On 9 February 2010, an open letter from journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari (LR, Aug 2009) to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was published in the New York Times. In calling for the release of his fellow writers and journalists, Bahari is unflinching in his criticism and offers a chilling portrait of life under a totalitarian regime:
I have heard that you read a novel a week. You must have read George Orwell’s 1984. It is quite a popular book in Iran. Some of the sentences imposed by your judges on my colleagues are right off the pages of that book.
Bahari, an Iranian–Canadian reporter for Newsweek, was imprisoned in Tehran for four months in 2009. His letter was almost certainly timed to coincide with another mass trial of Iranian journalists and dissidents that began on 30 January 2010. All sixteen defendants were rounded up after demonstrations that took place during the Ashoura religious festival on 27 December 2009. They are accused of being mohareb (enemies of God) and ‘corrupt on earth’ – charges that carry the death penalty – and of activities against national security.
One of them, Omid Montazeri, is a 24-year-old law student, a reporter for various newspapers and a budding poet. His father, Hamid Montazeri, was one of the victims of the mass executions of political prisoners in Iran in 1988. Writing on the subject of poetry, Omid is quoted as saying:
Literature is not the language of distinction and separation; it is the language of communication, intertwined with humanly understanding and being. I believe in poetry as such, not as an unlikely imagination and not as the faraway bird.
On the evening of 28 December 2009, plain-clothes agents from the intelligence ministry searched Montazeri’s home and arrested his mother, Mahin Fahimi, well known for being a member of ‘Mothers for Peace’ (a group that has campaigned against the execution of minors in Iran, amongst other things). Montazeri was served with a summons to report to the revolutionary court in Tehran. The young journalist complied with the order and was detained the following day.
Following their arrest, mother and son were both transferred to an unknown place of detention. They were denied access to their lawyers and the Tehran state prosecutor appointed lawyers for their defence with alleged links to the intelligence services. It was not known when they would appear in court or what would be the charges against them until 31 January, when the state media announced the trial of sixteen dissidents, citing Montazeri as ‘Suspect Number Three’. He was introduced as ‘O M, an individual whose mother is a Mother of Peace and whose father was executed in 1987’. Amnesty has reported that extracts from the ‘show trial’ were broadcast on Iranian television. Montazeri ‘confessed’ to various charges including ‘propaganda against the system by participating in protests on Ashoura and giving interviews to foreign media’. He also admitted writing for the cultural magazine Sarpich. Only six issues of the online magazine ever appeared, and it ceased publication in May 2009, but other contributors have also been detained.
Bahari’s poignant description of his experiences gives some idea of the likely fate of Montazeri and other detained journalists:
I was coerced to make a false televised confession admitting that I was acting as an agent of evil Western media. I was forced to say the media are trying to overthrow the Islamic government. I was beaten and threatened with execution to make that confession. I was beaten again after the show because I did not perform as well as my interrogator would have liked. Yes, Ayatollah Khamenei, I had to apologize to you on television to stop my torturer from punching me in the head.
After an international campaign, Bahari was lucky enough to be released on bail and allowed to rejoin his pregnant wife in London. The sixteen Ashoura defendants are not as widely known outside Iran as Bahari, and worryingly some of the charges against them carry the death penalty.
PEN, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) and other human rights organisations have joined forces and launched a campaign aimed at increasing pressure on the government of Iran to release the writers, journalists and bloggers in prison, numbering around sixty-five at the time of writing, as well as urging world leaders to lobby Iran for their release.
RSF has described the ‘new round of Stalinist-style political trials’ as ‘a judicial farce’ that violates even Iran’s own laws. But it is Bahari who presents the argument most likely to sway the Iranian authorities in his letter’s conclusion:
[T]he world is changing. Iran is changing. In 1978, as the shah was doing his best to stifle his people, Ayatollah Khomeini promised that ‘in an Islamic Iran the media will have the freedom to express all Iran’s realities and events’.
Hoping they could realize that promise, Iranians rose up and overthrew the shah. Ayatollah Khamenei, those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the immediate release of Omid Montazeri and Mahin Fahimi; seeking assurances of their well-being; and urging the authorities to uphold the Iranian constitution by releasing all writers, journalists and bloggers currently behind bars for exercising their right to freedom of expression in Iran. Write to:
His Excellency Mr Rasoul Movahedian
Head of Mission
Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran
16 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1PT
Fax: +44 20 7589 4440
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic
His Excellency Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei
Email: email@example.com or visit the website http://www.leader.ir, choose your language and click on the left-hand link ‘send letter’.