The Iranian Judiciary should immediately release eight student editors and activists arrested in recent weeks for allegedly defaming Islam in student publications, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Judiciary’s spokesman, Alireza Jamshidi, on May 2 told reporters that publishers of these controversial editions were not students at all. But the Information Ministry, which handles intelligence operations, are holding the eight Amir Kabir University students in solitary confinement in section 209 of Tehran’s Evin Prison, where they are at risk of torture and ill-treatment.
Agents from the Information Ministry arrested the eight students between May 3 and June 6 as the student body prepared to hold elections for the university’s Islamic Student Association. The students have denied any role in publication of these editions and called them forgeries.
“The Iranian authorities are using the flimsiest of pretexts to arrests student journalists and activists,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even the Judiciary has admitted that these students had nothing to do with the forged publications. The government unleashed this crackdown just as the university prepared for student elections.”
The lengthy detention of these students, particularly in conditions of solitary confinement, in some cases for up to 50 days, is certain to endanger their psychological health and increase the risk of physical torture, Human Rights Watch said. During this entire period, the students have been denied any access to their families or lawyers.
Student activists face particular risk of physical abuse and torture inside Iran’s security prisons. Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than a dozen former student detainees who testified to being subjected to routine physical abuse and beatings by their interrogators whose aim was to extract coerced confessions.
The recent wave of arrests started as Amir Kabir University students planned elections for their Islamic Student Association. On April 30, four editions of newspapers bearing the format and emblems of student newspapers were distributed inside Amir Kabir University by unknown persons. These newspapers allegedly contained several articles deemed insulting to Islam. The editors of the four publications which the editions purported to be from, immediately denounced this act and stated that the editions were forgeries.
Although the Judiciary’s spokesman on May 2 told reporters that the controversial publications were not produced by students, agents of the Information Ministry began the next day to detain the editors of these papers. They detained Ahmad Ghassaban, editor of the student newspaper Sahar, on May 3 and Meqdad Khalilpour, member of the students’ association on May 6.
Despite the tense atmosphere created by the publication of the newspapers, students at Amir Kabir University proceeded to hold elections on May 7 and 8. According to eyewitnesses, students associated with the paramilitary forces known as Basij and university officials tried to disrupt the voting by physical intimidation and threats, but did not succeed.
After the elections, the government began to arrest more students involved with student publications, as well as other student activists. Other students currently in detention are Pouyan Mahmoudian, editor of Rivar; Majid Sheikhpour, editor of Sar Khat; and Majid Tavakoli, member-elect of the central committee of student association. The authorities have also detained three former members of the central committee of student association: Ehsan Mansouri, Abbas Hakim, and Ali Saberi.
At the same time, the Information Ministry is holding three Iranian-Americans in solitary confinement in section 209 of Evin Prison, and is denying them access to family and lawyers. Agents of the ministry detained Haleh Esfandiari and Ali Shakeri on May 8 and Kian Tajbakhsh on May 11.
Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned about the psychological and physical well-being of all detainees, particularly Haleh Esfandiari, who is 67 years old.
“The Iranian Judiciary is using prolonged solitary confinement to break the detainees and coerce false confessions,” Whitson said. “Any statements obtained from detainees under such circumstances are worthless under the Iranian and international law.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Iranian government to end its persecution and politically motivated prosecution of student editors and activists.