Who Are Iran’s Political Prisoners? – Roxana Saberi

The Wall Street Journal

Roxana Saberi
Oct. 6, 2011

Just after my release from a Tehran prison in May 2009, an Iranian prisoner wrote an open letter entitled, “I wish I were a Roxana.” Haleh Rouhi, a follower of Iran’s minority Baha’i faith, was serving a four-year sentence for antiregime propaganda, although she said she was simply “teaching the alphabet and numbers” to underserved children.

She was happy I was released but wondered how her case differed from mine and why she had to remain in prison. “What kind of justice system condemned [Roxana] to such punishment,” Ms. Rouhi asked, “and which justice freed her at such speed?”

I asked myself the same question. Why was I released after 100 days, having appealed an eight-year prison sentence for a trumped-up charge of espionage? What is clear is that as a foreign citizen, I was fortunate to receive international support, while the plights of other innocent prisoners were less known outside Iran.

Last month, two American men incarcerated in Iran on accusations of espionage and crossing the border illegally—charges they contested—were freed after being sentenced to eight years in prison. Their release is welcome news and cause for relief.

At the same time, ordinary Iranians are suffering mounting abuses and prolonged imprisonment for exercising their basic human rights, making Haleh Rouhi’s question as valid today as it was two years ago. Officials from several countries have called for the release of a handful of Iran’s wrongfully imprisoned men and women, but this pressure is rarely consistent—and most of Iran’s hundreds of prisoners of conscience have never gained the attention of foreign governments or mainstream news media. The international community needs to apply the same pressure on Tehran to release these prisoners as it has for high-profile Western citizens.

At least 28 of Iran’s prisoners of conscience are journalists, according to the media rights group Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Iran the third largest jail for journalists in the world after Eritrea and China. In addition, six Iranian filmmakers were recently arrested for allegedly cooperating with BBC Persian. (The station insists no one in Iran works for it.)

Well-known attorneys such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been sentenced to six years in prison, also are locked up in Iran. Last month, Abdolfattah Soltani, who like Ms. Sotoudeh defended many political prisoners, was arrested for the third time. I first heard of his courage from my cellmates in Tehran’s Evin Prison. I requested that he represent me, but the prosecutor threatened me against retaining “a human rights lawyer.”

Mr. Soltani was arrested while he prepared to defend several Baha’is detained for providing higher education to other Baha’is barred from university in Iran because of their religion. He was also an attorney for my two Baha’i cellmates, Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, who are each serving 20-year prison sentences for various unsubstantiated charges including espionage.

Most recently, the headlines have focused on Youcef Naderkhani, a Christian convert from Islam who faces possible execution after refusing to renounce his faith.

Many of Iran’s prisoners of conscience have suffered torture—both physical and psychological. It is common for them to be held in solitary confinement for months, even years. They often lack adequate access to their families and attorneys and go through sham trials. Some are coerced to give false confessions and inform on their friends.

If detainees are lucky, their captors offer them release on bail, but the amount is typically exorbitant, and prisoners who can post it tend to live in fear that they could be sent back to jail any day. At the same time, a rising number of executions has made Iran the world’s largest executioner on a per capita basis. According to Amnesty International, in 2010, at least 23 Iranian prisoners convicted of politically motivated offenses were executed.

The Iranian regime needs to address human rights violations instead of denying their existence. If Tehran has nothing to hide, it would permit the recently appointed United Nations special rapporteur on human rights to enter the country. Tehran should also grant access to several other U.N. special experts who have been blocked from visiting since 2005.

U.N. officials—particularly Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay—plus member states and other individuals must place constant pressure on Tehran just as they have in cases such as mine. This will bring attention and justice to the real heroes, the everyday Iranians in prison for pursuing universal human rights and demanding respect for human dignity.
International pressure might not always result in their freedom, but at least they will know they are not alone and can gain courage to carry on. And it can help Iranian authorities realize that the many faces of their justice system will only continue to isolate the Islamic Republic among the family of nations.

Ms. Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist detained in Iran’s Evin Prison in 2009, is the author of “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” (HarperCollins, 2010).

Roxana Saberi – Official Website.

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