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A Web Witness to Iranian Brutality

By Anne Applebaum
Friday, January 20, 2006

Enter the Web site: http://www.abfiran.org/ . Click on "Omid: A Memorial," and then "Search." Enter a name -- or a religion, a nationality, an alleged crime. One by one, the stories will transfix you.

Atefeh Rajabi , a 16-year-old schoolgirl: Executed by hanging in Neka, Aug. 15, 2004, for "acts incompatible with chastity."

Azizullah Gulshani : Executed by the state in Mashad , April 29, 1982, for "promoting the dirty, non-Islamic sect of Bahaism."

Ali Akbar Tabatabai : Executed by extrajudicial shooting in Maryland, July 23, 1980, for an "unknown revolutionary offense."

Many of the entries are frustrating. There is "no information on this case," or else the information -- from official sources, exile groups, human rights groups -- is sparse. Dates are missing, photographs are missing, and although the site has English and Farsi links to nearly 10,000 political victims of the Islamic Republic of Iran, thousands more haven't even been entered yet.

But this, say Ladan and Roya Boroumand, is only the beginning: Their "Omid" Web site, named for the word "hope" in Farsi, is a living project that will expand as relatives of the victims of the Iranian Islamic regime add to it, correct it, change it. The launch today -- on the 25th anniversary of the Iranian students' release of American hostages -- is in part a bid for the support and the readers they need to expand the site further. It's also a bid for successors. "If the regime kills us," explains Ladan matter-of-factly, "we hope someone else will take up the task."

The Boroumands are sisters, both with French PhDs, both with other (now abandoned) careers, both daughters of Abdorrahman Boroumand, an anti-Shah, anti-Islamicist Iranian democrat. Boroumand was murdered by agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Paris on April 18, 1991, and the sisters know they could meet the same fate: The Iranian regime has a record of killing its opponents outside the country, usually with impunity. In less serious moments, the sisters tease each other, using jokes that admittedly don't sound funny in print ("Don't worry, you will have a privileged place among the extrajudicially murdered on the Web site.")

The project that endangers them is also one they found psychologically necessary. "When you are a witness to something terrible and you don't do anything about it, you are ashamed," explains Ladan. "How many nightmares I had: My father is in prison, and I cannot get to him, I cannot bring him food. . . . Since we started this project, I feel calmer." They believe that thousands of Iranians are consumed by the same shame and will want to help build this online archive -- or even someday, in a democratic Iran, a real victims' archive.

In their more optimistic moments, the Boroumands also hope that the mere act of participating in the project will remind Iranians that even in a totalitarian society, people are not entirely powerless. They can remember crimes, they can name the perpetrators and they can try to hold them to account. For that reason, the site also links to an extensive library of human rights documents, some translated into Farsi for the first time. Too many Iranians, the sisters say, feel that the terrible things that have occurred since the Islamic revolution of 1979 are "not their fault." But if you take responsibility for remembering the regime's crimes, soon you might also want to take responsibility for halting them. And that, of course, is the truly revolutionary thought behind the Boroumands' project.

Even if they don't achieve quite so much -- even if the regime successfully blocks access in Iran, or if Iranians remain too afraid to contribute -- the sisters are betting that their online archive will embarrass those members of the Iranian regime who still try to hide the true nature of their revolution from the outside world. At least until last week, when the Iranian president announced his intention to start enriching uranium, many in the United States and especially Europe were still arguing that Iran's government had mellowed, that Iran should be treated as a normal trading partner and a normal member of the international community. If nothing else, http://www.abfiran.org/ should make outsiders forever wary of that claim.

"At the minimum," Ladan says, "we are creating a database which academics and scholars will find useful. At the maximum, we start a real public debate about the regime's crimes in Iran -- and ultimately about accountability, due process and democracy." It is, she says, "a gamble." In more ways than one, she is right.

applebaumanne@yahoo.com

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