In Iran, police opened fire into crowds of protesters Sunday, killing as many as twelve people, including the nephew of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Security forces have also arrested hundreds of people, including a number of prominent opposition figures. We speak with Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with Iran, where police opened fire into crowds of protesters Sunday, killing a number of people, including the nephew of the defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The Iranian government confirmed five deaths, but opposition websites say as many as twelve protesters have been killed in cities across Iran. Security forces have also arrested a number of prominent opposition figures.
The protests took place on Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Shiite Muslim calendar. They were the bloodiest and among the largest anti-government protests since the uprisings that followed the disputed presidential election in June. Hundreds of people were reported wounded, and 300 were arrested in Tehran.
The protests also marked one week since the death of the dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had become a fierce critic of Iran’s leaders in recent months. Amateur videos uploaded on the internet show bloody scenes of police and Basij militias brutally attacking crowds of protesters. There are also scenes of protesters pushing back police forces with rocks and setting police cars and motorcycles on fire.
For more, I’m joined on the phone by Hadi Ghaemi. He is the director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. He’s closely tracking developments in Iran.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you know. And why the latest round of protests and attacks on the protesters?
HADI GHAEMI: Good morning, Amy, and thanks for having me.
As you mentioned, yesterday Iran was the scene of a major unrest. And we see that the political crisis in that country six months after the election, not only not coming to an end, but it’s expanding, and the government and the Supreme Leader are facing major issues of legitimacy. And basically, the political elites who have been in charge of the country for the past thirty years have come to head-on war with each other. And yesterday showed that the level of violence is escalating.
And it was very, very disturbing to see that on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar the government felt free to use violence, and as many as ten people throughout the country are reported killed. That has been a shocking development for many people, because even thirty years ago when protests were taking place against the Shah, the Shah’s military did not open fire on that day. And now we see a government that has claims to religious authority basically overlooking all that and killing its own people on that day.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance more of Ashura and also the death of the nephew of the presidential candidate.
HADI GHAEMI: Ashura is the holiest day for the Shiites, because it marks the martyrdom of their third Imam, who is really their hero, the man who stood up against tyranny. And even though he did not have an army, only with seventy-two people, he took out on a much larger army to fight for his ideals and what he believed was a fight against tyrannical, so that imagery has been very potent in Shiite version of Islam. And yesterday was a day where every day in Iran people congregate to mark that day. And to see it turned violent was very shocking for many people.
Now, the death of — the death of the nephew of the opposition leader, Mousavi, is being reported as an assassination. It looks like it was very targeted. An SUV pulled out in front of him, and someone jumped out and shot him point blank. And then his body was taken to a hospital, where Mousavi visited it. And at the same time, Basiji forces surrounded the hospital. And by midnight, it’s reported that the body disappeared. So it’s becoming quite an intrigue. But one analysis is that he was assassinated as a warning to Mousavi himself. And it also shows that the political infighting is becoming very personal within the regime.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, for people who are listening right now on the radio, you can go to our website at democracynow.org, and you can see all of the video. But talk about the significance of what we’re seeing, from people’s cell phones, video that they’re taking and that they’re uploading. What kind of crackdown is going on, Hadi Ghaemi?
HADI GHAEMI: Yeah, we’re really seeing a modern phenomenon in terms of social networking and impact of technology on empowering people. The government has done its best to shut down any channels of communication and information coming out of the country or being circulated within the country. We’ve had the foreign journalists banned from going on this trip and covering anything, including the wire services. The media within Iran is highly censored.
And actually yesterday ‘til afternoon, they would not even admit anything unusual happening in the country. And the Revolutionary Guard who are in power right now politically, they had been warning people not to congregate and not to hold any kind of events on that day, and yet we see that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country came out. And they were very creative in getting the information out as soon as possible through the internet. So, by late afternoon, there were so many YouTube videos and images flooding the internet that the government media could not deny anymore that events were taking place. And by the end of the evening, the police commander was coming out and admitting that five people have been killed, 300 have been arrested, and signaling that the country is undergoing a major crisis. But the role of the citizen journalists to bringing out information, showing what is really happening in the country, has been very significant, and it‘s quite a phenomenon.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of the arrest of Ebrahim Yazdi, who served as foreign minister in the early months of the 1979 revolution, also Emadeddin Baghi, the human rights campaigner and journalist.
HADI GHAEMI: Yes, these are two of the most well known personalities in the country. Ebrahim Yazdi, let me just say, he’s a seventy-eight-year-old man, who remained in the country while much of his friends and other opposition left the country during the past thirty years. He stayed within the country and believed in struggling within the framework of the regime and was a constant critic of the regime.
I don’t think people like him and his generation are leading these protests. They are simply just the older generation and don’t have the capacity or organization to be much of a factor on a daily event, but just their voice and symbolic presence seems to be intolerable to the government, and they’re looking for a scapegoat. They’ve done this during the past six months, where they take prominent people, opinion makers, basically anyone who can analyze and put the situation in context for the larger population, into prison, believing that way the larger popular movement will be decapitated and will not have any directions and will fizzle away. The reality has been that it has not. Young people seem — it just seems to be a very locally organized, very horizontal at the grassroots, and people keep finding ways to connect, inform each other, and plan events.
Emadeddin Baghi is a very significant case, because he is the most well known human rights defender in the country. After Shirin Ebadi, he’s the most well known and most connected internationally. Just last year he won the recognition of Martin Ennals Prize, which is a prize given by Amnesty and all the — Amnesty International and all the major human rights organizations, because he has been relentlessly campaigning for — against the death penalty, for the abolition of the death penalty. And right now, again, taking him in is a somewhat of a symbolic, I think, act by the government out of frustration, just wanting to feel like they are putting down these protests, one way or another. But he was certainly a very important figure in propagating the importance of human rights, respect for human rights, and those are the very topics that the government fears their discussion and their discourse would be inflammatory in public. But taking him away, I don’t think is going to do anything in quieting down the protests.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Hadi, how do you think the US should respond?
HADI GHAEMI: This is a very critical time. We have to realize that Iran is domestically — its political system is falling apart. And political solutions are becoming less and less obvious.
There is very much the danger of a full-scale military coup by the Revolutionary Guard. And the US and other foreign actors involved with issues on Iran have a big responsibility here. Anything that they would provoke in bringing any kind of military action against Iran — particularly during the past few weeks we have seen again the reemergence of discourse that Iran has to be attacked, that Israel should be given a green light to launch aerial attacks against Iran. These would all be extremely dangerous. That is pretty much what the Revolutionary Guards are looking for. They’re looking for any kind of confrontation that can rescue them from the domestic crisis they’re facing and, that way, just shut down the whole country and put it on a war footing.
So the US policy, on one hand, should not be going on a full throttle in normalizing relations with Iran. I think Obama’s original idea of negotiating with Iran has to be reevaluated. There has to be dialogue. There has to be engagement. But it should not be to a point where a military dictatorship is being legitimized throughout that process. And at the same time, the pendulum should not swing in the other direction, where military attack is seen as the only option, because that would not solve anything, and it would also bring down this democracy movement that’s underway in Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: Hadi Ghaemi, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, speaking to us from New Hampshire.