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Will Obama Try to Save Iranian Shiva Nazar Ahari?

The human rights advocate and dissident needs help.

10:10 AM, Aug 26, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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Iranian authorities first arrested Shiva Nazar Ahari in 2001, when she was seventeen. Her ‘crime’ was attending a candlelight vigil in Tehran that commemorated the victims of 9/11. Since then, she’s taught Iranian homeless children and Afghan refugees' children. In 2006, after she became the spokeswoman for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR), Ahari was kicked out of university, whereupon her troubles really began.

Will Obama Try to Save Iranian Shiva Nazar Ahari?

Shiva Nazar Ahari

She was re-arrested in June 2009 and sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where she spent 33 days in solitary confinement. The cells are so small that a short person can’t even stretch her arms or legs. One informed observer has described them to me as ‘human coffins.’ Despite being verbally threatened by Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran's prosecutor general, who told her she’d be murdered if she didn’t stop working on human rights campaigns in Iran, Ahari persevered.  She was released in September 2009 on $200,000 bail and promptly resumed her defense of political prisoners. A month later, she paid a visit to the gravesite of Sohrab Arabi, a nineteen year-old student who’d been arrested in June 2009 for protesting Iran’s sham presidential “election” and was subsequently shot in the chest while in state custody.

In December of last year, Ahari was arrested yet again, along with two other activists, while en route to the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a man considered to be the clerical inspiration behind much of the Green Revolution. Ahari went on hunger strike for two days, then fell ill and was taken to Evin’s prison hospital.

According to the Revolutionary Court, which is due to try her case on September 4, she stands accused of “anti-regime propaganda by working with the CHRR website” and “acts contrary to national security through participation in gatherings on November 4, 2009 and December 7, 2009." These are the dates, respectively, of the anniversary of the U.S. embassy seizure, which is a sanctified Iranian holiday but last year became a ferment of democratic protest, and the Student Day demonstrations, which commemorate the murder of three Iranians students killed in 1953 by the Pahlavi government.  Ahari maintains she was at home on both days.

However, the most serious charge against Ahari is “mohareb” (rebellion against God), which carries with it the death penalty.

The prosecutor’s latest line is that she is an agent of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK), a terrorist organization that in the 70s killed Khomeinists and Americans alike and later drew the support of Saddam Hussein. 

There is of course no evidence of Ahari’s affiliation with MeK, but the state-run website Rajanews has circulated the accusation in advance of her trial--never a good sign. As Freedom House’s advocacy director Paula Schriefer put it, “An accusation of terrorist involvement in Iran is often used by the government as a justification for execution,” and since Ahari stands to appear before Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court, she’ll almost certainly face a guilty verdict and be killed.

Assuming, that is, her trial proceeds. It’s so far been delayed twice in May due to the international pressure brought upon Ahari’s plight. In June, she was moved out of solitary confinement and into the general block of Evin prison, where, according to reports that have emerged from families of other inmates, she’s worn her suffering in characteristically selfless fashion, offering to sleep on the floor of her 25-person cell. 

At twenty-six, Ahari represents the youth generation of dissidence that ought to be supported and encouraged by the U.S. government, which, under this administration, has taken a quiescent attitude toward the victims of Iran’s repression. Not even cynics can find fault with Ahari’s activism. She’s clearly pro-West and philo-American and, unlike other senior members of the Green Revolution, she’s never lobbied on behalf of a return to the theocratic first principles of the Islamic Republic.  

Since Ahari could scarcely find herself in worse circumstances, it would be nice if President Obama spoke her name in public as a belated pledge of solidarity. At the very least, it might afford her a bed to sleep in at night.

Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East. 

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