Dozens of student activists kept behind bars in Iran, some since 2009, must be freed immediately and unconditionally, Amnesty International urged on Thursday, as thousands prepared to mark National Student Day at universities across the country.
The annual event commemorates the deaths of three students at the hands of the security forces in Tehran during a demonstration on 7 December 1953.
Since the disputed presidential election in June 2009, the Iranian authorities have repressed – sometimes violently – these annual peaceful demonstrations held at university campuses around the country.
This crackdown has escalated in recent months, with dozens of students arrested, summoned to serve prison sentences for vaguely worded offences or banned from pursuing their education, in violation of Iran’s international human rights obligations.
“Instead of imprisoning student activists who have used the commemoration of the student killings in 1953 to peacefully protest against current human rights violations, the Iranian authorities should address their concerns and end the culture of impunity for violations which exists in Iran today,” said Ann Harrison, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
Student prisoners of conscience
Among the dozens of student activists languishing in Iran’s prisons, Amnesty International has been actively campaigning for the release of three prisoners of conscience in particular.
“All of them are imprisoned solely for their peaceful activism. This National Student Day, we are saying enough is enough – Iran must release all student prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally,” said Harrison.
Student leader and winner of the Norwegian Student Peace Prize 2013, Majid Tavakkoli, was arrested on National Student Day in 2009 after giving a speech at a peaceful rally at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University of Technology where he was a student.
He is serving a nine-year prison sentence in Raja’i Shahr Prison after being convicted of “participating in an illegal gathering”, “spreading propaganda against the system”, and “insulting officials”. He was reportedly beaten during his arrest, sentenced following an unfair trial in January 2010, and held mainly in solitary confinement until the end of May that year.
Besides his prison sentence, Tavakkoli has been barred from leaving the country and faces a lifetime ban on enrolment in Iranian universities, as well as a five-year ban on taking part in political activities.
Bahareh Hedayat – a student and women’s rights activist – is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence following her arrest on 31 December 2009. She was convicted of “insulting the president”, “insulting the Leader”, “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security”, and “spreading propaganda against the system”.
Before her arrest she had been an active member of the Central Committee of the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (OCU) – a national student association which calls for political reform and opposes human rights violations.
On 30 October, Hedayat and nine other female prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison began a week-long hunger strike – abstaining from food but drinking water – in protest at the prison authorities’ degrading treatment of them earlier the same day.
The women were reportedly subjected to humiliating and degrading body searches by female guards from the Prison Security Section who also confiscated some of their personal belongings.
Eight of the women, including Hedayat, ended their hunger strike when they received promises from the prison authorities there would be an investigation into their complaint. The ninth had ended her hunger strike earlier in the week.
Student activist Sayed Ziaoddin (Zia) Nabavi has been serving a 10-year prison sentence after conviction of the vague charge of “enmity against God” since his arrest on 14 June 2009 shortly after attending a mass protest following the disputed election result.
He was ordered to serve his sentence in “internal exile” far away from his family in Karoun Prison, in the south-western city of Ahvaz, where prison conditions are poor.
Amnesty International believes that Nabavi is imprisoned solely for his peaceful activities with the Advocacy Council for the Right to Education, a body set up in 2009 by students barred from further study because of their political activities. In 2007, Nabavi was banned from further university study after receiving three “stars” for his peaceful political activities.
“Iran must once and for all halt its ongoing repression of student activists for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” said Harrison.
“Discrimination against students based on their gender, religious beliefs or peaceful activism must also come to an end.”
Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which expressly prohibit discrimination on grounds of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.