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Iran: Jailing the messengers

Iason Athanasiadis writes of Iranian journalists and friends who remain in jail.

Today, that photographic memento has become a register of jailbirds. All those depicted have done time in the Islamic Republic’s prisons.

Ali Vahid is now in Turkey where he fled after a year of harassment by Iran’s intelligence ministry. Along with his wife, he is waiting for the United Nations to process his political refugee claim.

Last month, I was arrested in Tehran and held in jail for three weeks in an effort to stifle my on-the-ground reporting and intimidate me.

Now the powers that be have decided that it is Majid’s turn to be strapped to the wheel of suffering.

Apparently he had been expecting it and had warned friends of his in earlier discussions that he was expecting to be taken away any day now.

On the night of his arrest, like every night for the past month since the disputed election that returned Iranian President Ahmadinejad to power with 63 percent of the vote, intelligence ministry employees knocked on the doors of houses and hauled off men and women judged to be threats to the state. Majid was arrested in front of his wife after a search of their apartment and the confiscation of several of his belongings.

Then he disappeared into the waiting maw of Evin, a prison I had vacated just the prior Sunday after becoming the first foreign journalist to be detained by the Islamic Republic. At the time, Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Ejhei described me as being “disguised as a journalist and he was collecting information needed by the enemies.” The sum total of the evidence presented against me by my interrogators over three weeks of questioning were two surveillance pictures of me chatting with a British diplomat at a conference in Qom in 2005. They presented them to me, seemingly convinced that it would be enough to prompt a confession of guilt.

These are the kinds of unsubstantiated charges that panicked Islamic Republic officials are now presenting to the hundreds of detainees being funnelled into Iran’s sprawling prison bureaucracy.

Why was Majid taken away? Will he, like me, be exposed to baseless espionage allegations? Most likely not. He is so clearly a dedicated photographer driven toward excellence that he has been judged to pose a threat to the effective suppression of the social turmoil afflicting Iran.

The logic of the Iranian authorities is clear: If Majid’s cameras can be silenced, then the protesters thronging the streets of Tehran will be denied the oxygen of publicity that keeps their hopes alive. Majid’s images — both of pro-Ahmadinejad rallies and the opposition Mousavi movement — are so iconic as to beg the question of whether his arrest was anything more than an attempt to intimidate him into silence and inaction.

“They (the government) want to scare people at the moment, it’s a show of power,” said Vali, a friend of Majid speaking from Tehran. “They’ve carried out a coup and need to keep people crushed so that their act will be accepted.”

Perhaps like Ali, my other friend in that picture, Majid will be driven away from Iran into an uncertain exile. It will be Iran’s loss. He will add to the swelling numbers of educated Iranians abandoning the country at the rate of 150,000 a year (in normal times) as part of a meaningless brain-drain that can only hurt this long-suffering country.

Iran has become the world’s pre-eminent jailer of journalists with 41 media workers currently incarcerated, according to Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders. At the current rate, Iran is “on the way to becoming the world’s most dangerous place for them to operate,” charged the organization on Sunday.

“You think images have no power?” Mana Kia, a friend and doctoral candidate at Harvard, asked me when I complained of the injustice of Majid’s arrest. “When the government refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of anything to protest, then Iranian journalists involved in spreading information and images about demonstrations and protests domestically and internationally become perceived as threats to the state.”

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