Interview with Maziar Bahari

Semira N. Nikou

         Maziar Bahari is an Iranian Canadian journalist and film maker who was imprisoned in Iran between June and October 2009. He is the co-author of a new book, "And then they Came for Me," which chronicles Bahari's 118-day long solitary confinement in Iran's notorious Evin Prison.
  • Two years after the presidential election, what is the political situation in Iran?
The main development is the infighting between people around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Since the downfall of different dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and uprisings in other countries--Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya--Ahmadinejad and his clan realized that they have to distance themselves from the establishment of Supreme leader Khamenei and his supporters.
Since they cannot directly attack Khamenei, they are attacking the foundations of his power—the marjaia, or emulating a high ranking Shiite cleric during the absence of the twelfth Imam, the Shiite Messiah. So what Ahmadinejad’s supporters are preaching—not openly, but among their followers—is that we do not need the clerics.  We do not need the objects of emulation in order to be good Shiites and to prepare ourselves for the return of the twelfth Imam. That essentially means undermining the authority of the clerical establishment and Khamenei whose followers regard him as the Velayat-e Faqih, the supreme leader or jurisprudent. This is, of course, the subtext of what is happening in Iran.
What we see on the surface is bickering and open arguments about which official should be in charge of which office, especially in the oil sector and intelligence ministry. For four years, from 2005 to 2009, Ahmadinejad and his gang—and I consciously use words such as “gang” and “clan” because I believe Ahmadinejad and the people around him have a cult-like closeness and mafia-like organization—were openly supported by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. During that time, they managed to put their allies in positions of power and have access to different financial resources and buy loyalty. They have created a class of supporters—especially in the hashiehs, or outskirts of cities—who have become dependent on government handouts.
  • What is the status of human rights in Iran?
None of the factions in the regime really believe in human rights. Rather, they believe in human privileges. The supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei openly admit that freedom of expression, freedom of press and women’s rights are really not rights of the citizens, rather they are the regime’s gift to people. Different groups within the Islamic Republic use whatever tactics they can to remain in power. This can include arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and interrogating people... shutting down newspapers, arresting the families of prisoners, confiscating properties.
There is no rule of law. Reformist or conservative members of the establishment can be arrested, imprisoned, tortured, when different parts of the intelligence apparatus deem appropriate. In most cases, the law is interpreted by security agents, whether in the Revolutionary Guards or Ministry of Intelligence according to the short-term interests of their bosses.
  • What is the status of political prisoners? 
It is impossible to know how many people are jailed. It is a revolving door -- some are released and others are arrested and kept in prison. Political prisoners in Iran are not regarded as political prisoners because there is no description of political crime in Iran. So political prisoners are mostly charged with endangering the security of the state. Writing an article, making a film, giving an interview, or talking to someone can lead to one’s arrest and being charged with treason. Most political cases are not handled by the courts and judges. They are handled by security agents in charge of interrogating a person. If someone is arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, it is the interrogators of that unit who make the decision regarding that person’s fate and not the judge. They can just come up with charges and with different evidence for the charges.
In my case, I was charged with espionage, masterminding Western media in Iran, and illicit sexual affairs. But none of those charges were mentioned in my sentence when I was released because there was no proof. They fabricated other chargers against me—endangering the security of the nation, but also insulting the supreme leader, insulting the president, etc. only because I didn’t listen to my interrogator’s warning, and when I left the country I didn’t remain quiet about what happened to me in prison. I know of other cases handled by Ministry of Intelligence and the same thing happened. The interrogator tells the family of the prisoner that they’re going to sentence him to six years in prison, and the next day the judge passes exactly that sentence.
  • Who is targeted by the regime?
Different groups, in order to secure their own interests, are targeting different groups. People who are targeted by Ayatollah Khamenei’s supporters are those whose words or actions undermine his authority or can be interpreted as critical of Khamenei’s legitimacy as the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei’s followers call him their “Imam,” which not only means a religious leader, but the leader of the Islamic nation. So they have repeatedly said, especially in recent months, that opposing Khamenei effectively means opposing Islam and Allah. Khamenei’s followers compare him to Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam. They draw analogies between Khamenei’s struggle against the reformist opposition and those who have broken ranks with the system to Imam Ali’s battles against his Muslim opponents and former allies, 1,400 hundred years ago. So they are trying to make him a saint while he is alive in order to consolidate their power, to be more effective in their campaign against the opposition, and in order to provoke people’s religious sentiments.
  • How has the situation changed?
The regime as a whole is feeling increasingly insecure about its future, and as a result different groups are violating the rights of others. As infighting inside the government grows and intensifies, the human rights situation is getting worse. At the same time, the regime as a whole is cynically pragmatic and can create a façade of civility whenever there is outside attention to its actions. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse in small towns and cities where there is no media attention. In Tehran, there are high profile political prisoners, including prisoners who were government officials in the past. Those prisoners still have some contacts within the government and the media. But in the smaller towns, unknown prisoners—prisoners of consciousness—have no profile and no contacts in the government and in Geneva. Their names and situations are not known.
How has the crackdown impacted media in Iran and outside coverage of Iran?
The government has two weak spots—the economy and information. The government knows that any information that cracks the veneer of its lies and fabrications can disrupt the status quo. My arrest signaled to many other journalists and filmmakers to watch their actions. There are many cases where the government has shut down a newspaper or a blog as a warning to other papers or bloggers. But of course it is futile. The Iranian regime is a 20th century dictatorship. It is not equipped to rule in the 21st century. It is a regime that is prepared to block short-wave radios and newspapers. But it cannot fight against the Internet, text messaging, and satellite television.
The mainstream media coverage of Iran has suffered greatly because of the government crackdown. But, we are witnessing the flourishing of citizen media. Young Iranians are using the government’s deficiency in targeting new media to their advantage.  So as a result of the crackdown on official media—which is very easy for the government to control—citizen journalism has flourished.
However, citizen journalism is in its nascent stages right now. It is not as organized as it could be. But I think that with time and more training, and with the help of the outside world, it could flourish and be more effective in gathering and disseminating information.
  • What is the state of the opposition?
We do not have a unified opposition right now.  There are different groups who oppose different parts of the Islamic establishment. There are even groups who were victorious during the 2009 presidential election but who now consider themselves part of the opposition. The opposition is fragmented and disorganized. But that might be a good thing. It means that Iranians are not unified behind a central figure like revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Because of the information they have from the outside world, and because of the 32-year process of thinking and re-thinking the failures of the 1979 revolution, people don’t want a sudden change in the system. They experienced a revolution 32 years ago and have suffered its negative results. So they approach change carefully and with trepidation.
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