Iran dissidents pay a high price

Iran hanged two opposition protesters on Thursday and sentenced nine more to death for taking part in widespread rallies against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following last June's presidential election.

It is a stark reminder to members of the Iranian political opposition and social activists — for whom exile is not an option due to financial or other constraints — of the risks of voicing dissent in the Islamic Republic.

While the executions prove the extreme measures the state is willing to take to suppress the opposition movement, many of those accused of dissident behavior have experienced  retribution by other means. Factory workers, school teachers and university professors have been fired from their jobs as a direct result of expressing dissenting opinions.

Such dismissals are said to have begun in June, when the streets of Tehran and other major cities were filled with protesters claiming that the presidential election was fraudulent. In a speech just before the reopening of universities last August, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called university professors “key elements in creating a velvet revolution in the country” and asked that all universities be "purified" of those who contributed to unrest.

According to sources inside the country, this was reason enough for a wave of forced retirements and firings by universities. Law, social and political studies were the departments first targeted, but it later crept into other fields such as economics.

This past week, 12 professors from Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabi University were asked not to return to their jobs. In the same week Saba Vasefi, a professor from Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University was fired along with three others for activities in support of women’s rights.

Another University of Tehran professor was asked to leave his job because he “was seen attending the funeral of late Ayatollah Montazeri last month," reported. Montazeri was a senior cleric considered the opposition movement’s spiritual leader.

A community of sorts has formed of those laid-off and virtually unemployable but without the means to leave the country. They face an uncertain future.

Amir Razaghi is one such dissident. A former employee of Ministry of Health, he is a member of the political reform party Freedom Movement of Iran. It was founded in 1961 by a group of politicians and religious figures and continued its operation after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 2000, the Iranian government arrested many of its members. After the June election, its leader, Ebrahim Yazdi, was taken to Evin prison where he remains, one of the country's oldest prisoners in one of its most notorious jails.

In a phone interview, Razaghi said that he had worked for the Ministry of Health for 12 years as a senior expert in public health. He joined the movement early in his career and stayed politically active while he worked. Last summer he received a letter from the “herasat” or the ministry’s security, asking him to stop his political activities.

“I didn’t stop my work with the movement,” he said in a shaky voice. “I wasn’t doing anything against the law. Freedom Movement of Iran is an official and lawful movement which seeks reform within the framework of law and existing government.”

But this explanation didn’t stop the ministry from firing him. He said losing his job was a blow not only for him personally, but also for all members of the opposition in the country.

“Firing political and social activists is a very effective way to silence them,” he said. “By doing so, those people have to first figure out a way to earn a living, and not worry about politics any more.”

Activists fired from their jobs also risk being blacklisted, which means that in an already difficult job market they become virtually unemployable at the professional level because of the actions taken against them. Razaghi tells the story of an activist friend who, like him, lost his job last summer and “is now selling newspapers for a living.” He names several others who have suffered similar fates.

Another example of a recently laid-off activist is Narges Mohammadi, a journalist and human rights activist who works closely with Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi. Mohammadi won the Italian Alexander Langer Award in 2009 (the foundation is a non-profit organization that supports human rights) for her activism. Besides her human rights activities, Mohammadi worked for an engineering company for eight years. But after the recent elections, she became a target for security officials and lost her job.

In an interview with Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani published in an online magazine in December 2009, she described her life after losing her job and reflected on the wider social problem.

“My dismissal from work is not a personal matter,” she observed. “This is something that is haunting our society. Having a voice is our right, why should we give it up?”

She went on to say that “depriving activists of their income is a very inhumane and violent way of silencing them.”

Mohammadi said that before being laid off, she was taken by security officials for questioning. Her husband had served a prison term due to his political activism and was unemployed. Her interrogators,  Mohammadi said, let slip that they knew she was the only breadwinner in her family and that she had two small children. “What does this tell us?” she said, “that they purposefully want to starve my children.”

Mohammadi wrote a letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad describing her situation, but did not receive a reply.

After the mass layoffs of university professors in recent weeks, members of the parliament have voiced their concern.

Nasrollah Torabi, a representative of Shahre Kord city in Parliament who has been against harsh treatment of opposition after the election, said last Sunday that “dismissing professors from their posts just because they are politically active is a big blow to education in the country. History has shown that any country which has gone down the same path has risked going back to the Stone Ages.”

Ali Abbaspour-Tehrani, head of Parliament’s Teaching and Research Commission said on Monday that “the system of forced retirements in universities must be corrected, and we are pursuing more transparency on the issue,” according to Parleman news.

According to article 43 of Iranian constitution: “The government is responsible for organizing the country’s economic program in a way that it allows for employees to have time and energy for personal, spiritual, social and political activities."

But becoming a political or social activist in Iran has its price. A point to consider for estimating the current opposition force in Iran is how much of the population would be part of it, were they not to face daily harassment.

“When you lose your work because of activism, you start to question everything,” said Razaghi. “You constantly have to justify becoming an activist in the first place, to yourself and your family who depended on you. Yet its with knowledge to all these retributions that many in Iran become activists. They refuse to give up their rights, whatever the price may be.”