Iran: Escalating Repression of University Students

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Iran: Escalating Repression of University Students

Dozens Imprisoned, Others Barred as Classmates Mark National Student Day

NEW YORK -  Dozens of university students are behind bars and several hundred
others have been expelled from campus because of their political
activism or religious affiliation, Human Rights Watch said today as Iran
marked National Student Day. Many of those in prison hold leadership
positions in well known student organizations critical of the
government.

Iran's universities have increasingly become targets of government
efforts to consolidate power and stifle dissent. Since 2005, President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration has pursued a multi-phased campaign
to neutralize dissent at universities and "Islamicize" higher
education. This campaign, spearheaded by the Ministries of Education,
Science and Technology, and Intelligence, includes imprisoning student
activists; barring other politically active students and members of
Iran's Baha'i community from higher education; using university
disciplinary committees to monitor, suspend, or expel students;
increasing the presence of pro-government student groups affiliated with
the basij (a hard-line Islamist paramilitary group); and restricting the activities of student groups.

"The government accuses student activists of endangering national
security and being manipulated by ‘foreign elements' as cover for its
campaign to eliminate the student movement and stifle academic freedom,"
said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
"Despite these pressures, students are at the front line of the struggle
for greater freedoms at universities and throughout society."

The latest spate of arrests of student leaders was in November
2010, when security and intelligence forces arrested four members of
Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office to Foster Unity), one of Iran's largest student
organizations, which the government considers illegal.
National Student Day, marked on the 16th of Azar on the Iranian
calendar, commemorates three students killed at Tehran University on
December 7, 1953, by the Shah's security forces. On Student Day 2009,
demonstrations erupted on university campuses throughout Iran as many
students expressed outrage over the disputed June 2009 presidential
election.

Authorities arrested dozens of protesters, including Majid Tavakoli,
an Amir Kabir University student and member of the school's Islamic
Student Association, who gave a speech criticizing the government. A
revolutionary court sentenced Tavakoli to eight-and-a-half years in
prison on various national security charges including "conspiring
against the national security," "propaganda against the regime," and
"insulting the Supreme Leader" and president. He is in Tehran's Evin
prison.

As of November 2010 more than 70 students were in prison throughout
the country as a result of their political activities or affiliation
with banned student groups, according to sources close to Tahkim-e
Vahdat.

In the latest arrests, security agents arrested Ali Qolizadeh on
November 5 at his father's home in the northeastern city of Mashhad
without producing a warrant, as required by law. Two days later,
plainclothes Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Ali-Reza Kiani
outside Mazandaran University. On the same day, authorities arrested
Mohsen Barzegar in the town of Babol, and Mohammad Heidarzadeh in
Shahrekord, in western Iran. Authorities transferred all four to Evin
prison in Tehran, but released Qolizadeh, Kiani, and Heidarzadeh in late
November and early December. They are still holding Barzegar in section
240 of Evin prison and denying him access to his lawyer and family
members.

In a statement issued on November 8, Tahkim-e Vahdat accused the
authorities of targeting these four members because they had just been
elected to the organization's central committee. Several sources close
to Tahkim-e Vahdat told Human Rights Watch that authorities arrested the
students just before the group was to announce the official results of
its annual elections, which took place over the internet this year due
to security concerns.

On October 31, Raja News, a Persian-language website thought to be
close to the Intelligence Ministry, reiterated Tahkim-e Vahdat's illegal
status and ran an article accusing several of its members of having
ties with the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Mojahedin-e
Khalq (MEK), both of which the Iranian government considers terrorist
organizations. Tahkim-e Vahdat and several Persian-language websites
affiliated with other student groups have rejected these allegations and
said the arrests were part of the government's latest campaign to
discredit the student movement and stifle dissent.

The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Research declared Tahkim-e
Vahdat illegal in 2009. During the wide-ranging crackdown that followed
the disputed June 2009 presidential election, security forces arrested
more than 200 students, including several high-ranking members of
Tahkim-e Vahdat. Many of these arrests took place in November and early
December 2009, months after security forces attacked Tehran University
and killed several students, and weeks before National Student Day
events were to take place.

Authorities held scores of students incommunicado for weeks before
prosecutors filed charges against them and lawyers gained access to
their clients. Many alleged that security and intelligence agents had
tortured and forced them to confess to crimes they had not committed.
The judiciary prosecuted the students in closed trials in Iran's
revolutionary courts.

Bahareh Hedayat and Milad Asadi are two other central Tahkim-e
Vahdat committee members that were arrested in 2009. They are currently
serving time in Evin prison. Hedayat
is the first secretary of the Women's Commission of Tahkim, and the
first - and so far only - woman elected to the national student
organization's central committee. Authorities arrested her on December
30, 2009, and charged her with various national security crimes,
including "propaganda against the system," "participating in illegal
gatherings," and "insulting the president." In May, a revolutionary
court sentenced her to nine-and-a-half years in prison. Security forces
arrested Asadi on November 30, 2009. Judge Moghiseh from Branch 28 of
the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to seven years in prison for
similar national security-related "crimes."
The administration has also targeted several other student
organizations and their members, including Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat
(Tahkim-e Vahdat's alumni group) and the Committee to Defend the Right
to Education (CDRE). Several central committee members of Advar are in Evin prison, including Ahmad Zeidabadi, Abdollah Momeni, Ali Malihi, Ali
Jamali, and Hasan Asadi Zeidabadi. Security forces arrested Zeidabadi
and Momeni, the group's secretary-general and spokesperson respectively,
during the aftermath of the election protests last year. Zeidabadi,
Momeni, and Malihi are each currently serving sentences of 14 years and
11 months on various national security charges such as "participation in
illegal gatherings," "propaganda against the regime," and "insulting
the president."

In September 2009 Momeni sent an open letter to the supreme leader,
Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, detailing abuse and torture he said he
suffered in Evin prison. Momeni was one of the student leaders of the
July 1999 student protests.

Zia Nabavi, a co-founder of CDRE, is serving a 10-year sentence
in Ahvaz's Karun prison. Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Nabavi on
June 15, 2009, and prosecutors charged him with various national
security-related crimes, including "links to and cooperation with the
MEK." Mahdieh Golroo,
a student activist and another member of CDRE, has been in prison since
November 3, 2009. In April, a revolutionary court convicted her of
national security crimes and sentenced her to 28 months in prison.
Another co-founder of CDRE, Majid Dorri, is serving a six-year prison
sentence for his student activities.
Since 2005 the Ahmadinejad government has barred more than 200
students from university education on political and religious grounds,
according to a recent report 01released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Nabavi, Golroo, and Dorri formed CDRE in 2008 after authorities
barred them from continuing their university studies. It is one of
several student groups that publicized and resisted the government's
policy of preventing students from continuing their higher education on
political or religious grounds. Another such group is the Population to
Combat Educational Discrimination, which largely addressed the
government's official policy of preventing Bahais admission
to or expelling them from universities "once it becomes known that they
are Bahais." In 2009 authorities also prevented Qolizadeh and Barzegar,
two of the members of Tahkim-e Vahdat who were recently arrested, from
continuing their studies.

"Rather than honoring and celebrating its students, the Iranian
government routinely marks 16 Azar by tightening the screws on academic
freedom," Stork said. "Instead, the authorities should use this occasion
to release the dozens of students who remain in prison on baseless
charges, and allow back into the classroom the hundreds of others who
are being deprived of their education for political and religious
reasons."

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