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Iran Feature: The Week in Civil Society --- Political Prisoners, Freedom of Expression, and Killer Smog (Arseh Sevom)

Hila Sedighi, threatened with imprisonment, recites her poetry

Arseh Sevom, the NGO promoting civil society and human rights in Iran, returns with its review of latest developments inside the country:

We have letters for you this week. The most heartbreaking comes from 21-year-old Zanyar Moradi, who begs the world to take notice as he and his cousin face imminent execution. Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi calls on UNICEF to visit children living in prison with incarcerated mothers. The children of former Presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi have called for an end to their house arrest. The Supreme Leader has been deluged with letters demanding free and fair elections.

Meanwhile, Tehran's polluted skies literally take your breath away, claiming more than 4000 lives over one year. Three Iranian writers are honoured with Hellman-Hammett grants for their commitment to free expression, and a group of Iranians in London form an organisation to encourage reading. Iran is said to be working on controls for social networking sites as it steps up its harassment of the families of journalists.

Finally, after her release from prison, Hengameh Shahidi, a former advisor to Mehdi Karroubi, has turned her attention to art.

Iranian Writers Honoured

Isa Saharkhiz, Keyvan Samimi, and Hila Sedighi are three of the 41 writers to receive 2012 Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded by Human Rights Watch, for their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of persecution.

Saharkhiz, a veteran journalist, was arrested shortly after the June 2009 Presidential elections and has been in prison since then, his health deteriorating. He has long been a voice against government crackdowns on reformists and the lack of media freedom.

Samimi has defended the rights of journalists and the right to education. Since 2009, he has been imprisoned in Iran and is now kept in solitary confinement in Rajaei Shahr prison outside of Tehran. Like many of the prisoners of conscience in Iran, his health is steadily worsening, and he has been consistently denied medical leave.

Sedighi is a poet whose public recitation of her poem Autumn’s Rain, referring to missing classmates after the demonstrations following the 2009 elections, moved many. She was arrested and interrogated by the Iranian authorities, apparently only because of her poetry, and given a “postponed” sentence of four months in prison.

Radio Zamaneh mentions other Iranian writers who have received the grant, including Ahmad Shamloo, Houshang Golshiri, Parvin Ardalan, Bahman Ahmadi Amuoee, Asieh Amini, Mohammad Sedddigh Kaboudvand, Ali Afshari, and Abbas Maroufi.

Rise of the Reading Culture

A group of Iranian migrants in London have launched the website Nogaam, responding to the developing trend in electronic books and readings in the Iranian cyber0community and challenging censorship inside Iran. They offer the electronic version of the book to readers for free after providing the author with the required fee.

Iranian Cyber-Police: 24/7

Iran's cyber-police are developing software to control social-networking sites, reports Radio Farda. Iran’s Police Chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said: 

"The smart control of social-networking sites not only prevents their harm, but also allows people to benefit from their useful parts." Moghadam said the establishment last year of a Supreme Council of Cyberspace was a factor in reaching that conclusion.

Facebook was unblocked for a couple of hours in Iran last week. Does this have anything to do with Ayatollah Khamenei’s Facebook debut?

Cyber-police, known as FATA, have not stopped hunting Iranian activists in the blogsphere even after the scandalous case of Sattar Beheshti. The latest, and probably youngest, victim of this force, reported by Radio Zamaneh, is a 14-year-old boy living in Karaj who has been arrested for publishing “obscene stories” on his blog.

We’ll Take Care of Your Family

With the Presidential election around the corner, the Iranian security apparatus has renewed its harassment of the family members of BBC Persian staff. In response to this, more than a hundred journalists have released a statement condemning the intimidation and calling on the Iranian authorities to take immediate action to end it: "Such behavior undoubtedly portrays an image of the Islamic Republic of Iran which is in contradiction with what of the one claimed by Iranians some 35 years ago through their revolution."

Reporters Without Borders has also expressed its grave concern over the arbitrary arrests of journalists and netizens and the threats made against the families of foreigners and Iranians working for media organizations in Iran.

UNICEF's Mandate

The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center reports the transfer to medical facilities of the infants of two Bahai mothers imprisoned in Semnan. This came after the denial of repeated requests from the mothers for medical care for their infants. The organisation states, “Denying medical care to children, as well as subjecting children to the unsanitary conditions of Semnan prison are clear violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a party to this convention, albeit with reservations.”

Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace laureate, has written the Executive Director of UNICEF, Anthony Lake, calling on UNICEF Iran to visit prisons and monitor the conditions of children.

Small children frequently accompany their incarcerated mothers and guardians inoto Iran’s prisons, many of which have inadequate facilities leading to mental and physical consequences.

Art for Change

Hengameh Shahidi --- Mehdi Karroubi's advisor on women’s issues, journalist, and human rights activist --- has turned her attention to art. The Financial Times reports that, after being released from Evin Prison “where she was held in solitary confinement and allegedly tortured", art "offered her a release". Shahidi says, “I still do not understand how a violent atmosphere has woken up a delicate part of me."

The activist hopes her paintings can help raise awareness about the approximately 200 political prisoners still behind bars, “I started my paintings with a dream of freedom and breathing in an atmosphere in which there is no fighting because both sides [the regime and the opposition] have been losers.”

Breathtaking Tehran…

People in Tehran are not enjoying their sky and beautiful city these days. “Just leaving the house makes my chest hurt,” a resident told Arseh Sevom.

Increasing pollution and smog is causing tearful eyes and dizziness. It forced the closure of schools and public institutes for two days.

An advisor to the Minister of Health, Hassan Aqajani, told State television of the effects of high levels of pollution in Tehran. He reported that 4460 fatalities were connectect to foul air during the previous year. Aqajani said, “The hospital admission for heart diseases increased by 30% following the recent air quality alert in Tehran.”

The New York Times reports that, for nearly a week, officials have called on residents to remain inside and avoid the downtown. “With air pollution at such high levels, venturing outside could be tantamount to suicide,” State radio reported.

Low-quality gasoline, as Iran refines its own oil in response to sanctions, has been blamed for the dramatic increase in pollution in big cities.

Unchain the Unchainable

Photo of Mousavi by Hamed Saber, of Karoubi by Mardetanha, from the Wiki Commons. 

Such a violation of the primary human rights and the current laws and regulations of the country...cannot be happening without authorization from the country’s top officials. After close to two years of house arrest, no official authority has taken responsibility for the judicial state of our loved ones, who are of concern to a large portion of the Iranian people.”

This is part of the statement from the children of detained opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, as reported by Radio Zamaneh. The children call on authorities to “show the courage to take responsibility for the illegal arrests" and release them immediately without making unfolded excuses.

See You at the Polling Station

As we approach the next elections, there has been change in tone and attitude of some pro-Government politicians towards Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and reformists. ILNA quoted Habibollah Asgarouladi, a leading conservative figure, as saying that Mousavi and Karrubi are not seditious and the "real sedition" came from the US, Britain, and other “arrogant powers".

Mehr [fa] reports that the ban on the reformist paper Shargh was lifted last week. 

Could these be signals encouraging reformists and the opposition to participate in the upcoming elections?

There have been a myriad of letters and discussions --- by intellectuals, activists, and some politicians --- calling for free and fair elections. Many of these challenge the Supreme Leader on the authenticity of previous elections.

This week, Ayatollah Khamenei responded with a warning of enemy plots to prevent high turnout in the election. He admonished Iranians not to criticise the presidential vote and to avoid tension, while emphasising that the elections should be free: "Haven't more than 30 elections held in Iran in the past three decades free? Where on earth have elections been so free as in Iran?"

Imminent Executions

There has been widespread concern about the two ethnic Kurds, Zanyar and Loghman Moradi, cousins who have been on death row in Iran since 2010. The father of Zanyar, Eghbal Moradi, interviewed by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, spoke about repeated assassination attempts against his son. He said that the arrests came after Zanyar was severely wounded when he was shot in the back nine times.

The IHRDC has reported on the persecution of the Kurds in detail in their report On the Margins: Arrest, Imprisonment and Execution of Kurdish Activists in Iran Today. Arseh Sevom has posted a summary.

In an open letter to young people all over the world, Zanyar Moradi writes: 

Is this world so cruel to watch both my cousin and I hang in public from a crane on the street? And not say anything? And not do anything?

I realise that it is only through the Internet that I am voicing to you my fear and my plea to you. So please be patient with me and give me a few minutes and seconds of your time and hear me. It is hard to be twenty-one and to face my death. To live everyday with the nightmare of death, to shiver every time I hear their footsteps coming to take me to my death.

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