Iran Feature: The Week in Civil Society --- Celebrating Despite Economic Decline and the Crackdown (Arseh Sevom)
Arseh Sevom wishes you a Happy Nowruz.
Last year was disheartening for many civil society actors in Iran, as the regime shut down organizations, arrested many, and harassed even more. As bloggers are noting, this was a year of stagnation for Iranian activists and civil society groups, such as women and students, due to the excessive suppression and brutality of the Islamic Republic.
Yet, despite the political climate and the deteriorating economic situation, there were still moments of celebration, such as Chahar Shanbeh Suri (sometimes called Fireworks Wednesday), celebrated last week under the heavy presence of security forces in Iran. For a rare look into Chahar Shanbe Suri celebrations in an Iranian village see the work of Jam Photo Agency.
Asghar Farhadi’s recent Oscar award was a reason for celebration this year, but Iranian officials apparently thought otherwise, and the ceremony to honor the director of the motion picture “A Separation” was cancelled when they denied permission for the event. The two Iranian film groups, the Center for Directors of Iranian Cinema and the High Council of Producers of Iranian Cinema, behind the ceremony issued an apologetic statement: "We intended to have a simple and friendly meeting to say ‘thank you’ for the great achievement you brought Iran and Iranian cinema but the cultural custodians did not let us realize this.”
Reports from Iran confirm that on the advent of Nowrooz, Iranians are suffering from crushing economic strain intensified by the “strongest sanctions that have ever been applied against a nation”, according to Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defense.
From inside Iran, Green Wave News quotes the head of Iran’s Statistics Center who state that 10 million Iranians currently suffer from absolute poverty while another 30 million live with “relative poverty,” for a total of 53% of the population. The report then adds that the monthly minimum wage in Iran has been determined by authorities to be around $200, while the poverty line is $440.
The report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur Ahmad Shaheedon Iran's human rights situation received welcome from many international bodies, including the E.U., but received an angry response from the Islamic Republic. Iran’s representative to the UN Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani, disputed the report from Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, stating that Iran is a pioneer of human rights in the world:
Please put me on the record. The Islamic Republic will welcome and fully co-operate with reporting mechanisms of the Council which aim at discovering the real situation of human rights in Iran and elsewhere. The reason is obvious: our nation is proud of its ongoing experience — I mean building a democratic, social political system, a social polity based on Islamic rationality rather than a secular, liberal rationality.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported another attack against Shaheed, claiming that ICHRI presented false information to his mission.
Arseh Sevom has discussed the case of Saeed Mortazavi (a.k.a. “The Butcher of the Press”), in several of our reviews. In the Civil Society Review from the week of 14 February, we wrote that Mortazavi’s vindication for the post-election (2009) torture and deaths at Kahrizak Detention Center shocked many human rights activists still hoping for some positive development in Iran’s civil society. We later posted the news of Mortazavi’s “promotion” to the head of the biggest financial holding organization in Iran, Social Security Organization [Sazman-e Tamin-e Ejtema’ie].
The reverberations from the post-election elections continue into the present. Recently the mother of Shahrokh Rahmani, one of those killed at the hands of the security forces during street protests in 2009, spoke out for the first time saying she was threatened that if she made the case public, her “other children will be ‘accidentally’ killed, too". Shahrokh Rahmani was killed when a police SUV chased and overran him during the Ashura Day protests of December 2009.
This week news of another, lesser-known Ashura protestor made its way into the headlines of Iranian cyber-activists: 44-year-old Abdolreza Ghanbari, a teacher from Varamin in Southern Tehran was arrested on the same day Rahmani died. Ghanbari is now sentenced to death on the charge of apostasy, “having been in contact with adversary groups based outside Iran”. As evidence, the court has referred to Ghanbari “possessing suspicious emails". The request for appeal has been denied and Ghanbari might be executed at any time.
Mehdi Khazali, who had been on a hunger strike for 70 days, was released from Evin Prison.
Reporters without Borders released a report last week on a new trend in the challenge of cyber activists and netizens to repressive regimes and their cyber-armies:
Companies specializing in online surveillance are becoming the new mercenaries in an online arms race. Hacktivists are providing technical expertise to netizens trapped by a repressive regime’s apparatus. Diplomats are getting involved. More than ever before, online freedom of expression is now a major foreign and domestic policy issue.
Pointing to Iran’s new capability to block VPNs (Virtual Private Networks: a major method for censorship circumvention in the country) the report adds:
The neutralization of encryption, anonymization and circumvention tools is also being prioritized by repressive regimes. Iran is now capable of blocking https and the ports used by Virtual Private Networks.
The report highlights the increasing number of netizens’ harassment and persecution in Iran, "Today, at least 120 netizens are in prison because of their activities. China, followed by Vietnam and Iran, has the largest number of netizens in prison again this year."
One of the pioneers of Iran’s internet, Dr. Shahshahani, noted:
If most people knew what the National Internet is, they would be against it, since the proposed model is like what exists in China…What is true and referred to as the National Internet means that we will have good and expansive local connections but all our foreign connections are to pass through a controllable channel. Currently, 95-percent of Iran’s connections are through the TCI or fiber-optic connections, therefore, many websites we enter are already filtered. In reality, this is the meaning of National Internet.
Yazdani added that the number of marriages for girls under 15 years of age has increased from 33,383 in 2006 to 35,931 in 2007, 37,996 in 2008, and 43,459 last year [please note that the dates are approximate as the statistics were given according to the Iranian calendar, which begins at the start of the Persian New Year].
In the last moments before Iranian New Year, which falls on the spring equinox, two Israeli graphic designers launched a campaign reaching out to Iranians. One of the designers said:
I thought that when you're constantly surrounded by talk of threats and war, you are so stressed and afraid that you crawl into a sort of shell and think to yourself how lucky we are to also have bombs and how lucky we are that we'll clean them out first. So I thought, "Why not try to reach the other side; to bypass the generals and see if they [Iranians] really hate me?"
Tehran Bureau reports on the campaign and the response from a number of Iranians:
I wanted to let you know that your message of love and peace has come through. Looking at all the photos on your wall brought tears to my eyes. Let us not allow our governments hold us back from knowing each other. I dream of a day that you and I will be able to meet in Tel Aviv or Tehran and catch up on all that has been kept back for so long. I sincerely believe, that day will come. TO PEOPLE OF ISRAEL: WE LOVE YOU, TOO!
Arseh Sevom has released its own anti-war statement.
We wish you a very Happy Nowrooz and offer our hope for better times in the year ahead.