In Iran, repression hits home

Haleh Sahabi's elderly father has been in prison for months. So have the husbands of the four other women sitting in her Tehran living room.

These five women - a political activist, two full-time homemakers, and two journalists - are paying a personal price for the slow-motion clash between Iran's political and religious reformers and the conservatives who oppose them.

The women are reformers themselves. They do not mention self-sacrifice or fatherless children or squeezed budgets. "Our skin is very tough," says Mohtarram Golbabaii, the wife of a prominent Shiite cleric who has been detained for 10 months.

Their views and experiences illustrate the ferment gripping this country. "You have a society of highly educated people who are ready for a more democratic system, and those people who are in power have to find a more imaginative way of of dealing with them," explains political scientist Farideh Farhi. "Their negation will not work."

The women in Ms. Sahabi's living room seem to prove Ms. Farhi's point.

Their loved ones are experiencing the garden-variety repression practiced by the country's conservative forces - incommunicado detention, the extraction of "confessions," secret trials - and yet the women seem ever more committed to reform.

The conservatives, especially the hard-liners among them, are trying to "reduce the legal opposition to zero," Ms. Sahabi avers, her hair covered by a blue scarf dotted with tiny flowers. She suspects that the plan is to draw out the militants and radicals on the reformist side, allowing the conservatives to justify a major crackdown.

Limits of activism

Many observers of Iran's political evolution are more optimistic, but then again they may not have a father in prison.

A venerable Iranian nationalist, the septuagenarian Ezzatollah Sahabi was a "lion of a man" before his arrest last December, Haleh Sahabi says. He survived 10 years in the jails of Shah Mohammed Pahlavi, the US-backed monarch that Iran's Islamic revolutionaries deposed in 1979.

When she saw her father in March, after four months of detention, he was thin, his hands shook, and he cried. "He just kept repeating himself: 'It's a heavy case they have against me - you must not try to do anything for me,' " she says.

But Haleh and the other women have been active anyway, issuing open letters to draw attention to the plight of their loved ones. They tried to hold a press conference early this month, but a landlord kicked them out, fearing political troubles.

Iran's reform-minded but moderate president, Mohamad Khatami, seems sympathetic to their cause. At a press conference on June 5, Mr. Khatami doubted the reliability of a purported confession from Sahabi that had appeared in a conservative newspaper. "I personally do not accept the methods adopted in such cases," he said.

But in Iran's bifurcated government, in which an elected president and parliament are in many ways subordinate to religious scholars charged with ensuring that laws and policies conform with Islam, Khatami's powers are limited.

He has no control, for example, over the country's judges, who are empowered to act as investigators, prosecutors, and adjudicators.

A year ago, Khatami warned the judiciary that "if a system creates peace in a society by using force, violence, and intimidation, it has secured a temporary peace in a cemetery in which people are nothing more than animated corpses."

The judges answer to Iran's top Islamic jurist, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and they seem undeterred by presidential criticism. Last October, the Special Court for Clergy convicted Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari, a Shiite cleric and a Khatami supporter, for religious crimes stemming from a speech he gave at a Berlin conference on Iran's reform movement.

Prison 59

The controversial part of Mr. Eshkevari's address was the suggestion that women in Iran ought to cover themselves in public as a matter of personal choice, not because of a legal requirement. The court tried him behind closed doors, but its initial sentence - death - has been overturned on appeal.

Even so, the conditions of his detention are worsening. Up until April 15, says Ms. Golbabaii, his wife, Eshkevari had phone privileges at Tehran's Evin Prison, and they were able to see each other once a week. Suddenly, he told her that he was to be moved to Prison 59, a facility apparently run by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. She has not heard from him since.

Farzaneh Roostaie, a journalist, says her husband, Reza Rais Tousi, a university professor, is also being held at Prison 59. She has heard from released inmates that detainees are allowed to see no one but their interrogators, and have no access to the outside world.

"I think he is under pressure to say or write something against [Ezzatollah] Sahabi," Ms. Roostaie says.

Marzieh Mortazi, elegant in a pale green blouse and a touch of lipstick, was detained alongside her husband, a politically engaged doctor named Habibollah Peyman. Along with Mr. Rais Tousi, Ms. Mortazi and her husband were seized during a meeting in a private home on March 11. She is a political activist in her own right, but was released after a few days. He is still in detention, probably also in Prison 59.

Nargess Mohammadi's husband, Taghi Rahmani, was arrested in the same raid. They are both journalists, but neither is working - Ms. Mohammadi, because the publications that share her political views have been closed by the judiciary, she says, and Mr. Rahmani, because he is in prison.

The prisoners have all challenged the status quo of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Eshkevari did so by suggesting the partial undoing of the revolution's vision of an Islamic society - one where women are required to appear covered up in public.

The others are affiliated with an old-line Iranian national movement that predates the revolution. They are avowedly Islamic, but they believe in a greater separation of clergy and government than exists in Iran today. They are also firm supporters of Khatami.

Threats to the regime

Leaders of the judiciary say those in detention are not harmless dissidents, no matter how old or bookish they seem.

According to one media report, Tehran judiciary chief Abbas Ali Alizadeh said those in detention were "outspokenly talking against [Iran's system of clerical rule] and the clergy."

In the inspection that led to the arrests in March, he added, agents found 30 people in a house.

"We wondered who they were, and they were arrested. When we acquired the evidence and documents, we found they were planning to overthrow the regime.... God wanted us to find them."

Defining 'reform'

In Sahabi's living room, decorated with landscape paintings and white cotton doilies, there is no discussion of God's will or of overthrowing the regime, but there is plenty of back-and-forth about the nature of the reform movement.

Mohammadi, the journalist, takes the view that Khatami "isn't the maker of reform in this country - he is the symptom and the symbol of reform."

The country has changed since the revolution, she says; Iran's people are more informed, more urban, less religious. The desire for change is a deep rumbling in the bedrock under the sea, she continues, which will either produce slow waves at the surface or very choppy waters, depending on how Iran's evolution is managed at the top.

Mortazi offers her own analysis. She argues that the president has been brought out by the clerical establishment to take the steam off the drive for change - while preserving the system more or less as it is.

"Every time Khatami opens the atmosphere a little bit," she argues, "the people overtake him."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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