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Iran: Activist's Return To Custody Sparks Concern

(RFE/RL) Human rights advocates are expressing concern over the fate of a student activist who was rearrested and jailed about two weeks ago. Some reports suggest that Ahmad Batebi has launched a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. There are increasing concerns that Batebi  -- who suffers from serious health problems -- could a fate similar to that of a jailed activist who died in prison on July 30 following a weeklong hunger strike. Batebi's wife has called on the United Nations and other international rights bodies to work for his release.

PRAGUE, August 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Batebi's whereabouts are unknown. His lawyer, Khalil Bahramian, says he has not been able to meet with his client despite a search that included a stop at a prison that frequently houses political prisoners:

"I am very worried regarding Batebi," Bahramian says. "I have called on judiciary officials to investigate the issue to find out where my defendant is. I went to the prison [on August 7], but his name was not in Evin's prison list."

Beatings And Mock Execution

Ahmad Batebi is for some a symbol of Iran's student movement. During the 1999 student protests, his photo appeared on a number of international news publications to illustrate the unrest. "The Economist" showed on its front page a handsome Batebi, in his early 20s, holding the bloodied T-shirt of a fellow student.

Batebi had to pay a heavy price for such exposure, however.

He was sentenced to death during a trial that rights groups say fell short of international standards. His sentence was later commuted to 15 years in prison.
"We are really worried that what happened to [Akbar] Mohammadi will happen to Ahmad, because he wasn't in good physical condition and his hunger strike has led to growing concern."

During his first stint in prison, Batebi managed to send out a letter in which he described the torture he endured during interrogations. He said he was severely beaten and subjected to a mock execution.

Batebi reportedly still suffers from a poor health as a result of the beatings and other ill treatment at the hands of authorities.

Returned To Jail

He was freed in 2005 to receive medical treatment. But then, in late July, he was rearrested and transferred to an unknown location. Authorities have made no official announcement as to why he was returned to custody.

His wife says that Batebi warned as he was being taken into custody that he would go on a hunger strike.

In a country where prominent critics of the regime are dealt with harshly, many political prisoners use hunger strikes to protest against their conditions. Another former student protest leader, Akbar Mohammadi, died of suspected heart failure on July 30 after a weeklong hunger strike.

Hossam Firouzi, a physician who treated Batebi before his arrest, said he thinks a hunger strike could endanger Batebi's life.

He told Radio Farda that Batebi suffers from several health problems that include a back injury that needs surgery, bleeding from a kidney, and stomach problems.

"The most dangerous might be his duodenal ulcer, [which] could create a hole in his digestive system and lead to internal bleeding -- and also the high hemoglobin in his blood, because during a hunger strike the [amount of] water in the body decreases and this could lead to a blockage of the heart's blood vessels and result in a heart attack."

It is unclear whether Batebi is receiving medical care since being returned to incarceration.

A Family's Pleas

His family is deeply concerned about his condition, but has met with official silence.

His wife, Somayeh Bayenat, called in an open letter for the newly founded UN Human Rights Council to send a delegation to Iran to secure Batebi's release and ensure that he receives fair treatment.

Bayenat says she turned to international bodies after Iranian authorities failed to give her any indication about her husband's whereabouts.

"We are really worried that what happened to [Akbar] Mohammadi will happen to Ahmad, because he wasn't in a good physical condition and his hunger strike has led to growing concern," Bayenat says.

Amnesty International claims that -- following the death in custody of Akbar Mohammadi -- other political prisoners, including Batebi, are facing heightened risk.

Drewery Dyke is an Iran expert with Amnesty International. He tells RFE/RL that the group is concerned about Batebi's health.

Dyke says the Iranian government is responsible for the well-being of people who are in its custody.

"The authorities certainly have the responsibility to ensure that [Batebi] is kept safe and sound -- his legal situation not withstanding," Dyke says. "Nonetheless, we believe that he did face an unfair trial many years ago. What is urgent now, what is necessary now, is that the authorities make clear what his medical condition is and whether he would be allowed treatment out[-side] of the prison."

International Pressure

Dyke says Amnesty International will pressure the Iranian government in Batebi's case.

He says an appeal detailing the case will be sent by Amnesty International's members to Iranian leaders.

"We are talking about thousands and thousands of appeals that are sent, posted, [and] e-mailed -- both to authorities in Iran and to Iran's diplomatic representatives in a variety of countries," Dyke says. "This has been going on for so many years that the authorities really need to draw a line under his case, and indeed [under] all of those students detained following the 18 Tir (1999) events. We need to know that they are healthy. The trials they faced many years ago -- those really need to be reviewed. But really, most important at this time: Is he safe? We need to know from the authorities that his physical condition is such that he will carry on living."

Dyke says this is a moral and humanitarian imperative that requires the attention of Iranian authorities.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.