in Iran and spent four months in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Ahmadinejad has clearly stated his opposition to the presence of what he calls "secular and liberal professors" in universities, and has asked students to protest against any such scholar.

Women's rights activists: Two peaceful gatherings of women's rights defenders in March and June were firmly cracked down on by the police. More than 100 participants were reportedly arrested during the gatherings. The Culture Ministry has announced that it would not tolerate cultural events that promote feministic values.

Work syndicates: At least 240 cases involving activist workers, 165 cases recommending expulsion and 19 cases for prosecution in court have been filed regarding syndicate activists. Most notably, Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company's director Mansour Ossanlu, who was arrested last December and spent months in Evin prison before being released. Ossanlu was again arrested on the street in mid-October on unknown charges. He remains in prison.

Press: Approximately ten press ban verdicts have pushed almost all of the pro-reform newspapers and journals away from the cultural arena. During the past spring and summer 70 prosecution cases involving press and online affiliates have been reported. There has also been a number of publication bans on books, including those that had received publication permission during the previous government. Media and press releases are under constant pressure when reporting on the aforementioned cases.

The targets of the accusations and arrests are not necessarily social or politically active figures. Observations have proved that numerous poets, film and music critics, and literary figures have been arrested on charges of "cultural invasion" and "promoting the decadent western influence."

The arrests and prosecutions generally follow a similar pattern:

In most cases, accusations are aimed at figures that due to their intellectual area of expertise are not well known by common people, thus their arrests would not be likely to trigger any public protests.

In collaboration with the aforementioned point, almost all of the cases are filed against individuals that are well received and followed by colleagues in their particular fields. It has been noted that in various cases, after the detention of one critic, co-workers and other intellectuals in the same field tend to lessen their own involvement in that social and professional circle.

Only a few of the arrests are followed by an imprisonment verdict. Most of the activists are kept for weeks or months in detention and then released on bail or conditionally. Rights observers see such a policy as a bilateral method that is aimed at decreasing the mounting criticisms from international human rights organizations and at the same time silencing the accused person, who lives in fear of possible re-capture. Many of the previously accused writers or activists have eventually fled their country, which practically excludes them from close involvement in their field of expertise and thus results in a gradual fadeout.

Many of the arrests take place on the charges of espionage, and any case that gets broad news coverage will usually be followed by a public confession on state television. The authenticity of the detainees' remarks are subject to serious debate and almost all of the confessions have later been refuted by the confessor. There have been various cases in which the detainee's life, and that of his family, has reportedly been threatened if he refuses to make the television appearance. Human rights organizations have been long accused Tehran of "obtaining false confessions" from prisoners.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has firmly and repeatedly rejected allegations and accusations against the country as methods to cause tumult. It insists that all of the arrests have been conducted according to judiciary law and that cases have proceeded legally and authentically.

Tehran denies the existence of any human rights abuse cases in the country and accuses the United States of non-compliance with human rights values regarding the prisoner abuse and torture in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and Cuba's Guantanamo Bay detention facilities.

The Islamic Republic has also stressed that prohibiting Muslim women from wearing Islamic dress in some countries across Europe, including France and most recently the Netherlands, is an obvious example of suppression of fundamental civil freedoms.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.