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As Iran's Crackdown Continue, Former Revolutionary Guard Officers Speak Out

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For news gatherers trying to highlight human rights abuses and what is happening inside Iran, there is a constant battle to sift through propaganda, from both sides. The first anniversary of Neda Soltan's death and the Green-backed planned protests for the anniversary of the July 9th 1999 uprising will no doubt chalk up several more webpages and column inches for Iran's Green movement -- are they growing? Are they weakening? Did the Twitter revolution really happen?

For Aaron Rhodes of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, "This is almost beside the point ... It's hard to find sources who are objective and we try to counter act some of these by just focusing on international standards of acceptable human rights. The most important thing for anyone concerned in covering human rights in Iran is to be non-ideological, non-partisan ... the politicization of human rights is one the biggest problems that affecting information coming out of Iran .. which is all the more difficult since about 80% the 'human rights' community is out of the country now"

"I think the story in Iran to focus on right now is the divisions within the big state institutions - the Majlis, the judiciary, the clerics" says Geneive Abdo of InsideIran.org, a Century Foundation initiative. "There is a preoccupation in Washington to argue about the Green movement ... but no one on the outside can possibly tell you who runs Iran right now, I don't even think Iranians even know right now. But one thing we can tell from the arms agreement with Brazil and Turkey earlier this year is that there is enough of a government and enough a consensus within the state to reach such an agreement - the state is fragmented but still functioning"

Defectors and whistleblowers have become all the more important in covering Iran and earlier this month Guardian Films and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched a seventeen minute documentary on the Guardian's website which featured stark testimony from three former Revolutionary Guards. Each reveal their stories and in turn, that there is a very real sense of disillusionment within the ranks after the crackdown against demonstrators of all stripes following the 2009 presidential elections.

In the film Muhammed Hussein Torkaman, speaking from an unknown location in Turkey, recounts how he last year worked as part of the security team protecting Iran's highest leaders -- including president Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khameini. Torkaman admits playing a role in suppressing the demonstrations after the contested 2009 presidential elections, but now says, "I want people outside to know what is happening and what this regime is doing to them -- this has to start from somewhere ... God does not exist in Iran right now".

As images of Torkaman's IRGC identity card flash up onscreen, he talks of the betrayal of the guard's founding principles of defending the achievements of the 1979 Islamic Revolution by a regime that has carried out a brutal repression of the Iranian opposition, including the widespread use of public executions and extrajudicial killings, rape of both men and women, and a cover-up of the true numbers killed during the protests.

Another former Guard featured in the film is Major Mohamad Reza Madhi. Major Madhi is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and fled from Iran to Bangkok two years ago, he now lives in a secure compound with a bodyguard but still maintains contacts with those still working for the Iranian state over the Internet.

In the film Major Madhi expresses his belief that there is now an unspoken policy to purge older guards, "If the veteran members of the Revolutionary Guard criticize the practices saying this is against Islam ... they are given early retirement or stopped from working," he says. Of the new class of recruits into the Basij and other units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major Madhi says, "The majority ... have no idea of right or wrong -- what is legal what is not. They bring these young men in ... and they hand them weapons and these young people commit acts of murder."

However even the Major cautions that although there may be a 'rift', "...If there is any danger of the regime being overthrown then all the sectors will actually unite against that ... because their existence depends on this regime."

One of the more gory images from the film was provided by "Ali" a former Basiji, who refused to beat demonstrators and consequently was arrested and imprisoned for 2 months until his family intervened, after which he fled to Turkey. As we see photographs of his torture scars he describes how security forces came to arrest him and his 2 month ordeal in an unknown prison. "I was kicked for three to four hours a day. With a whip, cable, wooden stick. One could constantly hear the shouting and the screams from other detainees."

Ali was also subjected to a series of mock executions, "Once it was by hanging another time it was by firing squad and another time by hanging us from the scaffold -- all of these would be mock executions -- to be honest there was no difference between a real execution and a mock execution. The only difference was that I realized I could still breathe. In effect I was a walking dead ... I could not see their [Ali's torturer's] faces, I could only hear their voices and suffer their torture. I imagined that they were not even human.

"You cannot even call them animals since even animals follow certain discipline. They did it with so much excitement and I don't know, I cannot compare it to anything."

Since fleeing Ali has been out of contact with his wife and family but describes the horrific ordeal of his wife's miscarriage during his detention which he believes was a result of interrogation by his former Revolutionary Guard colleagues. "I consider the regime and its agents to be responsible for this. I am prepared to give my life for this."

The film presented solid evidence that officers in the Revolutionary Guards are deeply disturbed by the actions of the state against protestors following the 2009 presidential election. Those covering Iran from the outside have had to rely on the research of equally shut out NGOs or risk being fed information by sources with an axe to grind -- of which there are plenty, while real Iranian journalists working on the ground are in short supply.

Ali Eshraghi, head of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting's Mianeh.net initiative -- a microsite which publishes daily and weekly original content from journalists on the ground in Iran under pen names -- says, "On a daily basis my journalists are telling me there are more interesting stories in Iran besides the Green movement -- most people in Iran are much more interested in the struggles between the parliament and the judiciary and clerics, subsidies ... One of the biggest problems is that it is hard to distinguish between activists and journalists inside Iran. People giving information to foreign media are mostly activists, it becomes hard to believe facts and to make sure these are true facts that happen on the ground."

Thus far the Iranian state-backed cyber-army has been extremely effective at restricting internet access and filtering sites that it finds unacceptable. But more important than this is the deep fear that keeps journalists inside Iran in line and scared to even open an email with an English subject line. According to a New York Times article earlier this month, people in Tehran were sent a mass text message which read, "Dear citizen, you have been tricked by the foreign media and you are working on their behalf. If you do this again, you will be dealt with according to Islamic law."

During the making of the film on the Revolutionary Guards for Guardian Films and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism I spoke with a young male journalist who helped gather some of the footage. He described to me the hours of video he had gathered of the rallies and protests in the summer of 2009, "I cannot release it now, you want me to be killed? In a few years, when the time is right." Whether or not 'the time will be right' in a few years may well depend as much on whether Iran's institutional cracks get bigger and more footage and whistleblowers slip through.