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Why Is Iran Releasing Some Postelection Detainees?

More than 2,000 protesters, reformists, and intellectuals were detained in the postelection unrest in Iran last June.
More than 2,000 protesters, reformists, and intellectuals were detained in the postelection unrest in Iran last June.
The Iranian authorities in recent weeks have begun to release some of the former officials, activists, and intellectuals detained in last year's post-election unrest.

Those released in recent days include former Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh, activist Abdollah Momeni, and student leader Mehdi Arabshahi.

Those detainees have been released under varying conditions. Tajzadeh is reportedly on prison leave for the Iranian New Year, which is marked on March 21. Reports say Momeni has been given several days of leave on a bail of $800,000, and Arabshahi was reportedly released on a bail of $200,000.

The three are among over 2,000 reformist figures, students, human rights advocates, and intellectuals detained in the postelection crackdown that followed the disputed June presidential election. Many have since been released, but scores still remain in jail, and some have been tried and sentenced to long jail terms.

Former Deputy Interior Minister Mostafa Tajzadeh is reported to be on temporary prison leave.
Former reformist legislator Fatemeh Haghightajoo believes the recent release of some prominent detainees is the result of an understanding reached "at the highest levels of the Iranian establishment."

"I believe [former President] Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the so-called pragmatic conservatives have played a prominent role," Haghightajoo says.

Rafsanjani has called for the release of postelection detainees as one of the steps to end the crisis the Islamic republic is now facing. Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi have also called for the release of political prisoners.

Haghighatjoo, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that international pressure and overcrowded prisons are among the factors that are forcing the Iranian establishment to gradually release some of their high-profile detainees.

Paris-based reformist journalist Seraj Mirdamadi says the release of a number of detainees is partly a move by the Iranian regime to demonstrate that it has managed to put an end to the postelection crisis. "The establishment is trying to show itself as having the upper hand following the engineered state demonstrations marking [the anniversary of the 1979 revolution and demonstrate that it has reached victory," Mirdamadi says.

Revolving Prison Doors

But while some of the most prominent detainees have been released, there have also been reports of other lesser-known activists being arrested. On March 11, news websites reported that Kurdish blogger and screenwriter Susan Mohammadkhani Ghiasvand was arrested in the city of Karaj.

Nevertheless, the recent wave of releases has led to some relief and hope that others might also be freed for the New Year's holiday.

The alumni organization of Iran's largest reformist student group, Advar Tahkim Vahdat, has called on the head of Iran's judiciary to release the the organization’s leader, Ahmad Zeidabadi. Zeidabadi, a prominent journalist who was reportedly arrested just a few hours after last June’s vote, has received a six-year prison sentence and five years of internal exile.

Advar Tahkim Vahdat says in an open letter that Zeidabadi remains in jail even though his family posted the required bail.

Mirdamadi believes it is likely that outspoken detainees such as Zeidabadi will be kept in prison for the Iranian New Year as a warning to others. "The release of prisoners ahead of the New Year is not the result of kindness, tolerance, or leniency by the establishment toward the opposition," Mirdamadi says.

He adds that especially those who have used tough words against the establishment and the supreme leader -- including Zeidabadi, student activist Majid Tavakoli, and refomist journalist Issa Saharkhiz -- are likely to spend the holidays in jail as a warning to others.

Mirdamadi believes Iran could balance the releases with more arrests, especially if next week’s festival of fire on March 16 leads to fresh antigovernment street protests.

The International Campaign For Human Rights notes that because of what it calls the "unreasonably high bail amounts" prisoners and their families have had to post, most prisoners appear to be hostages of the Iranian judicial system. As the rights group has noted, some of the bail amounts set are higher than a prisoner's estimated earnings in 100 years.

And there is still much concern over detainees who could face the death penalty.

So far, two of the detainees put on trial over the postelection unrest have been executed. The two men, Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour, were reportedly arrested even before the disputed vote and convicted of "moharebeh," or waging war against God.

There is now concern over the fate of about a dozen other individuals who are facing the same charge, which carries the death sentence. Among them is 20-year-old student Mohammad Reza Valian, who was arrested following the unrest that broke on the religious holiday of Ashura.
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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.

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