Friday, April 25, 2014


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Iranian Activists Shave Heads To Support Political Prisoners

Shahnaz Karim Beigi, whose son, Mostafa Karim Beigi, was reportedly killed in the 2009 post-election crackdown in Iran, has joined the campaign and cut her hair in support of political detainees in Evin prison, whom she also describes as her "sons."

Dozens of Iranian men and women have sheared their hair and posted their pictures online to demonstrate solidarity with political prisoners.
 
The campaign was launched following reports that prison guards had shaved the heads of some political prisoners in Tehran's notorious Evin prison in order to humiliate them after some inmates were reportedly beaten up during an inspection of the facility last week.
 
Earlier this week, a picture of a prominent jailed human rights lawyer, Abdolfatah Soltani, was posted online showing him with a shaved head. The photo, which was shared widely on social media, appeared to have been taken during an April 21 prison visit. Soltani is reported to have been among the prisoners who were assaulted during the raid on Evin's section 350.
Jailed Iranian human rights lawyer Abdolfatah SoltaniJailed Iranian human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani
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Jailed Iranian human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani
Jailed Iranian human rights lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani

 
Activists both inside and outside the country are posting their photos on a Facebook page titled "With the Political Prisoners of Evin's Section 350." They are using the Persian hashtag "sarfaraz," or "proud," to promote their campaign.
 
After the alleged use of force against the inmates sparked protests by the prisoners' families, the head of Iran's prisons organization was removed from his post.

The official, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, has denied reports about the abuse and said that a routine inspection had taken place.
 
Iranian news agencies reported on April 23 that Esmaili was named head of the justice department of the Tehran province.
 
The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, appointed Ali Asghar Jahangir as the country's new prisons chief. Jahangir has served as an adviser to Larijani.
 
–Golnaz Esfandiari

Families Of Iranian Political Prisoners Protest Alleged Prison Raid

A photo of a 2009 incident in which inmates' relatives gathered outside Evin prison in Tehran.

Families of political prisoners demonstrated outside the presidential office in Tehran on April 22 to protest what they say was a brutal raid at a notorious prison in the Iranian capital where their relatives are being held.

The protesters say several of their loved ones were badly beaten by security forces in the April 17 operation at Evin prison and called on authorities to investigate the incident.

About 30 were reportedly transferred to solitary confinement following the raid, in which several journalists and at least one prominent human rights lawyer -- Abdolfatah Soltani -- were said to have been attacked.

One of the protesters told RFE/RL that the families signed a letter calling for the creation of a truth commission to investigate the incident, which opposition websites described as unprecedentedly violent. He said the families are calling for the resignation of Iranian Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who has denied there was a crackdown and said that only two prisoners were slightly injured.

A witness at the protest said several of the prisoners’ relatives were invited into the presidential office to meet with authorities.

A YouTube video (below) said to be from the protest shows a group of men and women calling for the release of political prisoners.

"Political prisoners should be released," they chant. "Evin has become Palestine. Government, why are you sitting idly by?"
In addition to Pourmohammadi, other Iranian officials have dismissed reports about the attack as well.

The head of Iran's Prisons Organization, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, has said the incident was a routine inspection. Esmaili has rejected reports about the raid as lies and fabrications circulated by opponents of the Islamic republic.

Speaking on April 22, Esmaili said guards had discovered SIM cards, mobile phones, and "many other things" in their inspection of Evin's section 350.

The demonstration was the second by families of the prisoners who say they are worried about their jailed relatives. The families also gathered in front of Iran’s parliament on April 20, holding pictures of their relatives.

Some of the families who were allowed to visit the prison on April 21 have said the prisoners still showed signs of injuries stemming from an assault.

Demonstrations that are not organized by the state or hard-liners are a rarity in Iran. In the past, security guards have used force to disperse political protests.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran Seeks To Offset Advancement Of Women In Medicine

A doctor weighs a child during an examination at a Jewish hospital in Tehran. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari
"Parisa" is among the thousands of young women who have transformed the once male-dominated field of medicine in Iran.

Whereas men made up 70 percent of the country's medical students and physicians about 20 years ago, women have reversed the situation to the point that women like Parisa -- who asks not to use her real name -- now account for 70 percent of Iran's medical students.

"It demonstrates what women can achieve despite all the limitations they face in [Iranian] society," she tells RFE/RL. "It offers them job security and independence."

Under a new plan being discussed by Iranian authorities, however, women's advancements in the field of medicine could be flatlined.

Health Ministry officials have indicated that measures would be taken "to balance" the percentage of male doctors by introducing gender quotas at medical schools.

Last month, Health Minister Hassan Hashemi said Iran was considering ways to curtail the number of female medical students.

"There is a need for male nurses and physicians in the country, and the ratios should be adjusted in the future," he was quoted by Iranian media as saying on March 4. 

Hashemi also said he didn't have the "courage" to announce the steps, because of possible criticism.

Hardship Duty

But the general argument appears to be that, by admitting a greater ratio of men, the country will be better able to tackle its longstanding shortage of physicians in rural areas.

"There are problems in sending medical forces to remote regions," Amir Mohsen Ziaee, a Health Ministry deputy in education, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency on April 5.

Iran has an "insufficient" number of male nurses, general practitioners, and specialists, he said. "Therefore, it is necessary for the Health Ministry to create changes in admissions in medical-sciences universities in order to regulate the medical-service system."

Officials suggest men are better suited to practice in rural areas, where women could face more social restrictions. Some lawmakers have claimed that women refuse to serve in rural areas.

Babak Gharayi Moghadam, an Iranian neurosurgeon, tells RFE/RL that the shortage of physicians in remote areas is real.

"It is more difficult for women to go to these places," he says in a telephone interview from Iran. "It is a genuine problem."

But Gharayi Moghadam also notes that "even when men made some 70, 75 percent of medical students, there was a shortage of physicians in those regions."

Medical students who graduate from Iran's state universities are currently required to serve in areas of need, such as rural regions, for two to four years. But there are signs that the system is failing.
Too common for Iranian authorities: a female medical studentToo common for Iranian authorities: a female medical student
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Too common for Iranian authorities: a female medical student
Too common for Iranian authorities: a female medical student


The daily "Hemayat" reported earlier this month, for example, that 8,000 graduates from medical schools decided to quit medicine rather than fulfill their obligation to serve where they were most needed.

Poor living conditions and a dearth of scientific and professional opportunities are among the reasons that doctors -- both female and male -- say they are unwilling to practice in remote areas.

The answer to encouraging doctors to practice in such places, Gharayi Moghdam suggests, could be to improve conditions and offer better financial support for physicians in faraway areas.

Simply Sexist?

On the occasion of Women's Day, which was celebrated in Iran on April 20, Iranian President Hassan Rohani called for equal opportunities for men and women. Speaking at an event in Tehran called the National Forum on Women Shaping Economy and Culture, the president noted that some still considered "women's presence in society as a threat" and said Iran still had "long way to go."

"We will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination," Rohani said.

But Saeed Paivandi, an expert on Iran's educational system, says the plan to admit a smaller percentage of women at medical universities should be viewed as state discrimination against women.

Paivandi, who teaches sociology at the University of Lorainne in France, says Iranian authorities have over the years cited various "excuses" in order to limit women's progress and supervise their growth.

"In fact, if a society has the will to resolve this issue, regardless of whether the [students] are male or female -- then such excuses shouldn't be brought up," Paivandi says.

Paivandi adds that any attempt to curb women's presence at medical schools is a violation of their rights.

"It doesn't mean [authorities] want to stop women's education," he says, "but I think they don't want women to be engaged in a healthy and equal competition [with men]."

Parisa believes that, ultimately, the plan to improve medical services in rural regions by imposing quotas on men will fail.

"You can't force men to study medicine if they don't want to," she says.

The answer, she added, is to applaud the advancements made by women in the medical field, and to encourage even more women to pursue medical careers.

Iranian Cleric Says Unhealthy Satellite Jamming Un-Islamic

Despite Iran's efforts to jam satellite channels and the crackdown on satellite dishes, many Iranians -- according to some estimates more than half -- watch foreign satellite TV channels.

Even if satellite jamming is a useful tool in protecting Islamic values, it is not permissible under Islamic law if it poses a health threat.

That's according to an Iranian grand ayatollah who recently made a ruling on the issue following an inquiry by a Shi'ite news agency.

Shafaqna, whose Persian-language material is produced in Tehran, recently posed the question:

"Given the enemy's exploitation of satellite channels in order to [push forward] its goals against Islam, [and considering] the interests of the Islamic world and Islamic culture one the one hand, and on the other the jamming of these channels, which increases the risk of neurological disorders, heart arrhythmias and cardiac arrest, death of children and newborns, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and incurable diseases and the silent death of Muslims and other citizens of Muslim countries -- are the transmissions of these permissible under Islamic laws or not  and what is the verdict?"

Grand Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, in a written response to Shafaqna, wrote, "If it is proven that jamming signals cause significant problems such as those mentioned in the question, then their transmission is not permissible."

The ruling, which was described as a "fatwa" by several popular news sites that reposted it, comes amid a long-running debate in the Islamic republic about the possible health effects of satellite jamming.

Iran is known to use jamming technology to prevent satellite transmissions of foreign-based television and radio channels in Iran. After Iran claimed to have downed a U.S. drone in 2011 after disrupting its communications system, the question arose whether Tehran had acquired or developed sophisticated jamming equipment, possibly including laser-burst technology that could target satellites.

But while little is known about the precise technology Iran employs to scramble satellite transmissions, Iranian newspaper reports and also some officials -- including Massoumeh Ebtekar, a former member of Tehran's city council and currently vice president -- have suggested that the practice could cause health problems for citizens.

"What we know is that these signals have an impact on people's health and the body's cells," Ebtekar was quoted as saying in 2012. "As an immunologist and researcher, I'd say that these signals could be the source of many illnesses."

In February, Iranian Health Minister Hassan Hashemi said that a committee was looking into whether jamming indeed poses a health threat. "The initial reports show that the existing jamming signals pose no physical harm, but the committee needs to carry out its investigation thoroughly," he said.

He also said that there were widespread "rumors" about jamming's effects and consequences on people's health, while adding that "most of the rumors have no scientific basis."

The inquiry by Shafaqna appears to reflect the concerns about the potential health hazards of jamming. In addition to Ardebili, the website asked two other clerics, Ayatollah Sohani and Ayatollah Shabiri Zanjani, about the permissibility of jamming. Neither had a straight-forward answer.

Sohani said it wasn't up to a jurist to make a ruling and that a judge could make a decision in such a case. Zanjani said that the answer to Shafaqna's question would depend on how negatively satellite broadcasts were influencing audiences on the one hand, and the extent of health dangers on the other.

The reports in Iranian media about the adverse effects of satellite jamming, including miscarriages and increased cancer rates, appear to largely rely on anecdotal evidence.

An unidentified World Health Organization representative told the Small Media Foundation in 2012 that, without knowing the exact strength of the jamming frequencies, it would be impossible to draw any conclusions about the health risks.

Iranian authorities are not transparent about their jamming efforts and the systems they use.

Ali Akbar Musavi, a U.S.-based rights activist and a former lawmaker who investigated jamming in Iran about a decade ago, says that at that time jamming centers were scattered in and around major cities and operated by "military bodies."

Musavi says Iran jammed satellite signals and also used "local jamming," by using trucks in specific locations to interfere with reception at the ground level. He says it is not clear what kind of jamming techniques authorities are using now.

Earlier this year, the United States reportedly waived sanctions on Iran's state broadcaster after it determined that "harmful satellite interference" was not currently emanating from Iran.

Musavi says officials should make public information about the bodies that currently conduct jamming and the techniques they use. "The concern is that mobile jamming stations could get close to people," he tells RFE/RL. The authorities "should announce whether they're observing international standards."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda is a target of Iran's jamming efforts. Radio Farda Director Armand Mostofi says that there has been no change to the extent of jamming faced by the Persian-language service since President Hassan Rohani came to power in 2013.

Despite Iran's efforts to jam satellite channels and the crackdown on satellite dishes, many Iranians -- according to some estimates more than half -- watch foreign satellite TV channels.

The authorities increase their jamming efforts during politically sensitive times, including at time of unrest.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Hard-Liners Outraged Over U.S. Scholar’s Planned Burial In Iran

Richard Frye

An American scholar who asked to be buried in the central Iranian city of Isfahan has been called “Western garbage” and a “CIA spy” by a local cleric amid an uproar by hard-liners who oppose the planned interment in the Islamic republic.

"The people of Isfahan will not allow authorities to bury the body of a CIA spy in the city," Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the city's Friday prayers leader, said of the burial plans for U.S. scholar Richard Frye, the hard-line Fars news agency reported.

His comments came amid an escalating dispute over Frye's wish to be buried in the Iranian city, where two other U.S. experts on Iran -- Arthur Pope and Phyllis Ackerman -- already have been laid to rest.

Dozens of hard-liners in Isfahan protested against the plan on April 10. The demonstration followed attacks on the deceased scholar in the hard-line media, including the influential "Kayhan" daily, which often carries the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Frye, a prominent and highly respected scholar of Iranian studies, had asked in his will to be buried next to the Zayandeh Rud river, which flows through Isfahan.

"Act upon the will of Imam Khomeini [the founder of the Islamic republic], not the will of Frye," read one banner held by demonstrators at this week’s protest.

"Isfahan, the city of martyrs. Not the burial site of the dirty American spy Frye," read another banner held by a young man.

Earlier on April 10, Ahmad Salek, a lawmaker from Isfahan and a member of the parliament's cultural committee, called on Iranian President Hassan Rohani not to allow the burial of Frye, whom he called a "cultural bandit," in the Islamic republic.

Not everyone agreed, though.

Another member of the parliament's committee, conservative Ali Motahari, said Rohani should facilitate Frye's burial beside the Zayandeh Rud. He said Iran should fulfill its previous commitment to honor Frye’s request, which reportedly had been approved by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2007.

Frye, sometimes referred to as "dean of the world's Iranologists," died on March 27 in Boston at the age of 94. He has been credited with helping establish the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

His death was mourned by many Iranian intellectuals who say he played an outsized role in introducing and promoting Iranian culture in the West.

Syracuse university professor Mehrdad Boroujerdi said that whenever Frye was referred to as an "Iranologist," he would say that he is in fact an "Irandust," or "friend of Iran."

"He was proud to have been given the title 'Irandust' when he was young by [prominent Iranian linguist] Ali Akbar Dehkhoda," Boroujerdi told RFE/RL following Frye's death.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid his public tribute to Frye on Twitter a day after the scholar's death.

"Deeply saddened by passing of Prof Richard Frye: true friend & scholar of #Iran. His legacy as giant will forever live on. God rest his soul," Zarif tweeted on March 28.
 


Zarif and other government officials have not commented publicly on the controversy over Frye's possible burial in Iran.

On April 8, prominent Iranian journalist and writer Ali Dehbashi was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Frye's burial presented a "very rare opportunity" for Iran's foreign policy system.

"His burial in Iran is a symbolic act and it is significant for us that an American scholar has selected Iran for his eternal resting place," Dehbashi was quoted as saying.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Violent Videogame Targeting Iran's Opposition Removed

The game allows players to accrue points by targeting opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi (pictured), his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and others.

Call it "Moral Kombat."

A computer game that encouraged players to shoot digital effigies of Iran's opposition leaders appears to have been removed from a website after it sparked controversy in the Islamic republic.

The game, titled "The Return of Mokhtar," allows players to accrue "wisdom" points by targeting opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and others.

"Some time ago a game related to the assassination of [Iranian President Hassan] Rohani was available in the market for a while. The publishing of such games raises the question whether there is any kind of supervision," the popular Fararu.com website wrote earlier this week.

Authorities had said legal action could be taken in connection with the game, which was available for download on April 9 at Honarenab.ir. The page hosting the download was removed from the site later that day.

The site claims to be run by a group of young people who are spreading the values of the Islamic Revolution and Islamic art via digital media. There was no immediate explanation posted on the site about why the game was removed.

Honarenab.ir said that the game allowed players to take revenge against enemies of the Islamic republic. "In this game, by crossing through corridors and shooting at the heads of the leaders of the sedition -- including Mir Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi, and Seyed Mohammad Khatami, you can expose their evil faces," the website wrote in promoting the game.

Musavi and his wife have been under house arrest since February 2011, as has reformist cleric Karrubi.

Rohani promised in his election campaign to release opposition figures who have challenged Iranian leaders and criticized human rights abuses. There have been reports that their detention conditions have improved slightly in recent months.

Symbols of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel are also among the targets that the game's users must destroy in order to increase their score. The game's producers say the three countries are the driving force behind the "sedition," a term used in Iran to refer to the 2009 postelection protests and the opposition movement that was brutally repressed.

The game came under scrutiny following reports by Iranian reformist media.
Players must also destroy symbols of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.
Players must also destroy symbols of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.

"The producers of the game did not request a license from the foundation," the ISNA news agency quoted Hossein Moazami, an official with Iran's computer-games foundation, as saying. Moazami added that his foundation will report the game to relevant authorities at the Culture Ministry, police, and judiciary for "legal action."

On April 9, Iranian websites quoted the government daily "Iran" as saying that it was not clear whether the game had become inaccessible following an order by the judiciary.

Other controversial computer games are still available at Honarenab.ir, including one titled "Catch the Sedition." The website says the game, produced in 2010, is a reminder to Iranian authorities to prosecute the leaders of "the sedition."

Another game on the website targets Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, who has been described by the website as an "apostate." 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Hard-Liners Decry Proposed EU Office in Tehran

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) meets with EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton in Tehran in March.

Golnaz Esfandiari
A call by the European Parliament to open an EU office in Tehran has come under fire from Iranian hard-liners, who say the proposed headquarters would allow outsiders to meddle in the country’s affairs.

"The people of Iran will not allow another house of spies to be created in the country," Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermani, Tehran’s temporary Friday Prayers leader, said on April 4.

The cleric’s comments came a day after the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that the first steps toward opening a delegation in the Iranian capital should be taken by the end of the year.

The resolution criticizes human rights abuses in Iran and calls for a more active EU role in addressing the rights situation in the country and supporting civil society.

It also advises EU members to focus on human rights in their ties with the Islamic republic, a recommendation that has angered Iranian hard-liners in recent days. The resolution, they say, constitutes interference in Iran’s internal affairs.

Movahedi-Kermani added that the Europeans should learn their lesson from "America’s house of spies," a reference to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that was seized by a group of students following the 1979 revolution.

He called the resolution "shameless" and dismissed EU concerns over serious human rights violations in the Islamic republic as "Western illusions."

Friday Prayers leaders in Iran are said to receive their talking points from the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

'Worse Than Quadrupeds'

A day earlier, the head of Iran’s Basij force, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, had harsh words for the EU and its proposed office in the Iranian capital. "The European Union is a good example of the Koran verse that says they’re worse than quadrupeds," Naqdi was quoted as saying by the hard-line Fars news agency.

Naqdi said the Basiji force will organize a human rights exhibition in Iran for EU representatives to visit. "Homosexuals [in Europe] have intercourse like animals. They have a surge in drug production, which they sell to their young people at a cheap price. Then in their resolution they say: ‘You don’t have the right to execute drug dealers, and release the homosexuals,’" he said, adding that the EU would not dare open an office in Tehran.

The resolution was also blasted by several lawmakers, including Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, who said that the proposed EU office was aimed at creating unrest in the country. Another lawmaker, Mohammad Saleh Jokar, said an EU office in Iran would be devoted exclusively to espionage.

The parliamentary resolution says the opening of an EU delegation in Iran would be an efficient means of influencing Iranian policies and fostering dialogue on human rights.

But Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior lecturer at Lund University in Sweden, says that Iranian hard-liners oppose any kind of opening with the West.

"They don’t want to have normal ties with Europe or other [Western] countries. They know that as a result of better ties with the EU and a removal of tensions, there could be more exchanges and give-and-takes. They’re afraid of that. That’s not something they want," Parsi says.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

Guerrilla Translators

Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at esfandiarig@rferl.org