Birthday campaign for release of Iranian student leader

By Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher

I was cheered to see Amnesty International members joining others across the world to wish Iranian Prisoner of Conscience Behareh Hedayat Happy Birthday in an effort to secure her release.  A Facebook page has been set up to collect messages and videos of support.

Behareh Hedayat is celebrating her 30th birthday today – her third behind bars – in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran where she is serving a nine and a half year prison term in connection with her activities as a student leader.

I sometimes wonder how effective such a campaign might be, in the face of the ongoing ruthless repression by the Iranian authorities.  How could someone held in such restrictive circumstances – she is currently banned from family visits – even find out that people around the world are singing her “Happy Birthday” and calling for her release?

But as ex-prisoner of conscience Maziar Bahari reminded us after his release, “the prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten.”  These messages of support will reach her family and friends and eventually will get to her.  Other families have told us how much such expressions of support have meant to them in the long nights when they sit at home with an empty chair beside them.

Behareh Hedayat is the Chair of the Women’s Committee of the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (OCU) – a national student body which has been active in calling for political reform and opposing human rights violations in recent years and also sits on its Central Committee.  She is also a women’s rights activist, and member of the One Million Signature Campaign (also known as the Campaign for Equality), a grassroots movement aimed at collecting signatures to a petition demanding an end to discrimination against women in Iranian law.

Behareh Hedayat was arrested on 31 December 2009, shortly after mass arrests following anti-government protests on the religious festival of Ashoura.  Before this, in early December 2009, her recorded video speech for a conference in the Netherlands entitled “International solidarity with Iranian students’ movement on the occasion of Iran’s National Student’s Day” had been widely circulated on the internet.

She was charged with several “offences”, including “interviews with foreign media”, “insulting the Leader”, “insulting the President”, “disrupting public order through participating in illegal gatherings”, “illegal entrance and destruction of Amir Kabir University’s main entrance during [opposition leader] Mehdi Karroubi’s visit to the university”.

In May 2010 Behareh Hedayat was sentenced to six months in prison for “insulting the President”, two years for “insulting the Leader” and five years for “acting against national security”. A two-year suspended prison term previously imposed for her participation in a June 2006 demonstration calling for an end to discrimination against women in law was also implemented.  Her sentence was upheld in July 2010.

“We have been pressured and pummelled but have neither broken nor bent. We have stood firmly, but with anxious and broken hearts, we have witnessed the plunder and despotic destruction of a flower pot for which our predecessors and we have toiled and laboured to see its growth and flourishing.” Behareh Hedayat, December 2010

I have been deeply moved by Behareh’s refusal to be cowed by her time in prison, despite being denied family visits and even telephone calls for long periods.  In December 2010, her message (from which the above quote is taken) from prison to Iranian students for the 2010 anniversary of Iran’s National Students’ Day, was published.  Since then, she has been charged afresh with “propaganda against the system” and “acting against national security by conspiring against the system” in relation to her statement from prison.

Amnesty International was founded 50 years ago to remember the forgotten prisoners. Activists around the world are not prepared to forget Behareh Hedayat – who reminds us all of the many other prisoners of conscience still detained in Iran.  Many Happy Returns of the Day, Behareh.  I hope next year sees you filling the empty chair at home, where you should be.