By: Sussan Tahmasebi *
Bahman Ahmadi Amouee turned 43 on May 22, while in prison. He’s one of approximately 40 imprisoned journalists in Iran, who are serving prison terms in relation to their writings or other social and political activities. Bahman’s charges however were solely related to his writings. In fact they are directly related to the practice of his profession as a journalist. Charges have been brought against Bahman for articles he wrote critical of the economic policies of President Ahmadinejad. He was even charged in relation to the publication of an epic poem by the beloved national poet Ferdowsi in the news site “Khordad-e Noe,” where he served as editor. The idea of this is just unfathomable to me. How has the toleration of free speech and expert commentary in fact withered so that not even a critical article about economic policy is tolerated? Who will this unforgiving and harsh reality swallow up next, which circle, which group will end up in prison next? It seems that no one indeed remains safe in this ever tightening and shrinking circle of toleration? I first met Bahman upon my release from Evin prison. Thirty-three women’s rights activists had been arrested on March 4, 2007. Jila Baniyaghoub, Bahman’s wife and fellow women’s rights activists was one of those arrested. Of course, I knew about Bahman. He had participated in the June 12, 2006 protest that women’s rights activists had planned in objection to laws that discriminate against women. He was arrested during that protest and I always admired him for taking a stand in support of women’s rights, especially in a protest which was surrounded in a shroud fear and uncertainty about its outcome.
Now 33 women’s rights activists had been arrested and these arrests were the continuation of a policy of repression that had taken so many by surprise on June 12, 2006. A group of us were released a few days after the arrest, some earlier in the day and us in the hours past midnight. When we embarked on the paved lot outside of Evin prison, a large group greeted us—friends and family and colleagues. They had followed our case for several days and were eager to see us released. I spotted Bahman, though I didn’t know who he was. He seemed kind, his eyes filled with concern. He was talking to our released colleagues and asking about Jila, who was one of three women who had yet to be released. “You are Jila’s husband, Bahman?” I asked. “It is so nice to meet you.” “Pleased to meet you too,” Bahman responded with kindness. “I’m sorry that Jila wasn’t released. She was in the Cell next to mine. I could hear her,” I said in an apologetic tone.
“No. No. I am happy that you are all released,” Bahman responded with genuine happiness and a look of concern. “ How is Jila?” he asked. “She is fine,” I responded. I was lying. I didn’t want to upset him. Jila had suffered a severe stomach problem. The water in Evin prison was not safe for drinking and Jila’s sensitive stomach could not bear it. It caused her intestines to swell, resulting in excruciating pain. She had been wailing the night before. Her screams of pain were so loud that the prison guards were taken by surprise as well. First they accused her of pretending and when they didn’t tend to her situation, I started screaming as well, telling them that if something happened to Jila in prison, I would instigate a complaint against them. I continued to be worried about Jila. Of course in the last few hours before my release, she was doing much better and had seen a doctor. What could Bahman do if he were to know about her condition? She was inside and he was outside and I felt like I should not worry him. We could think about how to publicize Jila’s situation if she was not released soon. But the reality was that Bahman already knew about Jila’s condition. She had suffered a similar attack in Evin when she was arrested before and he was concerned. Once he voiced his concern I told him about what had happened and stressed that she was doing better.
When we were informed the next day that Jila would be released, Mahboubeh Hosseinzade and I went to Evin prison, to wait with Bahman and the rest of Jila’s family. Unlike the night before, where a bustling crowd waited outside the prison, on this night a few people, family members of ordinary prisoners, waited outside. It was chilly and we got some tea at a nearby kiosk. It was a chance to talk to Bahman and to get to know him better. I have always found Bahman to be a fair and balanced observer of political developments in Iran. He was not too extreme or partisan in his criticisms; rather he chose to provide critical and professional analysis, whether on economic issues, human rights issues or women’s issues. He was and remains a person genuinely committed to improving his country, and he worked toward this end through his writings. Now he is paying a high price for this concern and for his writings. He is sentenced to serve 5 years in prison, reduced from an original 7 year and 4 month prison term and 32 lashings. It is now our turn to be worried about Bahman. It is Jila’s turn to worry about him, and to wonder about his health and emotional well-being in prison and to await his release.
I saw Bahman when he was on a short furlough from prison last spring—nearly a year into his arrest. We spent a couple of hours listening to his experiences in prison and his analysis of the conditions inside Evin. I wasn’t surprised to find him the same jovial and kind person I had met a few years earlier. I was impressed by the fact that he provided accounts of his time in prison and analysis of the political situation in a fair and balanced manner. I was moved by his demeanor and his strong spirit, given that he had been imprisoned during the worst period following the Presidential elections, where the experiences of prisoners often resembled horror stories. But Bahman harbored no ill will toward his captors and his interrogators. I admire him for that. I admire him for his capacity for forgiveness, for his ability to connect with others on a human level no matter what they have done or who they may be and I admire him for his enduring kindness. I wish those who found Bahman’s balanced yet critical analysis of the political and economic situation of our country so offensive as to warrant his arrest and a five year prison term would take a few lessons from the qualities that have set Bahman so clearly apart from others.
Sussan Tahmasebi is an Iranian women’s rights activists and a founding member of the One Million Signatures Campaign. In this article she writes about the imprisonment of Bahman Ahmadi Amouee and her impressions of him, on the occasion of his birthday.