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Fear 'Very Palpable' Inside Iran As Election Anniversary Approaches

Roxana Saberi speaks at the National Press Club.
Roxana Saberi speaks at the National Press Club.
As the first anniversary of Iran's disputed presidential election nears, human rights activists in Washington are pushing Congress to support stronger action against human rights violations that have occurred in Iran within the past year.

The latest report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) calls for the identification of key human rights violators in Iran, followed by travel bans and the freezing of assets. The list includes the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the interior minister, the intelligence minister, the head of the judiciary, the prosecutor-general, and the head of the Basij militia.

During Congress’s June session, USCIRF hopes the U.S. government will move forward to impose sanctions on Iran for its human rights violations. In addition, it calls for the use of funds to promote the free flow of information to and from Iran, including support for RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Human rights activists say it's hard to predict what's going to happen this year in terms of opposition protests. Iranian security forces confronted continued protests in May by university students, and they are gearing up for more protests in the coming weeks. Leila Milani of Human Rights Activists in Iran said last week at the National Press Club that the Iranian government plans to empty gymnasiums and other facilities to make room for new prisoners.

According to Rudi Bakhtiar, communications director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Iran executes more prisoners than any other country in the world in proportion to its population. At a special ceremony in the Northern Virginia Baha’i Center on May 23, Bakhtiar urged people to continue speaking out for their loved ones in Iran who face persecution.

"The human rights situation in Iran is as dire as it has ever been," said Bakhtiar. "We cannot be silent about what’s going on."

According to Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and cofounder of United4Iran, Iran is imprisoning more than 500 prisoners of conscience, mostly in Tehran. But there’s no telling how many may be sitting behind bars in the provinces, Ghaemi says.

Iran is the leading jailer of journalists in the world, with more than 35 behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Furthermore, only three judges have been presiding over the prosecution of hundreds of dissidents. Most human rights organizations have been shut down and their members put in jail.

Prominent figures like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi have had their assets frozen and their families banned from leaving the country. The USCIRF report details the significant increase in legal and human rights violations suffered by ethnic and religious minorities in Iran since last year's presidential election.

As for the June 12 anniversary, Bakhtiar says that even if Iranians fear taking to the streets, activity on the Internet will remain vibrant.

"The fear is very palpable inside of Iran," she says. "But one thing they haven’t been able to do is outmaneuver technology."

At the Northern Virginia Baha’i Center and at a discussion at the National Press Club last week, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi recounted her 100 days in Evin prison between February and May 2009 on espionage charges. While in prison, she says she became close to a number of prisoners of conscience, including the two female Baha’i leaders who have been in jail for more than two years -- Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet.

She described the day of her release as bittersweet.

"As they drove me away, I remember turning my head to the side and seeing the prison disappear behind me. And finally, I cried," Saberi said. "I realized, however, that my tears were not just tears of joy, but they were also tears of sorrow for the many innocent prisoners I was leaving behind. Why was I freed while all these others are still there?"

Saberi believes the media attention and international support she received during her ordeal led to her release.

"Do media attention and attention on these human rights violations matter? I think they do, because if there weren’t this kind of attention the repression would be much worse," she said.

Saberi also recommended that the United States should not only condemn human rights abuses in Iran but also violations that take place in allied countries or even within its own jurisdiction. Saberi said her interrogators in Tehran liked to raise the issue of prisoner abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba or at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to justify their own actions.

She said there is a cost "when America doesn’t stand up for [its] principles."

Maziar Bahari
Maziar Bahari, a reporter for "Newsweek" who was jailed for more than three months last year on national security charges, says international attention does help to get prisoners freed. Iran, he said, needs the help of the international community to survive and therefore cares about its image in the world.

"The fact that I was finally freed -- albeit on bail -- shows that the Iranian government is not as indifferent to negative publicity as it pretends to be," he said.

Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran believes the international community needs to view human rights violations and the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program as complementary issues.

"The Obama administration is making a huge mistake by not supporting the minimum action at the international level through multilateral forums such as the [UN] Human Rights Council," he said.

When the Human Rights Council meets in the next month, he said Washington should lead the way in passing a resolution that would set up a mechanism to investigate human rights violations in Iran and hold key violators accountable.

Ghaemi said groups supporting those who are being persecuted in Iran should focus on the advocacy of basic human rights rather than on support for the political opposition.

"We’re not calling for the Obama administration to support any political opposition in Iran. We’re calling about holding the Iranian government accountable for its human rights violations under the treaties it has signed," Ghaemi says. "We are talking about supporting universal rights to freedom of assembly and expression."