Chilling Iranian stories

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In the background of new reports about Iran’s ability to produce its own nuclear centrifuges and while Olli Heinonen, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s No. 2 is making his way to Tehran in order to observe the “transparency” of its nuclear program, Iran’s security forces appear busy with more pressing matters.

The regime’s agents broke up a sit-in marking last week’s anniversary of the mass student protest that started on July 9, 1999. Loyal to the Iranian tradition, the police responded to the demonstrations by breaking into a university dormitory and storming the offices of a pro-democracy student group, killing one person and injuring 20. A day earlier, Iran’s judiciary confirmed that a man convicted of adultery has been stoned to death in the province of Qazvin. Jafar Kiani, a man in his late 40s, was stoned to death following his adultery conviction. Mr. Kiani spent the last decade in jail and the sentence was carried out despite a moratorium on stoning that was declared by Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, in 2002.

The hardline administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces rising pressure for failing to deliver on promises of greater prosperity from soaring oil revenue. Iran’s current economy is so stressed that although Iran is the world’s second-largest oil exporter, last week it began rationing gasoline. At the same time, the nuclear standoff with the West threatens to bring new economic sanctions. Hence Tehran is using American support for a change in government and the possibility of military attack as a pretext to further liquidate its opposition.

Iran appears to be in the midst of one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years, with the government focusing on labor leaders, universities, the press, women’s rights advocates, a former nuclear negotiator and Iranian-Americans, three of whom have been in prison for more than six weeks. The untold stories of Iran are taking place within the walls of its prisons. One story is that of Khaled Hardani and his family, members of Iran’s Arab minority, who attempted to escape Iran in 2001 by commandeering an airplane. Mr. Hardani was under intense pressure to sign his order of execution. While in prison, he established a prisoner group that attempted to disclose information on Iranian prison conditions. As a result, he was charged with “Battling God” and an execution date was set for July 4. Nothing has been heard from him since.

Nasser Khirolahi, an Iranian civil servant, was jailed in March 2003 and has been tortured repeatedly while being denied representation. His crime was attempting to unveil corruption he observed while working as a civil servant in the mayor’s office in the city of Isfahan. He was forced to resign and a short time later was arrested by local intelligence agents. Mr. Khirolahi — who has been observing a hunger strike for more than three weeks — was transferred from the regular political-prisoner section of jail to an area where murderers and other violent offenders are incarcerated. Although his four-year sentence is nearly over, he was told last week that he will not leave the prison alive.

Dr. Haleh Esfandiari is an Iranian American academic and the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. She has been held in solitary confinement since her arrest last year. After visiting her ailing 93-year-old mother in Tehran, Dr. Esfandiari was robbed at knifepoint by three men and consequently arrested en route to the airport. She was charged with “acting against national security” and “spying on behalf of foreigners.” Mrs. Esfandiari was arrested alongside three other Iranian Americans: Parnaz Azima, a U.S.-Iranian journalist who traveled to Iran to visit her family; Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant to the World Bank and the Open Society Institute; and Ali Shakeri, a businessman and a political activist who had been working with the Centre for Citizen Peace Building at the University of California. All of these people have been incarcerated and prevented from leaving.

The accumulation of stories of political intimidation by incarceration, torture and death threats is longer still and is growing at an alarming rate. Aside from dissidents, political activist, student leaders and occasional foreigners who dare to take a trip to Iran, those detained now include teachers, civil servants and workers recently arrested for demanding higher salaries.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi has complained to Iran’s judiciary that even sex criminals are treated better than political prisoners, which is notable in a country ruled by Islamic law. Speaking against political interference in the judiciary, she noted that bail for an accused rapist was set 50 times lower than that of a detained reporter.

The world, which seems to only be concerned with centrifuges, apparently isn’t watching. A country brazen enough to kidnap, torture and liquidate its own people is unlikely to be a real partner for any new world order. While diplomatic efforts still have a chance to move forward, we must ensure that individuals targeted by the regime are given just and humane treatment. Please, do not leave them alone.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.

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