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Defiance in the face of repression on Iran’s Student Day

By Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher

To mark Iran’s National Student Day on 7th December, a letter from imprisoned student Majid Dorri has been smuggled out of Behbehan Prison in southern Iran. In it, he says:

“16th of Azar [7 December] is a day when the university stood against oppression; it stood and gave martyrs; it stood and was dragged over the ground and through blood; but it did not leave, it stayed; it trembled but it did not surrender; it was weakened but did not bend.”

Student Day marks the killing of three students by police in 1953. On this day every year, Iranian students hold demonstrations and gatherings calling for reforms. They refuse to be silenced by the ever-mounting tide of repression.

In 2009, hundreds of students were arrested, and scores later imprisoned, in the wake of disputed Presidential elections. Yet the student movement is still – somehow – campaigning, even from behind bars.

Prisoner of conscience Majid Dorri has been serving a six-year sentence since 2010 and was permanently banned from ‘Allameh Tabatabai University in July 2011.

Since the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005, amid rising levels of repression against the reformist student movement, the university files of scores, if not hundreds, of students have been given ‘stars’. These stars are not gold for achievement, but black marks for expressing dissatisfaction with the authorities.  Those with three stars are expelled and banned from further education for good.

At least 100 students are believed to have been given lifetime bans from university due to their activism in 2011 alone. At least 58 students were reportedly banned in 2009, and another 70 in 2010.

The new Empty Seat Campaign (http://www.facebook.com/Empty.Seat.Campaign) draws attention to missing students. These include those killed during the 2009 unrest, those who have been banned or those who are, like Majid Dorri, still in prison.

The rallying cry of ”Where is my vote?“ that swept the country after the 2009 election is echoed in the Empty Seat Campaign’s slogan: ”Where is my classmate?“.

Independent student and graduate associations continue to be banned in Iran.  Like Majid Dorri, their imprisoned members have often continued to fight against the conditions of their detention and speak out on human rights – including on Iran’s Students’ Day - to their own detriment.

Mahdieh Golrou, former vice-president of the ‘Allameh Tabatabai University’s Islamic Association, was due to be released after two years in prison when she was sentenced to an additional six months. She had been convicted on new charges relating to a joint statement she released with two other detainees on last year’s National Student Day.  Her two co-signatories – student activists and prisoners of conscience  Behareh Hedayat and Majid Tavakkoli - have also had the same additional sentence imposed, bringing their total prison terms to ten and nine years respectively.

Spokesperson for Iran’s Graduates’ Association, Abdollah Momeni - already serving a five-year prison term - was also charged afresh this year with “propaganda against the system” and “causing unease in the public mind” in relation to a September 2010 open letter he wrote to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei describing his arrest and interrogation.

In the letter, he wrote of being tear-gassed, beaten, threatened, held in solitary confinement, having his head pushed down a dirty toilet bowl so that he ingested faeces, and being forced to eat his interrogation forms during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Uneasy reading indeed – and sadly only one of many such testimonies. The ongoing repercussions of Abdollah Momeni’s letter show not only that imprisoning student and graduate leaders has failed to bow the spirit of prisoners, but also how the Iranian authorities resort to further repression to cover up their torture and ill-treatment of detainees.

Another year’s National Student’s Day has passed with too many “empty seats” on university campuses across Iran. We are again calling on the Iranian authorities to free all student prisoners of conscience and lift the lifetime bans on study. Nowhere should there be another Majid Dorri, writing from prison that:

“… this is my final message as a student, [because] I have been expelled; I have been driven out from your realm ... I am no longer a student, but give [you] a message, to say what is in my heart, even though [I am] a ‘starred student’, deprived of education.”