(New York) - Dozens of university students are behind bars and several hundred others have been expelled from campus because of their political activism or religious affiliation, Human Rights Watch said today as Iran marked National Student Day. Many of those in prison hold leadership positions in well known student organizations critical of the government.
Iran's universities have increasingly become targets of government efforts to consolidate power and stifle dissent. Since 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration has pursued a multi-phased campaign to neutralize dissent at universities and "Islamicize" higher education. This campaign, spearheaded by the Ministries of Education, Science and Technology, and Intelligence, includes imprisoning student activists; barring other politically active students and members of Iran's Baha'i community from higher education; using university disciplinary committees to monitor, suspend, or expel students; increasing the presence of pro-government student groups affiliated with the basij (a hard-line Islamist paramilitary group); and restricting the activities of student groups.
"The government accuses student activists of endangering national security and being manipulated by ‘foreign elements' as cover for its campaign to eliminate the student movement and stifle academic freedom," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Despite these pressures, students are at the front line of the struggle for greater freedoms at universities and throughout society."
The latest spate of arrests of student leaders was in November 2010, when security and intelligence forces arrested four members of Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office to Foster Unity), one of Iran's largest student organizations, which the government considers illegal.
National Student Day, marked on the 16th of Azar on the Iranian calendar, commemorates three students killed at Tehran University on December 7, 1953, by the Shah's security forces. On Student Day 2009, demonstrations erupted on university campuses throughout Iran as many students expressed outrage over the disputed June 2009 presidential election.
Authorities arrested dozens of protesters, including Majid Tavakoli, an Amir Kabir University student and member of the school's Islamic Student Association, who gave a speech criticizing the government. A revolutionary court sentenced Tavakoli to eight-and-a-half years in prison on various national security charges including "conspiring against the national security," "propaganda against the regime," and "insulting the Supreme Leader" and president. He is in Tehran's Evin prison.
As of November 2010 more than 70 students were in prison throughout the country as a result of their political activities or affiliation with banned student groups, according to sources close to Tahkim-e Vahdat.
In the latest arrests, security agents arrested Ali Qolizadeh on November 5 at his father's home in the northeastern city of Mashhad without producing a warrant, as required by law. Two days later, plainclothes Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Ali-Reza Kiani outside Mazandaran University. On the same day, authorities arrested Mohsen Barzegar in the town of Babol, and Mohammad Heidarzadeh in Shahrekord, in western Iran. Authorities transferred all four to Evin prison in Tehran, but released Qolizadeh, Kiani, and Heidarzadeh in late November and early December. They are still holding Barzegar in section 240 of Evin prison and denying him access to his lawyer and family members.
In a statement issued on November 8, Tahkim-e Vahdat accused the authorities of targeting these four members because they had just been elected to the organization's central committee. Several sources close to Tahkim-e Vahdat told Human Rights Watch that authorities arrested the students just before the group was to announce the official results of its annual elections, which took place over the internet this year due to security concerns.
On October 31, Raja News, a Persian-language website thought to be close to the Intelligence Ministry, reiterated Tahkim-e Vahdat's illegal status and ran an article accusing several of its members of having ties with the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), both of which the Iranian government considers terrorist organizations. Tahkim-e Vahdat and several Persian-language websites affiliated with other student groups have rejected these allegations and said the arrests were part of the government's latest campaign to discredit the student movement and stifle dissent.
The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Research declared Tahkim-e Vahdat illegal in 2009. During the wide-ranging crackdown that followed the disputed June 2009 presidential election, security forces arrested more than 200 students, including several high-ranking members of Tahkim-e Vahdat. Many of these arrests took place in November and early December 2009, months after security forces attacked Tehran University and killed several students, and weeks before National Student Day events were to take place.
Authorities held scores of students incommunicado for weeks before prosecutors filed charges against them and lawyers gained access to their clients. Many alleged that security and intelligence agents had tortured and forced them to confess to crimes they had not committed. The judiciary prosecuted the students in closed trials in Iran's revolutionary courts.
Bahareh Hedayat and Milad Asadi are two other central Tahkim-e Vahdat committee members that were arrested in 2009. They are currently serving time in Evin prison. Hedayat is the first secretary of the Women's Commission of Tahkim, and the first - and so far only - woman elected to the national student organization's central committee. Authorities arrested her on December 30, 2009, and charged her with various national security crimes, including "propaganda against the system," "participating in illegal gatherings," and "insulting the president." In May, a revolutionary court sentenced her to nine-and-a-half years in prison. Security forces arrested Asadi on November 30, 2009. Judge Moghiseh from Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to seven years in prison for similar national security-related "crimes."
The administration has also targeted several other student organizations and their members, including Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (Tahkim-e Vahdat's alumni group) and the Committee to Defend the Right to Education (CDRE). Several central committee members of Advar are in Evin prison, including Ahmad Zeidabadi, Abdollah Momeni, Ali Malihi, Ali Jamali, and Hasan Asadi Zeidabadi. Security forces arrested Zeidabadi and Momeni, the group's secretary-general and spokesperson respectively, during the aftermath of the election protests last year. Zeidabadi, Momeni, and Malihi are each currently serving sentences of 14 years and 11 months on various national security charges such as "participation in illegal gatherings," "propaganda against the regime," and "insulting the president."
In September 2009 Momeni sent an open letter to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, detailing abuse and torture he said he suffered in Evin prison. Momeni was one of the student leaders of the July 1999 student protests.
Zia Nabavi, a co-founder of CDRE, is serving a 10-year sentence in Ahvaz's Karun prison. Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Nabavi on June 15, 2009, and prosecutors charged him with various national security-related crimes, including "links to and cooperation with the MEK." Mahdieh Golroo, a student activist and another member of CDRE, has been in prison since November 3, 2009. In April, a revolutionary court convicted her of national security crimes and sentenced her to 28 months in prison. Another co-founder of CDRE, Majid Dorri, is serving a six-year prison sentence for his student activities.
Since 2005 the Ahmadinejad government has barred more than 200 students from university education on political and religious grounds, according to a recent report 01released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Nabavi, Golroo, and Dorri formed CDRE in 2008 after authorities barred them from continuing their university studies. It is one of several student groups that publicized and resisted the government's policy of preventing students from continuing their higher education on political or religious grounds. Another such group is the Population to Combat Educational Discrimination, which largely addressed the government's official policy of preventing Bahais admission to or expelling them from universities "once it becomes known that they are Bahais." In 2009 authorities also prevented Qolizadeh and Barzegar, two of the members of Tahkim-e Vahdat who were recently arrested, from continuing their studies.
"Rather than honoring and celebrating its students, the Iranian government routinely marks 16 Azar by tightening the screws on academic freedom," Stork said. "Instead, the authorities should use this occasion to release the dozens of students who remain in prison on baseless charges, and allow back into the classroom the hundreds of others who are being deprived of their education for political and religious reasons."