There is fire under the ashes,” says student activist Payam Olad Azimi about the situation at Iran’s universities where, he believes, the increased state repression of the last two years has not managed to silence dissenting voices.
22-year-old Olad Azimi (pictured below) is one of those voices who has been pressured so much by the Iranian authorities, he has been forced into exile.
He talked to Persian Letters on February 19 -- the same day a video of him publicly criticizing the Iranian establishment was posted on YouTube. He said he made the video available right after fleeing the country.
The amateur video, which was recorded by a cellphone, has already been widely shared on social media. It is from an October event at Iran's Orumieh University that was attended by an official from the Interior Ministry.
In the video, Azimi publicly confronts the ministry official, who he identifies as Mahmud Abbaszadeh Meshkini, the ministry's political director. Azimi asks several challenging questions, including why former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi have both become critics of the establishment and leaders of the opposition movement. Both men have been under house arrest for the past year.
"How come someone who was prime minister for eight years, someone who was parliament speaker for eight years, is now standing against the establishment?" Azimi asks Meshkini. "Why are those who went to jail and were tortured [for helping the regime come to power] now standing against it?"
Azimi also asks Meshkini about the shrinking circle of insiders in the Islamic republic. Former presidents are now facing accusations of being pro-Western, seditionists, or member of a "deviant current," he says."Wouldn't it have been better if the [1979 revolution] didn't take place?” he asks.
Azimi, a student activist who edited a student publication, also refers to the alleged fraud in the 2009 disputed presidential vote and questions the official results that gave Musavi 13 million votes and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad 24 million votes.
On the video, his comments are greeted by loud applause by students at the event.
Azimi told “Persian Letters” that after the event, the Interior Ministry official gave him his telephone number and told him he could call if he faced problems over his comments.
(WATCH: Azimi challenges the official from the Interior Ministry)
Pressure on Azimi, who said he had previously been harassed over his activism, increased after his show of public defiance. He said he was summoned before the university’s disciplinary committee and banned from classes for two semesters. He said he was also told that the Interior Ministry official, despite his promise of support, was behind the campaign of pressure.
Azimi was also interrogated by officials from the Intelligence Ministry, who he said asked him to work with them and spy on other students. He said he refused to cooperate.
Eventually, he fled Iran. He is currently in Turkey, seeking asylum.
He said he is concerned about the fate of several of his friends who also criticized the Iranian regime at the "Free Tribune" event last year.
In the past two years, a number of student activists who dared to speak up against state repression have ended up in jail, including Bahareh Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli. Others have been forced into exile.
Azimi said there are still some inside the country who are ready to pay a price for expressing themselves.
"I made those comments without thinking about the consequences. This is now the outcome," he said. "Keeping silent, I don’t think is a good thing."
Azimi likely won't be able to return to his homeland anytime soon.