By Edward Carney
In keeping with a year-long pattern of public protests proliferating despite vigorous repression by Iranian security forces, student protesters held a demonstration on December 3 at Amir Kabir University in Tehran, with the core message being one of support for workers’ rights protests that have been taking place in other areas of the country.
According to IranWire, the protest specifically highlighted a longstanding strike organized by steel workers in Khuzestan Province who have gone unpaid for upwards of a month. The explicit solidarity of student activists with labor rights activists is indicative of a larger movement that has been lauded by Iranian opposition groups.
In December of last year, economic grievances gave rise to a mass public protest in the city of Mashhad, which in turn sparked protests in over 100 cities and towns. The nationwide uprising featured virtually unprecedented anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator” and was organized in large part by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Regime officials personally acknowledged this while the uprising was still in full-swing in January, and many went on to emphasize the government’s need to confront the expanding activities of the most prominent pro-democratic Resistance organization.
These calls-to-action have helped to spur more repression by Iranian security forces, as well as terrorist plots on foreign soil, including the foiled bombing of a rally organized on June 30 near Paris by the PMOI’s parent coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The PMOI and the NCRI have been quick to respond to these incidents by dismissing them as ineffective – a narrative that is arguably supported by the ongoing outbreak of solidarity protests like the one at Amir Kabir.
IranWire reported on Wednesday that that demonstration had ended in violence following an attack by the Basij civilian paramilitary, which operates as a subdivision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. A number of students were reportedly injured during that clash, but they are far from the first protesters to suffer this fate in recent months.
In light of many similar examples of repressive activities by the Basij, the IRGC, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, it is certain that the protesters were aware of the danger and proceeded with the demonstration anyway. By the same token, there is little reason to believe that the latest clash will discourage more solidarity demonstrations or anti-government protests.
These conclusions are further supported by the fact that protests like that at Amir Kabir have broken out even as participants in pre-existing demonstrations faced arrest, aggressive prosecution, and even torture. The Khuzestan steelworkers strike has closely coincided with an equally high-profile strike at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane factory in the city of Shush. And on Monday, the same day as the students’ solidarity demonstration, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that one of the labor activists involved in that protest had been severely tortured following his detention on November 20.
An Iranian labor news outlet reported that Esmail Bakshi’s “face has been swollen and bruised from receiving several blows to the head. He is also in a dangerous condition suffering from bleeding in the stomach, for which he has been transferred to a hospital in Ahvaz. There is no [official] information about his condition.”
Lest there be any doubt that mere support for, or affiliation with ongoing protests is also considered grounds for repression by Iranian authorities, CHRI also reported that Peyman Nejati and Majid Roayaei, respectively the son and a family friend of another Shush labor organizer, Ali Nejati, had been targeted for arrest alongside the activist himself. Ali Nejati was reportedly beaten at the time of his arrest, conducted at his home in absence of a warrant, and experienced a deterioration in his health as a result of the stress and a pre-existing heart condition.
There has been a steady stream of very similar-sounding stories in the months since the nationwide uprising was violently suppressed. Indeed, the direct crackdown on protests coincided with mass arrests of known political activists and critics of the Iranian regime, many of whom were also arrested at home and subjected to abuse after their detention. But when this proved ineffective at preventing subsequent protests bearing many of the same slogans as the initial uprising, the crackdown took on an even broader scope, targeting people who sought to defend the purveyors of ongoing activism.
Among these targets are lawyers who have sought to defend arrested activists in court. On Monday, another CHRI report identified Amirsalar Davoudi as the eighth known human rights activist to be jailed by Iranian authorities in just the past six months. His initial detention took place on the same day as that of Esmail Bakhshi, and no information has subsequently been released about Davoudi’s case, his location, or his condition. Judging by previous cases involving defense attorneys, experts indicate that Davoudi is likely undergoing broad-ranging interrogation in the interest of building a “national security” case that could result in a sentence of 10 years or more.
Yet even in these individual cases, the response from the arrestees and their supporters has been indicative of the escalating conflict between repressive authorities and a defiant populous. In just one example of activism continuing from behind bars, Nasrim Sotoudeh, perhaps the most recognizable human rights attorney currently imprisoned in Iran, initiated a hunger strike on November 26. Notably, the protests is not intended to bring more attention to her own case but to show solidarity with Farhad Meysami, a fellow political prisoner who has been barred from receiving medical treatment despite his deteriorating health.
This is a common tactic of extrajudicial punishment for prisoners in Iranian facilities, especially political prisoners. But hunger strikes are also a common form of protest in those same jails, and they have proven at times to be somewhat successful. In late 2016 and early 2017, a wave of hunger strikes, some lasting in excess of two months, prompted Iran’s judiciary to initiate reviews of certain cases, following public protests and widespread condemnation of Iranian authorities by both the domestic population and the international community.
Under present conditions, activists inside the Islamic Republic and throughout the world may prove to be even more sensitive to hunger strikes and their causes. Domestically, there is already a strong, ongoing trend of solidarity protests. And within the international community there is a growing push for collective action in support of a strategy that has been outlined by the White House as aiming for a comprehensive change in the Iranian regime’s behavior regarding military development, support of terrorism, and human rights abuses against the Iranian people themselves.