- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

ISTANBUL | Only a few months ago, Mehdi was tying a green ribbon around the wrist of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in the euphoria sweeping Iran before June 12 presidential elections.

In the numb aftershock of the vote, which delivered a tainted victory to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the young man took part in protest demonstrations that shook the country. He was arrested, released and rearrested. After his second release, he decided to flee to neighboring Turkey.

Today, Mehdi — who asked that only his first name be used — lives in hiding, moving around a succession of nondescript hotels in Istanbul’s Aksaray district — a commercial area full of cheap lodgings, cafes and brothels that comes alive at night.

While the world’s attention focused Monday on Iranian missile tests and upcoming negotiations in Geneva, the protests against what many see as a fraudulent election continued. A video was posted on Facebook showing students at Tehran University yelling, “Death to the dictator.” More than 100 people remain jailed for taking part in previous demonstrations.

Although the United Nations has not recorded a significant rise in political refugee applications by Iranians since June, hundreds of new Iranian arrivals in Istanbul tell another story. Beaten, imprisoned or just intimidated, they fled.

During the day, they visit Amnesty International or the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, where Persian-speaking employees offer advice on whether to start the laborious process of applying for refugee status. Sometimes, they hold cautious meetings with members of the U.S. Consulate’s Office of Iranian Affairs, a listening station for the U.S. government that acts as a collecting point for information in the absence of U.S. diplomatic representation inside Iran.

“It’s the only neighboring country where Iranians don’t need visas, it’s cheaper than Dubai and it’s easier to avoid the spies of the Islamic republic,” said one political refugee living undercover in a small city on the central Anatolian plain who asked not to be named to protect himself and his family from Iranian retribution.

“But Turkey’s government is also friendly to the Islamic republic, and Istanbul is full of etelaat [Iranian intelligence],” the refugee said.

Mehrdad, one of several hundred Iranian students in Turkey, advises newcomers not to attract attention.

“I tell Iranian refugees here not to speak to any Iranians on the streets, nor to accept their help,” said Mehrdad, who, like Mehdi, refused to give his surname. “The Iranian community is extremely tightly knit and well-known to the [Iranian] consulate, which is powerful here. Many act as observers for the consulate, especially those working in tourism.”

Most of the refugees arrive by car or even on foot, avoiding the tightly surveilled airports. Sometimes they take domestic flights in Iran before boarding an international one to increase their chances of avoiding interception.

Turkey’s peak holiday season worked to the activists’ advantage, allowing them to mingle with crowds of ordinary tourists.

Those who apply for political asylum at the offices of the United Nations in the Turkish capital, Ankara, have their passports confiscated. Turkish policy dictates that while awaiting a result — a process that can take more than two years — applicants are to be dispersed in conservative rural cities away from the capital or Turkey’s cosmopolitan west coast.

“There are three types of Iranians in Turkey,” said Delbar Tavakoli, an Iranian reformist journalist who was forced to flee Iran and has applied for refugee status.

“There are those who can’t wait to take off their hijab [veil], put on a bikini and hit the beach in Antalya; those who have created a diaspora community in transit in Ankara and are waiting for a visa to the U.S.; and those who are spread out across several cities in Anatolia and are waiting for a reply from the U.N. on the status of their refugee application.”

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