Iran cracks down on dissent in universities

AP News
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Posted: Dec 04, 2009 3:37 PM

As they gear up for a major anti-government protest Monday, Iranian students are besieged by a clampdown in the universities, with a wave of arrests and expulsions. At the same time, authorities are intensifying enforcement of Islamic morals on women's dress and men's hair length as a way to punish political dissent.

They say authorities have cracked down at campuses nationwide to prevent the demonstrations from becoming widespread and that students recruited by the pro-government Basij militiamen are on the watch, informing on classmates suspected of being pro-opposition "troublemakers."

On Thursday police warned of a tough response, especially if demonstrators try to move outside campuses into the streets. "Any gathering or ceremony outside the designated places will be considered illegal and police will take necessary steps," a statement said.

In telephone interviews from Beirut with more than a half-dozen students in Tehran, the crackdown was described as part of a government campaign to control not only security but ideas at universities, strongholds of the reform movement that took to the streets after the disputed presidential election in June.

Some courses seen as too Western-based have been replaced with more "Islamic" ones, students say. Since classes began in October at Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology, members of "herasat," a feared force of guards and morals police in universities, have been stopping women at campus gates for wearing clothes that are too colorful or not all-covering enough.

A herasat official uses a cell phone to photograph male students with long hair or those wearing colorful T-shirts, said Kouhyar Goudarzi. "If a student complains, he grabs his student card and says 'when you look like a human being, you will get your card back,'" he said.

"Student dissatisfaction has reached a point where it's about to explode," he said.

Goudarzi, a 23-year-old aerospace student, said he was expelled because he spoke to the BBC's Persian TV service about a campus demonstration in October.

"Six months later, the fire is still burning," said Atieh Vahidmanesh, a 24-year-old economics post-grad at Sharif University. "We are under aggressive surveillance."

Pro-government students recruited by the Basij militia are on the watch, turning in classmates whose loyalties are suspect.

It's difficult to judge how big Monday's protests will be, whether they will be confined to campuses or spill into city streets and squares. While calling for thousands to turn out at campuses, leaders acknowledge the crackdown may reduce the numbers.

"Our sympathizers who are not active themselves are afraid to come to the protest," said one student leader at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabei University who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of persecution.

"We are not calling on others to participate because we don't want to pay a high price," he said by telephone from Tehran.

Some on campus dismiss such talk. "The media are used to exaggerating issues," said Mahdi Eslami, a pro-government student. "I don't feel there's been any change in the atmosphere of universities."

Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a political science professor at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabaei, a leading humanities university, said "it's not a police atmosphere at the university. Students are controlled, but not openly."

For example, new students are put in separate dorms to shield them from older, more politicized students, he said.

Iranian universities have historically played a leading role in times of turmoil.

Students were a powerful force in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the pro-U.S. shah but later became a bastion of dissent against clerical domination.

Dec. 7 is a traditional day for rallies commemorating the killing of three students during a 1953 anti-U.S. protest. Since the late 1990s they have served as pro-reform protests, often bringing clashes with security forces.

The June vote sparked demonstrations by hundreds of thousands claiming President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election was fraudulent. Security forces crushed those marches, and the opposition has had little success in reviving them.

But students have kept their movement alive with small demonstrations on many campuses every Tuesday.

Opposition Web sites say the government has brought hundreds of security forces to Tehran from the provinces to crack down on any demonstrations Monday.

Nearly 100 student leaders have been detained in the past weeks, human rights groups say. Many have faced Revolutionary Courts, and several have been ordered jailed for up to eight years, human rights groups say.

Amir Eslami, in the midwestern city of Hamadan, was jailed, released and went into hiding, but his body was found several days ago, according to the opposition Jaras Web site. The government has not confirmed the death.

Students now meet clandestinely and distribute newsletters by hand to avoid seizure by the universities' herasat, said Mehdi Arabshahi, a 28-year-old postgraduate student.

"We're in a state of war," he said. "On the one hand, they're trying to prevent us from protesting, on the other, the students go right ahead and hold gatherings and publish their newsletters."

Arabshahi said he hid for a month after the election to avoid arrest, but was detained in October for 48 hours for meeting with students in a Tehran park. Arabshahi and two other student leaders were summoned to the Revolutionary Court on Wednesday to have their case looked at.

Goudarzi said the Basij militia has increased salaries for students, offering up to $400 a month plus $250 for every incriminating photo or piece of evidence against a student.

In the past, morality restrictions such as those on women's dress have been somewhat more lax on campuses. But this semester, the herasat increasingly stop students and force them to sign forms admitting they broke the rules, said Elmira Ali Husseini, a physics postgraduate student at Sharif University.

Their signature can be used later by the prosecution if they are involved in protests, she said.

Female students are barred from campuses for wearing bright colors or too short a "manteau" _ the overcoat that hides the female form, said Vahidmanesh, the economics student. She said her friends were turned away for wearing striped sweat pants under their overcoats _ stripes are considered sexually provocative.

Another acquaintance was detained at a campus protest under the pretext that her hair showed from under her scarf _ and then she was forced to sign a pledge to stay away from rallies, Vahidmanesh said.

Some classes considered too Western _ such as Marxism _ have been replaced by such courses as God and Philosophy, or Islam and Social Theory _ ominous echoes of the cultural upheaval after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when books showing Western influence were banned and thousands of students and lecturers purged. In some English departments, the writings of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, are required courses.

"They're just a waste of time and cost money, otherwise they are of no use to us," said Nazzi, a student who declined to give her last name for fear of retaliation.

The changes in the curriculum, said Arabshahi, "will take the university back years and lead to another cultural revolution."