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Iran: Rights Monitors Concerned Over Fate Of Iranian Student Who Spoke With UN

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

International human rights monitors are expressing concern over the fate of an Iranian student who recently provided information on political prisoners to a visiting UN special representative. The student, Ahmad Batebi, was on medical leave from a prison sentence for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations in 1999. But hours after he met with the UN official, he was re-arrested without warning.

Prague, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Ambeyi Ligabo, visited Tehran earlier this month, his purpose was to meet freely with Iranians and learn more about the human rights situation in the country.

But while he was an official guest of the government, the UN representative's welcome did not come without a price. The price -- which has only become apparent since his departure -- was a harsh crackdown by the hard-line-dominated judiciary on at least one of those who talked to him.

Within hours of meeting Ligabo, an Iranian student who presented the UN delegate with names of political prisoners mysteriously disappeared. The student, Ahmad Batebi, was himself a prisoner temporarily out of jail on a 15-day medical leave.

Batebi, who briefly became internationally famous when he was photographed holding up a bloody shirt during mass student protests in 1999, gave the UN official a list of some 50 names. He described the list in an interview with Radio Farda correspondent Farin Assemi immediately after meeting Ligabo at a gathering for the families of political detainees.

"I have compiled and submitted a list of about 50 political prisoners in various prisons in Iran, as well as their personal identification and the crimes they are accused of," Assemi said.

He continued, "I tried, as far as my memory served, to describe instances of violations of human rights, of illegal pressure during the prefabrication of cases, of interrogations of prisoners at the time of prosecution -- which is customary -- and to describe those whose cases could be helped from a legal aspect, as well as the prisoners' appalling physical conditions and endless problems with health."

Shortly after presenting his list, Batebi vanished and has not been heard from since. His family appealed for days at the Tehran prosecutor's office to learn his whereabouts and was finally told that he had been re-arrested.

The re-arrest is the latest chapter in an ordeal for Batebi and his family that already has seen him spend almost five years behind bars since he was arrested at age 21 after taking part in the July 1999 protests. Those protests began when vigilante groups attacked students demonstrating near the university over the closure of a reformist newspaper. The attack sparked a week of nationwide unrest that was the worst in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and ended only after a massive crackdown by security forces and vigilante groups.

The charges against Batebi -- like those against many other political prisoners in Iran -- have never been made public and remain vague. After his detention in 1999, he was tried behind closed doors and initially sentenced to death. The sentence was later reduced to eight years of imprisonment.

Batebi himself has said that his troubles stem solely from being depicted in a photograph that became an iconic image of Iran's student movement for the Western media. He told RFE/RL last year, during another temporary parole from prison, how the picture was taken.

"There was unrest outside the university, and we took the wounded [students] inside the campus. Bullets were shot, we ducked, one passed me and hit the person opposite me. I tried to cover his wound with a shirt, but it was not possible [to stop the bleeding]," Batebi said.

He continues: "When the students saw this scene, they got excited and wanted to go outside and start street demonstrations, so to stop them I held the shirt up. At that moment, Jamshid Bayrami, a journalist, took my picture and that was their excuse for arresting me. I wanted to warn the students that there was a massacre outside and this could cost us our lives."

As Batebi again disappears into prison, international human rights monitors are expressing concern over the treatment he may face.

Amnesty International in London said in a statement released this week that "judicial authorities in Iran must ensure that those who raise human rights concerns with either domestic or international bodies are not harassed or threatened with arrest."

A spokesperson for Amnesty International, Drewery Dyke, told RFE/RL that the organization has long watched Batebi's case because it points to a pattern in Iran of incarcerating people on vague charges that ignores normal legal practices and violates basic human rights.

"What is of concern in particular is the secret nature of that trial and the ongoing incarceration without a clear sense of what it is based on. [Amnesty International] has certainly raised concerns in the past about the use of very vague provisions in the law relating to national security that seem to compromise, that seem to encroach, on freedom of association," Dyke said.

Iran's judiciary has not responded to repeated expressions of international concern over Batebi and other political detainees in the country. But one hard-line newspaper -- voicing a view that may be shared by many in the judicial branch -- recently challenged the right of any Iranian to speak out about human rights abuses.

An article in the daily "Kayhan" last week questioned the patriotism of anyone who seeks help from international bodies. The paper wrote: "Suppose that someone at home feels something unfair has been done to him? Would it be reasonable to bring the complaint to the enemy?"
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