Academics urge Iran to release its ‘prisoners of conscience’

Letter calls for prisoners’ release. Image: Micah_68

Letter calls for prisoners’ release. Image: Micah_68

In a 24 January letter, Richard Falk, a retired US professor renowned for his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War and Israel’s response to Palestine, appealed to Iran’s Ayatullah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and the Iranian government to release Dr Ebrahim Yazdi and “all prisoners of conscience” currently being detained in the country. A list of signatories accompanied the letter, including the names of over 100 academics from around the world.

Ebrahim Yazdi has remained a controversial figure since founding the Freedom Movement, a group that opposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1970s. When the Shah was replaced, Yazdi became Foreign Minister in the new Iranian Republic. His time in office was short-lived, however, because the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis compelled him to resign in protest. In recent years, Yazdi has criticised President Ahmadinejad for endangering Iran’s position on the world stage. As a result of his defiance, Yazdi has been arrested numerous times, most recently in October 2010. He remains in prison and, according to some reports, in poor health.

Richard Falk emphasises Yazdi’s peaceful approach to reform in Iran and highlights the fact that Yazdi, now 80, is now the world’s oldest political prisoner. Lauding the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Falk reminds Ayatullah Khamenei of the revolution’s original aim of offering an ‘inspiring vision of independence, freedom, constitutional governance, and popular sovereignty.” Responding to the detainment of Yazdi and others, Falk accuses the Iranian Government of violating the country’s constitution, internal laws and the international agreements it has endorsed, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

It is doubtful that Falk’s appeal will receive much consideration due to his contentious behaviour and rather radical notions. While Richard Falk has enjoyed an illustrious academic career, he has raised many eyebrows over the years. His suggestions that the Bush administration may have orchestrated the September 11th attacks have won him few friends in the higher echelons of the US Government. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Falk’s claims, referring to his exhortations as “inflammatory rhetoric”.

In the wake of such controversial statements, it has been important that Falk enlist the support of other academics around the world in producing his letter to the Iranian Government. Names such as Seamus Heaney, Noam Chomsky and Saskia Sassen help provide the credibility Falk needs if he wants his appeal to be recognised. Whether or not the Iranian Government has taken the letter’s recommendations seriously remains to be seen.

This letter has arrived at a time of disorder and uncertainty among Arab states, as populations in Tunisia and Egypt express their disdain for autocratic governance. In order to use the protests to their political advantage, officials in Iran have lauded the populist movements in Tunisia and Egypt, likening them to the 1979 Iranian revolution that replaced the Shah and the Iranian government with a theocracy headed by the religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Others are hesitant to draw parallels between the movements in Egypt and Tunisia and those that erupted in Iran over 30 years ago.

Western discourses reveal a rising concern that, as was the case in Iran in 1979, a power vacuum in Egypt might open the door for a fundamentalist leader to take control over the country under the guise of an ‘Egyptian Republic’.

Three decades ago in Iran, opposition to the US-backed monarchy demanded the release of political prisoners, calling the practice inhumane and unethical. Today, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that is being accused of the same wrongdoing. Falk’s appeal serves as an implicit warning to other Arab states: revolution, whether peaceful or otherwise, does not necessarily lead to outcomes favourable to the pursuit of human rights.

While the content of Falk’s letter may be disregarded by elites in the Iranian Government as weightless, academic grovelling, one wonders if other notable professors will initiate similar appeals in the future and whether or not their peers will be eager to offer their support with the same fervour.

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