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Iran Increases Pressure On Critics Ahead Of June's Presidential Election

The Physicians for Human Rights group's Ali Khan and others call for the Alaeis' release in September.
The Physicians for Human Rights group's Ali Khan and others call for the Alaeis' release in September.
The arrest of internationally renowned AIDS specialists, brothers Arash and Kamyar Alaei, in June and the prison sentences against them for allegedly plotting a U.S.-backed soft revolution in Iran have generated concern among rights activists and the country's scientific community.

Their lawyer has said that they have been sentenced to six and three years in prison, respectively. Their family has said they are innocent, and have warned that they may be under pressure to make false statements.

The two men, who ran HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs in Iran, have been celebrated internationally for their work.

The Alaeis participated in international AIDS conferences to learn from other experts and to share their own experiences. Kamyar Alaei was pursuing a doctorate at the University at Albany's School of Public Health in the U.S. state of New York.

Their conviction is seen as a fresh example in an increasing state crackdown on activists in Iran and a warning particularly to those with connections with the United States.


Critics note the timing of the alleged effort, with just six months to go before Iran's presidential election.

Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS and human rights program at Human Rights Watch, has said the case is another example of how, "under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration, Iran's human rights record has reached new lows."

Abdolfatah Soltani a prominent human rights lawyer and cofounder of the Center of Human Rights Defenders believe the government is trying to create fear in the society ahead of the June 12 presidential election.

"By using these terms that have no legal basis in Iranian laws" -- Soltani says, highlighting the "soft revolution" tag that officials have used -- "they are trying to deceive public opinion so that they have an excuse and justification for cracking down on civil society."

In recent years, Iranian authorities have charged intellectuals, critics, students, and rights activists with threatening national security and have accused them of being used by the United States to instigate a "soft revolution" in Iran.

In 2007, two prominent Iranian-American academics were jailed in Iran and accused of being involved in efforts to topple the Iranian establishment. They denied the charges.

A year earlier, in 2006, a leading Canadian Iranian author and intellectual spent several months in jail on similar charges.

The prison sentence against the Alaei brothers is for many a reminder of those cases.

Morteza Semyari, a member of Iran's largest pro-reform student group, the Office To Foster Unity (Daftar Tahkim Vahdat), tells RFE/RL that the crackdown on activists in Iran is a sign of the establishment's fear of dissent. "The pressure with the [Alaei brothers], students, women -- and all of it is being done under the banner of a 'velvet revolution' or 'soft revolution' -- all of these should awaken civil [society activists] and prevent them from becoming [passive]," Semyari says. "In fact, with these attitudes the officials are only showing their weakness in running the state."

Soltani also believes that the current case shows distress among hard-liners. "[The hard-line faction in the Iranian establishment] is of the view that it has to sow fear to prevent civil-society institutions from doing their work and to prevent NGOs, political parties, and human rights defenders from talking to people freely," he says. "In this way it tries to win the presidential election and announce [incumbent President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad as the winner."

String Of Problems

The conviction of the Alaei brothers comes amid growing human rights violations in Iran.

On December 21 the office of Nobel Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi's Center of Human Rights Defenders was shut down in Tehran. The center issued regular reports about the violations of human rights in Iran.

A few days later, the moderate daily "Kargozaran" was shut down.

Around the same time, two men were stoned to death in Mashhad.

There has been growing pressure on the Sufi minority, and last week at least six members of the Gonabadi dervishes were detained in Kish. More arrests were reported in December.

Baha'is have been also targeted, with five members of the Baha'i faith detained in Tehran last week. A rights group in Iran also reported that a Baha'i cemetery was desecrated in Ghaemshahr.

There are reports that parts of southeastern Tehran's Khavaran cemetery, which contains the graves of hundreds of political prisoners executed in the 1980s, have been destroyed.

Amnesty International has said that numerous ad hoc grave markings made by the families of some of those executed were destroyed by bulldozer between January 9 and January 16.

There is also growing pressure on students at Shiraz University, with at least two of them remaining in jail and over 10 being summoned to the university's disciplinary committee. The students were detained and summoned after they took part in events celebrating National Student Day last month. Many of them have been charged with disseminating anti-state propaganda.

More students have been summoned at other universities in Iran.

The Office to Foster Unity warned on January 20 against the increased pressure on student activists and accused the Iranian government of seeking to eliminate all critical activities from the country's universities.

Hadi Ghaemi from the International Human Rights Campaign In Iran believes Iranian authorities have used the Gaza crisis to increase pressure on those deemed threatening to the Islamic establishment.

He adds that the crackdown is an affront and an act of defiance by hard-liners in Iran in the face of the December UN resolution that expressed "deep concern" about the country's human rights conditions.

"Unfortunately Iran's government, instead of trying to minimize these kind of condemnations, has given full power to radicals so that they can make more moves than before," Ghaemi says.

Many observers believe as the June election gets closer, the crackdown on critics in Iran is likely to intensify.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in 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.