Pushing the Envelope on Iranian Repression

By Nora Boustany
Friday, November 11, 2005

Like thousands of other Iranian reformers, Omid Memarian is sad but not despondent. The reformers' goal of ending the isolation of the clergy-controlled country has been set back by a hard-line new president, but countless individuals continue to push the envelope on change, he said.

The election in June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , a former mayor of Tehran, threatens to erase the gains made by a civil society trying to organize and energize against all odds, Memarian said in an interview last Friday in Washington. But reformers are still working to expose arbitrary detentions, prisoner abuse and other injustices.

Memarian, a passionate young journalist, represents a new breed of human rights activists who have used technology to challenge political repression in Iran. He was honored by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday night in New York for his efforts to forge a more open and democratic society through Internet journalism and social activism.

"This generation of human rights defenders is the main obstacle to the hard-liners who want to prevent social change," Hadi Ghaemi , a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said about Memarian and other Iranian activists who came of age in the last decade of promised reforms.

On Oct. 10, 2004, Memarian, 31, was arrested and put in solitary confinement, one of more than 20 reformist journalists, bloggers and Web site technicians who were thrown in jail from August to October last year. Memarian was charged with conveying a "dark picture of the country and stoking women's issues."

He was beaten and his head was bashed against a wall repeatedly during his 55 days in detention. "We were shocked and petrified. The same group of people who arrested us were involved in the killing of Canadian Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi ," he said. Kazemi, a freelancer, died in detention after being arrested for taking photographs outside a prison during student-led protests against the government.

Memarian and other detainees were forced to issue televised apologies to their countrymen and to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , Iran's supreme religious leader. They also had to confess to accepting bribes from outsiders plotting to destabilize Iran.

Memarian's mother sent a letter to then-President Mohammad Khatami pleading for help. "I don't know where he is," the president wrote back, Memarian said. "The more I remain silent about the issue, the more emboldened they become."

Memarian's parents went to the Tehran courthouse every day during his detention to ask for his release. One morning, he saw them while he was being escorted to a formal hearing in the judiciary complex. "Mother pleaded with the guards for a few minutes to embrace me," he said.

Memarian told her about his conditions. He asked her to access the hard drive of his computer and to contact human rights organizations overseas.

Khatami arranged for his advisers to meet with some of the detainees. After hearing the stories of torture and forced confessions, the officials "were on the verge of tears," Memarian said.

Memarian confronted the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi , with the facts. The detainees were threatened with disappearance or warned that they could die in freak car crashes if they divulged details of their ordeal. "You are in office to protect us, yet in your institutions they tell us we can die if we say the truth," Memarian said he told the cleric, who tugged obsessively at his worry beads during the session.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company