Meet a Key to a Golden Iranian Future

August 03, 2005
The National Review Online
Rachel Zabarkes Friedman

You may not know or recognize his name, but you’ve probably seen Ahmad Batebi’s face. In the picture that made him famous six years ago, Batebi, then just 21, his longish dark hair held back with a cloth band, is holding a bloody t-shirt above his head. That picture was taken at a student demonstration in Tehran in July of 1999, and the t-shirt belonged to a colleague of Batebi’s, a victim of government-backed violence against the peaceful protesters.

Soon after that demonstration, The Economist ran Batebi’s photo on its cover. Unwittingly transformed into a symbol of the Iranian student movement, a diverse and sizeable pro-liberty force, Batebi was thrown in jail for tarnishing the Islamic republic’s image. His sentence was originally death, though it was later reduced to 15 years in prison, 17 months of which Batebi has so far spent in solitary confinement.

He had been a participant in dissident activities long before that July day, and some say he became one of the student movement’s foremost representatives thereafter — but Batebi could do little good from his prison cell. That’s largely why, about four months ago, he chose not to return to Evin Prison from a brief furlough he had been granted (as political prisoners in Iran sometimes are). Now on the run inside his own country, he is using his newfound semi-freedom to work to combat the regime.

“He’s working around the clock, despite all the difficulty,” says an Iranian based in California who has been communicating with Batebi and who at times helps him to secure lodging; she asked that her name not be used in order to protect her family in Iran. “Because of the warrant for his arrest, he is going from city to city. His fans and followers find a place for him to stay, either with members of their families, or they rent somewhere for him, but he only stays around a week.” She says authorities raided the home of Batebi’s father, who spoke truthfully when he told questioners he had no idea where his son was. Batebi regularly communicates via Internet and cell phone with colleagues inside Iran and others around the world, but very few if any know where he is from day to day.

On the Run Toward Freedom
In a recent phone interview with National Review Online, Batebi explained (through a translator) why he opted to risk his life in hiding rather than return to prison. Since his escape he has been working to organize the opposition, in part with direction from dissidents still in prison who communicate to him through smuggled letters. He also wants to communicate to the West, and particularly leaders and citizens of the United States, about conditions inside Iran.

Asked what he hopes to accomplish through his efforts, Batebi says, “What I want is international pressure for all the political prisoners who have been so horribly treated. I want all these human-rights activists, these Amnesty Internationals, to put their resources together to give more attention to the political prisoners in Iran.” Batebi and other dissidents are worried that under new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who takes office this week, government crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations will increase, making Iranians even more fearful of expressing their dissatisfaction with the regime. Further, with their intellectual and political leaders in jail, opposition groups are struggling to organize themselves and act effectively. “The importance of these people, the political prisoners, is that they are an underground organization for combating this regime,” says Batebi’s California-based contact. “Each was the head of a big network and now all are behind bars, so there is a lack of leaders, a lack of direction.”

Batebi believes the Bush administration has some good instincts when it comes to supporting Iran’s political prisoners and the aspirations of the Iranian people generally. “President Bush has started this positive war, combating terrorism and theocracy and fanaticism. It is greatly appreciated by all the people inside the country, because of the repression we face.” But he also has words of criticism for the administration, suggesting the U.S. hasn’t been consistent enough in its policy toward Tehran. “Whenever the Iranian people or the government hears that the U.S. doesn’t have a plan or doesn’t have a policy regarding regime change in Iran, this is like fresh blood in the veins of these mullahs.” Tehran’s support for the violence in Iraq, enabled by high oil prices, seems to have achieved its aim, he says, distracting Americans from the problems in Iran. And the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Europe and the Islamic republic have in his view been a boon to the mullahs, allowing them to buy time in power.

Batebi also thinks Americans may not understand the level of fear among ordinary Iranians, partly due to our lack of intelligence. As a result, we expect the kind of mass demonstration unlikely to take place under current conditions. “We were working so hard for the anniversary of the July 9 dormitory events” — when forces attacked Tehran University students following a peaceful protest in 1999 — “but the rallies didn’t happen, because even when small groups of people gather innocently, they can be detained by the anti-riot police, and asked to bring two to three months’ salary for release. This policy has created a lot of fear.”

Demanding that Tehran respect basic rights is therefore not just a matter of principle. Fred Saberi of Sweden’s Iranian Liberal Network, who has also been working to help Batebi and other political prisoners, says, “When human rights are not so much abused and are respected in Iran, then you will see how much people will demonstrate. The U.S. should put pressure on the Europeans to put the issue of human-rights negligence in Iran on the same level of importance as respecting the laws of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

"'Why Are these People Still in Prison?'"
Batebi’s experience is confirmation of the importance of international attention for prisoners and other dissidents. “After my solitary confinement,” he says, “my case became internationalized, and there were so many eyes on me, they didn’t treat me as horribly because I was very much in the spotlight. Compared to a lot of unknowns inside the prison, I was treated relatively well.”

He also became an internationally recognized figure. Gary Metz, founder and coauthor of the popular Regime Change Iran blog, which features Batebi’s picture on its homepage, says Batebi is “one of the best-known symbols of the Iranian opposition out there today. He’s an icon to both the Iranian people and many people in the world community. Simply because of that photo he was arrested and has been a prisoner ever since. His case is such a strong example of the injustice of the regime.”

Suzanne Gershowitz, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a profile of Batebi in the winter 2005 issue of the Middle East Quarterly, points out that “half of Iran’s population is between 15 and 24. Batebi is now older than 24, but he symbolizes the dynamism of the student movement, and its commitment to achieving human rights (and democracy) in Iran.” Gershowitz says the administration has not taken a strong enough stance on Iranian human rights — for example, the State Department has yet to make noise about Batebi. While the official American support for hunger-striking journalist Akbar Ganji has been impressive, many others have also suffered for expressing their beliefs.

“Our government has been far too silent on these matters,” says Metz. “They will publish a list from time to time, things of that nature, but in terms of actually asking, 'Why are these people still in prison?', there are major people in our State Department who ought to be reminding the world of these individuals and their situations.” Take, for example, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, a friend of Batebi’s who courageously spoke to the press during his last furlough from prison. Or Manuchehr Mohammadi, another student activist and prisoner who reportedly slipped into a coma recently after being on hunger strike for nearly a month.

Did Ahmad Batebi ever imagine that he would be a fugitive, working to organize the opposition while hiding from his captors? “I was very young when I went to prison,” he says. “It was a shock for me, because I was so young and I never expected it. But a lot of other prisoners were like big brothers to me. They taught me to be patient, and to be more resilient. In my blood I was a real warrior, so all the things I’ve learned made me more determined in the cause I was pursuing. That was a turning point in my life, my experience in prison.”

One Iranian commentator has used the phrase “Iran’s golden children” to describe such freedom fighters as Ahmad Batebi, Akbar Ganji, and numerous others who are all too often unnamed. Many hope to see the day when they are Iran's ruling class. Until then, Western leaders at least have the power to consistently call attention to them, and in doing so to help protect them. It's a power some golden lives may depend on.

— Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is a former associate editor of National Review.

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