As Iran’s New Year, or Norouz holiday approaches on 21 March, marking the start of the country’s longest holiday, university students across Iran face repression and arrest at a time when families are coming together to celebrate.
This latest series of arbitrary arrests and repressive measures are particularly directed against students, members of Iran's religious and ethnic minority communities, trade unionists and women's rights activists.
Amnesty International has voiced concerns at the repressive measures meted out against students and called for all students detained for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly to be released.
In a statement issued on 12 March, the Tehran-based Centre for Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) condemned these arrests and urged that the students banned from attending university for exercising their rights be permitted to return to their classes and for a climate conducive to study to be brought to universities. The CHRD established by Iranian human rights activists, including Nobel Peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was itself closed down by the Iranian authorities in December 2008.
Students at Amir Kabir University in the capital city of Tehran, appear to have been singled out.
Four members of Amir Kabir University’s Islamic Students Association (ISA) - Esmail Salmanpour, Majid Tavakkoli, Hossein Torkashvand and Koroush Daneshyar - were arrested on 5 February after a ceremony commemorating the life of Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister to be appointed after the February 1979 revolution.
The ceremony is a peaceful gathering, held annually for over a decade. Organizers and participants had publicized the event and informed the relevant state authorities, none of whom expressed any objection.
As the gathering started, some 20 participants were arrested. Sixteen of them were later reported to have been released but the four students continue to be detained in Tehran's Evin prison without charge and are said to have started a hunger strike to protest against their arbitrary arrest and conditions of detention.
More than 70 students were detained on 23 February during a peaceful demonstration held by students at Amir Kabir University. The protest was against the government’s burial on campus of the remains of five soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war.
The burials have been widely interpreted as an attempt by the Iranian authorities to exercise greater control over students opposed to their policies. Such burials of soldiers, who are deemed martyrs on account of their sacrifice in fighting against Iraqi forces, would make it easier for members of the security forces to gain access to the university campus without being required to prove that they are students. They would then be able to inhibit or disrupt student criticism or protests against government policy.
Many of those temporarily detained during the demonstration were reported to have been ill-treated. Others were taken to Police Station 107 at Palestine Square where there were also reports that students were ill-treated. Most of those arrested were released hours later.
ISA members Mehdi Mashayekhi, Nariman Mostafavi and Ahmad Qasaban were detained on 24 February along with Abbas Hakimzadeh, a member of the Central Council of the national student body, Office for Consolidating Unity (OCU). They are currently held incommunicado in detention at Section 209 in Tehran’s Evin Prison, which is under the supervision of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.
Yaser Torkman, also an ISA member, was detained by plain-clothed security officials in early March. He had been summoned to one of the university gates where university security staff informed him that he had been banned from classes and was banned from entering the campus grounds. Eyewitnesses reported that the two officials had beaten him up before taking him away.
In recent weeks students in Iran’s south-eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province have been banned from attending courses, two students have been arrested and since released. Others in the south-central city of Shiraz have been arrested and had their houses searched. Some have been banned from attending courses, while others are now on hunger strike.
In the central city of Esfahan, the office of a university’s student association was forcibly closed. Esfahan-based students Alireza Davoudi and Khodayari were also arrested.
In January, Tehran's Allameh Tabataba'i Universitys branch of the national student body, the OCU was closed.
In northern Iran, students at the Technical University in Babol have been summoned to the university’s disciplinary offices, as well as some 15 students from the Khoajeh Nasir University. The student association’s offices at Mazandaran’s Anoushirvan Technical University have also been closed while in Iran’s northwest, seven students in Tabriz are reported to have been sentenced to jail.
Sanaz Allahyari, Nasim Roshana’i, Maryam Sheikh and Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Far, from the students' rights body, Students for Freedom and Equality (Daneshjouyan-e Azadi Khah va Beraber Talab) were arrested by security officials on 1 March. Amnesty International has expressed fears that they are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment while in detention. They are believed to be held in Evin Prison.
Such arrests appear to be on the increase and may be intended to stifle debate and silence critics of the authorities, before Iran's presidential elections in June. Amnesty International considers those detained to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Amnesty International has called on the Iranian authorities to ensure that the four Amir Kabir University students detained on 5 February and those arrested on 24 February following the campus demonstrations be protected against torture or other ill-treatment and that they be allowed immediate access to their family, legal representation and any medical attention that they may require.
The organization has called for the eight students’ immediate and unconditional release if any of them are held solely on account of the peaceful expression of their views or for exercising their right to freedom of assembly.They should then be permitted to resume their studies.