Iran Activists Dread Midnight Knock Of Police Raid

31. července 2009 v 19:21
Iran's human rights activists say they live in dread of the midnight knock on the door or the car that pulls up next to them on the street, fearing that at any moment they might be arrested in the government's post-election clampdown.

They take precautions: moving only in small groups of two or three and positioning themselves near corners where there are several routes to make a dash for safety. They avoid telephones, purge e-mails and frequently change passwords.

"We fear for our lives. We can be detained at any moment," said Zahra Saeidzadeh, a human rights activist, in a telephone interview from Tehran.

"There's not much more we can do," she said, adding that the government is intent "on silencing us."

The crackdown unleashed after the disputed June 12 election went far beyond the young protesters who took to the streets crying fraud in the vote. The government has used the opportunity to target a wide range of figures who have long been a thorn in its side _ pro-reform politicians, critical writers and the community of activists who have long pressed for greater civil liberties and rights for women.

They have been picked up from their homes or offices in nighttime raids, or off the street, sometimes during protests but often not.
Several thousand people have been arrested in the nearly 7-week-old crackdown. The number still in prison is unclear. Several weeks ago, authorities put the figure at 500, but since then there have been more arrests. In recent days, officials have made several large releases and moved to put others on trial.
Leaders of grass-roots civic campaigns in Iran are no strangers to government pressure. For years they have been subject to surveillance, intimidation and imprisonment.

For example, the "Million Signature" campaign _ a group pressing for changes in Iran's laws on women _ regularly sees its leaders and workers arrested, hit with huge bail amounts and barred from travel abroad. But still they were able to build their networks.

The post-election crackdown, however, feels different, and activists fear this time the government intends to completely crush them.

"They're trying to instill fear in the movement to make us give up the fight," said Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a women's rights activist who has been detained repeatedly in the past.

"They raid homes after midnight and take away people. When you go to bed, you don't know if it's your turn, you just wait for that knock on the door," she said.

The detentions take away important organizing skills from activist groups. Also, several well-known human rights lawyers who usually represent jailed activists have themselves been imprisoned since the election.

"We don't know if we're going to win or lose this battle. We feel a great sense of insecurity. We also have immense anger. We are very, very angry," Abbasgholizadeh said.

But she said the opposition was unarmed "while they have batons, tear gas and guns. It's an unequal war."
The mass protests erupted over claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory was fraudulent, but they have turned into an unprecedented expression of anger at Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clerical leadership.
Rights activists joining the marches said they take special precautions, because they know they might be targeted.
They stand near street corners to have open escape routes and wear sunglasses, Abbasgholizadeh said. Security forces often identify protesters by their loose pants and running shoes, so activists wear ordinary clothes and carry shopping bags to avoid looking like they're part of the protest.

One well-known documentary filmmaker even put on an all-enveloping chador so she could hide her camera to film the protests, Abbasgholizadeh said, declining to identify the woman for fear she would face government reprisals.

Another activist, who asked not o be identified for fear of arrest, said her colleagues participate in demonstrations in small groups of two or three rather than together.
Before joining a protest, they change their Facebook usernames, make sure their e-mail inbox is empty and computers are clear and reformatted. They give power of attorney to close relatives or friends to use their bank accounts to post bail or deal with other financial matters.

Activists who are arrested are often forced by police to give up their e-mail passwords so authorities can scrutinize their contacts. So colleagues will step in and change the password of anyone who's been caught.

In addition, activists use two or three cell phones with temporary SIM cards to communicate with one another _ and even then, only rarely, since they fear the phones are tapped. E-mail is the preferred method of communication, but only on a secure server.

During a demonstration earlier this month, veteran rights lawyer Shadi Sadr was snatched off the street. A car pulled up to her and plainclothes men beat her and dragged her into the vehicle, according to her mother.
Sadr was released on June 28. Friends say she told them this imprisonment was much more difficult than past detentions. She refused to comment to the media on her detention a sign of the fear among activists about talking in the current atmosphere.

Human rights activists are not involved in organizing the mass protests or connected to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi or other reform politicians, said Abbasgholizadeh. But since the election, activists who may have been focused on a particular issue like women's rights have broadened their role, issuing statements and writing articles on the general political turmoil, she said.
Women, who by law must wear the Islamic headscarf and live under other restrictions, have played a major role in Iran's human rights community and in the post-election upheaval. Under Ahmadinejad's presidency, a government order limited the number of female students to half the university places, instead of the 65 percent they previously had occupied.

"If women weren't so oppressed, they wouldn't now be at the forefront of this movement. They have been suffering for years from imposed veil, from the fact that they cannot study their university courses, and cannot participate in many public places and events," said Abbasgholizadeh.


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