Speaker For Pro-Reform Student Group Detained In IranNovember 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The public voice of Iran's largest pro-reform student group was detained today in Tehran.
The detention of Ali Nikunesbati, the spokesman for the Office for Strengthening Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), is the sixth of a student activist in the past 10 days in Tehran.
His brother Mohammad told RFE/RL's Radio Farda today that Intelligence Ministry agents detained Nikunesbati at his father's home and confiscated some of his personal belongings.
"They behaved badly [and] they shouted at us, 'Sit here, [and] sit there!,’ ” he said. “They were armed [and] they created a very bad atmosphere. They told [Ali Nikunesbati] to sit down and be silent. They searched our house for about an hour. They searched everywhere."
He added that officials did not inform the family why Nikunesbati was arrested or where he was being held.
Nikunesbati had been released on bail after his arrest in July in connection with his role in a protest to condemn the jailing of student activists.
His detention comes after another student leader, Ali Azizi, was detained on November 4.
Human rights advocates and student groups in Iran have expressed concern over what they describe as renewed government pressure on universities and student activists.
In recent weeks, students in Tehran have staged at least three protests against the crackdown on academic institutions.
Filmmaker Held In Iran After Stumbling Upon Mass Grave
She was released after about a month, but authorities confiscated her French passport, barring her exit from the Islamic Republic. Frightened, she briefly sought refuge in the French Embassy. "Every moment, I feel like I'm in a state of limbo between life and death," Solouki told RFE/RL's Radio Farda in a telephone interview on November 6.
Now, Solouki is due to go before an Iranian court on November 17. She apparently faces charges of intending to make antiestablishment propaganda, which she denies. But the proceedings will take place behind closed doors, their outcome far from certain. And fearing the worst, Solouki is urging the international community to shine a light on her case, with a particular appeal to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"For the past nine months, I have lived with fear the whole time," said Solouki, 38. "The pressure includes mental as well as monetary pressure -- mental pressure because I am extremely worried about my safety."
An Endless Ordeal
It all began in December 2006. Solouki arrived in Iran to film a documentary about the burial traditions of Iran's religious minority communities, such as Armenian Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.
Solouki says the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance granted her a research license. She says the authorities were told in advance of the locations where she wanted to film, and that they were aware that the subject dealt with the cemeteries of Iranian minorities.
The authorities therefore had prior knowledge of her planned activities -- they were not taken by surprise. "The bureau in charge of minorities affairs at the Culture Ministry coordinated all this," Solouki said. "[By that] I mean coordination between the ministry's press office and its minorities bureau."
But while filming, Solouki says she stumbled on an area at the Khavaran Cemetery on Tehran's outskirts that caught her attention. She described it as "totally different" from the other parts she had filmed. Asked whether she was referring to a mass grave of people summarily executed in 1988, she said, "Yes."
How many people were buried there has never been established. However, estimates by Iranians and outsiders generally point to more than 2,800 killed, with their bodies buried in different areas around the country, not just the Khavaran Cemetery. Most were opposition leftists and mujahedin members taken from jail and summarily executed. Solouki says the authorities may believe that she intended to make a film critical of the mass executions, which took place in the summer and fall of 1988.
On February 17, police stormed Solouki's residence in Tehran and arrested her, saying they had learned that she had filmed the mass graves. Solouki says her documentary at the time had yet to be filmed, and that none of the equipment seized from her gave any indication of the film's content. So she is accused, she says, of harboring "presumed intentions" to produce antiestablishment propaganda.
Her lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, suggests that such an accusation is a legal absurdity. He says Solouki committed no crime that can be described as a political or journalistic violation -- hence the very generalized charge. "Naturally, whoever is arrested or prosecuted in connection to security issues, the charge they can bring against her is 'propaganda against the establishment,'" Aghasi told Radio Farda.
Silence, Two Decades Later
Solouki added: "The question I want to ask Islamic Republic officials is this: I was the one who made the mistake -- of course, from their point of view -- by being inquisitive about an event which has been surrounded by silence in the past 19 years, and maybe it was too soon to talk about or even allude to it. But why should individuals who have no connection at all with Iran pay the price for this problem?"
On her release from Evin prison, the filmmaker sought refuge at the French Embassy in Tehran. "Naturally, I regarded the French Embassy -- as part of French soil -- as a safe haven," she said. But she soon left because she felt it too difficult to negotiate with Iranian officials from there.
Solouki says she believes Iranian authorities now have only one strategy, which is to make her situation worse. Although she finally got her French passport back, officials have hindered her departure on the grounds that her case involves "national security," according to her lawyer. For example, the official who holds the 400-page dossier on her case said it was necessary to obtain approval from the deputy prosecutor of Tehran before she can leave.
When her lawyer approached that official, he said he no longer had her file at his disposal, and that it was necessary to go before a judge. But the judge said since he did not sign the original travel ban, he could not sign the release.
Solouki now hopes to persuade Sarkozy to live up to promises he made before his election as French president earlier this year to stand up for human rights, including freedom of the press. But in a recent article on the French website rue89.com, Solouki wrote that while her "moment of truth" in Iran had all but arrived, she has heard nothing from France but "diplomatic silence."
Solouki's story is similar to a case earlier this year in which four Iranian-Americans were also prevented from leaving after being vaguely accused of antistate activities. All four have since been allowed to leave.
One of them was Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima, who had traveled to Iran in January to visit her ailing mother. Azima's passport was confiscated on arrival. But while she was finally freed to leave in September, the charges against her of "activities contrary to Iranian security" are still pending.
(Radio Farda's Mosaddegh Katouzian conducted the interviews for this story.)
Tehran's Proposal For Iraq Finds Few Takers At Conference
But the proposal turned out to be a reiteration of its old position that foreign troops are fueling the instability in Iraq and must leave. Tehran also suggested that coalition troops be replaced with soldiers from neighboring countries -- including Iran and Syria -- a suggestion that was rejected outright by other conference participants, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia.
But Iranian media have suggested that the lack of any new proposal at the conference could simply reflect a realization by Tehran that the only way to improve security in Iraq involves the resumption of direct talks on security between Washington and Tehran.
Many Points, But Little Detail
On the sidelines of the conference, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said that the foreign troops in Iraq are aggravating problems there because of their ignorance of Iraqi culture, society, and history.
He also continued to deplore the creation of "parallel formations" and "dozens of security organizations and formations," presumably referring to private security firms. Mottaki said Iraq's government has minimal decision-making powers and he called for action -- not "ceremonial" meetings -- to help Iraq.
The foreign minister also presented a 14-point plan for Iraq's political and economic regeneration and stabilization. The plan calls for Iraq's government to set a timetable for the departure of foreign troops; for the immediate transfer of "state" powers to the Iraqi government; for Iraqi forces to be in charge of all security issues; for the expulsion of "organized terrorist groups"; and for Baghdad to make agreements with its neighbors on border security.
The terrorists mentioned include the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) -- Kurdish groups battling Turkish and Iranian forces, respectively -- and the left-wing militants of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, a group opposed to Tehran and currently based in Iraq with the permission of coalition forces, which has angered Iran.
Other items in the Iranian plan for Iraq are the expulsion of private security firms such as Blackwater; an extensive amnesty for those jailed for offenses committed against the "occupying" forces; and the handover of weapons by "militias" that have "not cooperated with known terrorist groups" and an amnesty for their members or their partial inclusion in Iraqi government forces.
Mottaki's plan also urges regional states to help Iraq with security and other items related to reconstruction and energy provision. It cited the main neighboring powers as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and included a role for the United Nations.
Certain items are ill-defined, and not for the first time in Iranian policy. Who are the terrorists and who are the militias eligible for amnesty, or the women and children the plan cites as unjustly jailed by coalition authorities?
Iran would surely disagree with Saudi Arabia over the identity of terrorists and militias. The Saudis might take a more benevolent view of some Sunni groups, as Iran has toward Shi'ite militia groups.
Why Was Plan Even Offered?
Iran's plan, as reported by Iranian media, essentially depicts the presence of U.S. forces as the chief cause of insurgency, international terrorism activity, and Sunni-Shi'a hatred. The solution proposed is to seek the help of Iraq's neighbors, but how disinterested are these neighbors? Iranian media are disinclined to report a presumed willingness in the Iraqi government to maintain a U.S. troop presence, or anything suggesting distrust in Iraq of Iranian or Saudi intentions.
In other words, the plan seems almost the sort of "ceremonial" proposal Mottaki said Iraq can do without, unlikely as it is to be implemented or backed by conservative Arab states. If Iranian officials espouse political realism, then this plan lacks conviction -- making it unclear why it was proposed at all.
Iran's government must know the United States will not leave Iraq now and allow Shi'ite and Sunni radicals to fight it out with the discreet or open backing of their respective neighboring patron states. The proposal and response -- as in some other international questions -- touch on wider issues affecting Iran, the distrust it provokes, the distrust it has of Western states and their regional allies, and the international credibility of its system.
The reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" presented a more realistic view on November 3. It commented that "without a doubt the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. Army would leave the unstable [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki government alone with terrorists and opponents." But the editorial reminded the United States that it could not assure Iraq's long-term security without the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors, and expressed the hope that the Istanbul conference would bring regional states and "influential powers" to cooperate over Iraq.
It may well be a realization of the United States' crucial role in Iraq that has prompted Iranian media to report as much on the possible renewal of U.S.-Iran talks over Iraq as they have about the Istanbul conference. As with dispute over its nuclear program, Iran uses the vocabulary of legalism and constitutionality. But its willingness to talk to the EU -- or in this case to the United States, the world power that it keeps telling to leave Iraq -- shows a willingness to negotiate and presumably compromise behind closed doors in the manner of 19th-century great-power diplomacy.
Reports in Tehran on the resumption of talks with the United States have given an impression that this -- not the Istanbul conference -- is the news of interest to Iranians: the pursuit of contacts with the United States, perceived by many in Iran to be the key to resolving Iran's many problems.