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(New York) – Iranian authorities should immediately free dozens of university students currently behind bars solely for peacefully expressing political opinions, and end harassment of student activists on university campuses throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued the call as part of a joint campaign initiated by Iranian and international student and rights groups to highlight the government’s systematic crackdown against university students for their political activism.

The campaign has called for the unconditional and immediate release of the 32 students in prison on various national security-related charges. Authorities rounded up many of these students after the disputed June 2009 presidential election, and revolutionary courts convicted and sentenced them on charges such as “propaganda against the system,” “participating in illegal gatherings,” and “insulting the president.” Therefore all were convicted specifically for exercising their rights under international law to freedom of speech, of association, and of peaceful assembly. Security, intelligence, and university officials have disciplined, suspended, or expelled hundreds of other students who criticized the government during the past few years.

“Instead of serving as sanctuaries for higher learning and free debate, Iran’s university campuses are being targeted by the government to silence dissent, stifle academic freedom, and impose uniformity of thought,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Two of Iran’s largest student groups, Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office to Foster Unity) and its alumni association Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, spearheaded the Speak Up for Imprisoned Students campaign on April 21, 2012.

Activists began the campaign on the heels of a report prepared by Tahkim in January that documented the arrests of students. According to the report, since March 2009, 436 students have been arrested, 254 convicted, and 364 suspended or expelled. Tahkim also alleged that judiciary officials had summoned at least 144 students for investigations and that officials have closed down 13 student publications.

Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, highlighted the dire situation of student activists in his most recent report in March 2012. The report, which followed an interim report on September 23, 2011, documented a “striking pattern of violations” by Iranian authorities and outlined the government’s continuing refusal to cooperate with UN bodies.

As recently as April, Kamran Daneshjoo, the minister of science, research, and technology, announced that, “Individuals who participated in the 2009 insurrection … have no right to enter universities.” The Science Ministry, the primary government body responsible for regulating universities in Iran, has introduced a number of controversial measures during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in an effort to “Islamicize” Iran’s universities.

“There is absolutely no reason why any of these students should spend one more day behind bars, let alone forfeit their right to continue their studies in Iran’s universities,” Whitson said. “Authorities should immediately drop charges and release all students imprisoned for criticizing the government, and reverse their futile policy of barring students from higher education on account of their peaceful political activism.”

Iran’s universities have increasingly become targets of government efforts to consolidate power and stifle dissent. Since 2005, 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 Science and Intelligence, includes imprisoning student activists; barring politically active students 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); cutting or limiting social science curricula; and restricting the activities of student groups.

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. 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. On Student Day 2009, demonstrations erupted on university campuses throughout Iran as many students expressed outrage over the election results. Authorities responded with dozens of arrests.

Tavakoli, an Amir Kabir University student and member of the school’s Islamic Student Association who gave a speech criticizing the government, was among those arrested. A revolutionary court sentenced him 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.

Officials often held the 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.

Authorities also targetedstudent leaders during the crackdown, including four members of Tahkim in November 2010. In a statement issued on November 8, 2010, Tahkim accused the authorities of targeting these four members because they had just been elected to the organization’s central committee.

On October 31, 2010, Raja News, a Persian-language website thought to be close to the Intelligence Ministry, reiterated Tahkim’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 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.

Bahareh Hedayat and Milad Asadi are two other central Tahkim committee members who were arrested in 2009. They are also 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 2010 a revolutionary court sentenced her to nine-and-a-half years in prison. In August of the same year, another court sentenced her to an additional six months for “propaganda against the regime.” Security forces arrested Asadi on November 30, 2009, and Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to seven years in prison for similar security crimes. He has since been released.

The administration has also targeted several other student organizations and their members, including Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat and the Committee to Defend the Right to Education (CDRE). Security forces arrested several central committee members of Advar, including Ali Malihi, Ali Jamali, and Hasan Asadi-Zeidabadi, who are currently being held in Evin prison. Asadi- Zeidabadi and Malihi are serving sentences of five and four years respectively on various national security charges such as “participation in illegal gatherings,” “propaganda against the regime,” and “insulting the president.”

Zia Nabavi, a co-founder of CDRE, is serving a 10-year sentence in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. 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.

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 Baha’is from being admitted to or expelling them from universities “once it becomes known that they are Baha’is.”

Campaign Participants
Shirin Ebadi (Center for Human Rights Defenders); Amnesty International; Boroumand Foundation; Green Activists in London; Green Students for A Democratic Iran-Southern California; Human Rights Activists; International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; Iranian Democratic Student Association at George Washington University; Iranian Green Quest of Graduates and Students; Solidarity with Iran’s Democratic Movement (Canada); Students for Iranian Green Movement Association (Canada); Student Green Movement of Vancouver in Solidarity With the People of Iran; Supporting Student Movement in Iran (Sigma), University of Victoria (Canada); The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH); and United 4 Iran.

Names of Imprisoned Students
Hasan Asadi-Zeidabadi; Javad Alikhani; Mohammad Ahadi; Babak Dashab; Majid Dorri; Moeen Ghamin; Mahdieh Golroo; Bahareh Hedayat; Saeed Jalalifar; Ali Jamali; Milad Karimi; Mehrdad Karami; Mehdi Khodaii; Omid Kokabi; Habibollah Latifi (sentenced to death for moharebeh, or “enmity against God,” for his alleged links with “anti-revolutionary groups.”); Shabnam Madadzadeh; Ali Malihi; Aliakbar Mohammadzadeh; Atefeh Nabavi; Zia Nabavi; Hamed Omidi; Hossein Ronaghi Malaki; Kaveh Rezaei Shiraz, Hamed Rouhi Nejad; Roozbeh Saadati; Arash Sadeghi; Afshin Shahbazi; Fereshteh Shirazi; Ieghan Shahidi; Abolfazl Tabarzadi; Majid Tavakoli; Shahin Zeinali.

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