Iran arrests death penalty opponent; hangings increase
DEATH PENALTY-IRAN: Top Campaigner Harassed, Hangings Increase
By Kimia Sanati
Credit:ILNA /Sajad Safari
TEHRAN, Jan 14 (IPS) - Emaddedin Baghi, Iran’s leading anti-death penalty campaigner, is back behind bars in the country’s notorious Evin prison after intense harassment leading to his hospitalisation and concern that he may have suffered a heart attack.
Three days after Christmas, Baghi, 48, was taken ill in his cell. Alarm was raised by a fellow-prisoner with whom he shared a cell in the high-security section of the prison.
Baghi was immediately taken to the prison hospital. Later in the day he suffered a second serious reversal and concerned medical staff ordered his transfer to an outside civilian hospital for further tests and treatment.
In this hospital Baghi was allowed visits by his family before being returned to jail.
Baghi’s illness came after weeks of interrogation by Iran’s intelligence services following his arrest on Oct. 14, according to his family in a Nov. 6 statement made to the Iranian Students News Agency after being allowed their first visit. His arrest was to serve out a one-year sentenced imposed five years ago for allegedly revealing state secrets and disseminating anti-state propaganda during his human rights work.
In letters written from his prison cell to the judicial authorities and minister of intelligence, Baghi had threatened to go on hunger strike unless the authorities halted their "unlawful, psychological torture,’’ according to sources.
Prison interrogation focused on Baghi’s public activities as head of the Society to Defend Prisoners’ Rights. On the night before being taken ill in his cell, there was a commotion in Baghi’s prison section. He later learned that it was in a nearby cell where a student had committed suicide, according to sources.
In recent weeks, scores of students have been arrested and jailed for holding meetings and campaigning against a clamp-down on human rights.
Baghi had also publicly condemned the rights violations and escalation in executions. Shortly before his arrest, he issued an open letter criticising the reformist parties for not speaking up against the wave of hangings justified by hardliners for tightening security.
During 2007, Iran became the world’s second most active state executioner after China. Based on reports in the local press and confirmed by Amnesty International, the number of executions for the year exceeded 300. This is a 70 percent increase on the number of known executions in 2006.
At least six of those executed in 2007 were child offenders, according to Amnesty International. More than 70 of the 250 on death row are believed to be child offenders.
The passing of the United Nations General Assembly’s moratorium on executions on Dec. 18 was ignored by Iran. On the following day, four criminals were executed in the Evin prison, according to press reports.
Since Jan. 1, the gallows of Evin prison have been the busiest in the country. On Jan. 2, there were eight hangings. They included one young woman, Raheleh Zamani, who reportedly killed her husband after learning of his affair.
So far this year, there have been at least 23 executions in different places in the country. There have also been amputations of the hands and feet of five robbers.
Since his return to prison, Baghi has been held in the prison’s general ward, an apparent relaxation in his prison regime in face of concern over his health and protest over his treatment from such bodies as the European Union, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.
The authorities have moved fast to head off any public show of solidarity. On Jan. 5, they blocked all domestic access to an internet site set up by Baghi’s friends and supporters, www.freedomforbaghi.blogspot.com.
The present harassment of the human rights activist comes after years of repression.
In 1995, Baghi was suspended from his university teaching post. Blacklisted for any academic or journalistic posts, he was forced to work as a manual labourer to support his family.
In the late 90s, Baghi helped expose the role of the intelligence services in the murder of dissident political activists and five journalists. Two of those murdered were Darioush Forouhar, president of the Iranian National Party (INP) and his wife Parvaneh. The INP was the first party in Iran to call for the abolition of the death penalty.
Fifteen agents were eventually tried and found guilty of the murders. But higher responsible officials have never been brought to justice.
In 2000, Baghi was sentenced to two years in prison for his human rights activities, including the publishing of an article on the death penalty arguing that abolition would not be contrary to Islamic law. This greatly angered the Iranian religious establishment.
In 2005, Baghi founded Iran’s first anti-capital punishment organisation, the Association for the Right to Life. In the same year, he was honoured with one of France’s top human rights awards, the Civil Courage Prize. But a long-enforced travel ban prevented him from receiving it personally.
In an interview with IPS last May, Baghi said the authorities had prevented him from publishing a total of seven books. But he hoped to get around this ban, on his book on the death penalty, by arranging for it to be printed in Afghanistan.
"For many activists, it is only the political prisoners who really matter. Baghi is practically the first person here who defends the rights of ordinary citizens," an activists and journalist told IPS after hearing of Baghi’s collapse in prison.
"When the police cracked down on the so-called "hooligans" some months ago, throwing them into dungeons and executing them, it was Baghi who courageously defended their rights, even though the massive state propaganda machine did succeed in almost erasing all public sympathy for these people.
"Baghi is now paying for standing up for the rights of people almost nobody else wanted to defend."