Sunday, July 26, 2009

Iranians protesting last month’s disputed presidential election won support across the world Saturday as sympathizers rallied in dozens of cities demanding the release of opposition activists jailed by the Islamic republic.

In Iran, police and pro-government militia attacked and dispersed hundreds of protesters who had gathered in Tehran, while opposition leaders appealed to the country’s top clerics in the city of Qom to intervene and end the crackdown.

International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, backed what organizers called a “global day of action” in support of the Iranian people and “in condemnation of the human rights abuses being committed by the Iranian government.”

At least 20 people have been killed and more than 1,000 arrested in protests following the disputed June 12 election that kept incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

Iranian opposition leaders maintain the election was won by reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

In Washington, about 3,000 people gathered in front of a local United Nations office Saturday and then marched to the National Mall, where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams and several human rights activists spoke to the crowd. An evening thunderstorm forced the organizers to end the event early.

During the day’s rally, small clashes broke out between the supporters of the main event, who simply want the election annulled and redone, and a group that wants Mr. Mousavi to be declared president.

The event was organized by the Washington branch of Where is My Vote?, a worldwide campaign of Iranian Diaspora that began after the June 12 election to request that governments and media reject the results, although the movement does not advocate any specific candidates.

“We are simply demanding a revote,” said Babak Talebi, coordinator of Where is My Vote? DC. “We stand in solidarity for those who in Iran have had their civil and human rights abused since the election.”

People wore green and held signs for freedom of speech, the release of prisoners of conscience and the end of violence, and they chanted for democracy in Iran.

Organizers delayed the event on the Mall as they addressed hundreds of counterprotesters who followed the marchers, waving flags. The opposing group held up Mousavi pictures and was demanding an overthrow of the government, Mr. Talebi said.

“Here we have Iranians of every belief, every ethnicity,” he told the crowd. “But today we are putting down our personal beliefs, and they are not willing to put down theirs. Please have your own protest. Put down your Mousavi pictures.”

Where is My Vote? DC spokesman Goli Nedairani said that people who live in the United States should not promote a specific government.

“We are in the U.S., and it is not our decision,” she said. “Canadians couldn’t tell the United States what government it should have.”

Reza Zati, a 55-year-old transportation company manager from Washington who moved to the U.S. from Iran when he was 22, led the group of counterprotesters and said the protests in Iran show that the people do not want Islamic rules and regulation.

Most demonstrators, however, wished to express the view that they are standing in solidarity with those who have suffered since the election, said Farbod Sakhra, 25, an information-technology consultant.

“It’s about raising awareness about the human rights abuses,” he said.

Banafsheh Ghassemi, 44, said she was at the rally because she would like to see stability in Iran, regardless of the regime.

“A dictator is a dictator. I don’t care if you are secular or wearing a turban,” she said.

In London, more than 1,000 protesters joined a “noisy but peaceful” demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy, the Associated Press reported. In Brussels, protesters held placards carrying images of the detained or dead, including Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman whose death on the streets of Tehran - beamed around the world on the Internet - has become a rallying cry for opponents of the regime.

Speaking before more than 1,000 in Amsterdam, Iranian Nobel Peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi urged the international community to reject the results of the Iranian election and called for a new vote monitored by the United Nations.

In New York City, several hundred protesters gathered behind police barricades just off Times Square. One man hoisted a green placard, splattered with red, that asked, “Where is my vote?” The crowd chanted, “Stop the killing. Stop the torture.”

A small group of Iranians in New York has been on a three-day hunger strike and is holding frequent demonstrations outside the United Nations to urge the world body to investigate human rights abuses in Iran.

There were also demonstrations Saturday before the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva, and rallies in Paris, Vienna, Rome, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen.

There were smaller protests in the Australian cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and the capital, Canberra, as well as in Tokyo and Seoul.

“If people in Iran can’t go out on the streets [to protest] because they are scared, maybe they will see us here and it will give them juice to march again,” said Reza Zati, 55, a participant at the Washington rally who said he moved to the U.S. capital from Iran 22 years ago.

A small group of protesters in Iran did venture out into the streets in solidarity with their supporters outside the country.

Demonstrators in the Vanak and Mirdamad districts of Tehran chanted “death to the dictator” and “we want our vote back” before they were set upon by police.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has endorsed the re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, rejecting opposition claims that Mr. Mousavi was the real winner.

On Saturday, opposition leaders appealed to top clerics in Qom, Iran’s theological center, to help stop the ruling Islamic regime’s violent postelection crackdown.

The moral authority of nine clerics in Qom who are “marja taqlid,” or sources of emulation for many of Iran’s Shi’ites, is seen as a possible counterweight to Ayatollah Khamenei’s wide-ranging powers.

However, the clerics’ influence has diminished in recent years as members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard have taken senior positions in the government. An 86-member clerical Assembly of Experts theoretically has the power to replace the supreme leader but has given no indication that it will do so.

Among the senior clerics in Qom, only one has congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad, while three others have spoken out against the violent crackdown against the opposition.

Mr. Mousavi, former President Mohammed Khatami and 67 other prominent reformists sent a letter to the clerics saying that the authorities have held protesters and activists without charges and have used torture to extract confessions.

“We call on you, the marja taqlid … to remind the relevant authorities of the damaging consequences of employing unlawful methods and warn them about the spread of tyranny in the Islamic republic system,” said the letter, a copy of which was made available to the AP.

Mehdi Karroubi, a signatory of the letter and a candidate in the election, sent a letter of his own to Iran’s intelligence chief describing the crackdown on protesters as worse than the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.

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