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FRONTLINE/World: Forbidden Iran

Jane Kokan
Reporter
Friday, January 9, 2004; 11:00 AM

This edition of PBS?s international newsmagazine, FRONTLINE/World, includes a harrowing report from Iran, where reporter Jane Kokan risks her life to secretly film shocking evidence of a government-sponsored reign of terror. In "Forbidden Iran," Kokan escapes the constant surveillance of the Iranian authorities to record exclusive interviews detailing the systematic torture and execution of students opposed to the current regime.

Kokan was online Friday, Jan. 9 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss the documentary and her behind-the-scenes reporting from Iran.

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"Forbidden Iran" airs Thursday, Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings)..

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Wheaton, Md.: Has there been any real progress normalizing relations with Iran's hardline government? When Iran refused help from Israel after the earthquake, it appeared that the Iranian government was more concerned with promoting anti-semitism than helping thier own people.

Jane Kokan: Iran is one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world, yet the goverment hasn't built with proper anti-earthquake building codes. There was one in the early 1990s -- that was huge -- and in 1997. So this country is one of the most earthquake prone countries in the world and many people have been demonstrating outside of Bam on this point. But on this time, the only country the government refused help from was Israel.

There's also some criticism from Canadian relief workers. They had to wait a day to get a translator once in-country. It's kind of ironic that the only building left standing was the prison. It's a rich country, there's no reason why the government couldn't have built for quakes. There are some young people who also criticize the govt for having the money for finance Islamic terrorist groups, but not to use the proper building materials.

I come from Vancouver, but all our bridges have the proper anti-earthquake stuff in there.

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Vienna, Va.: Why wasn't the full one-hour documentary shown? The "cut and paste" version failed to show the real horror in Iran. The full version depicts the horrific acts of torture on Iranian citizens followed by further interviews with political activists in Iran, Turkey and several other European countries. Why was all of that cut out? Was this a political decision made by PBS so as to not anger the Iranian leaders? It was not fair to you as a reporter or to the millions of Iranians suffering under this regime to have shown a sanitized version.

Jane Kokan: It wasn't my decision to make the cuts. PBS has a different format, so the film couldn't be more than 25 minutes. The film I made for channel 4 features stoning, having his eye removed for looking at something un-Islamic, amputations -- very gruesome and I could see that people would switch off if they saw these things. The interesting thing is that they issued a moratorium on stoning, but people are still being sentenced to stoning. Hard to prove it, though. People are still being amputated as per amnesty international.

If you look at the Iranian penal code, it is totally barbaric. For example, every time the reformers want to ban torture the guardian counsel, the Ayatollah, can veto a bill that will ban torture. Every time the reformers try to do something, it is vetoed. So, it's tough to implement change. I guess the channel 4 version was distributed around the world and even smuggled back into Iran.

Even in the Iranian penal code, men have to be buried up to their waist in Iran and women up to their breastline, the rocks can't be big enough to kill you too quickly.

I'm not saying the Iranians should implement a Western penal code -- who am I to raise my Canadian wand to say this? But it is pretty barbaric by Western standards.

And women's rights are half that of a man's.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dear Ms. Kokan,

My father Siamak Pourzand, 74-year-old intellectual and journalist is also a political prisoner in Iran; he was a cell-mate of dear Kianoosh and Amir-Abbass. In my years of activism against the government of rogue clerics I had not yet, until now, seen such a wonderful and poignant reporting on the nightmare in Iran. However, I must ask you why you felt compelled to edit in your conversation with Shirin Ebadi who is loathed by 98 percent of Iranians now. She could have been a lynchpin in the victory against the Mullahs and she sold out every dissident and activist who had supported her. Also, you did not mention that in fact Stefan Hashemi told her that he categorically refused her offer to represent his family and his mother's case in Iran? Why did you ignore that?

Respectfully,

Banafsheh Pourzand-Bonazzi

Jane Kokan: We felt compelled to use her because she had been a political prisoner as well. Ya, a lot of young Iranians say she has sold out because she's practicing self-censorship. So I guess it was a big deal that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I don't know enough about individual Iranians feel about her, because I was in Iran illegally. I had to be very careful and had to watch my back as well. But we felt it was necessary to use a bit of the interview with SHirin because in a country run by men, she's a woman with a voice. She's not an investigator, per se, She represented Parasdu Farawar -- who were stabbed to death in a knife attack. They were activists and proved quite useful. So we had the same case with Stefan Hashemi, but she's a lawyer, not an investigator. Basically, the regime, was name a fall guy with Hashemi. Manhdam Ahmadi as the person charged with her death according to a parliamentary investigation. So intelligence investigators have no idea who this person is -- it could be a fake name. So whether Shirin will find the real killer is doubtful. But give her some time to prove herself. Her hands are tied basically. She, too, remembers what prison was like.

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New York, N.Y.: Knowing all we know about what goes on in Iran, why is the American government actually talking about opening up a dialogue with this totalitarian regime?

Jane Kokan: Well, Iran is still labeled as "Axis of Evil" country. Bush had been calling for the government to hand over al Qaeda suspects. The big joke was that the Americans got the wrong country with WMD. It's admitted it has stuff. I'm not a military expert, but has admitted that they have certain arsenals. We've got a country that supports Islamic terrorist groups, and is harboring al Qaeda suspects.

I heard from one Iranian intelligence officer we saw in the film who I interviewed in Amsterdam. Hamid Zakari who defected over a year ago, tells me bin Laden is in Iran and has disguised himself by shaving his head and has chopped off his beard and dyed it a different color with henna and put on weight. It could make sense for him to be there. The Iranians have nothing against al Qaeda as such. There's a rumor that Aymen al-Zawahiri is in Iran. According to the intelligence office, both are disguised to look like Iranian clerics. The thing is, I don't know what sort of CIA operatives are on the ground, but they should check out the clerics.

This is all hearsay, but apparently the revolutionary guard of Iran have arranged body doubles for bin Laden and several people told me that Iran is planning terrorist attacks against the U.S. I went outside the former U.S. embassy and there is all this "death to America." There's no love lost between the countries, so it makes sense to come to some sort of agreement. But the Americans are right in there with humanitarian aid, which is good.

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Turk living in U.S.: You make a lot of accusations in your report without actually any proof. What was so alarming about showing police at the demonstrations? Is that any different from here? And I found it ridiculous that you were having a phone conversation with an inmate in those "evil and cruel" prisons. I think you have been well manipulated by these reformers. The documentary shows a clean and well-managed country with some political problems, not some crazed hellhole as you tried like to portray.

Jane Kokan: With the phone, money talks -- you can buy drugs in the prisons. It's not that difficult to have a phone smuggled in by bribing prison officers, who only make $100 a month. There's a very well organized smuggling racket within the prisons and spoke to others from the prisons who said there was always drugs available. Prison guards preferred their inmates to be high.

The demonstrations were student demonstrations. They were not armed or attacking a police building. They were just calling for reforms, a dialogue to be opened between students and the regime. IF I were to go on an anti-war march, I don't think I'd be attacked by seven layers of police. This was just a gentle student demo. It's been documented by amnesty international that this, and the police going into a dorm at night and kililng students, happened.

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New York, N.Y.: Ms. Kokan,

I admire your courage as I could feel the fear creeping all around watching you simply moving around in Iran. And I have even more admiration for these students and Zahra Kazemi. Having grown up in Germany, I always tried to imagine what it must have been like in Nazi Germany as it is so hard to imagine it for us lucky ones having been born into free countries. That there are still countries, many, today that treat their people like this is infuriating.
Thank you for giving these people a voice here where we take everything for granted. What can/should we do as individuals and countries to support these students?

Jane Kokan: Basically, the question I asked these students and they said they don't want a military invasion to "liberate" them. The young Iranians say they want ideological and moral support and something like what happened in the former Czechoslovakia. Hopefully the student movement will evolve into a bigger forceful movement. Basically, the movement is growing into something that could be a force of its own. But now it's being crushed by the hardliners. Some students told me the movement was replacing the reformer president as a force for change in Iran. And they're not afraid. People like Farquhar as we saw in the program who went to prison. He wanted to show his face. So, the sad news is that Farquhar was beaten up by one of his inmates -- who was a murderer in jail for killing five women. He was in a cell with a murderer. He apparently has lost vision in his right eye. The other guy, Batabi, who was holding the bloody t-shirt -- he got 15 years for that. He's been taken to the hospital after a nervous breakdown and had a meeting with the U.N. envoy and was beaten up after that and taken back to prison. That's what they get. THey're very brave. How do we help them? Someone who is beaten up for speaking to the U.N.? We can write letters to Amnesty International or they Ayatollah. But I don't think so. I'm not saving let's call for an invasion. The Iranian people don't want that. They want an Iranian style democracy, not an American style democracy. I think a lot of people are expecing a lot more bloodshed before things get better and they are prepared to pay that ultimate price.

I guess we can write letters. These people are just calling for basic human rights. If they want to challenge tuition fees, why should they be beaten up by armed guards. If we do that here in the U.S. or Canada, that doesn't happen. Reporters without Borders says that over 20 Iranian journalists are currently in prison and that not a week goes by without Iranian reporters being pressured by the goverment. Looked what happened to Zara and she was just there to do a job.

It is a repressive police state. Every time the reformers want to change or modernize things. Khatami wanted to outline torture in the judicial system, then Khomeni vetoed the bill.

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Savannah, Ga.: In 1988, my sister and four of my relatives and friends who were in Shiraz prison for about six years were executed among possible tens of thousnads of other prisoners throughout Iran. Fifteen years after still we don't know who did it, why, and where they were buried. We know they were buried in many mass graves, some were discovered accidentally by locals. During your visit to Iran, did you have any chance to to know more about this national tragedy?

Thank you.

Jane Kokan: This one guy I talked to said his brother disappeared in a mass grave, but the reality is that people disappear everyday in Iran without anyone knowing what happened to them. If you went over there to find it, you'd never be allowed. Several Iranians I met said they had family members who disappeared. I think when there is finally regime change, they will be discovered. It's really tough. Hats off to anyone who goes there to try to find them, but I think you'll just meet denial.

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Arlington, Va.: No questions, I'd just like to comment on how much I learned from this Frontline segment. Thank you for your excellent and moving piece.

Jane Kokan: Thank you, that's nice

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Knoxville, Tenn.: You have fallen victim to the same ignorance and stereotypes which befall Western journalists in the Middle East, which is that they try their best to link every problem people have with religion. Why did you only interview the secularist part of the reformists? They may be appealing to outsiders but they are not people who ultimately have much support. Being an Iranian I can tell you people dont want an end to the Islamic Republic, but they want it to be more democratic and ease social restrictions. The Shah was a secular murderer, I don't remember any documentaries about his "horrible, repressive" rule.

The INC used people like you to raise hoopla over Iraq's alleged WMD and links to alqaeda. It was gobbled up in Washington and $200 billion later they find it was all nonsense the INC made up.

Jane Kokan: That's a fair question. Once again, I was in Iran on a tourist visa, so there were only a number of interviews I could do on the ground. The problem with religious conservatives in Iran is that they can't accept the fact that young people there are not religious. I spoke to many Iranians and many said they only go to mosque when they feel like it, or that they shun their Islamic identity because of their record on human rights. And yes, a student movement helped to oust the Shah, and the 79 revolution sounded like a terrific idea on paper.

Some told me their empracing the the pre-Islamic religion of Zoriastrism. But if you convert publically there, you get the death penalty. And some people had been executed for that. But it's a hard one to get facts on.

And yes, the shah had his death squad and violated human rights big time. I wasn't there, though, so can't comment on the extent of his repression. But IRan right now is a police state. It's as if the Islamic revolution has backfired. Young people don't want this repressive Islamic state. They want a modern Democratic Islamic state -- perhaps with Turkey is an example. They want religion separated from politics. They don't want the Koran influencing schools, hemlines or their lives.

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Durham, N.H.: I just got back from Iran, I was writing an article for an American newspaper about what the young people desired for their future. I, too, had to pose as a tourist and find private settings with the people.

I was amazed first by how popular I was. Everywhere I went people were happy to meet the American. Many young people said they had lost hope for reform and would not vote in the coming elections. But they also seemed to be committing small acts of rebellion. I would ride in a car of girls blasting sexily explicit American dance-music. Women would wear their scarves at the very back of their head and constantly take them off for readjustment. I asked them why they didn't just tie them tighter and they said that it drives the boys crazy. Also, many girls I talked to on busy city streets would write and hand me their email addresses on paper and they would also shake my hand--which is a big no-no.

My question: will students give up on massive political upheaval and street protests and focus instead on private rebellions in order to stay human?

Jane Kokan: Sounds like you had a pretty good time there.

Basically, you've gone through your experience and the question is where do the students go from here? From my experience, yes the Internet cafes were full of men downloading western music -- which is illegal. Women wear their headscarves about to fall off. They are bold with their hemlines. Gone are the days where the police would hit women for exposing their scalp.

What is happening is torture of people opposing the clerics. Young people do have parties, they can buy liquor on the black market. Some young Iranians a year ago protested about three alcohol smugglers being executed. But the hardliners are still increasing their attacks on "immoral parties" featuring alcohol and western music and kissing, holding hands. I still, this reminds me that I met a young nurse -- young women wanted to take their picture with me, and some people gave me their e-mail addresses. I get e-mails asking for help emigrating to Canada. ALso, because there are no jobs or future there. The unemployment rate is very high. I hear there are 5 or 6 million unemployed. There are huge socio-economic problems there and you've got a majority young population. WHere are the jobs going to come from? This is what the Islamic government should be concentrating on, not cracking down on "immoral parties." There will be even bigger demonstrations. Already Iran has double-digit inflation and the goverment has to address this. What's going to happen a year or two from now when this gets even worse one or two years from now.

Even young journalists want to get out where they can write freely.

The young nurse I met asked me what kind of music I like. I said some classical, whatever. She said she really liked Britney Spears and downloaded it off the Internet cafe computers. She also said some of the girls had got a smuggled copy of "Erin Brokovich." So it's a bit surreal. They are normal young people -- not crazy revolutionaries. IF they want to watch a Julia Roberts movie, why shouldn't they?

There are some amazing Iranian films that have come out recently, but they all have to be smuggled out of the country.

My big point is that the regime really has to address the bigger questions -- the socio-economic questions. There are also at least 2 million drug addicts in Iran, which is never reporter. It goes on. And the people are poor, so I can understand why they turn to drug smuggling. But at the same time it is a rich oil/gas country.

Suicide rates -- the young man Kianush who had been arrested before. He said he knows a couple of young people at university who have committed suicide because they can't take it anymore. There are a lot of frustrated young Iranians out there. I almost feel like there's going to be an explosing -- the students are getting to the boiling point. The goverment needs to liberalize.

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Jane Kokan: I really feel for the Iranian people in light of the earthquake, I think there are a lot of suffering people there -- not just earthquake victims, but those in prisons, young students, activists, journalists. They're not revolutionaries. They're just asking for basic human rights. If we could just sort of offer some moral support, it may just help.

I think the authorities cannot shy away from the fact that 2/3 of the population is under the age of 30 and can't get jobs. Iran's economy is unable to fulfill these young job seekers trying to just get jobs. This could be an earthquake waiting to happen.

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