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The Sacrifices of Iran's Student Movement
Citizen reporter Omid Habibinia outlines a brief history of the youth struggle for a better life
Omid Habibinia (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-07-20 15:37 (KST)   
While hunger-striking political prisoners continue to languish after years in the notorious Tehran prison of Evin, the Iranian government remains ever vigilant after students took part in a demonstration on July 8, the anniversary of the 1999 uprisings.

Ahmad Batebi is one such student protestor. Five years ago in Tehran, the capital and home of 14 million Iranians, he was imprisoned after appearing on the cover of The Economist holding a bloody shirt from the demonstrations.

Ahmad Batebi was given a death sentence, commuted to 15 years in prison.
©2004 OHabibinia
Batebi became a beacon for other Iranian students resisting years of executions and torture. He said recently he still has hope that the student movement will win succeed.

Those 1999 street protests caught the regime off guard and prompted a violent crack down. People were killed and wounded, with many more either being arrested or going underground or abroad to escape the police. However, from then on, Iranian students and citizens annually remember what happened on July 8.

On that day in 1999, the moderate newspaper "Salam," which ignored the harsh censorship laws, was banned. Students who came together to protest were pitted against hard-line vigilantes and guards (militias dependent to army who are called the army of Islamic Revolutionary Guards) who had been assembled in anticipation of the students' reaction.

Riot police, with the help of hard-liners, raided student dormitories in Tehran and Tabriz. The skirmishes spread around the country. Many students were injured and arrested; some were shot pointblank in the head. Police threw tear gas right at demonstrators, resulting in blindings and serious injuries. Even the foreign students were beaten. Some women students were abducted and sexually assaulted.

Tehran's streets were full of patrols on the July 8 anniversary.
©2004 OHabibinia
The student demonstration then escalated into mass protests all over Iran. For days the capital and some other cities were the settings for day and night protests. The people called it "reminiscent of scenes of the 1979 revolution" and "the worst unrest the Islamic Republic has ever faced".

Youths felt they should be arming themselves and after six days the regime sensed it was in such danger that it banned all public gatherings. A reign of terror fell on the country, and many more people were arrested, often in the dead of night.

The Iranian student movement has a long history of working for freedom and justice. This young movement has its roots in the defeat of a national anti-colonization movement in the 1950s; a movement that is thought to have been foiled by an American coup to bring back the Shah in Iran.

Some months after the coup in 1953, three leftist students were killed by the army at Tehran University. The day is remembered as "Student Day." Some say that in conjunction with the metamorphosis of modern Iranian society, students have now become politically influential in Iran.

A scene of the student uprising on July 8, 1999.
©2004 OHabibinia
The radical atmosphere of the 1960s clearly had an influence on this youth movement. Iranian students armed themselves and engaged in guerilla warfare that for the first time weakened the security and military organs of the Shah's regime.

Conflict opened the field for other social movements against the Shah. The financial and social crisis that escalated in the late 1970s finally culminated in political strikes and millions of demonstrators led by students and youth.

But even then, the Iranian student movement couldn't make much headway because of widespread poverty and the Mullas' misuse of these conditions to their own political ends. Consequently, the newly empowered leaders of Islamic Republic shot, arrested, terrorized and executed student leaders and also shut down the universities.

The harsh suppression and spread mass killings that occurred in the 1980s succeeded in eliminating dissenting voices in universities and establishing a tough Islamic selection system based on police surveillance, internal security and ideological intelligence gathered on the populace.

Even after the universities reopened, much of the student movement's power declined due to this surveillance. A majority of young people were prohibited on different pretexts to enter universities and only those in pro-regime militias were allowed to enroll.

But the 1990s saw Iran's population grow explosively, turning the nation into the world's youngest country. The economic and social problems that emerged after eight years of war with Iraq (1980-88) made the Islamic Republic go on the defensive as millions of people demanded a remedy to inflation and social crises.

The nation's endeavor to enter the global market and encourage investment from abroad, along with a surprising amelioration of relations with the European Union and hidden compromises with Israel and the United States, finally made room for moderate ideas that were just a short time before rejected by the regime. At the same time, though, the regime began suffering an internal crisis that threw into question its hold on power.

Omid Habibinia
©2004 OHabibinia
High-ranking members of the regime noticed that the majority of youths born after the 1979 revolution did not believe in Islamic standards, which they had tried to forcibly put in place over two decades.

Some of these politicians' own children even escaped from the country and sought asylum elsewhere. The massive outflow of educated youths from the country, in conjunction with 70 percent of the Iranian people living under the poverty line, reflected corruption among regime leaders.

Their rule was akin to a financial oligarchy and the ineffectiveness of the regime in confronting these crises sparked another generation to join the student movement in the early 90s. Secret radical groups and cells were again organized -- impressing the students. This prompted the regime to again crack down and universities became one of the main stages in the conflict.

Vast labor strikes and bankruptcies of factories and financial institutions lead to more than 30 percent youth unemployment and the increasing rift between the people and the state put the student movement in position, at least theoretically, to lead changes in society

A new level of subterfuge was achieved by those in power with a token show of reform seen in Mohammad Khatami's presidency. The student movement saw through this deception knowing full well that Khatami neither wanted, nor was able, to act on his glasnost rhetoric.

Though the regime remains in place, such uprisings are clearly the beginning of the end. Every year youths and students gather on July 8, shouting slogans against the regime. During last year's anniversary, Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist who was in Iran to photograph the demonstrations was detained and killed while being interrogated under torture.

Iranian exiles gather in front of UNO Place in Geneva, July 8.
©2004 OHabibinia
This year, although the guards patrolled the streets of many cities, students demonstrated despite the possibility of being arrested. Many were detained, but they were backed by most of the people around the country.

Iranians in exile demonstrate annually too. Exiled journalists and the members of "Iran Freedom of Expression Frontiers" gathered last July 8 in front of the United Nations Organization Place in Geneva, demanding an inquiry into the ever-increasing violations of human rights in Iran.

The majority of Iranians believe that the Islamic Republic will be soon overthrown by a revolution organized by the radical forces of student movement.
Omid Habibinia is an exiled Iranian journalist and media researcher working on an underground documentary about the student uprisings. He was one of the students demonstrating in 1999 and is now the chairman for Iran Freedom of Expression Frontiers.
©2004 OhmyNews

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