Fears over Iran’s nuclear programme may increasingly be coming to the fore, but human rights organisations have long been concerned by that country’s persecution of writers and journalists and the pervasive atmosphere of impunity there. The case of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in the custody of security agents in June 2003, remains unresolved. In January last year, the judiciary summoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, without specifying the charges against her. Only after an international outcry did the judiciary rescind its order.
According to Human Rights Watch the Iranian authorities have systematically suppressed freedom of expression and opinion since April 2000, but the situation deteriorated further last year. They routinely use torture and ill-treatment in detention (including prolonged solitary confinement) to punish dissidents, and have intensified their harassment of independent human rights defenders and lawyers in an attempt to prevent them from publicising and pursuing human rights violations. Many writers and intellectuals have left the country, are in prison, or have ceased to write anything that might be deemed subversive.
Iranian intelligence services abducted journalist and film critic Siamak Pourzand on 24 November 2001, and there was no information about his whereabouts or details of the charges against him for over three months. Many feared he had been a victim of extrajudicial execution. On 6 March 2002, the judicial authorities began closed proceedings against Pourzand. A month later he was sentenced to eleven years in prison on charges of ‘undermining state security through his links with monarchists and counterrevolutionaries’. On 9 July 2002 the Tehran Appeals Court upheld the sentence.
It is widely believed that the charges against Pourzand are based on ‘confessions’ obtained under duress. The journalist reportedly admitted to nine charges against him relating to the fact that he had been in contact with people close to Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah, ousted in 1979, and that he had worked for the Shah’s secret service before the revolution.
On 25 July 2002, Pourzand reportedly appeared on state television looking frail, thin and in apparent distress. According to Amnesty he ‘confessed’ to accusations of ‘spying and undermining state security’ and ‘creating disillusionment among young people’.
The targeting of Pourzand is thought to be connected with his position as manager of the Majmue-ye Farrhangi-ye Honari-ye Tehran, a cultural centre for writers, artists and intellectuals, and with his articles criticising the Islamic regime. His wife is the writer and lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, currently living in the US, and it is believed her activities as a human rights defender may have exacerbated the treatment of her husband. She has published widely on women’s issues in Iran, and her work there as an activist for women’s rights often put her in conflict with Iranian authorities. In April 2000 Kar was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for participating in an academic and cultural conference held in Berlin entitled ‘Iran after the elections’.
Although Pourzand was temporarily released from prison on 30 November 2002, owing to poor health, his freedom was short-lived. On 30 March 2003 he was detained by the Adareh Amaken, a section of the Tehran police customarily tasked with combating ‘moral offence’, and was taken to Evin Prison. According to Amnesty, the journalist was reportedly urged to denounce other individuals and to take part in a television programme about artists who had ‘acted against Iran’. He refused and was later sent home. A month later he was summoned to court and after refusing again to ‘cooperate’ he was returned to Evin Prison.
Around May 2003, Pourzand apparently wrote to the Head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi, explaining his medical condition. Attached to his letter were reports supporting his need for an operation. According to a diagnosis given on 30 July 2003 at the Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran, he was suffering from spinal stenosis (a condition affecting the spinal cord and nerve root that can lead to paralysis), and it was recommended that he be urgently treated at an appropriate surgical centre.
Pourzand also suffers from diabetes and a heart complaint. On 31 March 2004, the journalist reportedly suffered a heart attack that left him in a coma. He was not treated until another prisoner, the lawyer and human rights defender Nasser Zarafshan (LR September 2005), insisted that someone examine him. Pourzand was taken to Tehran’s Modarres Hospital for treatment and, after thirty-six hours in a coma, regained consciousness. Whilst in hospital he was reportedly chained by his feet to the bed. He left cardiac care a month later but had to be readmitted to hospital and finally underwent surgery on his spine on 23 May 2004.
For the last twelve months Pourzand, now aged seventy-five, has been on conditional medical leave from prison. The charges against him remain and, according to PEN, he is required to submit a fortnightly medical report on his condition to the prison’s medical office.
PEN and other human rights organisations consider the charges against Pourzand to be in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for Pourzand’s unconditional release to:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
c/o His Excellency Hamid Reza Nafez Arefi
Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran
16 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1PT
Fax: 020 7589 4440