Middle East


Clampdowns on Student Activists

Iranian reformist students hold portraits of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upside down in sign of protest during his visit to the Amir Kabir University in Tehran on Dec. 11, 2006. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)

"Iran is the most free country in the world," declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Dec. 11, 2006, while dozens of students were setting fire to his picture and heckling him during a speaking engagement at Tehran's prestigious Amir Kabir University.

The protesters chanted "death to the dictator," disrupting the president's speech, and scuffles broke out between his supporters and opponents.

According to a statement issued by a student group, the protests took place in opposition to the government's economic and political agenda, as well as the practice of "confrontation with student activists and ridding universities of independent lecturers."

The rare face-off occurred four days ahead of national elections for local councils and the powerful clerical assembly, the results of which turned to be a backlash against Ahmadinejad's policies, with rival parties filling the majority of seats.

On Ahmadinejad's direct order, none of the protesting students were arrested or prosecuted, an allegedly "surprising" move by the president under whom university activists have reportedly experienced "a massive clampdown" which has yielded the following results:

  • 19 students arrested

  • 12 students prosecuted

  • 45 students summoned to court

  • 28 students convicted in court

  • 142 students summoned to university disciplinary committees

  • 82 students convicted by disciplinary committees

  • 22 students expelled

  • 32 student journals banned

These conservative statistics were provided by the "Iranian Human Rights Activists of Europe and North America." Other sources, such as Human Rights Watch and the pro-reform Islamic Students Association, have reported higher numbers of "student clampdown" cases in Iran during 2006.

Added to the aforementioned list is the suspicious death of a student movement leader, Akbar Mohammadi, in Tehran's Evin prison on July 31, 2006. The 36-year old activist was reportedly on a hunger strike to protest his return to jail. The cause of the death remains unclear and requests by his lawyer and family for an autopsy have been rejected by Iranian authorities.

Another method of cracking down that has been implemented by Ahmadinejad's hard-line government, according to human rights organizations, includes "a ban on access to higher education" for some student activists. The government has barred at least 12 to 17 students from university registration during past year, despite the fact that graduate programs had accepted them on the basis of successful competitive entrance examinations.

Reports have also documented the cases of another 54 students who were allowed to register only after agreeing to sign statements that they would refrain from peaceful political activities.

"This policy is a blatant attack on freedom of expression and the right to education," said Human Rights Watch in a statement regarding the issue. "The authorities want to coerce university students, the bedrock of critical thinking in any society, into silence and submission."

Iranian authorities have been delivering contradictory responses to the allegations, reasons, and details raised concerning the alleged clampdown.

Some reports, however, indicate that the Ministry of Intelligence is orchestrating a campaign to deny student activists the right to higher education.

Observations reveal that some university admissions decisions are solely based on students' political background, not on any educational standards. Almost all of the banned students are outspoken activists.

Among the most recent cases of what has been called "a premeditated student clampdown" by human rights activists, are the severe court verdicts rendered against three university activists — Keyvan Ansari, Saeed Derakhshandi and Abolfazl Jahandar — who have been sentenced to three and half, three, and two and half years respectively in prison on charges of an "attempt against national security."

Also, one of the most iconic figures of Iran's student movement, Ahmad Batebi, was returned to Evin prison on July 29, 2006 despite ardent protests by lawyers and human rights activists.

Batebi had been on a vacation after serving seven years in Evin. He was one of the thousands of students arrested in July 1999 after demonstrations which erupted following the closure of newspapers in one of the periodic "clampdowns on freedom of expression" (notably, the Salam daily) that occurred throughout the late 1990's in Iran.

Batebi, although not being initially a movement leader, was spotlighted following publication of a dramatic picture on the cover of the Economist magazine. The picture, which showed him in the middle of thousands of protesters holding a bloody shirt in his hand, became a symbol of the movement and has so far cost him seven years of his life in prison.

Batebi's wife, Somayyeh Bayyenat, and his personal physician, Hessam Firouzi, who have both been very vocal about Ahmad's medial condition in interviews with the expat media, have also been arrested recently on unclear charges, but were released days after being detained.

Apart from the students, some university professors and scholars have also reportedly been prosecuted, imprisoned or forced to retire.

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 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.

A recent open letter signed by 542 political, human rights and student activists inside Iran warned about the "serious consequences" of what they called "a vast clampdown on the universities."

Political observers believe that the repressive measures have been organized by Iranian authorities as a preemptive policy in order to curb any possible future unrest.

Student groups have been among the most vocal activists in Iran, and on many occasions have initiated the some of the most tumultuous anti-Islamic Republic protests.

The student protests of July 1999 and 2001 have been documented as the largest demonstrations in the three-decade history of post-revolution Iran, and the recent student gatherings of Dec. 11 and 12, 2006 as the most dramatic protests to Ahmadinejad's policies.

Iran is a party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Both covenants urge signatories to respect the freedom of expression and association. Under the ICESCR, Iran has undertaken to make higher education equally accessible to all without discrimination.

The Islamic Republic insists that it recognizes and practices the provisions detailed in the aforementioned covenants. It states that the arrested activists have violated the law, Islamic values, or have endangered the national security of the country.

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