Dissident Iranians find refuge in Turkey

Since protesters took to the streets following the Iranian presidential election, dissidents are escaping the country, human rights groups say, fleeing to Europe and neighboring Turkey. Among those experiencing pressure from the Iranian government are student groups, journalists, human rights activists, artists and gays.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 15, 2010

KAYSERI, TURKEY -- After an hours-long interrogation, Iranian intelligence agents trailed Aida Saadat to the dimly lit streets of her neighborhood in Tehran, she recalled. Yelling out her name, they came at her with batons, then left her lying on the sidewalk bloodied and bruised.

"They called it a warning and said they'd be back," said Saadat, a women's rights activist and key figure in the political protests that have rocked Iran for months.

That night, she packed a small bag and joined hundreds of other dissidents who human rights groups say are escaping Iran in numbers not seen in years. She crossed freezing rivers and traversed arid plains with the aid of a hired smuggler, she said, ducking patrols on her way to neighboring Turkey.

Her departure in November added to a small but growing exodus of the crusading journalists, human rights activists, academics and artists who have long ranked among Iran's chief agents of change. They range from high-profile cases, such as dissident journalist Hasan Sarbakhshian and filmmaker Narges Kalhor, the daughter of a top adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the lesser-known members a nascent movement of gays and lesbians struggling for tolerance in a nation where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Some observers say their departure could set back the democratic movement in Iran, where Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection last summer sparked protests and a crackdown on dissidents.

Saadat, for instance, for years openly fought against laws that institutionalize women as second-class citizens. In the election's aftermath, she tapped into an underground network of women's rights activists. She secretly fed details of street demonstrations to foreign news outlets and organized the mothers of slain student protesters for silent vigils in Tehran's Lelah Park.

Now she is holed up in an unheated apartment in central Turkey, a nation that has forged closer ties with Iran in recent years and officially forbids refugees from engaging in political activity -- a rule many have nevertheless ignored.

"You have high achievers in the political fight coming out of Iran, where their influence is going to be much less than if they were still there," said Drewery Dyke, an Iran specialist with Amnesty International.

Some refugees in Turkey say they have received threatening phone calls from Iranian agents. One refugee said last month that operatives stole her cellphone, which was packed with contact information for dissidents in Tehran.

Yet Dyke and other rights activists said the dissidents' relative freedom in exile offers them a better perch for their fight than would the inside of an Iranian jail. They are now helping fuel an international network of exiles who send blocked international news reports and details of upcoming protests to allies back home. They also document abuses, including allegations of torture and rape at the hands of security forces, with human rights groups abroad.

"You now have people working together to say bring back the promise of a more transparent, open society that was lost when Ahmadinejad came to power," said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

He later continued: "You even have gays and lesbians, presented as criminals by the government, becoming more active -- forming networks, disseminating information. That's how change can happen."

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