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In Iran, Student Activist Pays Price for Democracy Pursuits

June 21, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — Abdollah Momeni is a student on the run. The university activist began challenging Iran's Islamic regime seven years ago, and since then he has seen peers get arrested, jailed -- and even risk their lives to fight the system.

Last fall, he spent a night in police custody so harrowing that he considered abandoning his activism altogether.

Now, as the clerical regime tries to round up student leaders in the wake of days of violent unrest, Momeni is a target. Tehran's hard-line Revolutionary Court has issued arrest warrants for Momeni and about 55 others, all high-profile activists who have ties to a countrywide network of students.

The students say Iran's hard-line regime is trying to crush their movement before massive demonstrations, which are expected July 9, the anniversary of nationwide pro-democracy protests that took place in 1999.

Plainclothes police showed up at Momeni's apartment after dark one day this past week to arrest him. But Momeni doesn't go home now. He also believes that both his home phone and cellular phone are tapped by intelligence agents. If he is arrested, authorities could hold him again for just a night. Or, like several students arrested in 1999, he could be jailed for years.

Momeni is driven by the dreams of political freedom, human rights and secular democracy in Iran, ideas supported by many of Iran's 48 million young people, a large majority of the population. They are increasingly frustrated by the strict rule of clerics, but protests have been sporadic and relatively few are willing to take the risks that Momeni takes.

"This is a system that wants to hear only one voice -- its own," Momeni said this week in a conversation on a friend's cell phone. "How can they refuse to tolerate our opposition after we've agreed to work for change within the system?"

Although he is watching out for police and security officials in order to avoid arrest, Momeni still attends student meetings where he and others debate tactics. In the last week, they have staged sit-ins to demand the postponement of final exams and petitioned pro-reform members of parliament for the release of students who have been imprisoned for their political views.

Protesters chanted slogans calling for an end to the Islamic system of government and for death to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Before Momeni and the other student organizers went into hiding, they convened their meetings in parks and coffee shops around Tehran. The core group of each university's student association meets regularly in such public places, debating the future of Iran's internal power struggle and charting strategy.

The Islamic Student Assn., an umbrella group of student organizations from around the country, has a few thousand members. The leadership core, including activists such as Momeni, is much smaller.

Tehran University, at the center of the student movement, spreads out along a city block in central Tehran, its aging buildings retaining an air of dignity.

Momeni came to the capital at age 17 from western Iran to attend Tabatabei University. He was married already, had a child and was well versed in the frustrations of being young in a crippled economy that reserves success for the establishment elite.

Today's student activists are mostly young people like Momeni -- middle-class, practicing Muslims from provincial cities -- an indication of the depth of opposition to the Islamic system.

Iran's revolution of the 1970s was shaped by clerics aiming to satisfy this broad, traditional swath of Iranian society, which felt that the overtly pro-Western tilt of the shah's regime was an affront to its social values.

Today dissent springs from this class rather than from the privileged, cosmopolitan suburbs of north Tehran. Once they witnessed the children of well-connected revolutionaries and senior clerics step into the shoes of the shah's associates -- complete with educations abroad and gaudy mansions -- students such as Momeni began to lose faith in the revolution's ideals.

The votes of young people seeking change twice brought moderate President Mohammad Khatami to power. Students were among the many Iranians seeking to combine Islam and democracy, and they backed Khatami's efforts to transform the country.

But hard-line clerics obstructed reforms, and students parted ways with Khatami. They began advocating a secular system.

The 1999 protests represented a watershed for the student movement. At least one student was killed when vigilantes stormed a dormitory and threw students off a balcony. Several more almost certainly died.

The number of politically active students dropped.

"What are we going to do?" asked 23-year-old physics student Maryam Sarafian, who has stopped attending political meetings. "What can we really accomplish?"

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