(New York) - Iranian authorities should promptly free 10 students arrested in February 2009 in connection with peaceful campus demonstrations and detained without charge in Tehran's Evin prison, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have denied the students access to lawyers and family.
Two of those still being held were among 70 students detained on February 23 during a sit-in at Tehran's Amir Kabir University. Four other students from the university who were not at the demonstration were taken from their homes the next morning, February 24, and remain in custody. Four others who participated in a memorial ceremony for the Islamic Republic's first prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, on February 5 also were detained. Both campus events were peaceful, although on February 23 an assault by plainclothes pro-government militia led to clashes.
"Peaceful protest is not a criminal offense," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Iranian authorities should release these students without delay."
The February 23 sit-in was protesting an initiative by two pro-government militias, Ansar-e Hezbollah and the Basij, to re-bury the remains of five "unknown [gomnam] martyrs" on campus grounds; 3,000 students had signed a petition protesting the burials. Students contend that the militias are promoting the on-campus burials of soldiers and others who died in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq to justify their increased presence on campuses nationwide. Members of the militia make regular visits to such burial sites to pay homage.
The student detentions are the latest escalation in a three-year battle against campus burials nationwide. The crackdowns come amid heightened government interest in quelling activism ahead of the next presidential elections in June.
At the February 23 event, using nunchucks (sticks connected by chain), knives, pepper spray, and batons, plainclothes Ansar and Basij forces assaulted approximately 600 students sitting in at the proposed burial site to prevent the burials from taking place, according to the Amir Kabir University student news website. It said 60 students were wounded, 20 of whom were hospitalized. The government, which routinely denies university unrest, has not issued any statements regarding the incident. A student leader told Human Rights Watch that two students remain in the hospital in critical condition.
According to students with whom Human Rights Watch spoke and the Amir Kabir student website, militia forces accompanied some of the wounded students to the hospital and interrogated them as they were being treated. Other students were detained on campus and taken to the nearby Police Station #107 at Palestine Square. Authorities eventually transferred 21 of the students to Evin prison section 240, a section reserved for political prisoners. Two remain in detention, but their names have not been released.
At 7 a.m. on February 24, security forces claiming to be officials from the Tehran mayor's office raided the homes of Nariman Mostafavi, Abbas Hakimzadeh, Mehdi Mashayekhi, and Ahmad Ghasaban, all Amir Kabir students. All four belong to the Islamic Student Organization (Anjoman-e Islami-yeh Daneshjooyan) or its umbrella group, the National Organization for Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), the groups that organized the sit-in.
"My clients and the other defendants have not had access to their lawyers even though this is the law of our land, that a defendant has this right," their lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, told Human Rights Watch. "We still don't even know the charges against these young people, even though we should within 24 hours of arrest."
Security forces had arrested students from both of these student organizations at the public ceremony in Tehran commemorating Bazargan. The Amir Kabir news site and students who spoke with Human Rights Watch said that the arrest of these four student leaders, Hossein Torkashvand, Majid Tavakoli, Korosh Daneshyar, and Esmail Salmanpour, was meant as a warning following increased tensions between government forces and students who had become aware of the February 23 burial plans. Government postings on campus warned students not to protest the burials.
Although the students who remain in detention have not been charged or allowed to see their families, friends and Dadkhah, the lawyer for some of the students, told Human Rights Watch that they believe that all of them are in solitary confinement in Section 209 of Evin prison. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the harsh interrogation in this wing of Evin prison (https://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/01/06/you-can-detain-anyone-anything-0 ).