Prominent Iranian union leader Mansur Osanlu, who recently fled that country, has told RFE/RL that death threats from inside government security circles drove him out of Iran.
Osanlu, who is described by some as “Iran’s Lech Walesa” after the labor leader who helped bring free trade unions and, ultimately, democracy to Poland, was speaking by phone from Turkey in one of his first media interviews since arriving there months ago.
He warned that the atmosphere in the Islamic republic is becoming more repressive “day by day.”
The president of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburb Bus Company told RFE/RL that he had upset authorities recently because he had increased his organizing activities.
“We were trying to bring unity among various workers groups in order to reach a solidarity society or a workers federation, I had become very active in this since last year and It didn’t remain secret from [authorities] who would send me all kinds of messages and threats," Osanlu said. "They had told my two bailsmen who had secured my release from prison in 2011 that I should present myself at the prosecutor’s office or at the prison. All of these events in addition to the information I received that there were discussions to kill me, hit me with a car, or do some similar to the chain killings [of intellectuals] -- I was also told by friends that it wasn’t right for me to stay in Iran -- made me reach the conclusion [that I had to leave]."
Hadi Ghaemi, the spokesman for the U.S.-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said he believes Osanlu will remain critical to the effort of bringing attention to the plight of Iranian workers, whose situation is reportedly worsening because of mismanagement of the economy and international sanctions over Iran’s controversial nuclear work.
“Mansur Osanlu is perhaps the most important labor activist to emerge in Iran over the past decade, and his ability to organize the bus drivers of Tehran -- and their consecutive activities -- was really a rejuvenation of the labor movement," Ghaemi said. "I believe he will continue to be a very articulate and important voice of Iranian workers."
Osanlu has paid a heavy price for his labor activities in Iran and for spearheading protests for better pay and conditions. Such protests are often met with harsh measures by authorities. He was detained a number of times, subjected to beatings, and spent some five years in jail on charges that included “acting against national security” and spreading “propaganda against the government.”
International organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Transport Workers' Federation called for his release and condemned the harsh treatment he received.
Osanlu said his interrogators subjected him to physical and psychological torture, including long periods in solitary confinement.
He said he learned about the campaigns for his release and calls for his freedom through relatives and other prisoners.
“The families who were visiting would tell us or prisoners who were transferred to court or to the hospital would hear such news and inform other prisoners upon return to prison," Osanlu said. "It was [important] for prisoners to find out that they were not forgotten -- these measures have an impact inside of Iran.”
He said he wants to continue his work from exile, which he acknowledges might be difficult. Other activists who have left Iran have struggled to remain relevant, and many are quickly forgotten.
Forcing activists into exile appears to be a strategic tactic by Tehran. In recent years, and especially since the bitterly disputed 2009 election and the ensuing crackdown, the regime has intensified pressure on many of those pushing for change.
Osanlu said he’s not discouraged.
"Being inside or outside the country is not a determining factor, I think," Osanlu said. "What is important is what conditions you’re facing and what possibilities you have and what price you’re ready to pay."