/ 17 June 2011

Iran’s regime hardens crackdown on freedom

Iranian security officials used batons and teargas to disperse thousands of protesters at a silent rally held in central Tehran to mark the second anniversary of the country’s disputed presidential election.

Riot police and plainclothes Basij militia (feared paramilitary volunteers) were deployed in various locations in the capital and arrested protesters.

Supporters of the opposition Green Movement marched in groups along Vali-e-Asr Avenue, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare and a rallying point for protesters in recent years. A source said demonstrators mainly marched on the pavement and, as requested by the organisers, did not shout anti-regime slogans.

“People pretended that they were in the streets for a walk but they were obviously out in protest to mark the rigged election in 2009,” he said. “They were silent but their numbers were 10 times more than an ordinary day in Vali-e-Asr Avenue. I think about 30 000 people were out there,” the protester said in a phone interview from Tehran.

Kaleme, the website of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, said protesters clashed with riot police near Saee Park in the avenue and Sahamnews, the website of Mehdi Karroubi, another leader of the opposition, said the police attacked people with electric batons.

Mousavi and Karroubi have been under house arrest since mid-February when they called for street protests in solidarity with the Arab uprisings.

News of the protests came as it emerged that a leading journalist and opposition figure had died of a heart attack after spending 10 days on hunger strike in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

Hoda Saber, a 52-year-old opposition political activist, was taken to hospital in the city after a cardiac complication.

His wife, Farideh Jamshidi, speaking from Tehran, said: “My husband died two days ago but we were unaware of his death until today when someone in the hospital informed one of our friends.”

According to Jamshidi, Saber stopped eating and later stopped drinking water to protest the death of fellow dissident Haleh Sahabi, who died of a heart attack during scuffles with security forces at the funeral of her father, Ezatollah Sahabi, also a leading political activist, on June 1.

Saber and the Sahabis were all members of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition of Iran, an ­alliance of politicians whose activities have come under scrutiny, especially since the 2009 election. Ezatollah Sahabi was the leader of the alliance.

Jamshidi accused prison officials of negligence in their treatment of her husband in Evin prison. “We have received reports that they delayed six hours in transferring him from prison to Modarres hospital. Doctors told us later that they could have saved his life by taking him to the hospital earlier.”

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency denied the allegations and said Saber received medical care before dying. It accused the opposition of politicising his death. After disappearing for two weeks in July last year, Saber’s family was informed that he had been picked up by security officials and taken to Evin. Several human rights organisations have issued statements expressing concern over political prisoners arrested since 2009.

As though having their political activism quashed was not enough, Iranians have been given a dress code to combat “Western cultural invasion”. Iranian men have been banned from wearing necklaces in the latest crackdown by the Islamic regime on “un-Islamic” clothing and haircuts.

Thousands of special forces have been deployed in Tehran’s streets, as part of the regime’s “moral security plan”, according to which loose-fitting headscarves, tight overcoats and shortened trousers that expose skin worn by women will not be tolerated. Men have been warned against “glamorous” hairstyles and wearing necklaces.

The new plan comes shortly after the Iranian Parliament proposed a bill to criminalise dog ownership on the grounds that it “poses a cultural problem, a blind imitation of the vulgar culture of the West”.

The Irna state news agency said the trend was aimed at combating “the Western cultural invasion” with help from more than 70 000 trained forces, known as “moral police”, who are sent out to the streets in the capital and other cities.

With the summer heat sweeping across the country, many people, especially the young, push the boundaries and run the risk of being fined or even arrested for wearing “bad hijab” (head covering).

Women in particular are under more pressure because of the restriction on them to cover themselves from head to toe. Men are allowed to wear short-sleeved shirts but not shorts.
“The enforcement of the moral security plan was requested by the nation and it will be continued until people’s concerns are properly addressed,” said Ahmadreza Radan, the deputy commander of the Iranian police.

Iran’s moral police usually function under a body that has a commander appointed directly by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a live television programme last year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that he did not approve of the crackdown.

Speaking by phone, a Tehran resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It’s not only about clamping down on clothing, but they are spreading panic and fear by sending out this many police into the streets under the name of this plan to control the society. It’s unbelievable to see a regime that is not only concerned about its own survival but goes into your personal life and interferes in that.”

Under Islamic customs dogs are deemed to be “unclean”. Iranians, in general, avoid keeping them at home but a minority enjoys keeping them as pets. But last year Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a prominent hardline cleric, issued a fatwa against keeping dogs.

Last summer, authorities in Tehran also released a list of approved hairstyles in an attempt to offer Islamic substitutes to “decadent” Western cuts such as the ponytail and the mullet. —