- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

LONDON — Iran has sparked a storm of protest from trade unionists around the world by imprisoning a bus driver known as the Lech Walesa of the Islamic Republic.

Mansour Osanloo, who leads a 17,000-strong bus workers’ union, was picked up on the streets of Tehran on July 10 by an unidentified group thought to have been secret policemen.

He had just returned from a trip to Europe, where he met officials from the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) to discuss government harassment of his members.

Now he is languishing on unspecified charges in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on the orders of Saeed Mortazavi, a hard-line judge accused of presiding over numerous human rights abuses and illegal detentions.

Mr. Osanloo’s imprisonment is part of a clampdown on dissidents by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, in which scores of pro-democracy activists and academics have been arrested over the past five months.

But unlike some of his fellow political prisoners, Mr. Osanloo, 48, has largely restricted his activities to campaigning for better working conditions for his union members, demanding increases in their wages and better protection against Tehran’s appalling smog.

He has insisted: “All we are asking is for Iranian workers to be treated as free human beings, not as slaves.”

Even that has invited the ire of Iran’s leaders, for whom any independent organization with a large membership poses a threat similar to that of Solidarity, the Polish shipyard workers’ union led by Mr. Walesa, which opened the first major cracks in communism in the early 1980s.

In Brussels, Mr. Osanloo described a pattern of intimidation in which some union members have been arrested 10 or more times while family members, including children, were beaten, detained and subjected to inhumane treatment.

Asked how he coped with arrests and harassment, he replied: “We decided it is better to die than to live like this.”

The international union, which represents nearly 5 million transport workers in 148 countries, has written to Mr. Ahmadinejad, urging him to free Mr. Osanloo immediately.

A spokesman for the ITWF, Sam Dawson, said: “Mr. Osanloo has pushed to create an independent and democratic trade union in Iran, and that appears to be something that the regime is not happy with.

“His organization is not against the Iranian state or a threat in any way. It is open, popular and transparent. We are hoping that the Iranian government will be amenable to outside pressure.”

Mr. Osanloo was on his way home from work when the bus in which he was a passenger was pulled over by a carload of men, some reportedly armed with clubs and brass knuckles.

They dragged him into their vehicle, telling passers-by who tried to intervene that he was a “hoodlum and a thug” who was wanted by the police. Witnesses said he was beaten during the abduction, even after he had stopped trying to fight off his attackers.

His abductors presented no identification, but drove a Peugeot car of a kind commonly used by the security services. Iranian authorities at first denied all knowledge of the arrest, and only admitted that he was being held after 48 hours of inquiries by family and friends.

As yet no charges against him have been specified, but Mr. Dawson said the court had indicated he would spend at least two months in prison.

Mr. Osanloo formed the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed) in 2003, at the height of the reformist rule of President Mohammed Khatami.

However, Mr. Osanloo has been unable to avoid becoming embroiled in some of the most sensitive issues in Iranian politics. In 2005, his staff brought Tehran’s public transport network to a standstill to protest a new rule that female passengers must ride at the back of each bus.

Some Islamic hard-liners are theologically opposed to the concept of a union, arguing that the separation of bosses and workers is a divisive Western approach that Islam should discourage.

Since organizing strikes in 2005, Mr. Osanloo has been arrested several times and beaten by members of the basij, the irregular militia deployed to harass enemies of the regime. On one occasion, he suffered a deep knife cut to his tongue, intended as a warning that he should keep quiet.

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