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They Were Arrested Too: Iran's Harried Student Movement

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Abbas Hakimzadeh is a good listener. He's not prone to talking about himself but he is eager to talk about the status of the student movement in Iran, of which he himself is a seasoned veteran and three-time political prisoner.

"There are no longer student protests in the streets of Tehran," said Mr. Hakimzadeh, who is the chief editor of AUT News and currently on the board of the largest student website in Iran, Daneshjoonews, which gets more than 5,000 hits a day. "Because of extreme repression the students are now pursuing university demands instead of political demands," Mr. Hakimzadeh continued, "The political demands are there, but they have to hide them. For example, the young student activists secretly place political newspapers in the dorms or paste fliers about student political prisoners on the walls. This is risky in Iran, very risky."

Recently exiled to the U.S., Mr. Hakimzadeh's voice is valuable to those of us following the movement for democracy and human rights in Iran from afar. He is currently organizing a month of solidarity in conjunction with his colleagues in Iran who, with the student union Daftar-Tahkim-Vahdat and a graduate organization Advar-Tahkim-Organization, published a call for supporters outside of Iran not to forget the thirty-one student activists still being held as prisoners of conscience.

"We can't let people forget the student prisoners," Mr. Hakimzadeh said, "Some of them, like Zia Nabavi for example, were just pursuing the right to study and for this they have been imprisoned in exile for years," said Abbas.

"I myself was arrested and held three times," Mr. Hakimzadeh said, "the first time I was arrested for my student activism at Tehran's Polytechnic University. The second time I was arrested for working on a website that published news about the government's human rights violations. The third time I was arrested for my activities with the biggest democratic, student union in Iran. While I was in Evin Prison, many other students gathered to protest our detention and they were arrested, too."

"Even after I was released from prison, they wouldn't leave me alone," Mr. Hakimzadeh continued, "My interrogator told me I had to sign a false confession. They said I had to speak at universities in favor of the regime. I had to say exactly what they wanted and if I refused them, they would give me a long sentence in jail. That's when I knew I had to leave."

Three years later many students are still being held, many with steep ten or twenty year sentences for "crimes" as simple as putting up posters or attending an anti-government rally. Some have been sentenced to the added punishment of 'prison in exile,' which means they are taken from Tehran and placed in far-out rural prisons where their families can't see them.

Many of the student prisoners are people whom Mr. Hakimzadeh knows well and even did time with, such as Majid Tavakoli, who was sentenced to seven and a half years after speaking at a university rally in 2009. Immediately following Majid's arrest, a state-run Iranian newspaper published a photograph of Majid wearing a woman's Islamic headscarf or hijab and said that he dressed as a woman and tried to escape. However, eyewitnesses have said that Majid was forced to wear the hijab by security forces wishing to discredit him. In a campaign dubbed, "I am Majid" hundreds of Iranian men have donned the hijab in solidarity with Majid and posted photos of themselves on Facebook.

Another student prisoner of conscience is Bahareh Hedayat who was sentenced to nine and a half years shortly after a controversial video was released on International Students Day in Fall 2009. The video features Ms. Hedayat's sharp criticism of the Iranian government's violent repression of protestors and total disregard for human rights. "My dear friends," she says, looking directly into the camera, "won't expanding democracy and a desire to live in a less violent world push you to support the Iranian student movement?" Bahareh was arrested less than one month after the video was released, held in solitary confinement and remains in prison.

"Dissatisfaction with the current situation is still very, very high" Mr. Hakimzadeh said, "The government is trying to send a message to student activists that if they continue their activities the fate of Majid and Bahareh awaits them. But students will never be silenced, even in tough and repressive conditions like today," he paused, "any event in the future can start the movement again."

Three years of intense, targeted and violent repression has taken its toll on the Iranian student movement. It has forced them to change tactics and made international support more important than ever. Though life in Iran has become impossible for Mr. Hakimzadeh and the hundreds of other students living in exile, he can still play a crucial role.

"As part of the month of solidarity, this week in Iran many student activists are visiting the homes of families of imprisoned students. This is a brave act for which they could easily face punishment," says Hakimzadeh, "but they do it anyway. I admire them for doing this, they know how important it is to assure the families that their children will not be forgotten."

When asked why he hasn't told his story before, Abbas looked up and smiled, "It's not that I don't want to tell my story," he answered in his customarily straightforward way, "but before today, no one has asked."