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Human rights center in city tracks abuses by Iranian forces

The New Haven Register

Published: Sunday, June 28, 2009

By Mary E. O’Leary, Register Topics Editor

NEW HAVEN — In his last job, Chris Lasala, a computer expert, ran an e-commerce Web site selling movies.

Today, he puts in long hours at a small suite of offices on Church Street documenting the bloody crackdown by Iranian security forces that continues to unfold after more than a million people hit the streets to protest what is largely perceived as a stolen presidential election.

“I’m bummed out all the time because I have to watch all these graphic videos. They are really terrible. But I think it is important that we are saving them all, because you don’t know how long they are going to be online,” Lasala said of the disturbing images of protesters being beaten and killed.

Among them is the murder of Neda Agha Soltan, 26, who has been transformed into an icon of the protest movement in Iran. Soltan was shot by a Basij gunman as she and her singing teacher got out of their car on the periphery of a demonstration.

Lasala, 33, is one of 10 young employees and interns at the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center who are collecting videos, photos and news reports as they wait to arrange interviews with eyewitnesses to the violence.

Their work has been crucial to telling the world what is happening in Iran. Since most foreign journalists are banned from Iran, the only way many images and stories are getting out is Iranian protesters filming events with cell phones.

Founded by a small group of human rights scholars, activists and historians in 2004, the center has issued several documented reports on conditions in Iran, including one on its secret prison system and more recently a paper on the jailing and torture of journalists and bloggers.

At the same time that they are monitoring events, they are up against an August deadline on a new report detailing the execution of 3,000 to 4,000 Iranian prisoners in 1988.

Staffed mainly by lawyers, several of whom are Farsi speakers, the center’s goal is to establish an objective, scholarly record of the human rights situation in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Dealing in real time as events unfold is new to them, but they see it as too important to ignore.

“We’re in the process of gradually making contact with people who have been able to escape Iran so we can interview them. We need to document this. People need to be held accountable,” said Renee C. Redman, executive director of the center.

Lasala is working double shifts to keep up with the work. “You don’t mind working extra. Whatever is needed to get the job done,” he said.

The center has set up an encrypted Web page so people can contact them without being traced. It can be reached at www.iranhrdc.org. To boost such efforts, Redman is looking for $75,000 in emergency grants to hire another lawyer and researcher to stay on top of events.

A JAILED JOURNALIST

Before the disputed Iranian election between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reform candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi dominated the news, a big story out of Iran was the arrest and conviction of American journalist Roxana Saberi.

She spent four months in Iran’s infamous Evin prison this year and was only released in May because of a well-publicized hunger strike and international pressure on Iran over the high-profile case.

Saberi, who was researching a book, said she confessed to being a U.S. spy because of the “severe psychological and mental pressure” the authorities put on her. The North Dakota woman said when her conscience got to her and she recanted the false confession, she was sentenced to eight years in prison, where she spent time with other women jailed for standing up for freedom of expression or belief. They were prisoners without a public voice.

The center’s report, “Ctrl+Alt+Delete: Iran’s Response to the Rise of the Internet,” documents many of the generally unknown journalists and bloggers tortured and imprisoned, starting during the administration of President Mahammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005 and now under Ahmadinejad.

Ironically, Khatami, a reformer, advocated for more freedom of expression, but he lacked the ability to protect the journalists who spoke out, including those who migrated to the Internet, said staffer Siavash Rahbari. The human rights abuses were twinned with an increase in laws restricting access to information.

Redman was alarmed over reports Friday that special courts were being set up to try the hundreds of demonstrators arrested in the recent protests and that the “infamous Saaed Mortazavi” was leading the interrogations.

The center has documented Mortazavi’s role in the death of photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, and his connection with the torture and interrogation of journalists, including bloggers and other cyber-journalists. They found he was a key person in the conservative backlash against Khatami’s policies, which included the use of secret prisons and a parallel intelligence agency.

The Internet report is difficult to read, as it details in cool, unemotional language the torture that journalists underwent, based on the first-person interviews by the center’s staff.

“The interviews are the hardest part of the job ... You have to develop a thicker skin,” Rahbari said. Many are conducted in the U.S., but also in Europe and Canada where those targeted have relocated.

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