Eyewitness risks his life to tell Tehran’s stories

Wednesday, 1 July, 2009

Sophie Black writes:

Crikey has been put in touch with an Iranian refugee who now has permanent residency in Australia. The man’s mother, father and siblings are all based back in Iran, and one of his brothers lives and works in Tehran. We have not identified the man for fear of identifying his family back home. We’ll refer to him as AB.

AB told Crikey that a few days ago one of his former neighbours and friends was shot dead at a protest. AB fears for his brother’s life. His brother refuses to leave Tehran and continues to attend the protests.

Almost every night AB phones his brother in Tehran to check on his welfare. AB told Crikey that communication out of Tehran is extremely difficult. Journalists have been barred from Tehran, IP addresses are traced and mobile lines have been blocked. To download anything from the internet, even something as simple as Facebook, can take over an hour.

AB has conveyed his brother’s stories to Crikey.

AB says his brother is “risking his life, basically. If his phone’s being tapped or they find out about him somehow, he could be ‘disappeared’. That’s happened in Iran lots of times, that people get disappeared – just picked up off the street and that’s it, they’re gone,” says AB.

“The chances of his phone being tapped in Iran are one in a million, as there are a million or more protesters in the street all over Iran, but it is still a risk.”

Despite this, AB and his brother believe that it is important to convey what is going on in Iran to the outside world:

CRIKEY: Has your brother always been politically active?

Back in ’99, that was the time that he became politically active, but my Dad has been politically active during the Shah time, and it’s sort of – there was always a lot of politics in our family.

Does your family worry about your brother, and the fact that he continues to protest?

Well they are very worried – they are extremely worried about him. And if it was up to my parents they wouldn’t let him go, but it’s a risk that – it became too, I mean, parents are worried, but at the same time, they understand what people go through. And if people don’t stand up, nothing’s going to change.

So in some sense they are very worried, but in another sense they are very supportive of it as well. They are sitting on the edge, you know: “Don’t go, but if you don’t go – who goes?” So it’s very hard to describe it.

Your brother – is he going out into the street to protest every day?

Well, not every day. I’ve heard that since two or three days ago, they were quiet. And as he said to me, he said “It is quiet, but the organisation, the arrangement and everything are still going on, people behind the scene are not sitting quiet.” You know, it might be quiet in the street, but there is a war between them, inside.

And how often are you speaking to your brother?

I’ve been speaking to him pretty much every day since the election. I was worried.

You say there’s been a technology shutdown – but is it still relatively easy to call out?

In terms of them calling us, they have to use their mobile phone if they want to call us, and that was shut. So they have to go to a phone, like a landline, which is very expensive for them. And if they use a prepaid phone card, it doesn’t work now. The phone cards you can buy for like ten bucks here, they’ve got a similar thing in Iran – but it’s internet-based, and they’ve shut it all down, so if people want to call us, they have to really dig deep in their pockets to make a 15-minute phone call.

You were mentioning before though that the protests aren’t only going on in Tehran, that they’re going on in several other cities…

They’re going on in several other cities, yes. One of them is Hamedan, Zanjan and Shiraz.

Those are the cities that I’m pretty much sure it is going on, because I’ve talked to several people and they’ve all confirmed it.

Are they mostly students protesting?

No, no – it’s old women, it’s young men, it’s Islamic leaders with their traditional Islamic clothes, it’s young people, children – it’s everyone! It’s not only students, but students are the main organisers of it. They are the brain of it, they text message, they know how to use technology, they know how to get messages around, so that is why they are mostly targeted. Because also the revolution back in ’79, the Iranian revolution, was inspired by students, and students in Iran are sort of – they were always in politics, you know what I mean?

It doesn’t matter what major they study, there is always this interest in politics that is going on, all this debate about politics and religion and everything. So everyone had these great ideas of politics and how to deal with this situation, and in fact we had several protests and there were revolutions before – I mean just three decades ago – people have that memory, students have studied it, they know exactly what was going on back then, as I said. They are – well, they are the brain, and the government is afraid of that brain.

Because actually, people like Mousavi and Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, they were the students back in Shah times who helped the revolution. They’ve got that experience, they know the universities, they know what’s going on in there. You know what I mean? And that’s why they’ve always targeted those areas.

You were saying this morning that this election is different this time, and the protests are different because there was such a high turnout.

Yes – it was one of the biggest turnouts in the Islamic Republic since the revolution. There was a reason behind it, if all those turned out. As my brother said, he said, “We came out and voted,” you know, most of the people – young, old, everyone – people who haven’t voted since the revolution. As I said, many are proud that their citizenship hasn’t been stamped (it’s stamped when you vote); they were proud that it’s clear, it’s clean. And for the first time in their lives they have put their pride on the side and thought, “We want the change, and it doesn’t matter, we want to do it, we have to do it,” and they went and did it. They voted.

Do you know anyone who’s been arrested?

I know my friend, actually, three days ago he was shot and killed.

Your friend?

My neighbour, good friend… three days ago he was shot and killed.

Was he protesting?

He was protesting, yes – he was in the middle of protesters. He was shot in the chest.

How did you find out, did your brother tell you?

Yes. And the other thing he told me was, people don’t take their injured or their dead to hospital anymore, because it’s overflowing with revolutionary guards and [Basij] militia, and if they are injured and they go to hospital, straight away they go to gaol, they get arrested. And if they are dead, their family actually has to pay US$3000, and it is called a ‘bullet cost’ – [for the bullets] that killed their loved one.

It means that the cost of the bullets they used to kill him … they have to pay that. Because in Iran if they carry [out] an execution, like for criminals, and they use a gun, they have to pay the bullet cost to get the body. And they are using the same law for these protesters.

So what are people doing, if they’re not taking people to the hospital?

Well, they just take them straight home – my friend has been – his body was directly taken to his home, to his parents, and later on they’re going to bury him, just somewhere.

Is that difficult, to organise burial at the moment?

It is, well, people who go and claim their dead loved ones from the government, they have to pay that money and sign a paper that they will not hold any memorial in Tehran, or in one of those five cities. They have to get them out if they want to do a memorial, or it has to be very quiet, just do a burial, very quietly done, no one attending.

You mentioned something about plain-clothes militia…

Ok. They are…under the orders of the Supreme Leader [Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei], but they are all voluntary, and they don’t need to answer to anyone or to any courts but their actions, but to the Supreme Leader.

They get their orders directly from the Supreme Leader, and he’s the only one they answer to. Like for example if they kill someone in the street, they cannot be caught, or put under investigation – the only person who can investigate it or ask them questions is the Supreme Leader.

There are stories that some members of the police, some conscripts, are more reluctant to turn on the protesters – is that right?

…it’s like the police here, it’s in charge of the city when there is peace and order. And they do all the things that the city needs, protection and everything. But when there is a breakdown of rights, it comes out of the police’s hands automatically, and it goes under the revolutionary guards. They are the ones that go in the streets, started shooting people and everything. ..the police have issued a letter, or just suggestions, that no one is allowed to go in the streets with plain clothes, on duty, so that they know who they are. So they have sort of divided themselves: so they say “We are not in plain clothes, so all the killings are not ours, we are all in uniform.” And they don’t arrest anyone unless the court orders them to arrest someone, and they say that publicly.

So that’s a form of protest, in a way?

Yeah, and you can clearly see that there’s been divisions between themselves. Iran’s got four different defence armies, [of which one is] the voluntary militia, which as I explained are under the direct order of the Supreme Leader. One of them is the revolutionary guards, which are again under the same orders – they get their orders from the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader has full control of these two organisations. The third group are like the police here, they are in control of law and order. And the fourth one is the army, which is in charge of the security of the country.

Is it true that some of these plain-clothes militia in the crowd were speaking Arabic, not Farsi?

Well, there is actually a group which is the revolutionary guards, …They are employed from Lebanon, and they don’t speak Farsi, they all have these huge bodies. You can see actually if you just search in YouTube the way they do their work.

My brother says they use them in the protest, where they’ll take one person out of the demonstration, and they’ll put him in the middle, they’ll start to bash him in front of everyone, and usually the other organisations stand around them to protect them from protesters, not to let anyone interfere, and they’ll just bash one person in the middle.

They do have links with Hezbollah, well, that’s what they say – my brother says they do have links in Hezbollah, and I’ve asked his reasons for saying that, [just because] they are Lebanese and they are big and they speak Arabic is not a good enough reason to link them to Hezbollah, but he said there are Hezbollah training facilities in the north of Iran, in a city … near Afghanistan, where they bring all these Hezbollah fighters and [fighters] from Hamas, in Palestine, they bring them there and they train them there. And he said that’s the reason we say they are from Hezbollah, because Iran is committed to Hezbollah financially, they give them money, they support them, and they don’t do it for no reason – they do it because they want something returned from them.

…the only thing you need to tell them is, “these people are not Muslim, they are against Islam, and they are in the streets, they don’t want us and we have to kill them.” So that’s all they need to hear, because they can’t understand what people are saying. As my brother put it, they are animals. Just like machines, robots; they get an order and they do it. They have no feelings, and they have no sense of humanity in them.

And your brother has witnessed this sort of thing?

He did witness a few of them. He just told me out of distress.

I wanted to ask you about what your brother’s friend witnessed the other night, outside his window — he lives opposite some university dorms?

He lives directly opposite a university dorm that is – the name in Farsi is koyeh daneshjah – it means “mountain of the university”. It’s one of the famous dorms that all the troubles happen in. There are some images on YouTube of that dorm, that plain-clothes have come and smashed all the computers, the doors, and they were beaten up – and if you look at that, you can see what they’re talking about … it’s illustrated for you. [See some footage of the aftermath here .]

Is this the incident your brother’s friend witnessed?

It was the same incident, but those people were not in it – it’s [the YouTube footage] just in the morning, the day after it, that people came with their mobile phones and filmed the broken computers, and broken doors, the blood, and everything in there. But there isn’t any conflict in that.

So they raided the dorms around 2 AM?

2 am.

And they pulled out men and women?

They pulled out – selected twelve … men and women, students. They brought them out of the dorms, out of the actual area, in the street, which, he said “My window is directly in front of them,” and under his window, his building, there is a fence, like a pool fence, just guarding the building. So he said, “They brought them under there, under my window, and they handcuffed them in there, and they started to beat them up till six, seven o’clock in the morning, with batons.”

He said, “I could see all the snipers on top of the roofs that were guarding them, and no one could go near them.” And he said they just bashed them up for a few hours, and he’s now having trouble sleeping – as he said, he’s seeing nightmares every night. And he’s just hating himself.

Because he couldn’t do anything about it?

Yeah.

How many of your brother’s friends are politically active, or are they just watching this type of thing go on around them?

Most of my friends are politically active, and one of them … was arrested and put in gaol back in 199- … it’s one of the most famous gaols in Iran, and it’s only politicians and journalists and people who they [say are] against the Islamic Republic. They go in there. And he was in there for a few months, so – they are all politically active in there.

You said that an injured protestor took refuge inside the Italian embassy and since then snipers were being stationed on top of several different embassies – is that correct?

Well I’ve heard that from my brother. He said that there were 13 people who were seeking asylum in the Italian embassy, but he wasn’t an eyewitness – he just heard it. But he said that, as an eyewitness, there have been snipers on the roof around the embassies now.

Around several different embassies?

Several different embassies, yeah – they have a problem with mostly European, it’s mostly all the European countries that went against it [the Iranian government] and condemned it … But I mean, in terms of those 13 people that actually made it in there, or that are in there still, I’m not sure. He just heard that. That’s something that he has heard from others: two of them were shot, and they were badly beaten, and the Italian embassy has kept them in there, and won’t give them back to the Iranian government to see what it can do about them.

So it’s either rumours or it’s true, but it is something that is worth looking at, because it’s been going on in Iran and people have heard about it, and it is a possibility for such a thing to actually happen. Back when I was in Iran, back in ’99, and the student protests happened – the student protests happened back in ’99 in Iran – and I was an eyewitness there, and I left right after that. So I’ve seen that people try to get to embassies and to seek asylum, and it’s a common sense that in Iran it happens, but in terms of having people – I think you might be able to get information from some embassies in Iran if you just call them.

What prompted the huge voting turnout this time? What made this time round different?

Well, look, Mousavi wasn’t alone. He’s got the backup of two other previous prime ministers. Ahmadinejad was alone. He was the only person, and he’s done lots of stupid things that outrage the world. And people see that, I mean, Iranians see that. In terms of speaking, when he’s debating, he doesn’t have the presidential way of speaking – he’s sort of speaking like, I don’t know how to put it, street people. And especially if you listen to him in Persian, you can see the words he uses are not economic or anything. It was like George Bush. Honestly, it’s exactly like George Bush.

The thing is with English news, when they put his speeches up, it’s been properly translated, in an academic way – but when you listen to him in Persian, when you can understand him, he doesn’t have any presidential sharpness in him. And people don’t want that.

I mean, Khatami was one of the presidents that attracted lots of votes, and he got the highest vote at 67 per cent back when he was president. And he was giving people a bit more freedom since he came, before Khatami people couldn’t sing! And when he came we had concerts, we had shows on TV singing, and he gave that freedom to people, and people liked it. Young people liked it.

Ahmadinejad came and he took that away. Tried to take that away, with all hijabs, and …saying all these stupid things about Prophet Mohammad – I saw him in such a conference, or I saw such an Imam in such a conference – he was playing with people’s intelligence: like, “You’re all stupid, and I can tell you whatever I want to tell you!” You know what I mean?

And people got outraged. People just got outraged. And now Mousavi comes to the rescue, he used to be a president back in the 80s, during the war with Iraq and Iran, he was the president for eight years. And after him it was Rafsanjani. And after Rafsanjani, eight years, it was Khatami. So these are three presidents one after another, and when it was Mousavi’s time that time, it was hard on people, and young people. And people understood it, it was war, and we were in economic situations and war and people couldn’t talk. So when Rafsanjani came up, he had a bit of an economical background, and he built up the economy for people… I mean, people were not happy with the Islamic Republic at the time, of Rafsanjani, and they hated it, but it was going in the right direction.

And when Khatami came and gave people all these freedoms, that they were denied since the Revolution, so people looked forward to the next president – and then the next president comes and takes everything that these three presidents have. It took them thirty years to get it where it was, and people got angry with him, and they thought “Well, at least Mousavi has been backed up by Khatami,” the president who had the highest number of votes in Iranian history up until then, 67 per cent. Then, Mousavi himself was president, and Rafsanjani was president, so they had supporters, you know – despite people hating one or another, they had their own supporters and they had their own influence in Iranian politics. They were the key members of revolutions and everything.

So the anger’s not being quelled?

Yeah.

Has your brother been using Twitter at all, does he know of anyone using Twitter?

Yes, yes, lots of them use Twitter. Twitter is the main way of communication in Iran now, by just sending messages of where the protest would be… So there has been a few Iranian software engineers out of Iran who developed this IP confusion tracker. Now it’s free for Iranian people in Iran, they can download it, put it on their computer, and now anytime they go online it will give them a new IP.

The government side tries to do everything that they can to track these people down, but people on the other side won’t sit and let them do that. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, they’ve been filtered out of the Iranian internet, but at the same time there are other websites that break that filter, and they are developing that website so that you go through that website and that website will link you to Yahoo or YouTube or other sites that you want to go in.

Everyone here changed their location to Tehran, but there was a bit of talk that that wasn’t actually working…

Well it does help, it does help greatly, because once the Iranian intelligence has got a huge number of brains and hackers in Iran that try to hack into the system. We’re, by putting our time zones to Iran, until they want to find out who I am and I’m actually not in Tehran writing all these messages, at least it occupies them for a few hours or days even, to find out that they are tracking the wrong person. So that is a help. That is always a help, there.

And what is the army’s role in this?

…we usually don’t use armies in these situations, one because most of the people in the army are just like me, who have to go to compulsory service for two years, so using them would create a very dangerous situation. Because the Shah made the same mistake and used his army, and his army turned against him, because they are standing there and they want [them to] shoot people who might be their relatives, their brothers and sisters. So they don’t usually use armies in these situations.

Would your brother consider coming to Australia?

If the situation gets bad in there, that he has to, then he will – but he doesn’t have a passport yet. I was trying to get him out of there many times but the thing is he hasn’t done his compulsory military service yet and he doesn’t want to – he’s one of those hard-headed [people]. My Dad taught us all, he used to say, “Serve for the country that deserves the service,” and my brothers – I’ve got two brothers – none of them have done their military service. They’re just going around it, so they don’t have a passport – they can’t hold a passport until they’ve finished their military service. But if the situation gets worse, or bad for him, I will do everything in my hands to get him out of there, because I’ve seen what they do in Iran – I’ve seen it first hand….You can’t even imagine: you’ve heard the stories of Saddam Hussein torturing people; magnify that by a hundred, it happens in Iran. They are ruthless. They’ll do anything to stay in power.

Do you think speaking out is worth the price?

Well, my brother actually said that now in Iran, people say, one million die and 70 million live free, then it is worth it. And that’s a big number, I mean one million is a huge number to get killed, but that’s what they say. It became their goal. Even if one million die, it’s still worth it. That’s why they go to the streets and do all this.

Peter Fray

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