While negotiations between the G-5 and representatives of the Islamic Republic have captivated the world, the fact that a growing number of Iran's human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, students -- many of them women -- are in jail or on their way to jail, has received little international attention. The three years since the 2009 elections and the subsequent protests have been devastating for Iran's civil rights movement.
I have a friend who is a journalist; he was in jail two years ago and came out on bail. He was waiting for his sentence while working at one journal or another always worried when his turn would come. He told me that he would continue to write, and he did, mostly about history. He was going before a judge -- a cleric most likely -- who would determine if he had to go to prison or not. A one-year sentence was handed down, and yes he had to go. He is in Evin now. I talk to his wife and his smart 10- year old son regularly. His wife told me, "But he hasn't done anything. We were just living our lives, not the best way, but living it." She told me that she keeps telling her young son that he should turn off the lights so as to save energy. At one point the boy got angry and told her mother, "When I become the President of Iran, I will let all Iranians turn on their lights!"
The light of their house is in jail now, in a cell in Iran's most infamous prison, Evin. There are dozens of prisoners of conscience in various jails, mainly in Evin, but also in Rajai Shahr, Gohar Dasht, and some unknown detention centers: Nasrin Sotoudeh, Bahareh, Rais Dana, Maleki, Narges Mohammadi, Mahboubeh Karami, Abdollah Momeni, Ahmadi Amoui, Saharkhiz, Zeidabadi, Soltani, Samimi, Ghorbanpour, Madani, Jamali, Beheshti, Majid Tavakoli and Tabarzadi.
The list goes on; it is long, page after page. They are Iranians of different ethnicities, from all walks of life, young and old, educated, Iran lovers, and compassionate human beings. Why are they in jail instead of being free to help their country prosper? Are they not in line with the ideals of the Revolution some fought for? Instead, they are hostages to an old man at the top of a declining Sultanate who believes that, as the Supreme Leader, he can dictate to a majority of young people how they should dress, what they should drink, and what they should say. Mr. Khamenei's memory of his own imprisonment during the Pahlavi rule is long forgotten when he apparently fought against a dictatorship.
Iran's civil rights defenders -- some of the best of the crop -- are languishing in different prisons without having access to lawyers -- some of whom are in jail themselves. Most do not have enough money to pay a sum to get out for a few days, as is the case of my friend. What kind of a country have these bearded men with their buttoned up shirts built? Should the social sciences, journalism and women's studies be eliminated and only be replaced by "real sciences"? Is the nuclear program more important in Islamic Republic's quest for status and power than overcoming the economic malaise, the terrible pollution gripping its capital and the growing suffocation of civil liberties?
While the former Ambassador of Islamic Republic to Germany (serving during the infamous Mykonos assassinations) is now getting his post-doc at Princeton University, writing a book and going before different U.S. think tanks free as a bird, my friend is depressed, sipping water in one of Evin's cells, not being able to see his kid and his wife. What crime did he commit? How were his actions directed against "national security?" He was working at a newspaper, making just enough money to feed his family. He told me before going to jail, "I will never leave Iran."
Why shouldn't he be at one of the top universities in the U.S. studying his favorite subject, history?
Meanwhile, the number of detainees keeps growing. Some have died of illnesses, for lack of care during their time in prison; some allegedly of stroke. Mansour Radpour was one of them. He had served six years of his eight-year sentence. His body was bruised and had signs of torture before it was handed to his family. His son, his daughter and his wife are now in mourning. His son could not even bear to attend his father's funeral. How many more families should suffer? Where is true Islamic justice or is it lost in the midst of greed for power?
In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty International cited:
"In the Middle East and North Africa, as the uprisings occupied world attention, other deep-seated problems festered. Iran's government was increasingly isolated, tolerated no dissent, and used the death penalty with an enthusiasm only outstripped by China."
According to Amnesty, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a lawyer and a co-founder of Iran's Centre for Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), was among those sentenced in July last year after being convicted of various unfounded charges, "soft regime change" being one of them. "Mohammad Ali Dadkhah's only crime is to have defended the rights of others. He should not even have been on trial in the first place and his sentence should be quashed immediately," said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The Shah's regime gave individual freedom to the people but oppressed the nation and its youth for desiring political freedom. What was the destiny of the Pahlavi regime? Should not these gentlemen learn from lessons of our own history not too long ago? Even if after these latest talks, Iran is allowed to continue its nuclear program for peaceful means, if its nation is not free and cannot enjoy the fruit of its labor -- both economically and politically -- nuclear power and the "prestige" it brings will not be adequate to sustain it. "Freedom," said Nelson Mandela in a speech in 1995 "would be meaningless without security in the home and in the streets."
Making sure that Iranians -- admirable ones who seek justice and basic rights -- are free so that they can serve their country is what will give good standing to an old and once proud nation in the eyes of the world.
The majority of Iranians do not want Iran to become another Iraq, Libya or Syria -- countries that have suffered and are suffering irreparable damage. Nor do they want to live in constant fear of an outside attack. But at the same time they want to see their most devoted individuals free and not perish in jail, both physically and mentally.
The message from these courageous men and women is loud and clear: Human rights and dignity are what Iranians want -- not just nuclear power.