Amid student protests, Iran widens net against opposition

As students in Iran launched fresh protests, authorities vowed an end to 'leniency' – a point underscored by the arrest of activist Parastou Forouhar, whose dissident parents were killed by government agents in 1998.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Masked students show victory signs during protests in central Tehran Monday. Iranian police clashed with the opposition demonstrators who were seeking to renew their challenge to the government six months after a disputed presidential election, witnesses said.
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Authorities in Iran have blocked a high-profile activist – the daughter of a couple murdered by government agents more than a decade ago – from leaving the country. It's another example of how Iran's security forces are widening their net – and definition – of potential opponents as they try to stamp out months of dissent.

"So far, we have shown restraint. From today no leniency will be applied," Iran's chief prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, said on Tuesday. Tehran prosecutors should take stronger action, he instructed, against those "who violate public order and damage public properties."

The warning came as pro-regime militants attacked protesting students for a second day at Tehran University on Tuesday, one day after nationwide clashes by tens of thousands of students – the biggest in months against a disputed election last June – resulted in 204 arrests.

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One example of the broadening crackdown is the treatment of Iranian activist Parastou Forouhar. She was prevented by authorities from returning home to Germany after an annual visit to mark the anniversary of the November 1998 killings of her dissident parents, Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar.

For years, Ms. Forouhar has pushed Iranian authorities to learn the truth behind the deaths of her parents and three other dissident intellectuals, in what came to be known as the "chain murders," carried out by a death squad with high connections from inside Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. (Read Forouhar's account of the killings and subsequent efforts to shed light on them here.)

Each anniversary has prompted a stand-off outside the family home between security forces or hard-line vigilantes against hundreds who commemorate one of the most gruesome episodes of the era of former President Mohammad Khatami. But never before has Forouhar, an artist who has focused on human rights issues and torture, been prevented from leaving the country.

Forouhar's passport confiscated

This time, however, Iranian sources close to her say her passport was taken at the airport as she was departing this past Saturday. She was told that there was an outstanding Revolutionary Court case against her.

Iran's Revolutionary Courts often try cases of alleged treason, threats to national security, and insults to Islam or other "sanctities," such as Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Invariably hard-line, the courts have frequently been used in political cases to imprison reformists since the late 1990s.

Forouhar's case emerges as Iranians weigh the aftermath of protests across the country on Monday, and the arrests for "violating public order." Chanting "Death to the dictator" and burning pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei as they clashed with riot police and pro-regime vigilantes, the student-led demonstrations were the latest round of street protests since the disputed elections last June.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who says that widespread fraud deprived him of victory over archconservative rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was reportedly prevented on Tuesday from leaving his office by 30 plainclothes men on motorcycles – some of them wearing masks.

He got out of his car and shouted, "You're agents, you've been tasked with threatening me, beating me, killing me," according to the Associated Press. He was allowed to leave hours later.

Iranian authorities widen their net

Forouhar was not in the country during the June protests, which saw hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters take to the streets asking "Where is my vote?" after Mr. Ahmadinejad claimed reelection amid accusations of fraud. But Iranian intelligence and security services have extended their fight far beyond the streets of Iran in their bid to silence all opposition.

In Istanbul, Turkey, where a number of Iranian postelection activists who say they were raped in prison have fled, while seeking asylum in Europe and the United States, Iran's agents have been caught harassing the victims, and filming diplomats and journalists. Iranian operatives are also reported to be actively engaged in a far-reaching intimidation campaign across Europe and the US.

Intelligence ministry owned up to 1998 murders

Parastou Forouhar has kept alive the memory not only of her parents' murder in the fall of 1998, but a string of subsequent killings that were politically motivated. In laying out the legal challenges of revealing the truth, she described on her website how, over the years, anniversary gatherings of hundreds in solidarity with her family have been subject to a "massive attack of hired gangs of thugs." "The big wave of protest shows that the political murders of autumn 1998 have not been forgotten, and their clearing up has become a basic goal of the resistance."

The "chain murders" of 1998 shocked Iranians in their brutality. Dariush was stabbed 11 times and his wife 24 times, and both dismembered. The viciousness of those and the other killings prompted an official investigation, which eventually uncovered the culprits to be intelligence agents who said the "revolutionary executions [were] a warning" to other dissidents.

Equally shocking in 1999 was the eventual mea culpa, in which the Ministry of Intelligence finally admitted responsibility, noting that "a few of our colleagues – irresponsible, devious, and obstinate persons – were among those arrested."

Key intelligence figures from '98 era back in power

Khatami managed to "cleanse" the Ministry of Intelligence of those hard-line elements – an achievement seen by many as one of the high points of his 1997-2005 presidency.

But those hard-line elements did not go away, instead joining a growing parallel intelligence apparatus that included cells of hard-liners throughout the Islamic system, in the police, judiciary, Revolutionary Guard, and even the office of the supreme leader. In a detailed report about that apparatus earlier this year, the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center said that "many of the security personnel that were purged from the [Intelligence Ministry] were ultimately absorbed into" the parallel apparatus. (Download the PDF version of the report here.)

Several of those same key actors have since been resurrected by Ahmadinejad and given important security posts – from which they have orchestrated one of the most in-depth political crackdowns on dissent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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