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Broken by prison, for a cause all but lost

December 23, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

TEHRAN — He's been out for months now, but it is never very far from his mind. It can't be. Section 209 of Evin prison has invaded his soul.

Babak Zamanian has been transformed from one of Iran's most outspoken students into one of its walking dead. He's among thousands of political activists and journalists free on bail, but banned from leaving the country. He lives with the possibility of being tossed back into prison at any time. His life is in limbo. He faces a never-ending series of court dates and interrogations. His phone is probably tapped, his movements tracked.

Zamanian, 22, now doubts that it was worth it. Maybe he should have kept quiet and stuck to his studies at Tehran's Amir Kabir University of Technology, he says. He could have become a mining engineer, like his dad wanted, raised a family and read books and newspapers to sate his passion for politics.

At various times Western leaders opposed to Tehran's foreign policies have held out hope that activists such as Zamanian could produce a democratic groundswell against the clerical system.

But what is democracy anyway? Zamanian wonders. And what is freedom in a country such as Iran, bound by tradition and faith? He's not as sure as he used to be.

Protest organizer

Police arrested Zamanian on April 21. He was rounded up along with others at a demonstration against corruption near his university dormitory. He was just a curious onlooker there, he says. But they decided to keep him longer when they realized who he was.

He had been a student leader and organizer of a protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to his campus last December. The president's enforcers had begun systematically targeting students who didn't toe the government's line by putting stars next to their names on the school registry. One star might mean a student couldn't advance to graduate school, regardless of grades.

Three stars might mean a student would be booted off campus. Zamanian suspected he had racked up quite a few stars.

Amir Kabir, also known as Tehran Polytechnic, is among Iran's best universities. Zamanian, the older of two children, grew up in Nahavand, a city of 75,000 in Iran's mountainous west, and scored exceptionally well on exams to win a coveted spot at the college.

But the university is also a long-standing hotbed of student activism. Quick-witted and savvy, Zamanian found himself drawn to the heady campus politics. His father, a schoolteacher, was proud of his son for getting into the school and "left no stone unturned" to dissuade him from politics, he says.

"He told me that I would get nowhere," Zamanian says over lunch in the Iranian capital. "He believed I would only pay."

But Zamanian ignored the warnings. The tall, lanky young man became a student leader, often serving as a liaison between foreign media and campus groups. He organized rallies and held conferences. He told the international press that students would protest when Ahmadinejad came to the college last year.

"Death to dictatorship!" hundreds of students chanted at the rally, holding upside-down posters of the hard-line president. "Dictator, go home!"

The incident made international headlines. Publicly, Ahmadinejad said he welcomed the criticism and dialogue, and promised he would not exact revenge. But few in Iran believed him.

Four months later, Zamanian was blindfolded and taken away. At a court appearance he shuddered when he spotted an official paper that indicated where he was headed: Section 209, the infamous solitary confinement block run by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

In isolation

Prison, he says, was a macabre swirl of isolation, interrogation and beatings. Day and night became indistinguishable in his windowless cell, lit by a dreary florescent light that his jailers never turned off. He was summoned to the block's interrogation room every two days for sessions that stretched up to 24 hours. During interrogations, Zamanian says, he was forced to stand on one leg. Four chubby interrogators pummeled him if he tried to stand on both, so he would shift from leg to leg.

They demanded to know if he knew Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American scholar who was jailed in Iran until August, accused of trying to foment an anti-government uprising. They accused him of working with U.S. political foundations seeking change in Iran. He says he refused to answer and was beaten regularly for his defiance.

Zamanian says he might have brought on much of the abuse by resisting and toying with his interrogators. On the 12th or 13th day he was told he'd be released in 30 days if he'd confess in front of a television camera to collaborating with foreigners.

"Of course, I misled them," he says, grinning. "I accepted to appear before the camera, but . . . I denied any connection to them."

They got angry and began to beat him, he says, kicking him in the gut and tying his hands behind his back. He swore back at them, and one of the interrogators stood on his chest.

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