Iran Cracks Down on Student Protesters

The regime tries to muzzle its younger generation with threats, detention, and torture.

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Babak Zamanian, an Iranian student.
Babak Zamanian, an Iranian student.

TEHRAN, IRAN—Babak Zamanian, a lanky 23-year-old student of mining engineering, vividly remembers the last time he bellowed slogans denouncing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Death to the dictator!" he chanted vociferously on a freezing winter day in December 2006, leading a crowd of Iranian students as the Iranian leader delivered a speech at Amirkabir University of Technology, a hotbed of student protests in Tehran.

A few weeks later, Zamanian was blindfolded by authorities and tossed into Section 209, the notorious solitary confinement block in Evin Prison run by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. And that began a four-month ordeal of physical and psychological abuse by interrogators determined to have him confess on camera to collaborating with the cia. When he refused, he says, they tied his hands behind his back and beat him black and blue. "They harbor a 'teach them a lesson' vindictiveness," he says. "They are very, very brutal."

Zamanian is among thousands of political activists and journalists free on bail but banned from leaving the country. Yet, he may count himself lucky; a young man and woman recently were reported to have died in custody, claimed by authorities as suicides.

Zamanian recounts the litany of abuse and torture during a recent rendezvous in a downtown Tehran cafe, visibly nervous that he might have been followed. He lives with the uncertainty of being tossed back into prison at any time. His life is in limbo. He faces a never-ending series of court dates and interrogations. His phone is tapped, his movements probably watched. (During the course of this interview, he disconnected his cellphone battery, worried his location might be tracked or conversation overheard by Intelligence Ministry spies).

In the year since Zamanian took part in protests, student movements in some Iranian universities have been gathering steam. On Dec. 7, 2007, Students Day in Iran, hundreds of leftist university students marched at university campuses with portraits of Che Guevara. Smaller groups of Marxist students held similar protests in several other cities. Other groups soon joined, including students from Islamic schools.

About 50 students have been arrested since then, according to estimates by defense lawyers. The security officials have reportedly called them "rebel students," and family members have been told that their children "had acted against national security." Security officials in the past year have hit out at groups like the labor movement, women's rights advocates, and students, labeling them centers of conspiracy. The universities similarly have been targeted within the past year. Nonconformist lecturers have been dismissed, student associations closed, publications banned, and a range of other actions taken to muzzle student leaders.

According to the Office for Fostering Unity, a leading reformist student organization, 43 student organizations critical of the government have been closed down, at least 130 student publications banned, and hundreds of students detained since the Ahmadinejad government came to power. During this time, they say around 550 students have been summoned to disciplinary hearings, and more than 100 prominent lecturers have been dismissed or forced to retire.

Last year, the Iranian minister of intelligence, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, reiterated the official view that Iran's enemies were planning to use the students' and women's movements as the vehicle for a "soft coup."

Iranian dissident students and human-rights observers expressed shock at the news last month of the death in detention of two young Iranians, Ebrahim Lotfallahi, 27, a prominent student activist from Sanandaj, and Zahra Bani-Ameri, a 27-year-old female physician.

While the Iranian authorities are eager to dismiss these deaths as suicides, human-rights observers blame the Intelligence Ministry, which reportedly conducts interrogations of political detainees and is said to use violence to obtain confessions. "The sudden death in detention of two apparently healthy young people is extremely alarming," said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "The government only heightens our concern by quickly passing them off as suicides."