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Iran: Second Anniversary Of Iran Student Unrest Passing Quietly

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

Students in Iran this week are marking the second anniversary of a violent police raid on a Tehran University dormitory complex in response to student demonstrations for freedom of the press. So far, the anniversary has for the most part passed peacefully. RFR/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin have the details.

Prague, 10 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The second anniversary of a police raid on a Tehran University dormitory -- which sparked some of the worst unrest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- is passing this week with peaceful commemorations closely watched by security forces.

The largest Iranian student group, the Office to Consolidate Unity -- or OCU -- marked the second anniversary of the 9 July 1999 pre-dawn attack on the dormitory with a public display yesterday of furniture and other property destroyed in the raid by police and hard-line vigilantes.

The exhibition was held at the Tehran University dormitory complex. It drew some 1,000 students in commemoration of the event, which left one student dead and triggered almost a week of demonstrations across the country. Those demonstrations were accompanied by rioting in several cities in which some 1,500 students were arrested and scores of people injured before security forces and vigilantes ended the unrest with a violent crackdown on 13 July.

Security forces and vigilante groups have been out in force this week around the Tehran University campus to underline their determination to see there is no such violence on the second anniversary.

Police arrested some 20 people yesterday as students and vigilantes scuffled briefly outside the university with no serious injuries on either side. Among those arrested were a woman seized for trying to open a placard and several others seen carrying bags of pamphlets. Before the scuffle, police arrested more than 10 other people in front of the dormitory complex.

The second anniversary has mostly passed quietly because student leaders have called for calm observances and sought to use the occasion to stress their peaceful support for recently re-elected moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

At the exhibition yesterday -- billed as a seminar against violence -- student organizations granted their annual "Peace and Friendship Award" to the second-term president. The citation named Khatami, re-elected with a landslide victory on 8 June, as the "protector of democracy" in Iran.

In the northwestern city of Tabriz -- where students took to the streets by the thousands following the police raid at Tehran University -- no violence has been reported on the anniversary.

Ali Bie-Kas is a student at Tabriz University who was sentenced to jail for participating in the unrest but was later pardoned. He described the mood in Tabriz to RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Jamshid Zand.

"There is a heavy atmosphere at the university and the students do not have the same enthusiasm they had before the incident. We can say that the generation that experienced the incident -- because of the high price which it paid -- will not take part again in such political and intellectual activity. There is an atmosphere of despair throughout the university."

The mood of the second anniversary contrasts with the atmosphere a year ago, when at least a dozen people were injured as demonstrators burned bundles of hard-line newspapers, shattered shop windows, and damaged the shutters on businesses.

In the run-up to this year's anniversary, authorities clearly signaled that no unrest would be tolerated. The Interior Ministry initially said that any rally would be illegal, though it later modified the order to allow gatherings within the university grounds.

At the same time, an Iranian court sentenced some 15 students whom it dubbed hooligans to jail terms for their role in the 1999 riots. The announcement of the sentences, ranging from six to 12 months, came just as students began their second anniversary observances yesterday.

The new jail sentences are the latest in a string of prosecutions targeting those who participated in the nationwide unrest two years ago. News agencies report that most of the hundreds convicted on charges of fomenting violence have since been freed or pardoned. But some 15 are still in prison serving long sentences.

Since the 1999 university dormitory raid, authorities also have made it clear that they hold the students -- and not the police -- responsible for the unrest that followed. One year ago, a military court acquitted former Tehran police chief Farhad Nazari and 17 other officers of charges that they ordered the dormitory raid. Reformist groups, including students, strongly condemned that verdict.

With the anniversary passing quietly this year, some Iranian newspapers have commented on the calm as evidence that the liberal student movement -- long viewed as one of the country's strongest motors for change -- has been silenced for now. A commentary in the "Tehran Times" said that "two years later, students are left humiliated and betrayed. [A] once lively student movement is only a memory now."

Many Iranian political analysts say students feel the lesson of 1999 is clear. As one analyst -- who insisted upon anonymity -- told Reuters this week: "The police and vigilantes are walking free while the students, who were beaten up, have been convicted as counter-revolutionaries."

What that means for the future of the student movement, which mobilized to help re-elect Khatami, is still being defined. For now, it appears students are hoping that Khatami can still bring about change despite the serious setbacks suffered by reformists during his first term. Those setbacks have included the closure of almost all liberal newspapers, which were the liveliest forum for debating the direction of Iran's reform movement.

Students yesterday recalled the silencing of Iran's liberal press by exhibiting copies of several closed papers along with the destroyed furniture from the dormitory raid. The raid on the dormitory two years ago started as students protested one of the early closures of a liberal newspaper, the popular reformist daily "Salam."