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Iran Giving Voice to Freedom
Tehran's intellectuals won't keep quiet

By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek International, February 22, 1999

His father said he was just going out to buy some groceries for dinner. Mom was away for the evening visiting friends. Sohrab, 13, went back to reading his book as the light faded on the north Tehran high-rise apartment blocks. But now it was dark, and Papa wasn't back. Sohrab called his older brother. He called his mother at her friends' place. And still his papa hadn't come back, and couldn't be found.

Nearly a week passed before the body of Sohrab's father, Iranian essayist and poet Mohammed Mokhtari, was found and identified. He had been strangled with a leather strap. No one knew, or would say, who had done it. Then, the night Mokhtari's death was confirmed, as fellow writers gathered at his apartment to console his family, a phone call came from Sima Pooyandeh. Her husband, Mohammed Jafar Pooyandeh, best known for his translations of French literature and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, had gone missing that afternoon. His body was found two days later. He, too, had been strangled with a leather strap or belt.

The December killings sent a shudder through Iran's intellectual community. Word of the deaths came only a few days after the stabbing of an elderly couple who had long peacefully opposed the government. Iranian academics and authors knew that any of them might be marked for death; several anonymous hit lists began to circulate. In the months before the attacks began President Mohammad Khatami's efforts to give Iranians more freedom and improve relations with the West had suffered one setback after another; the attacks looked like the start of a new wave of secretive terror sanctioned by his enemies. Then, suddenly, Khatami staged a political coup. He forced the country's intelligence agency to admit some of its men carried out the murders-and last week forced Iran's spy chief to resign. If the intent of the murders was to intimidate the voices of reform, the effect was exactly the reverse. "My husband and Mr. Mokhtari were killed for the sake of freedom of expression," said Pooyandeh's widow, a 36-year-old nurse. She won't be satisfied, she said, until the killers are brought to trial, "and not only the executioners, but those who gave the orders."

Even six months ago that would have seemed an impossible demand. For exactly two decades Iran has been one of the world's most unpredictable and politically dangerous nations, capable of repression as surreal as anything imagined by George Orwell. This is a country where the dreaded intelligence agency is officially called the Ministry of Information. Last week at a rally marking the revolution's 20th anniversary, Khatami proudly cited improved relations with the West; from the same podium, his rivals led chants of "Death to America." Yet Iran's intellectuals feel as if they may have enough room, just, to transform society. They say they ousted the shah 20 years ago to win their freedoms, that they've been waiting ever since and that they won't wait any longer.

"I was an Islamic leftist, a Revolutionary Guard, and I worked at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance," says Akbar Ganji, editor of a political weekly, New Way, that was recently banned by the government. "We wanted to change everything. We wanted to create new kinds of human beings. I can tell you I don't have any desires like that any more." Ganji's calls for peaceful, democratic reform recently landed him in jail for three months. "This is the price you have to pay to achieve a modern democracy," he says confidently. "For every paper or magazine that is shut down, two or three appear." If the political atmosphere is frightening, for some it is clearly exhilarating, too.

Khatami came to office as a symbol of peaceful change. A cleric himself, he was elected in 1997 with more than 70 percent of the vote after campaigning for greater freedom of expression and the rule of law. But Khatami, even with a tremendous popular mandate and an impressive title, is just one player among the politicized high priests who rule Iran. Others, just as powerful, despise his notions. The Constitution subordinates him to Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who oversees the military, the judiciary and the secret police. While Khatami struggles for reform, his rivals intrigue against him.

Last year the right-wing Parliament impeached one of his key ministers. The ultraconservative head of the judiciary embarrassed him by sentencing a German businessman to death for adultery, condemning a newspaper editor to death for espionage and convicting Khatami's ally, the mayor of Tehran, of corruption. (None of the sentences has yet been carried out.) Zealous thugs attacked a bus used by visiting Western tourists and businessmen invited by Khatami. Pro-Khatami newspapers were shut down, or bombed, and their editors beaten.

Yet Khatami keeps pressing, backing the reformers publicly when he can, more quietly when he cannot. After the killings at the end of last year, high-ranking officials in Khatami's government met frequently with some of the writers leading the reform movement. The officials told them they have three options: if they want to seek asylum in Switzerland, that can be facilitated. The offer has been declined. "The people who want to kill me-they are the ones who have to go seek asylum," says novelist Hushang Golshiri. Or bodyguards could be assigned to them. The writers turned down that offer, too. The last option, the one the writers chose, was to stay in the country and be careful about their personal safety. "We were officially told not to open the door to strangers," says Golshiri. "We were told not to get in the car with the official police-to resist, even if they tried to arrest us-and we were told not to make appointments by telephone." But they were not told to stay quiet, and they won't.

Mokhtari and Pooyandeh were under attack by the secret police because they and four other authors called for a general meeting of the long-banned Iranian Writers' Association. That meeting was canceled last September, before the murders. It's been called again for next month. And Golshiri and others are demanding that the deaths of a half dozen other writers and opposition figures dating back to 1994 be investigated.

"This case is ending," says economist Fariborz Raeisdana of the Mokhtari murder. "This particular case. But another one may begin." Indeed, almost certainly one will. Violence can come from any quarter at any time. But if the reformers continue to fight for peaceful change, supporting Khatami and supported by him, then the modern freedoms dreamed of by most Iranians when they waged their revolution two decades ago might have a chance, at last, to become realities.


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form