There is growing concern over the health of jailed student activist Majid Tavakoli following news of his hunger strike in prison.
Tavakoli -- one of the most prominent symbols of Iran's embattled student movement -- was arrested in December after accusing the Iranian regime of human rights abuses and of "enmity against democracy" during a rally at Tehran's Amir Kabir University. He began his hunger strike four days ago to protest a transfer to solitary confinement.
Tavakoli’s brother, Ali Tavakoli, tells RFE/RL that his family has been informed by fellow prisoners that Majid’s health has deteriorated. Majid, who has developed respiratory problems since his incarceration, has been heard coughing heavily.
Tavakoli, 24, is widely admired for upholding the honor of the student movement due to an uncompromising commitment to his beliefs and his courage in standing up to the Iranian regime. Iran's student movement continues to come under attack nearly a year after authorities clamped down following protests over the results of presidential elections in June.WATCH: Majid Tavakoli speaks to students at the University of Tehran on December 7, 2008. A year later, he would be arrested and thrown into solitary confinement:
He was reportedly beaten and later the hard-line Fars news agency posted a picture of him dressed as a woman to discredit him. But the tactic had the opposite effect, as it led to a worldwide campaign in support of Tavakoli by men who posted pictures of themselves also wearing head scarves.
Following his arrest, Tavakoli was held in solitary confinement for 125 days. In January, he was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison on a number of charges, including propaganda against the Iranian establishment and insulting Iran’s supreme leader and president. In April, he was moved out of solitary and into the general prison ward.
News of his hunger strike, which began on May 23 upon his return to solitary, is now leading rights activists and intellectuals in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia to announce their own hunger-strike campaign, set to begin today, to show their solidarity with Tavakoli in the hope it will help secure his release.
Tavakoli was forced by the authorities to wear female dress in an effort to humiliate him...
Among them is Asal Akhavan, an Iranian student in Melbourne who was banned from studying in Iran because of her activism. Akhavan says she hopes the campaign will help raise the pressure on the Iranian government.
“My hunger strike outside the country can in no way be compared to the hunger strikes of Tavakoli or [jailed blogger] Hossein Ronaghi [who blogs under the name Babak Khoramdin]," she says. "But my aim is to show my support and express my solidarity with them and their families and let them know that they’re not alone.”
In another sign of support, Iranian rights activists have been posting “We Are All Majid” on their Facebook pages, with pictures of Tavakoli as their profile pictures.
In the past two days, many Iranians living abroad have called Tavakoli’s mother to express their concerns and to let her know that Majid’s plight has not been forgotten.
Tavakoli’s brother Ali, who says his mother has also stopped eating, is optimistic that the outpouring of support can have a positive impact on his brother's situation.
... but the plan backfired when other men donned hijabs to express their solidarity with Tavakoli.
“Maybe it is more difficult for those inside the country to make such moves, but those outside can definitely [do something]," he says. "Today, only our people can help and support each other. If we don’t do that, then no one else would think about us.”
In a statement, a group of Amir Kabir students said they will hold Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni directly responsible for any harm that might come to Tavakoli. They say Khamenei owes the people a response regarding the actions of Iran’s judiciary and Intelligence Ministry. They allege that the renewed pressure on Tavakoli and his transfer to solitary confinement is because of his steadfast refusal to recognize Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the legitimate president of the Islamic republic.
In his defense statement, posted on an Iranian news website, Tavakoli wrote that he doesn't even think about Ahmadinejad, let alone insult him.
Akhavan, who knows Tavakoli from her days in Iran, says he has refused to back down from his ideals or to give up his activities supporting human rights and democracy despite all the pressure, including twice being imprisoned prior to his December arrest.
“He’s gone his way, and his way is the way of the Iranian people. It is the way toward freedom and toward a series of basic rights of all people," Akhavan says. "I can swear on the humanity of Majid Tavakoli.”
In March, Tavakoli was awarded the Homo Homini prize
, given annually by the Prague-based NGO People in Need, in recognition of his "dedication to the promotion of human rights, democracy, and nonviolent solutions to political conflicts."