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Iranian Human Rights Advocate Faces Execution Threat Amid Indifference

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Like the Lubyanka prison in Moscow during the Soviet period, or the Prinz Albrecht Strasse headquarters of the Gestapo in Nazi-era Berlin, Tehran's Evin Prison is indelibly linked with the most gruesome abuses of human rights, involving Iranian dissidents foolhardy enough to resist ideological conformity by thinking and acting for themselves. Evin, by all accounts, is a place where cruelty is the norm, where torture is routine, where mass executions are held as the sun rises in the sky, and where suspicious deaths -- such as that of the blogger Omidreza Mirsafayi, in March 2009 -- are dressed up as suicides.

On September 4, Shiva Nazar Ahari, a young female human rights activist incarcerated in Evin since last December, will enter a Revolutionary Court to face fabricated charges that carry the death penalty. Ahari, a leading activist with the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR), stands accused of "anti-regime propaganda" and "acts contrary to national security." She faces an additional charge in a category of criminality plausible only in societies run along totalitarian lines; what the ayatollahs deem mohareb, or "rebellion against God." It would require the most blinkered apologist for the Iranian regime to suggest that someone charged in this way can expect a fair trial.

As Michael Weiss recently documented, Ahari's public interventions - which began in 2001 when, at the tender age of 17, she attended a candlelit vigil for the victims of the 9/11 atrocities -- are regarded by the regime as one long episode of mohareb. Her presence at that vigil earned Ahari her first prison spell. That experience didn't prevent her from becoming a repeat offender, as far as the regime was concerned. After being expelled from university in 2006 because of her CHRR activities, Ahari fell under the gaze of the Iranian regime's enforcers once more.

In June 2009, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swaggered to a stolen victory in Iran's Presidential election, Ahari was arrested anew. This sojourn in Evin prison included 33 days in solitary confinement. Released in September, she again resumed her work on behalf of political prisoners. And again, in December, the regime firmly shut the door of an Evin cell with Ahari inside it. She has remained there ever since, awaiting the show trial which begins this Saturday.

This time, the crime of mohareb has been concretized into the formal charge, for which there is not a scintilla of evidence, that Ahari is an agent of the bizarre religio-Marxist cult known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. This organization is widely loathed in Iran because of its fealty to the late, unlamented Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, during the 1980-88 Gulf war.

Forced to defend herself from this fabricated charge in a court which, as Freedom House notes, is "notorious for non-transparent procedures and for handing down death sentences," Ahari seems destined to exchange her revolving door existence in Evin prison to become one more statistic on the regime's execution log. Even as her days appear to be numbered, there has been an abiding sense of international indifference to her fate.

In part, that's a consequence of the widespread perception, actively stoked by Ahmadinejad, that his regime will greet western entreaties with nothing other than contempt. That may be the case; still, there are two good reasons to follow the example of Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who this week wrote to Secretary Clinton to push for swift intercession on Ahari's behalf.

Firstly, consider Iran's predicament, and the stark reality that further sanctions as a result of such abuses remain a real prospect against a regime whose fuel subsidies alone amount to $100 billion annually -- begging the question of how long the mullahs can continue their fantasy of eternal rule. Secondly, consider the United States and its allies; they need to avoid the mistakes committed in the run-up to the Iraq war by credibly demonstrating that defense of human rights is a central plank of our Iran policy.

In a stirring personal recollection of her friend Ahari, Sepideh Pooraghaiee quoted from a letter which Ahari sent to a fellow prisoner: "When your heart trembles for the rights of another human, that is when you begin to slip; that is when the interrogations begin. When your heart trembles for another prisoner, a woman, a child laborer, that is when you become the accused. When you find faith in people and believe in humanity and nothing else, that is when you commit your first crime." Words like these could easily have flowed from the pen of Vaclav Havel during the darkest days of Czech communism. Herein lies the contrasting tragedy of Ahari's case; as things currently stand, she is more likely to choke on the hangman's noose than enter high office.

So let's summon some of that spirit which informed western support for dissidents in the former eastern bloc. Urge our leaders, from President Obama onwards, to demand Ahari's unconditional release, and to do so with added volume this coming Saturday. In the same vein, urge our fellow citizens to make crystal clear to Ahmadinejad, the next time he rolls into a foreign city - as he will in New York later in September, to disgrace the UN General Assembly by addressing it - that we have not forgotten Shiva Nazar Ahari, nor those who struggle with her.

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