Gjesteskribent

ehsan-mansouri.JPG

Enkelthendelser sier mye om hva undertrykkelse er. Pågripelsen av studentaktivisten Ehsan Mansouri sier noe om hva sikkerhetsorganene i Iran kan tillate seg i full offentlighet. Å slå et menneske til blods i andres påsyn, sier noe om straffrihet, totalt fravær av lov og rett, samt terror mot tilskuerne: folk skal skremmes.

I dette tilfellet sier det også noe om hevngjerrighet og sadismen til president Mahdi Ahmadinejad og prestestyret: noen studenter hadde våget å protestere og rope «død over diktatoren» da Ahmadinejad besøkte den polytekniske høyskolen. De ville vise at han ikke hadde noe der å gjøre. Det var en fornærmelse at han kom. Ahmadinejad merket forakten og den åpenlyse trossen og slo brutalt tilbake.

Det er et dårlig tegn for en leder å bli avvist og hånet av studentaktivister. Historisk har det ofte vært et tegn på at ens dager er talte.

One afternoon early in May this year, a Kafkaesque drama unfolded in the normally placid east Tehran suburb of Seyed Khandan Bridge. Four burly men in plain clothes entered a block of flats, telling residents that they were police officers pursuing an armed robber. They went to the first-floor flat of Shamsolmoluk Tajik and banged on the door, forcing their way in by violently barging her aside when she answered. They were looking for her nephew Ehsan Mansouri, who often stayed with her. They ransacked the house and scoured the cellars, but Mansouri was not there. So the men left with Tajik, who was by this time screaming hysterically to attract her neighbours’ attention.

They pushed the terrified woman into a waiting car and drove away, but stopped when they spotted their quarry, Mansouri, walking along the street. Seeing the men jumping from the car, Mansouri tried to make a run for it. A gunshot rang out, prompting the fleeing man to look back and see one of his pursuers training his gun on him. Fearing he was going to be shot, Mansouri decided to surrender and lay on the ground. Seconds later, the chasing pack pounced and started beating him mercilessly around the head and neck with rubber batons.

Releasing Tajik, the gang handcuffed Mansouri, bundled him into the back of the car and continued assaulting him. They took him to Evin prison, a sprawling and intimidating facility in northwest Tehran. When they arrived, Mansouri was bleeding so profusely that prison authorities refused to admit him. They eventually relented only on the condition that Mansouri would be examined by a doctor, who would then submit a document listing his injuries to those who had delivered him for their signatures.

The incident showed how ruthless Iran’s security forces could be in pursuit of a wanted man. But Mansouri was no armed robber. He was a 22-year-old mathematics student at Amirkabir University, one of Iran’s most prestigious seats of higher learning. What had he done to be hunted down so brutally and subjected to such a fearful battering?

The arrest of Mansouri, a prominent student activist, was precipitated by the circulation of four campus publications containing blasphemous references and insulting commentaries on Iran’s Islamic system. These included the incendiary statement that neither the Prophet Mohammad nor Imam Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law who is the most revered figure in the Shi’ite branch of Islam practised by Iran, were ‘innocent’. It also argued that no figure in today’s Iran – including its supreme leader, a figure normally regarded as above public criticism – should be considered ‘sacred’. One publication asserted that the highest number of prostitutes in Iran could be found in Qom, an emblematic shrine city on the edge of the central Kavir Desert that is home to the country’s religious establishment.

In the cloying religious atmosphere of Iran’s ruling theocracy, making such statements can be almost suicidal. Mansouri was one of eight students arrested over the affair. Five were subsequently released. He remains in custody along with two of the others arrested, Majid Tavakoli and Ahmad Ghasaban. Relatives of the three say they have been tortured while in detention in an effort to extract confessions.

A close associate of the men told me they had undergone marathon interrogation sessions lasting up to 48 hours and frequently involving severe beatings. Interrogation teams of up to eight men have subjected the students to physical assaults interspersed with insults and psychological abuse. The students have been made to lie on the floor while interrogators stood on their backs. They are also said to have been beaten with electric cables. When they fainted from stress, the interrogators revived them by throwing cold water over them. Parents of the students have detailed the allegations in a letter to Iran’s judiciary chief, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.

The men’s families and friends insist that the publications were forgeries produced as a pretext for arresting them as prominent members of Amirkabir’s Islamic Students Committee, which plays a leading role among Iran’s student activist movement. ‘The government wanted to confront the Islamic Students Committee in such a way that other student bodies around the country would be intimidated,’ one activist says. ‘As they couldn’t find any other excuse they produced these publications with the help of the student Basij [a pro-regime volunteer militia]. As soon as we got wind of the publications, we told everyone that they were fakes. They even found four scanned copies of the publications’ logos inside the briefcase of a Basij student.’

It is not an isolated case. Dozens of Amirkabir activists have been expelled, suspended or put forward for compulsory military service in what students say is a concerted government campaign.

It has been instigated, they believe, by Iran’s conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in revenge for a humiliating episode at the university last December, when pro-democracy students staged an audacious and unprecedented challenge to his authority.

The event coincided with one of Ahmadinejad’s most bitterly controversial initiatives, a ‘scientific’ conference questioning the Holocaust staged at the foreign ministry’s political and international studies institute in north Tehran. Rather than attend the birth of his own brainchild, however, the president chose that day to visit the Amirkabir campus near the city centre.

It was, in its own way, as provocative a move as holding the Holocaust conference.

The university, commonly known as the polytechnic, has been historically renowned as a hotbed of pro-democratic protest. The secular convictions of its student activists are far removed from Ahmadinejad’s messianic religious beliefs. Many of them were already angry over a series of government-sponsored restrictions, including a stringent disciplinary code, limitations on inter-gender mingling and the demolition of student representative buildings. The president’s visit appeared to show he had neutralised his critics.

The plan began to backfire as he addressed a gathering of Basij students in the sports hall. Dozens of anti-government activists forced their way in and drowned out his speech by chanting ‘Death to the Dictator’. In a characteristically Iranian put-down, they held Ahmadinejad portraits upside down and set them alight. One student displayed a banner reading: ‘Fascist president, the polytechnic is not for you.’

The interruption provoked a furious melee in which punches were thrown and a shoe was hurled at the bemused president. Ahmadinejad was forced to cut his speech short and as he hurriedly left the campus, a member of his security detail fired a stun grenade to disperse angry activists attempting to follow him.

It was a stunning reversal for a politician accustomed to basking in mass audience acclaim during the nationwide roadshows that had become his political trademark. Eye-witnesses described him as looking bewildered and close to tears as the upheaval unfolded. Yet amidst it all, he issued one riposte of lasting resonance. ‘Everyone knows the real dictator is America and its servants,’ he shouted in response to the ‘dictator’ chants. Those present recall him accusing his hecklers of being paid agents of America and warning that they would be confronted.

That response may come to be regarded as one of the most telling moments of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In the months since, a preoccupation with alleged US plots to topple the Islamic regime has been at the forefront of the government’s agenda. It has also provided the rationale for an intensifying atmosphere of social and political repression, which had been relatively mild in the first 18 months after Ahmadinejad’s election in June 2005.

Less than three weeks after the Amirkabir episode, masked men armed with knives hijacked the car carrying Haleh Esfandiari to Tehran’s Mehrabad airport and stole her bags, along with her US and Iranian passports. The event marked the beginning of a long ordeal for Esfandiari, 67, an Iranian-born scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, who had returned to Tehran to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother. Esfandiari was placed under virtual house arrest and repeatedly interrogated until May, when she was formally arrested and detained in Evin prison. She was subsequently charged with espionage and endangering national security. This month she returned to the US after being released on bail following three and a half months in solitary confinement.

Også tre andre iransk-amerikanske forskere ble arrestert. Alle er nå løslatt og reist hjem etter måneder i uvisshet.

Men studentaktivistene er det verre med.

Tyranny in

Tehran

bildet: Ehsan Mansouri