Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran
4. Arrests of Civil Activists, Journalists, and Opposition
In addition to arresting demonstrators, the Iranian authorities arrested, and continue to arrest, non-demonstrators in their homes, offices and on the street. The scope of the arrests goes far beyond individuals associated with the reformist movement. It appears that the regime is targeting anyone who might be a potential leader in opposing government policies. The list includes leaders and members of political opposition and student groups, women’s rights activists, professors, lawyers, and journalists. It also includes former high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic, icons of the 1979 revolution, and their family members. Several dual-nationals and foreign citizens have been arrested. Many remain in prison.
In addition to the scale and scope of these arrests, the immediacy with which security forces began targeting groups and individuals suggests that the arrests were premeditated and not merely a response to the post-election demonstrations. Prominent detainees later made public confessions, undoubtedly coerced, that echoed concerns regarding a “velvet revolution” that have been expressed by officers of the security apparatus over the last several years.
The authorities began raiding opposition campaign offices and newspapers, and arresting campaign volunteers and leaders on Election Day. Warrants were rarely presented at the time of arrest, but some detainees managed to see their warrants at some point during the process. At least some of the arrest warrants were issued before the election. One witness remembers that:
When I was arrested, they did not inform me of a charge, but I found out later that according to the arrest warrant of 20/3/1388 [10 June 2009] (yes, the arrest warrant for detention of all the politically active people was issued two days before the election) ordered by [Prosecutor] Mortazavi, I was arrested for altering the vote of the people.
She was kept in solitary confinement for 50 days without access to her family or lawyer. She was subject to daily and prolonged interrogation sessions during which interrogators regularly resorted to beatings. The interrogations, as described by almost all victims, were conducted while she was blindfolded and facing a wall. The interrogators asked questions and instructed her to answer them in writing. Any denial was met with beatings, and threats of arrests of family members. These pressures and sheer exhaustion coerced this witness into writing answers that suited the narrative of her interrogators.
Maryam Amoozegar, an artist and photo journalist who had worked for the Mousavi campaign, narrowly avoided arrest twice on Election Day. She attended an event organized by an actors’ organization, that then joined a more general event for artists supportive of the Mousavi campaign at the Qaytariyih Artist Center.
At the Qaytariyih Artist Center … which was a center for all kinds of artists, many people were celebrating the upcoming victory. They were checking websites, having conversations, and [we took] a lot of pictures and video footage. The lucky thing that happened to me that day was that we left the Center at two, because at around two fifteen, an unknown group, maybe thirty people, plainclothes and Basij, poured into that place and from top to bottom began breaking things in the center. [They] broke computers, beat people, and grabbed five or six of the ladies as hostages and left. One of them was Peggah-e Ahangarani.
Amoozegar returned to her office for a few hours and then headed out again to deliver some images she had captured during the day. Again, she left only minutes before a raid.
Around six in the afternoon, the guys at Qalam News called me and asked me what kinds of pictures I had. … I went to Mirhadi Center, which usually has its doors open and everybody knows you. … I saw that the doors of the Center were closed … [I was told I could not go up.] … I called upstairs and was allowed to enter and go up to Qalam News. … [I was told] to turn in my pictures and leave quickly. … I went downstairs and my friend told me to hurry up so we could leave. I asked him what was wrong and he replied that they had raided the Artist’s Center and they would probably raid this place soon. … By the time we got back—it was a very short trip—they had already poured into the place and broken all the windows. The people were tied up for forty-eight hours while they erased everything on the computers … I saw two of the guys [a few months later]. They told me that for those forty-eight hours they were tied up and forced to lie on the ground while being regularly beaten. They asked me to make sure people knew about it. … They beat them and asked them what kind of information they had and what they knew.
The main offices of the Mousavi campaign were raided on Election Day as well. The campaign had expected a certain amount of interference with its activities, but was still surprised by the intensity of the trouble when it attempted to communicate with its field volunteers.
We had predicted the communication authority to disrupt the wireless service, especially SMS service on that day, so we had contacted them in advance about this and they had given us assurance of service on the Election Day. We also added more landlines in the headquarters. On the night before the Election Day, they shut down all wireless services, including SMS messaging. When, on the evening before the Election Day, we tried to use the landlines we had set up for the committee, we realized all 300 landlines were out of service.
The campaign inquired with several government ministries and organizations regarding the reasons for why its headquarters was raided, but received no reply. A warrant was not presented during any of the raids. During the subsequent show trials, Tehran’s Deputy Prosecutor, Mehdi Sepehri, alleged that the election office in northern Tehran was used for “various illegal activities, such as providing a base for the BBC’s Persian TV service.”
Journalists and activists were dragged away Saturday night and very early Sunday morning. For example, at 3 a.m., Somayyeh Tohidloo was arrested at her parents’ home. The blogger, political activist and Mousavi supporter was arrested without a warrant or an explanation. Two months later, Judge Hossein Haddad acknowledged that Tohidloo should already have been released, but he explained that Prosecutor Mortazavi had personally intervened to halt her release. Two days after this public acknowledgement, she was finally released on bail.
Blogger and human rights activist Shiva Nazar Ahari was not home at 1 a.m. on Monday, June 14, when her residence was raided and belongings confiscated. The authorities arrested her the next day at her office. In an open letter to her daughter written a month later, Ahari’s mother explained that the only comfort she felt was when she was with the other mothers who were searching for their children at the prisons and revolutionary courts. Ahari was released on bail from Evin on September 23 after posting 200 million Tomans [US$200,000].
Another person who was not home that night when authorities came to arrest him was Masoud Bastani. In his place, the security forces detained his wife and two of her guests. The first was Behzad Bashoo, a cartoonist who was released on July 8, and the second was Khalil Mirashrafi, a TV producer and journalist. Only hours later after these arrests, Bastani tried to turn himself in, so that his pregnant wife, Mahsa Amrabadi, would be released. The authorities declined his request and held on to his wife, a journalist for Etemad Melli, for over two months before she was released on August 23.
That night, the security forces also arrested a large number of activists, including leaders in media and the student movement. Kayvan Samimi Behbahani, the editor of the monthly publication Naameh, and a member of the central committee of the Society for the Defense of Freedom of the Press, was arrested. Security forces stormed Samimi’s house and arrested him in the middle of the night. They broke down the door and confiscated his computer and other personal property.
In Evin Prison, security forces cut his hair and beard, locked him in a bathroom and reportedly beat him so severely that he had to be taken to Evin’s clinic. He was forced to wait until September 9 before the authorities allowed him to see his lawyer, Nasrin Sotudeh. Although this meeting was under the supervision of his interrogator, Samimi complained of beatings and mistreatment to Sotudeh, who attempted to lodge a formal claim on his behalf.
By October, Samimi was further isolated and restricted from making phone calls and receiving visitors. His lawyer succeeded in gaining access to his case file, and pointed out that after five months, his case file lacked an official arrest warrant. She explained that the case file made several charges against her client without any elaboration, evidence or explanation in support. These included “[c]ausing confusion among the masses,” and “gathering and conspiring with the goal of disrupting national security.”
Also arrested was Ahmad Zeidabadi, a well-known journalist and the Secretary General of Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat, the alumni/student organization whose members are regular targets of arrest and detention. After the election, nearly all current and former members of this organization’s leadership were taken into custody. Abbas Hakimzadeh, the political director of Tahkim-e Vahdat, was arrested in the winter of 2009 and released on July 8, 2009. Early in the morning on November 19, security forces raided his home, confiscated his computer and rearrested him.
Zeidabadi was taken to an undisclosed location. While being transported, Zeidabadi protested the illegality of the manner of his arrest and vowed to begin a hunger strike. He spent the first seventeen days in a solitary cell without any interaction with authorities. After a visit by a physician who tried to convince him to break his hunger strike, he was again left alone—in total silence—for another eighteen days until he lost his mental facilities and began to scream incessantly. He was then moved to different cell, at which point the interrogations began.
A month after his arrest, his wife, Mahdieh Mohammadi, wrote a letter to the then-head of the Judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, expressing her dismay at the lack of information about her husband.
It has almost been a month since a group of strangers, who called themselves motorcycle envoys, kidnapped my husband, Mr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, in the middle of the night and in front of his young children’s eyes, without offering any form of warrant, and yet so far none of the responsible [government] organs have bothered to offer an answer about his condition.
Zeidabadi was permitted to see his wife once, on July 29, for about ten minutes, and his whole family on August 17. On October 28, the Prosecutor of Tehran, Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, insisted that Zeidabadi was in good health and that his case was still in the preliminary stages of investigation. In her response to the Prosecutor’s announcement, his wife demanded to know why she had not been able to see or speak with her husband for forty-four days and how his case could be in its preliminary stages after four months of detention.
Zeidabadi’s lawyer, Dr. Mohammed Sharif, first found out that Zeidabadi was eligible for bail after he was allowed to review his client’s case file during an investigative session in October. Once he informed the court, the judge instructed him to notify the family so it could post bail. The Judiciary increased Zeidabadi’s bail to 350 million Tomans [US$350,000] and later to 500 million Tomans [US$500,000]. His family dutifully collected each of the enormous sums. Still, the prosecution delayed his release, and failed to inform the court each time bail had been posted. Meanwhile, Zeidabadi was reportedly being tortured and pressured to openly apologize for his alleged crimes, including writing an article in which he criticized the Supreme Leader and omitted the word “Supreme.”
In late November, Sharif realized that his client had been held illegally for almost two months. He reported that
An order of release for 250 million Tomans [US$250,000] bail was issued for Mr. Zeidabadi on October 4, and his family collected the bail and posted it. However, by order of the prosecutor, his release was prevented. Accordingly, all this time, his imprisonment has been illegal. 
Raids on newspaper offices continued into the fall. For example, in September, the offices of another news organization were raided:
[In early September,] the prosecution officers came to the newspaper office and detained everyone from editor in chief to technical managers and reporters and abdarchi [tea servant]. Around 27 people. The officers had a warrant from the prosecutor and confiscated and took CD’s (whatever was there) and computer towers. They took the guys in the car with them as well.