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Fmr. Iranian Political Prisoners, Relatives of Iran’s Jailed Protesters Lead Three-Day Hunger Strike Outside UN

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A three-day hunger strike outside the UN began Wednesday to demand the release of all prisoners of conscience in Iran. We hear from some of the voices at the scene, including former political prisoners, many of whom had been in solitary confinement and tortured, and relatives of current prisoners jailed in Iran. We also hear from prominent Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, linguist and analyst Noam Chomsky, Iranian student activist Saharnaz Samaienejad, and Iranian American activist and lawyer Bitta Mostofi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And finally, we turn to Iran. It’s been over a month since the disputed presidential elections, and according to Tehran’s prosecutor general, some 500 of the 2,500 people arrested in the days following the election remain in detention. Human rights groups say that number is much higher.

While protests and repression continue in Iran, this weekend activists in over 100 cities around the world have planned events in solidarity with the Iranian demonstrators and political prisoners. Nobel laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams and Mairead Maguire, and celebrities, like Robert Redford and Sean Penn, have all lent their support for a global day of action for human rights in Iran this Saturday.

The day’s events coincided with a series of hunger strikes organized by prominent Iranian activists and intellectual dissidents, like journalist Akbar Ganji, who was jailed for six years. Here in New York, a three-day hunger strike outside the United Nations began Wednesday to demand the release of all prisoners of conscience in Iran.

Democracy Now! was at the scene Thursday and spoke to some former political prisoners, many of whom had been in solitary confinement and tortured, and families of current prisoners being held in Iran. This is journalist and blogger Omid Memarian, who was arrested for his writings in 2004 and spent fifty-five days in solitary confinement.

    OMID MEMARIAN: I think people have no idea how the pressure is inside the prison. They might have heard stories about their prisons and the political prisoners, but their level of pressure, psychologically and physically, in prisons are in a way that, you know, you should tell people. You should show them. You know, you should visualize for them that, you know, what exactly is happening for the prisoners inside the prison.

    RUZBEH MIR EBRAHIMI: My name is Ruzbeh Mir Ebrahimi. I was journalist, and I’m journalist. Now, the situation is worse than when we were in prison, because, you know, the situation in Iran is completely different than that time. And now is much, much, much, much more dangerous and more dangerous for the people in the place like prison.

    OMID MEMARIAN: We know people who are in charge — they’re in charge of our investigations and interrogations, they are in charge now. People who can shoot at, you know, at people, shoot at — target [inaudible], you know, the heads before tons of cameras, now they are the political prisoners themselves. And nobody is seeing that. There is nobody to take much video shots. So imagine how much they can do with that. So I think it’s good for people to know what is that pressure, you know, why it’s so urgent for us — why it’s so urgent for us to force the Iranian government to [inaudible].

    MEHDI SAHARKHIZ: My name is Mehdi Saharkhiz. My father is Isa Saharkhiz, who’s been in prison for almost three weeks now. We don’t know his exact day of arrest, and we don’t know why he’s arrested.

    ANJALI KAMAT: Tell us about your father. Was he a political activist?

    MEHDI SAHARKHIZ: My dad was a journalist. He was also — he had a post in the government during Khatami. And before Khatami, he was in charge of the Iranian news agency here in the UN, right here in the building we’re right next to. And after that, he went — he had his own newspaper and magazine, which were both shut down.

    REZA BARAHENI: My name is Reza Baraheni. I’m an Iranian poet, writer and critic. During the Shah’s time, I was — I was involved in many ways. I mean, I was in the States as a Fulbright professor at the University of Texas and University of Utah. And then, when I went back, I was immediately arrested, tortured, and I came out of prison under the pressure, world pressure. So I decided that the world pressure actually worked. So, when I came out, I decided that I should immediately get out of Iran and get in touch with those people who actually supported my cause.

    And I also gave them the — you know, the ways the Iranian writers, as well as young people, men and women, and even children, were being tortured during the Shah’s time, because I was an eyewitness. I had been tortured myself. And we’ve succeeded. I think we’ve succeeded in getting people out, even from the prisons of the present regime. And I think that we should go on and on and do what we can, so that, you know, we can get the others also out. All repressive regimes are afraid of publicity.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Reza Baraheni, renowned Iranian poet in exile and former political prisoner under both the Shah and in the early years of the Islamic Republic. He was being interviewed by Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat.

Well, the man known as Iran’s preeminent political dissident, investigative journalist Akbar Ganji, was also in front of the United Nations Thursday, leading the three-day hunger strike in New York. In 2001, Ganji was imprisoned for six years for writing about the murders of dissident intellectuals and was finally released after an eighty-day hunger strike. Leili Kashani interviewed Akbar Ganji for Democracy Now! about the demands of the strike, as he stood in front of banner with a list of the names of known political detainees in Iran.

    AKBAR GANJI: [translated] The first and foremost is to condemn the violent crackdown of the regime on the protesters. Tens of people have been martyred, and hundreds of people are imprisoned and are detained under the worst conditions possible.

    Iranian people have a great demand, and that is, they want to have a democratic regime that’s based on rights and on human rights. Our first and immediate demand is the release of all political prisoners. And with what we are doing in New York in these three days, we are trying to put as much pressure as possible on the regime in Iran by using basically the intellectuals that are gathered here.

    Of course, we are not in agreement with militarist policies of neoconservatives in the United States. We’ve always been critics of these policies. And our condemnations are not only about the violations of human rights in Iran, but wherever they take place. For example, we condemn the violation of human rights by the state of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

    The people of Iran have begun an independent movement, and it is not dependent on any state. People of Iran wish to move towards democracy on their own.

    Our world is not exactly a just world. International relations is a scene of great tragedies. The United Nations building that’s right behind us is exactly an undemocratic institution. Our gathering here is symbolic. We don’t think that the United Nations actually can do something for us. We’re just using this space to make sure that the voice of Iranian people reaches the globe.

    We oppose any kind of policy that harms Iran’s people. Economic sanctions hurt the people of Iran. We have a different suggestion. We defend sanctions, but not economic sanctions. In Iran, those who are responsible for the crackdown on the Iranian protesters, those who actually murder Iranians, their faces are known. What we want is that they be put on trial. As soon as they leave Iran, they should be arrested. And they should be put on trial in international courts for crimes against humanity. This will certainly not harm any Iranian, and it would certainly strengthen the democracy movement in Iran.

    We are trying to make sure that human rights, democracy and justice do not remain mere slogans, but become realities. Every time that I spoke about the horrible conditions of Iran’s prisons, at the same time I spoke of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the prisons in Afghanistan, as well. And as well, I spoke about what is going on in Israeli prisons on Palestinians. This is exactly what I mean with not having any double standards.

AMY GOODMAN: Prominent Iranian dissident, human rights activist, and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji. He was translated by Faramarz Farbod.

Well, for the hundreds-strong crowd at the hunger strike, a highlight of the afternoon was the brief visit from Noam Chomsky, who was inside the United Nations speaking and who stopped by, when he came outside, to say a few words of support for the actions of the Iranian protesters.

    NOAM CHOMSKY: There has been a mass of commentary in the last couple of weeks about Iran, a very confident commentary. The confidence increases, the less the people know about it. And I don’t want to contribute to that, so I will not make any confident statements about the facts.

    There are some things that are indisputable: the courageous resistance of Iranians to the harsh repressive regime and its brutal military forces, and the appeal for the freedom of political prisoners — old themes that, there, remain inspiring worldwide, another reason for greatly admiring Iranian culture and Iranian society and its ability to continue the struggles, which have just been a beacon of light for people engaged in similar struggles elsewhere.

    That’s not only true of the resistance, but also of the capacity, the capacity to steer a very difficult course between, on the one hand, resisting harsh regime and its brutal military, on one hand; on the other hand, staying clear of succumbing to the machinations of Iran’s enemies, who want to exploit this for their own ugly purposes. It’s not an easy way to proceed, the Iranian struggle. For decades, it’s succeeded in doing it, and that, too, is an inspiration. I mean, as an American, I can’t avoid bringing up the fact that for over fifty years there’s hardly been a moment when the United States has not been torturing the people of Iran, one way or another. Different forms of torture, but just continuous, endless. That’s a horrifying shame for Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Noam Chomsky, addressing the Iranian protesters outside the UN.

And final reflections on the solidarity actions from Iranian student Saharnaz Samaienejad and Iranian American activist and lawyer Bitta Mostofi, who’s one of the key organizers of the New York chapter of Where Is My Vote, founded in the aftermath of the June 12th elections.

    BITTA MOSTOFI: Many of us here are very mindful of our platform coming from the United States, what that means to both an audience within Iran and to our own government. And we are not calling for US Military intervention. We think the first casualty of that intervention will be the kids that you see in the streets and freedom itself. What Iranians have shown us is that they are perfectly capable of fighting and advocating for their own democratic rights. They both understand their rights, and they understand that there’s a peaceful means to call for them and to obtain them. And we’re here in solidarity with that.

    SAHARNAZ SAMAIENEJAD: My name is Saharnaz Samaienejad, and I was a student activist back home. We might not have freedom of speech. We might have lots of pressure on intellectuals and activists. But definitely, we have very strong voice. I talked to one of my friends and told her that when I stand in Tehran University and shouted, I can shake the whole power of my government.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the voices outside the United Nations, as the three-day hunger strike continues.

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