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.
Such emotional encounters and international pressure led to his release on Dec. 12.
Memarian said that Iranian politics have fragmented since Ahmadinejad's election. "There are more clear distinctions emerging between Ahmadinejad, the security agencies and the Revolutionary Guards, and the more traditional conservatives who come from the bazaar who have a stake in stability."
Memarian said that Khamenei has been "forced to step into the center of political fighting to keep Ahmadinejad in check" and has made appointments aimed at curbing the president's powers.
A conservative backlash against reforms during Khatami's tenure resulted in a wave of arrests that began in 1999.
"They managed to depoliticize the population. People who had high hopes they could bring about real change ended up in jail. Khatami tried in vain to prove that the Islamic regime could change from within. People joined him and trusted him, and after a while they gave up," Memarian said, summing up the apathy that led to Ahmadinejad's political fortunes.
"I ran as a candidate for city hall in Tehran, but even my parents did not vote for me. Their views were that even if you make it, you will not make a difference," he said.
But Memarian refuses to give up.
"People like me know that democracy does not just happen. It is a culture; we have to prepare people, and we have been working on this. In spite of everything, I am optimistic."
One of the main reasons Memarian remains upbeat has been the reach and impact of women's workshops across the country.
"There are 500 women non-governmental organizations in the forefront of civic action. If there is one thing that has become totally politicized, it is linking women's issues to changing Islamic rule," he said. "Women have learned how to advocate and lobby for change within the system and how to magnify their impact in rural areas and far-flung provinces."