News about Iran's Uprising is scarcely found on mainstream media these days. There are stories about individual human rights abuses. There are stories about Ahmadinejad's outlandish remarks about how "the 12th Imam" will come so he can sit on his lap and suck on his thumb. There are stories of sanctions and Israel and Iraq and how Iran is just about to unleash Armageddon. But few stories chronicle the constant struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran. This, however, does not mean that the struggle is dead. It is a daily struggle that continues ever vigorously.
The problem is, there are so many incidents, and so many other major stories are waiting to be covered that updates about the continuing struggle for freedom are simply ignored. If we're lucky, they are left to be written by junior staff members at major news organizations, then relegated to the bottom of the "International News" page or get mentioned in a joke on Rick's List on CNN. (Does anyone even watch that show?)
Here is one such example. The story itself looks like a minor incident at first glance. But as it progresses, the extent to which Iranians are willing to take this struggle for their rights becomes apparent. At the same time, it shows how involved all parties, ("the people", the movement, and the government) are in the process.
The latest incident started with the mistreatment of prisoners. On July 26 and 27, a number of detained Iranian protesters and political activists were transferred to solitary confinement at Evin Prison in Tehran. Bahman Ahmadi-Amouei and Keyvan Samimi were transferred on Monday the 26th, the rest the next day. In protest, Amouei began a hunger strike on Tuesday July 27. Majid Tavakoli, Abdollah Momeni, Koohyar Goudarzi and two other prisoners joined the hunger strike. A day later, more prisoners joined the hunger strike to support Amouei, Tavakoli and the others, increasing the number of hunger striking prisoners to 17.
These are not shopkeepers or bus-drivers. They are journalists, human rights activists and political prisoners who were arrested after the ongoing protests in Iran erupted last year. Majid Tavakoli is perhaps the most important student leader inside Iran right now. His courage to stand up against tyranny and give a speech during the protest condemning the government has already made him a hero among supporters of the movement. If the movement succeeds, it will be the stuff of legend. Tavakoli knew he was going to be arrested and face horrendous forms of torture - perhaps some invented specifically to break his spirit.
He did. After his arrest, he was forced to wear women's clothes, specifially the hijab. In an effort to emasculate this brave soul, pictures were posted on government websites. He was accused of hiding, of attempting to flee. In reality, when they went to arrest Majid, he was waiting in Tehran University for them to come and take him.
These men could not take it anymore. The way their fellow prisoners were being treated was too much. Something had to be done.
Over the past few months, much has been written about the conditions at the detention facilities in Iran. Among others, prisoners -- especially political prisoners -- are subjected to long periods of solitary confinement, their phone privileges are revoked, they're denied family visitation, and meals meager. Frequent interrogations are the norm and physical and psychological torture is rampant. Prisoners have already died under these conditions.
To make matters worse, many family members of prisoners have claimed that in the past two months, conditions are getting even worse. The father of Hamed Rouhinejad, a young political prisoner suffering from Multiple Sclerosis (MS), summed it up best: "Hamid's health is deteriorating daily. He is gradually losing his eyesight." Hamed is serving a 10-year sentence after his death sentence was revoked on appeal. "I cannot stand this anymore. I cannot see him in pain. He himself cannot stand it either. They are killing him little by little."
These conditions prompted the prisoners to take matters into their own hands. They sealed their lips and handed out a list of demands to prison officials. They asked the officials and the government to ensure adherence to prison regulations with respect to prisoners' rights, penalties for the prison authorities who violate the regulations, an increase in the duration of permitted phone calls, medical and hygiene facilities for every prisoner, full implementation of the laws pertaining to prisoners, and the immediate and unconditional release of photojournalist Babak Bordbar. Bordbar is innocent of every single charge brought against him and was arrested while taking photos of protests on Ashura (December 2009) with a permit granted to him by the Ministry of Information.
There was another demand, but before the statement could be fully read over the phone by a prisoner to his family, he was forced to hang up by prison guards. However, as soon as news of the hunger strike found space in a few online social media networks, the Iranian government quickly cut-off phone services inside Evin's Ward 350 where the solitary confinement cells are located in an effort to prevent the news from further permeating through the blogosphere.
Then, the prisoners were threatened by the government that if they did not end their strike, they would find themselves in Kahrizak-like conditions. Kahrizak was an infamous detention center in Tehran where scores of detainees died from hunger, thirst, disease, and torture following the Iranian Uprising last year.
Cutting the phone lines at Evin may have been a desperate measure by the government, but by then, word had already gotten out. The families of many of the prisoners involved in the hunger strike as well as the loved ones of other prisoners gathered outside Tehran's Attorney General's office to express their concern and demand the release of their family members. The families attempted to meet the Attorney General and ask for an end to the inhumane and brutal treatments of the prisoners. The AG declined to meet them.
The prisoners were visited by Evin officials along with a number of officials from the Ministry of Intelligence and were told that if they refused to stop their hunger strike, they would be transferred to Rejaishahr Prison in the Western city of Karaj, where conditions are far worse. This demand was quickly rejected by the prisoners.
In response to these threats, prisoners at Rejaishahr issued an open letter in support of hunger strikers, but also urged them to end their strike because "Iran's pro-democracy protest movement" needed them "in order to build a free Iran."
By then, the hunger strike had started to take a toll on the health of the prisoners. Peyman Karimi Azad was the first to be hospitalized. Azad suffers from diabetes and lost consciousness on the seventh day of his strike. Soon at least four other prisoners on hunger strike had to be taken to the prison's infirmary because of failing health. These included Zia Nabavi, Ali Malihi, Majid Dorri and post-election protester Gholamhossein Arshi. All except Azad resumed the hunger strike after receiving treatment.
Again the prisoners' families gathered outside the Prison Affairs building to demand improved prison conditions and the immediate release of political prisoners. Again the protest was ignored by officials.
The families gathered outside the Attorney General's office again. This time, however, their peaceful gathering was confronted with violence by the police who also threatened to arrest them.
It was reported that, "anti-riot police carrying batons attacked families of political prisoners in Sabzeh Meydon of Tehran; they grabbed the pictures of the prisoners out of their hands and tore them while insulting and cursing the mothers." This was followed by reports that Evin Infirmary's staff had started "harassing and insulting" the prisoners that are on hunger strike. Staff were quoted as telling the prisoners that they had 'thrown the country into chaos' and now they were 'throwing the prison into chaos, too'.
Partly because of the harassment and partly because of further pressure on the prisoners to end their strike, Majid and two other prisoners started to abstain from drinking water as well as eating. Their families were banned from giving interviews to the media.
Additional support came from the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ released a statement calling for the release of all journalists unjustly jailed for their work in Iran. "We are gravely concerned about the health of our colleagues, who are on their second week of a hunger strike," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "We call on the Iranian authorities to release all imprisoned journalists and to respect freedom of the press."
The same day, female prisoners held in Evin's public ward issued a statement in support of the strikers:
"Why should 16 prisoners of Evin prison spend their time in solitary confinement like the first days of their detention and go on hunger strikes? Is it logistically impossible for prison administration to fulfill their demands? Are prison officials unable to provide them with phone calls, face-to-face prison visits with their families, or provide medical and hygiene facilities which are among the basic rights of every prisoner?"
Later in the day, opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi asked the prisoners to end their strike in a statement posted on his website. He pointed out that the prisoners had made their point clear and that Iran and the world had taken notice. He urged them to end the hunger strike before it ended up robbing Iran of more of its sons.
Other prisoners in Evin's Ward 350 began a political fast in solidarity with the strikers. It has also been reported that political prisoners at Rejaishahr prison also began a political fast for the same purpose. Dozens of Amir Kabar University students also announced that they would join the fast the next day.
Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi published a statement on a website affiliated with his party. Karroubi called on prison officials to talk to the prisoners and listen to their demands during a meeting with their families. He also asked the prisoners to end their strike as it would harm their health in the future and added that he was very concerned about them.
Humans Rights Watch released a statement in support of the strikers' demands:
"Throwing these prisoners into solitary confinement instead of responding to their legitimate concerns only causes them further harm... They need to be reintegrated back into the general population, get the care they need, and be allowed to contact their loved ones."
Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran later expressed the organization's concern for the lives of the prisoners as well. "These prisoners have committed no crimes and are in prison solely because of their opinions and beliefs. Iran should release them immediately," Ghaemi said.
By the end of the day, the government finally caved in to one of the strikers' demands and released Babak Bordbar. There was, however, no information available about the remaining 16 hunger strikers.
Social and political activists joined the families outside of Evin at sundown while again protested outside the Prison Affairs office. Furthermore, 400 Iranian activists issued a statement expressing concern about the health of the prisoners.
The father of prisoner Ali Parviz, was arrested from the Judiciary headquarters in Tehran while he was attempting to submit a letter on behalf of prisoners' families.
Reza Malek was reported to have joined the hunger strike. He was transferred to solitary confinement after complaining about the inhumane conditions in Evin and prisoners' treatment at the hands of the guards. 74-year old Malek has been a political prisoner for decades. Even though his term of imprisonment was officially completed last year, the Ministry of Intelligence demanded his sentence be extended.
Early in the day, it was reported that Majid Tavakoli's body finally gave in after 15 days without food and 5 without water. His family, unable to reach him for 15 days, was unaware of how much his health had deteriorated. Majid fell unconscious and was in critical condition in the prison clinic.
Majid reportedly recovered after a night in the clinic. He also met with the Attorney General of Tehran, Abbas Jafar Davlatabadi and presented him with the prisoners' demands. The prisoners' families are still not permitted to meet or even speak with them.
While there have been reports - one on Saturday and one early today- that the prisoners have ended their strike, it is difficult to confirm or know the entire truth. Prisoners' families are unable to contact them and prison officials refuse to comment on the situation. The information that is available comes from people who are willing to risk their own lives.
The saga of Majid Tavakoli and the other brave prisoners continues. And so do dozens of other stories that continue to come out of Iran. Surprisingly, finding them isn't hard. The time of millions wearing green in the streets seems to have passed. The government has resorted to absolute terror in an attempt to stifle the movement, but it lives through these brave men and others. What the Iranian people need is for free people to be their voice. What they need is people to hear those voices. They need people to act when their conscience tells them, "enough!" It's time to tell the Iranian government that it is enough. I firmly believe that that time will come. What I hope is for Majid and others like him to be around to witness that day.
What I am sure about, however, is that if one Majid falls, there will dozens more. What I am certain about is that the human desire for dignity, respect and self-worth cannot be quelled. And what I know is that Iran's quest for freedom, human rights and equality will succeed.